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Questions presented: Is there such a beast as a “career” in social justice?

Questions presented: Is there such a beast as a “career” in social justice?

Recently, I was privileged to receive an invitation to speak on a panel to a group of students at the University of Texas at Austin who are enrolled in its Bridging Disciplines Program.  The program, “Social Justice in Practice,” will take place just over a week from now, and today I sat down to review the questions presented.  The first one got me going!

Q:  Can you tell us a little bit about your career currently?  How do you advocate for social justice in your current position/s?

I am not sure that we should be talking in terms of “careers” in social justice at all, if by “career” you mean paid employment or series of paid jobs, starting with well-chosen internships that will “look good” on a resume, and with clear markers of “progress” along a path.  Why do I say that?


1. Thinking about social justice work as a “career” in the traditional sense can be misleading, although it depends on what you mean by “social justice” work.

A person can “do good work” or “make the world a better place” in any of an infinite number of ways, from treating other people with empathy, directness, and integrity in small daily ways, to playing music, raising children, growing food, healing people, and teaching.  There are millions of people so engaged, and many are paid, though there is no fairness in who gets paid or how much.  Moreover, most of this work “fits” within given social structures.  You can tell that this work does not threaten the status quo (or “business as usual”) when there is no resistance, only token resistance, or resistance only from the outliers.

I would distinguish all of that good work from social justice work in this sense:  for me, the hardest and most valuable social justice work directly confronts wrong, seeks to right it in specific instances, identifies the conditions that inherently yields such wrongs, and then works to change those underlying conditions.  Such social justice work is by definition adversarial and confrontational. Few people will ever be paid for working for social justice in the sense of confrontational social change, or if they do, these paying gigs will most likely be short-term.

2. Sometimes, you have a clear choice between pursuing justice and keeping your job.  Another way to put this is that you have to decide whether you are aiming for justice over the long haul, or need to hold on to your present job for survival (over the short term and perhaps for the long term as well).

Think of workers who strike for fair wages, health care, safe equipment, water and bathroom breaks.  Justice will not come about without a strike.  Yet organizing or even participating in the strike is the opposite of a “smart career move.” Pick justice or pick your job.

As college students, you probably have read about the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s, in which some people identified their colleagues as Communists or “fellow travelers” while others refused to be participate in Joseph McCarthy’s “witch hunt.”  Those who didn’t go along risked being put on a “blacklist” themselves, so that they were unable to work in their chosen fields for many years.  And you can probably come up with parallels from the present.

Unfortunately, even those University of Texas students who walk by Rainey Hall every day don’t know the history of  UT President Homer Rainey’s brave refusal, in the 1940s, to oust four economics professors who were overt New Deal advocates as well as suspected homosexuals.   Some suggestions for reading:  Homer Rainey, The Tower and the Dome (1971); Don Carleton, Red Scare!: Right-wing hysteria, fifties fanaticism, and their legacy in Texas (1985); or at least George Green’s entry on Homer Price Rainey in the Handbook of Texas Online,

Those are many obvious scenarios in which righteous action will threaten a person’s employment, if not destroy her career.  A “whistleblower” chooses to alert the public about hazards, illegal activity, or exploitative actions of her employer, even at the cost of her job, reputation, and even life.

Here’s a scenario that’s not so obvious. In a provocative situation, you can acknowledge, embrace and express emotions — or cover up for the sake of appearing “professional.”  Express sorrow and you will be perceived as crazy, overly emotional, unbalanced, or not strong enough for the job.  Acknowledge anger and you will be perceived as “not a team player” at best, or, at worst, a threat to be managed or disposed of. Your boss will praise those among your colleagues who maintain a calm, emotion-free demeanor. Do you really want to continue to LIVE in a world in which emotion is suppressed and we all have to pretend that we are unflappable? Are we to sustain the misogynist line that emotion is both bad and female, where that which is feminine = unworthy? Well, it’s clear which stance will enable a person to “get ahead” in her or his “career!” But does that position advance social justice?  No.

3. Compromises! No institution is perfect and MOST institutions perpetuate injustice. Keeping a job at almost any institution, small or large, will require you to compromise. Do you aim to make the institution “kinder and gentler” with your presence and your actions?  Or do you decide that a given entity is so thoroughly poisoned and corrupt that you must stay outside of it or leave?  Where do you draw the line?

Do you refuse to represent a person facing execution because the criminal “justice” system is stacked against the poor and people of color and your participation helps to legitimize a system we all need to soundly reject?

Do you turn down a yummy, challenging, and fun job at Google because you have noticed that all the intellectual workers are of European or Asian heritage, while all the kitchen and janitorial staff are of African or indigenous American descent?

Do you turn down tenure because it would grant you an extraordinary privilege that the vast majority of other workers in the world – save a dwindling number of union members — do not possess, that is, more or less guaranteed continued employment, absent gross misconduct?

Do you speak out against a fraudulent “Early College High School” program in which a community college and public school district pretend that they are providing “college courses” to low-income teens who share a building with special “magnet” students?  Or do you keep your mouth shut, act nice, and try to do the best job you can for those students?

If you walk away, what privilege enables you to do so?  (You’d better not feel smug about your choice!!)  Who are you leaving behind?

Who else is counting on you?

Who might you be letting down?

4.  It is probably more useful to think of a LIFE working for social justice, in which your “job” – the way you pay the rent or mortgage and feed yourself – may, but more probably won’t, be the most important element of your social justice work.

Much of the most important social justice work has little or nothing to do with anyone’s career, but instead with people’s lives.  It has to do with a way of being in the world.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, of blessed memory, surely had an important job as lawyer for the NAACP. Now he had a career in social justice, and of course I mean that in the most admiring way. But Justice Marshall’s career was extraordinary. The bad news is very few of us will have careers remotely similar to his.

The good news is that we don’t have to be enormously respected civil rights lawyers, or extraordinary or famous people of any kind, to change the world.

For every one case that Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers filed, there were a far greater number of people who were demanding their rights not because it was part of their “careers” but because they wanted to live with respect and dignity. Remember Heman Marion Sweatt. Remember the Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals. Remember not only the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but hundreds of people who walked to work in Montgomery, Alambama and the hundreds of thousands of people who showed up in Washington, D.C., in 1963 to demand civil rights.

The organization calling itself the Human Rights Campaign is not a major factor in the acceptance and inclusion of queer people.  I don’t mean to single out that organization as ineffective; that’s not my point. Queer people living with courage – just getting on with their lives – have produced social change. Sylvia Rivera fighting police harassment.  Gay and lesbian couples bearing or adopting children.

Similarly, it’s not immigration laws that have brought millions of Mexicans and Central Americans to the U.S., and whatever happens with so-called immigration reform, that migration will continue because it is fueled primarily by economic conditions and secondarily by violence (related, of course).  It will continue because human beings act courageously, starting new lives in unfamiliar places where they face terrible physical risks, humiliation, and living under threats from bigots as well as law enforcement.

The changes in prisons that we began to see in the 1970s and 1980s did not come about, in the first instance, by people with jobs working for non-profit foundations and think tanks and commissions, although these other people and organizations ultimately did play valuable roles.  Prisoners, people who were locked up, themselves instigated these changes when they rioted in Attica and when writ writers in Texas filed a lawsuit that ended up in the hands of federal district Judge William Wayne Justice.

When you think about how you are going to work for social justice; when you think about how you are going to be a human rights advocate (starting in Austin, Texas….not just running off to exotic places with an apparent deficit of human rights), don’t think first (or primarily, or only) about your “future career.” Think about how you plan to LIVE.

To be continued….

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