Social Justice in Student Affairs

What happens when we consider that we are all responsible for creating an inclusive community on our campus for all of our students? This inclusive campus needs to be mindful of the ways in which different dimensions of identities are impacted by our work.

Social Justice in Student Affairs

We know that Social Justice is a process and a goal as established in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social Justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (Adams, Bell, and Griffin; 2007). As student affairs educators our main focus is to create a campus community for our students and I posit that using this definition of Social Justice should be a foundation for establishing that community. This means a lot about how foundation of our communities need to start, but I’m focusing on how we as professional educators need to interact with this definition and the shaping of our community.

Many of us in Student Affairs think of social justice education (SJE) in a limited way. We think of SJE as specific trainings or workshops. We think of programs where we invite speakers to campus who talk about privilege, power, and oppression. We think about our colleagues who do this work daily in multicultural affairs offices (and we often put the brunt of the work of creating inclusive campuses on our multicultural affairs colleagues). We do a disservice to SJE (and our students, colleagues, and selves) when we think of it in such limiting terms because it’s much much more than one time workshops. It needs to be an integrative part of how we operate in all of student affairs.

In addition to the limited scope of Social Justice Education, when we do engage we generally focus on interpersonal dynamics such as microaggressions but we don’t talk about the systems of oppression that create the culture in which we all internalize and perpetuate microaggressions without even noticing. We talk with students about being “inclusive” (which has really just become addressing language, which is not bad but limited) but we don’t talk about how to avoid recreating the oppressive systems of power and privilege on our campuses whether that be through roommate mediations, program planning, orientation sessions, or relationship development.

While I do not disagree that SJE exists within specific trainings about privilege and oppression we can’t let that be the only time when we discuss privilege and oppression. We frequently think that SJE is going to happen for us and don’t take the time to engage in the difficult work of challenging discrimination and oppression on our campuses. We don’t think about the procedures we have in place and how they impact marginalized students in our communities. We usually tell our students to attend programs about black history month or women’s history month or pride week on our campuses but we don’t go ourselves. We promote programs during heritage months but we don’t talk about real life issues as they happen. We frequently miss opportunities to have difficult conversations with our students, colleagues, and selves based on the events that are occurring around us such as the #BlackLivesMatters movement, the Chapel Hill Shooting, the huge number of Trans* women of color who have been killed in 2015, and the movement for undocumented student support.

In addition to missing more obvious opportunities to learn, I have always mentally compartmentalized the different parts of my job. Until recently, student conduct meetings operated in a mental silo separate from planning programs. I think this reflects how we go through training as professionals. We don’t talk about how the coaching skills that we use in a conduct meeting should (and do!) directly relate to how we develop the learning outcomes for programs. We just have a session on the schedule that shows us how to use the conduct software and what we legally have to cover in that conduct meeting to make sure that due process is met (this is not to dismiss the importance of due process). We don’t always talk as much about what the developmental conversation should look like and how that thought process should mirror what we do when planning for programs or how we supervise staff. How does the intersection of my identities influence my interactions with my students? Am I aware of my internalized biases? How do I continue to learn about those internalized biases and notice when they occur? And this is just on the individual level, there is more work to be done across our divisions and departments.

I would like to challenge all of my colleagues working in student affairs across the world to consider how we can integrate social justice education values into our day to day work. This means a wide range of concepts from interrupting microaggressions that we witness and perpetuate (especially when they’re environmental microaggressions) to recognizing and changing systemic issues that create disadvantages for our students. One activity in particular that I was recently introduced to through Vernon Wall and Kathy Obear was to think about a particular service or program and consider how it does or does not serve particular identities. For example, consider an orientation session. How does that session serve all of the students who attend? Does the skit speak to a wide variety of the experiences of students on campus or just those in dominant identities? How does the registration cost impact students from a lower socio-economic background? How are undocumented students supported? What about Trans* students and their assignments in overnight housing? Without asking important questions about our services and programs we recreate systems of oppression on our campuses.

What happens when we consider that we are all responsible for creating an inclusive community on our campus for all of our students? This inclusive campus needs to be mindful of the ways in which different dimensions of identities are impacted by our work. We cannot continue to plan our programs and services in a “colorblind” manner in which we don’t consider all of the dimensions of identities. Without this important change we continue to recreate oppressive systems that exist throughout our society on campus.

How can we collaborate across departments and divisions to create campus communities that are inclusive for all of our students, faculty and staff? How do we ensure that we honor the individual experiences of everyone while also understanding the systemic issues that influence those experiences? I don’t have all of the answers, but I believe it starts with having these conversations. It starts with asking critical questions about our services and programs. It starts with staff and faculty analyzing their own identities and internalized biases. It continues with cross-functional teams that assist in training colleagues in cultural competence. This is important work that is relevant to everyone on our campuses.

How else do you think we can build inclusive communities on our campuses?

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