you're reading...
Leadership and Activism

21st century social justice

This is a repost from my personal blog.

I’ve heard the terms, and so have you:

“21st century teaching”

“21st century learning”

“21st century workforce”

“21st century skills”

What hasn’t been labeled “21st century” these days?

As so many have already pointed out, we’re more than one decade in. So the adjective, as a representation of forward-thinking, is rapidly losing its relevance. But the general idea is that of a reality that reflects our increasingly digitally immersed lives.

I’ve not heard, however, much use of the phrase 21st century social justice.

In fact, I’ve never heard it uttered even once.

Why is that, I wonder? I firmly believe that  most if not all teachers, most if not all people in fact, that I come into contact with on a day to day basis would say that they believe in the importance of social justice, in solidarity and equality and perhaps even aspects of social redistribution of wealth, like social safety nets. It may in fact be the reason they entered the field of education in the first place.

Perhaps “social justice” simply represents old-school rhetoric. Maybe we ran out of steam as we tossed around the “21st century” label. Or could it be that for many, social justice as a concept has meaning – represents an immutable set of values – that transcends any one time period or external circumstances?

I would argue, though, that social justice by its very nature is informed by the social and cultural context within which it’s being viewed. Social justice today means something both similar and different than what it meant in the previous century. Different in the sense that it signifies today equal access to and understanding of the tools of digital creation and communication, and therefore power. And when I say “understanding,” I don’t mean simply the knowledge to make and communicate using these tools. But also the critical understanding of how these tools are used to disenfranchise the very youth who employ them just as easily as they are used to promote and amplify their own participatory voice. That every digital act represents a value system.

Here’s one example of what I’m talking about: Redefining Romeo and Juliet: Reclaiming the “Ghetto”

I’m curious: What do you think social justice today looks like? What should it look like?

About Paul Oh

I'm an educator, writer, sometime runner and soon-to-be dad. I work for the National Writing Project and get a chance to design, play, create and learn with other adults and, when I'm lucky, with kids.


23 thoughts on “21st century social justice

  1. I think the convergence of technology and social justice can give students an avenue to raise their own awareness about issues they care about and provide mechanisms for advocacy & collaboration on behalf of those issues. I have found that when I give students time and space to learn about the larger issues in the world, they have an innate desire to share their voice and their ideas for changing the world with others.

    Posted by Kim Wilkens | September 22, 2011, 1:41 pm
    • I agree completely. I would add that awareness should entail an understanding of the nuances related to the technologies of advocacy and collaboration. Texting, for instance, is a great way that youth have found to organize. But to what extent do our students realize that texting is also a cash cow for the telecoms, which are then turning around and using their dollars to quash net neutrality? I’d like our students to use the tools of social media for the purposes of social justice while simultaneously being skeptical of them.

      Posted by Paul Oh | September 24, 2011, 12:48 am
      • One of the justice issues my students found last year was about the war in the Congo, through an organization called Falling Whistles, and how that conflict is now really centered on mineral rights for the raw materials that make up our smart phones. Talk about facing the human cost of technology!

        Posted by Kim Wilkens | September 24, 2011, 7:18 am
  2. Interesting insights thank you. Agree with the 21st century stuff it is ubiquitous. As far as social justice is concerned I wonder if it is relative. Is it a particularly western concept and if so, does that impose a set of universal values; or is it a concept that can be defined differently in different contexts?

    Posted by Mary Karpel | September 22, 2011, 1:42 pm
    • I hadn’t considered this idea that social justice is a particularly western concept. My instinct is to say that, no, it’s more universal than that. But please say more.

      Posted by Paul Oh | September 24, 2011, 12:49 am
    • I don’t think social justice is just a western concept. In fact, if anything, the western concept of social justice is very watered down – often looking more like mercy than searching out root causes of issues and then finding ways to solve them. The idea of social justice has a long history in many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity & Islam.

      Posted by Kim Wilkens | September 24, 2011, 7:24 am
  3. I’ve felt the same way. I’ve used the term on my own blog, but it felt awkward. I dropped it, not because I saw social justice as unimportant, but because I don’t like the term 21st Century in the first place. Like the word “digital,” it’s become insipid, bland and irritating. (I’m tempted to add the word innovative to the list as well)

    Oftentimes “21st Century” is seen through a very narrow lens. They talk of digital citizenship, but not citizenship, social justice or ethics. They speak of “transformative learning” as if it happens in a social, cultural, political and economic vacuum.

