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Education Empowerment Identity Multiracialism Social Justice

Transforming Words into Lived Journeys

“Talk is cheap. It is the way we organize and use our lives every day that tells what we believe in.” -César Chávez

As I have traveled on my journey, I learned to recognize that life’s crossroads can lead to conflicts that appear irreconcilable. They can feel like insurmountable barriers to be feared or conquered, leaving us in an ambiguous place without a sense of direction. This emotion was most poignant when I considered the meaning of social justice, which emanated from my experiences in a PhD program. My internal conflict became searching for empirical evidence that supported specific versions of reality, versus viewing evidence and specific versions of reality as subjective. As other transformative experiences taught me, such as defining my bicultural and multiracial identities, resolving this conflict was not about “either-or,” but rather about “both-and.” The point of conflict signified an unforeseen path of integration.

Ultimately, evidence and reality may always be subjective, but they can still have value within relevant contexts. To further illustrate the importance of integration, I will integrate my inseparable academic and personal perspectives. I identify as a second-generation Panamanian-American, multiracial (specifically mestiza and mulata) woman of color. I entered most professional contexts as a visibly and invisibly underrepresented person. This has usually brought a sense of solitude and regret that others like me did not have the opportunity to be there. However, I developed strengths in deconstructing—or questioning—what those from the dominant United States, white American, and male cultural groups may hold to be true. From this conflict, empowerment arose through questioning, a significant component of my journey to understand social justice.

However, many perspectives define social justice as more than ideas or words. Social justice in action, as understood by social psychologists, is about critical discourse, accompanied by actions to change dominant, socially unjust systems, structures, and cultures, while attending to intersecting marginalized experiences. For example, intersecting marginalized identities would include lower socioeconomic status, undocumented, transgender women of color. To engage in action means altering beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to promote equal opportunities, advantages, and rights for historically marginalized populations (e.g., racial/ethnic minority individuals, sexual minority individuals) to meet their needs. And to acknowledge the subjective nature of reality, social justice must be considered within many specific contexts, such as cultures, institutions, and communities. No one definition of social justice will suffice to meet the individual and collective needs of marginalized populations.

…many perspectives define social justice as more than ideas or words.

So where does that leave us along this path? What are the answers or signs to follow? I felt social justice in action when my perspective as a member of multiple non-dominant groups was encouraged, considered, and implemented. In my experiences, the most instrumental mentors were those who recognized their perspectives were sometimes influenced by their privileged identity statuses (e.g., white privilege). And subsequently, they found ways to implement my perspectives by sharing their power. These mentors were open to changing their own words and actions, such as their use of evaluative criteria and expectations, to meet my needs. This is an example of the invaluable worth of critically examining and reducing injustice at an individual level.

Noted psychologists Kenneth J. Gergen and Urie Bronfenbrenner assert that from social constructionist and ecological frameworks, social justice should be understood through individuals’ social positions across different levels of the environment—societal, cultural, communal, familial, and individual. This would mean that social justice also considers critically viewing and transforming laws, cultural beliefs, institutional policies, community values, and so forth. For example, psychologist Derald Wing Sue argues in Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation that in terms of transforming the legal system to promote social justice for people of color, this could mean acknowledging that most white individuals hold unconscious racial biases, resulting in justifying their racial discrimination (for example, white individuals committing homicide against unarmed people of color believing they were engaging in self-defense). Thus, intent is a concept within the legal system that must be critically examined because it disproportionately benefits dominant groups.

In addition, university institutional policies should be modified to enforce serious consequences for subtle and overt racial/ethnic discrimination toward people of color, because both forms produce negative psychological effects, posits Sue. At the community level, communities should provide centers that educate about societal privilege and oppression. And at the individual level, those in positions of power should strive to share their power to create equitable workplace and educational environments. So, again, no one answer will suffice. This complexity supports the notion that talk is cheap, and the way that you and I act is what matters in making revolutionary changes.

As scholar Gloria Anzaldúa writes: “I change myself, I change the world.”

By Irma Campos

Irma Campos just received her PhD in counseling psychology in August of 2015 from the University of Florida. She is interested in implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace to increase leadership effectiveness. Irma currently serves clients in team, leadership, and organizational development.