“These times are those for which our profession was designed. We have an ethical obligation to act and to do so in political and social arenas. It is not enough to work with those who are oppressed by regimes like Trump’s. We are expected to engage in social action aimed at changing the political structure” (Hayes, Karpman & Miller, 2016).
In the spirit of Hayes, Karpman, & Miller, as well as hooks (2003; 1994) and Freire (2000;1987; 1973; 1970), I assert that liberatory education properly understood is a form of social action, and possesses a healing power, a power that has the potential to turn enemies into friends, a power that seeks symmetry in our means and our ends, a power that helps mend broken hearts and fractured homes.
Social work social justice education is, and must be, a labor of love and liberation. It personifies what civil rights pioneer, congressman, and activist John Lewis, and Vietnamese Zen Master and social justice activist and educator Thich Nhat Hanh refer to as love in action. In the spirit of Gandhi’s Talisman, love in action looks to the least and asks if what we do will cause them harm or bring them freedom.
Love in action also invites renewal. As bell hooks (1994) asserts, “all of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions – and society – so that the way we live, teach, and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom” (p. 34). Love in action must live in the classroom as well as the streets.
Over the years, I have found that students are hungry for a more holistic, integrated, and engaged social justice pedagogy. Arguably, the social work profession has been absent, or at the very least remiss, with respect to its pedagogical commitment to social justice, failing to adequately integrate our Code’s ethical mandate (NASW, 2008; IFSW, 2012) into the curriculum, and thus failing to adequately prepare social workers with respect to social justice practice (Sayre & Sar, 2015; Hodge, 2010).
Student voices, ethical mandates, research recommendations, and the Circle of Insightcall us to recognize that the moment is ripe for renewal and revisioning of social justice social work pedagogy.
This call echoes the clarion call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the call to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world” (King, 1967).
Research has shown that despite the complications and concerns inherent in defining and delivering social justice classes, they do make a difference. As Krings, Austic, Gutierrez & Dirksen (2015) found, “participation in social justice education courses is associated with increases in both student confidence in and commitment toward political participation, civic engagement, and multicultural activism” (p. 414). Arguably, a lack of political participation, civic engagement, and multicultural activism has contributed to our current divisive, discriminatory, and oppressive political and social climate. We must do better.
The social work profession is, in this difficult and exigent moment, being called to the “the fierce urgency of now” of which Dr. King so prophetically spoke at Riverside Church in New York City, one year to the day before his death. There he preached, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action” (King, 1967), action rooted in love, and leading us to liberation.
“Through the values and skills of our profession, and under its ethical mandate, we have the capacity to contribute to dialogue versus despair and hope rather than fear and anger” (Hayes, Karpman & Miller, 2016). This dialogue and hope, this fierce urgency in action, can and must shine as a light in the shadows of the dimly lit classroom and the darkest street corner. The universe bends toward justice, and we must bend with it, give light, and rise up in radical revolution, a revolution in values and love in action that educates us not only to welcome and comfort the stranger, the immigrant, our sisters and our brothers in need, but also to change the structures and systems which would have us do otherwise.