    My students labeled our blog “social voice” when, as a new teacher, I wanted it to be called Social Studies 2.0. I saw the blog as an “other” space away from my own emphasis on social justice. The students, however, saw it as a natural integration. The name they chose shaped my approach forever. We couldn’t be neutral. The phrasing, the idea, the concept of a social voice, is why we created videos, documentaries, murals, letters, a mock border (to commemorate those who died crossing) and visits to the food bank, soup kitchen and domestic violence shelter.

    We discussed technology as a political force. We asked questions about the business models of Google and Apple. We looked a the Arab Spring and how they used technology along with the ways that political forces had tried to censor it. They asked hard questions about internet web filters at school and examined the role of The Patriot Act in using “security” as a rationale for monitoring technology.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 22, 2011, 1:48 pm
    • Thanks for sharing what sounds to be powerful work with your students. To your point regarding technology as a political force: as I was writing my post, I thought of the conversation we had in Philadelphia at the Hack Jam in which you pointed out that even code cannot be viewed as politically neutral. Your words from that day have stayed with me.

      Posted by Paul Oh | September 23, 2011, 5:13 pm
  4. Your definition reminds me of the Maker’s Owner Manifesto:

    Meaningful and specific parts lists shall be included.

    Cases shall be easy to open.

    Batteries should be replaceable.

    Special tools are allowed only for darn good reasons.

    Profiting by selling expensive special tools is wrong and not making special tools available is even worse.

    Torx is OK; tamperproof is rarely OK.

    Components, not entire sub-assemblies, shall be replaceable.

    Consumables, like fuses and filters, shall be easy to access.

    Circuit boards shall be commented.

    Power from USB is good; power from proprietary power adapters is bad.

    Standard connecters shall have pinouts defined.

    If it snaps shut, it shall snap open.

    Screws better than glues.

    Docs and drivers shall have permalinks and shall reside for all perpetuity at

    Ease of repair shall be a design ideal, not an afterthought.

    Metric or standard, not both.

    Schematics shall be included.

    I think what I mean by this is that social justice is not just a quality but a capacity to act. It is one of the keystones of public, democratic education that we build the capacity of the citizenry to act for the commons as well as for themselves. Long live 22d Century (fill in the blank).

    Posted by Terry Elliott | September 22, 2011, 3:30 pm
    • I love the idea of social justice as the capacity to act, particularly in the interest of the commons, Terry. And you’re stretching my brain – in the best possible way – in having me consider the Maker’s Owner manifesto in relation to social justice. I’d love to hear more of your thinking.

      Posted by Paul Oh | September 23, 2011, 5:25 pm
  5. Wonderful post.

    The “Gangster Romeo and Juliet” material briefly threw me for a loop. I was initially astonished at how stereotypical some presentations were, but quickly realized the students’ notions about “ghetto” or “gangster” were based on “virtual” information, whether by way of film, TV, or otherwise. Although a great deal of information has become available through technological means, “virtual reality” is not at all near to actually being there.

    I am afraid 21st Century Social Justice looks very much like what we see when we choose to look beyond the confines of “our space”. Perhaps it could look like what might result from an in-person, participatory field trip to “the ghetto”, soup kitchen, food bank, cancer treatment center, hospice or “retirement community”. Or how about this, a trip to the actual home of an “other” (whether by color, religion, occupation or what have you) and a period of sitting down and talking, questions asked and answered, and information shared. Such a trip need not be limited to students — adults might benefit even more than youths.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | September 22, 2011, 5:08 pm
    • It’s been interesting to engage in social justice in a “community of poverty.” Volunteers get really uncomfortable when they see members of the community they serve actually serving with them. One of my favorite conversations involved a group from Intel talking about how they would “fix” the community when they helped out with my students at a food bank. I asked him if he could see the beauty instead and he got really uncomfortable. Then one of my students said, “I don’t want anyone fixing this community. It’s not broken.”

