Moving from charity to social justice

Every now and again I get an e-mail here at LCI that reminds me of the philosophical places that people come from, and the work that we need to keep doing at SMU to educate students about the realities of the world around them. (This is one of the main things we do here in LCI: educating all of the students whom we interact with, whether directly or through projects and programs, about how the “world” around them really works and operates, and about how they can interact with it in ways that make a positive difference.) Three days ago I got an e-mail, which seems to be from a student, which asks whether SMU sponsors a particular program connected with a well-known national social service non-profit agency, because, to the writer’s mind, the most beneficial thing a university like SMU can do is to “encourage students living in harsh environments to stay motivated in school, as inner city life unproductively promotes easy money.”

About ten years ago I worked as the Volunteer Coordinator for a house-building agency in the coal-bearing mountains of southeastern Kentucky, and one of my main job duties was to knock the proverbial “knights” off of their “horses” when they came in to work with the agency and its clients each week. In other words, a lot of groups would come in to work with a kind of “high horse” attitude of seeming to know what those “poor” people needed, and thinking that what was needed was themselves. Most of the time I’d get groups down off of their “horses” through gentle means, but a few times it had to be sharper – and those were the people who unfortunately tended not to open themselves up at all to new horizons and possibilities of understanding.

What we try to do at LCI is to move people from a charity orientation – of a one-way orientation of extending help to others – to one of social justice, in which people work in two-way reciprocal relationships with others. People operating under Charity have no impetus to understand the nature of the situation or the cause of the problem; theirs is a process of transaction in which people who have, give to those who don’t, plain and simple. People operating under Social Justice, on the other hand, realize that without understanding and then addressing the root causes of situations and problems, those situations and problems will never be truly and fully resolved.

To get from one orientation to the other usually requires us to teach students how to develop their own sense of self-awareness, as they move beyond being primarily influenced by their parents, home town culture, and peers, towards developing their own understandings of how they and the world around them interact. I would love to have a series of discussions with the student who wrote the recent e-mail, asking how that point of view – that life in inner cities is both harsh and able to be compromised by “easy money,” whatever that is – was developed, and exploring the realities of what it’s like to not only live in an inner city, but to also live in a rural area of the country.

I would like to introduce that student, through LCI programs and projects, to citizens and residents of downtown Dallas, who are working together to address situations and issues affecting all of us, and to persons from other communities throughout the U.S. who are doing the same thing. I would welcome the opportunity to answer questions, comments, and concerns which the student had, and, finally, I would challenge that student to learn how to learn, opening up mind and heart to the possibility that there are horizons to be broken through, new pictures to be painted, and “miles to go before [we] sleep.” The work goes on.

- Mr. Geoff Whitcomb, Assistant Director of LCI, 9/3/10 -

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