      I like the fact that you mentioned the reflection piece, but I think it’s key that it’s not an isolated conversation. The folks from Intel shut down the minute it felt too uncomfortable. (Though I think the skin color, language and clothing frightened some of them)

      I’m a fan of participatory service trips, but that’s not enough. There needs to be advocacy. There should be paradigm shifts. Otherwise, it’s just another example of colonialism and an imperial, “I’ll save you” attitude. Social justice demands that people move from neutrality both in thought and in action. Simple service trips don’t require that of people.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 23, 2011, 10:46 am
      • This thread reminds me of a conversation I had with friends last year who consult in the area of design thinking. Part of the design thinking paradigm involves empathy. In other words, designing with the needs of others in mind, based on their stated needs. As a counter-example to this element of empathy, these friends, Maureen and Leticia from Lime Design and the Stanford d School, mentioned a case in which grad students as part of a service learning project noticed that women in a remote village were spending many hours washing clothes by hand at a river. The students decided – on their own, with no consultation of the women – to design and build a portable mechanical washing device that would speed up the washing process, assuming this would be beneficial to the women. However, their devices were never used. When the students finally talked to the women, they discovered that the women saw washing as their time to socialize; they had no desire whatsoever to make it one second shorter.

        In working with Maureen and Leticia, I discovered that the first element in the design thinking process for a designer is to ask questions of the person she or he is designing for.

        Posted by Paul Oh | September 23, 2011, 5:36 pm
      • John,

        Perhaps every individual who might read this series of posts live in different worlds.

        I live in the Detroit MSA where Eight Mile Road is a clear line that marks (colonized) spaces. Some people cross that line only when it is convenient to do so, such as when going to a Tigers, Lions or Red Wings game in the City of Detroit. Even passing through the City on I-75 seems to give some people hives. Some cross that line out of necessity by using public transportation to be able to perform service work for minimum/minimum+ wages. Others cross that line to access the government and business offices located in Detroit.

        To be sure, the borderline where I live has shifted over the years. Still, just when diffusion and inter-mixing appears to be taking place, “new and improved” lines arise. When it is illegal to “discriminate on the basis of…XXX (whatever characteristic various laws prohibit)”, the power of culture and class seem to assure that “the other” is again walled or curtained off.

        While participatory service trips are (definitely) not enough, such activities would help shift “the acquisition of ‘knowledge’” from words, the virtual reality of intellect, to a situation in which the potential of having a “brief experience of the other” exists.

        I suspect we see similar facts and circumstances, but do not interpret them in the same way. From my back yard, I see a cycle of colonization, decolonization and re-colonization. What do you see from where you live? Does the “depth of education” have anything to do with what you see? How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go? Is “21st Social Justice” implicated here?

        I do not expect any “silver bullet” answers, but we can talk and share information in this “neutral” space that lies between the colonies…

        Posted by Brent Snavely | September 25, 2011, 8:28 am
  6. Paul, Critically important post, and I thank you. I wonder if you know Ellis Cose’s new book The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage (2011)?

    In it, Cose essentially delineates 3 patterns of “seeing” social justice and race based on generational patterns. Cose calls those groups the Fighters (those born before 1944), the Dreamers (born between 1945 and 1979), and the Believers (those born between 1970 and 1995); while he categorizes their counterparts among white Americans as the Hostiles, the Neutrals, and the Allies.

    What does a “new” view of social justice and race relations look like?

    “Something has indeed changed in race relations, Ellis concludes. There is less anger and rage, more hope and faith toward the future among African Americans of all income levels than there has ever been; more willingness by most white Americans to regard their fellow black citizens on an equal footing. This is especially true among the younger generations within both groups.

    But those optimistic perceptions are colliding against the facts on the ground: increasing economic inequality and a rapidly growing wealth gap, between rich and poor as well between black and white. So while life is certainly incomparably better today for what W.E.B. Dubois labeled the “talented tenth” in the black community, the profound problems faced by the black poor and the black working class have gotten worse. Leaders of both major political parties seem intent on ignoring the deep anger among Americans over the growing class divide.”

    What are we ignoring in our own political and social lives? It seems to me that even back when I was in graduate school in the late 90s there was more open, clear-sighted, confrontational talk about social justice and its connection to privilege and power. The discourse has shifted. To benefit whom?



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 23, 2011, 6:41 am
    • I was not familiar with that book, Kirsten. I’m going to read it now. Thank you.

      I agree that class division – and anger over the growing income disparity in the US – is being glossed over by political leaders. I can’t imagine that this isn’t going to reach some kind of boiling point soon.

      I think we’d be wise to continually ask ourselves the question you so eloquently posed: What are we ignoring in our own political and social lives? The answers are bound to spur us to action.

      Posted by Paul Oh | September 24, 2011, 1:03 am
  7. I recently switched my professional role from literacy coach to 7th grade language arts teacher. In my context, I am beginning to enact a social justice stance for myself and the students with whom I work- opening the space for student choice and opinion and the freedom to co-create curriculum together. Is it possible to enact social justice sitting in rows, silent, obedient? The radical in me is screaming no….

    Posted by Kristine | September 25, 2011, 6:10 pm
  8. In response to my first blog on Conscious Community in the Field of Education I was asked to detail my understanding of social justice. I did so a letter to the everyone on the google groups site. I include it below as the comments box does not allow hyperlink. Also, either we will move to engaging children from a consciousness-first understanding and see social justice as an outcome, or we will continue to be mired in the torturous battle between the mythic structure of the consciousness and the mental structure. (See Jean Gebser websites for an appreciation of structures of consciousness.

    A Primer for Parents and Educators on Social Justice and Children

    Those children who experience themselves as socially valuable throughout their childhood have the greatest likelihood of facilitating the transition to a socially just world. It will not be those who are seen only for the contribution they might make as adults or for their ability to learn cultural customs and skills. Such chauvinism sees the child as an adult-in-the-making, not a child-as-she-is. That opportunity belongs to children whose social importance is acknowledged in each moment of their lives.

    Oppression towards children inevitably arises with neglect of their consciousness, and attendant developmental needs. We shall take up the question of the consequent injustices to children later. It is better to appreciate the gifts children bring to social justice first. When the gift of the child is appreciated, the psychological immune system develops in health. Recognition of the child’s gifts brings relationship and learning. Recognition of the gift of the child obviates the injustices. Appreciation of the child’s gifts heals wounds. Unfortunately, the gifts of the child are too often ignored. Neglect of children’s contribution to social justice reeks of chauvinism and is a reaction generated by the adult’s unresolved childhood issues and conditioning.

    BodyBeing children (0-8) accept the elders in their lives. This simple acceptance has far-reaching consequences. It bonds children to parents and grandparents. For most families the bond happens effortlessly, as it naturally should. That bond of attachment is healthy and appropriate and will affect the formation of future relationships through the child’s life. That bond bonds society. It is that critical first step in which there is complete acceptance that one’s well-being is connected to the well-being of others. Crucial for rightful place, the bond develops throughout the BodyBeing years and continues throughout life. It provides the basis for trust and is a sterling example of interconnectedness in every stage of life.
    Parents bond to the children as well. In perfect tandem, parents feel fulfilled when they unconditionally accept the child. They have accepted a responsibility that includes the eternal freedom to love. For many parents, this moment serves as the actualization of substantive values crucial for optimal well-being in Reasonable development. Socially, it is a commitment to co-create a world where the child can live in well-being.

    Extended family, school, and home communities comprise the social environment of FeelingBeing children. They explore interpersonal dynamics as they learn how to decipher their own feelings and the feelings of others. They embody the values, norms, and ethics of society. Their most extraordinary gift is that they are co-creating the social context as they live. Adults have only to observe them carefully to see how social relationships form.

    As they embody the creation of social relationships, so FeelingBeing children (9-13) reflect the society in which they live. They empathically feel the feelings of others and focus on the mentorship of the trusted elders in their life. Therefore, careful observation of FeelingBeing children yields direct information on the current social moment. Adults can use this information to restructure their own relationships toward a more just society.

    Ethics is defined as the “science of morals,” and mores are those social customs that call forth quality of character. FeelingBeing children living in optimal well-being are nourished, not needy. They live in abundance, in being, and not in deficit. Through reciprocal cooperation, they continually bring attention to responsible ethics in the community and society through their questioning. They cooperate in the spirit of trust, and trust is the cornerstone of character.

    FeelingBeing children’s innate capacity for relationship and ethics manifests as environmental sensitivity. They do not have to be taught the importance of ecology; they must learn by living it. Pollution makes no sense. Neither does prejudice, which is pollution in interpersonal relationships.

    FeelingBeing is the leverage point for creating a just society. This is at once a cause for optimism and heartbreak. So little awareness and resources are devoted to the developmental stage of FeelingBeing; so many resources in every sphere of human endeavor are wasted because of this neglect. Can our society at least begin to appreciate the social contribution of FeelingBeing children? Can we allow this age child the moment to engage the feelings attendant to fairness, justice, and ethics? Are we ready to abandon the imposition of morality? Can we accept their trust as a sacred gift and cherish it through the wisdom of trustworthy relationships?

    Typical of the black-and-white nature of the teen years, IdealBeing teenagers (13-17) are either richly rewarded for their societal contribution or vilified for the challenges they bring. If the contribution matches social norms and mores, there is reward; if it highlights the shadow, there is vilification. The shadow represents all the unresolved issues in the adult that have been disowned (e.g., wildness, greatness, and/or negative aspects). This confusion, which adds to the misperception of teenagers, stems from adult’s evaluating the teen’s contribution based on performance or results rather than understanding the contribution of the teenager herself.

    The first right of an autonomous person is the right to choose. Few people cling to this right more stubbornly and more capriciously than the IdealBeing teen. The right to choose is defended against every assault, reasonable and otherwise. Every parent with a teen in this stage of development knows this. How often have we stood by with a seemingly better way to do something, hearts hurting as we watch the teen struggle yet unwilling to take our advice? Many parents find this difficult to bear, as we did until we realized that stepping into the right to choose is the first step on a long, perilous journey and absolutely necessary for human society and evolution. We can think of no way to ease into it. You either take responsibility for choosing or you don’t. Once you do, then the learning is in the playing and struggling with it. Underneath the choices themselves, the right to choose is affirmed time and again by IdealBeing teenagers.

    The right to choose is the basis of a democratic society. It is the definition of liberty itself. The right to choose translates easily into the right to vote. The question can only be asked, not answered: How would society change if teenagers had adequate time to learn how to choose before they were praised or ridiculed for those choices?

    Loyalty is a matter of honor and dignity is a commitment simultaneous to trust and to meaning. IdealBeing teenagers defend each person’s right to be loyal to their own ideals. Loyalty is a more complex expression of the bonding of BodyBeing and of the just and fair community of FeelingBeing.

    The emergence of ReasonableBeing (18-23) brings compassion, insight, and meaning to social justice. Humans are interconnected with one another and the environment. Obviously, pollution and prejudice have no purchase. Desiring substantive values ReasonableBeing individuals question social systems. Is the allocation of resources fair? Do we recognize that damaging a part damages the whole? Can self centered activities lead to social justice?

    Due to their appreciation of the past, ReasonableBeing individuals have the ability to reflect on their own lives and remedy wounds. This means that they can enter adulthood optimally and contribute to social justice. It also means that reasonable acts are only those which do not violate any of the organizing principles. If an action damages Rightful Place, Trust, Autonomy or Interconnectedness, then the act is unreasonable and socially unjust.

    Natural Learning Relationships suggests a new approach to social justice: Include children in the social justice discourse. Celebrate their gifts to society. Parent and educate them with dignity so that their natural capacities for social justice have the right environment in which to flourish. Natural Learning Relationships asks the question, what kind of society would emerge if the adults were able to enjoy optimal well-being during their childhood?

    The age of BodyBeing begins the social process with bonding, play, and innocence. The emergence of FeelingBeing moves to a new awareness with growing knowledge of ethics, justice, and fairness. Together, they establish the foundation of belongingness and interpersonal relationship, so necessary for social membership. IdealBeing emerges from this foundation by urging the teen toward the right to choose and the importance of loyalty. This establishes individual liberty, a powerful addition to social membership. A citizen belongs and therefore enjoys the right of freedom of choice. These are the qualities—bonding, play, innocence, ethics, fairness, justice, right to choose, and loyalty—that ReasonableBeing children get to play with. As ReasonableBeing emerges, new qualities of the human also emerge—interconnectedness, tolerance, meaning, and the realization dawns that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must include all people.

    Posted by Ba Luvmour | September 26, 2011, 3:46 pm
  9. This is a vital post and set of questions, Paul. How do those of us secure in the blessings of liberty develop an awareness of what other people want? Of what we can do for others, or for ourselves, or of what we can sacrifice?

    Could we begin by asking young children to question their peers about their lives and then to design things for their peers in response to the answers?

    What might that accomplish for social justice that academic learning doesn’t?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 26, 2011, 8:47 pm


  1. Pingback: 21st century social justice | Cooperative Catalyst | - September 22, 2011

  2. Pingback: Giving Everyone a Voice: Social Justice & Social Media | Mike Schienbein - June 27, 2015

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,103 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: