Watson Chronicle


Education Updates and Features

A Reflection on Social Justice Work

Monday, November 11, 2013

 James DeVita, assistant professor, Department of Educational Leadership

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Attributed to Margaret Mead

Throughout my time as an administrator and faculty member in higher education, I have been fortunate to work with individuals who instilled in me a commitment to action: my former colleague at Iowa State, Nancy Evans, whose passion and commitment to support all students was unyielding; the late E. Grady Bogue who would challenge us during class discussions to find our “stand on the table” issue—that cause for which we had to speak up regardless of fear of consequence; Allison Anders, a friend and colleague, whose tireless work with refugee families embodied the commitment to engaging with a community; and Terrell Strayhorn, my former advisor and mentor, who lived his work and taught me to value difficult conversations about identity.

I share these examples to give thanks to those who supported (and continue to support) my development as a scholar committed to social justice work. Not only to call upon their energy to keep me motivated to not only do this work, but to encourage students to do the same. Admittedly, I’m an idealist when it comes to issues of social justice. Although systems of oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, and homophobia) pervade our society, institutions, and consciences, I am hopeful that a commitment to action—by those with the power to act—can bring about change. I frame my work around a definition of social justice that includes learning about the experiences and multiple, intersecting identities of marginalized populations, an ongoing interrogation of my privileged identities, and a commitment to action aimed at creating more equitable environments. Yet, I sometimes find the demands of a job I love wear on my motivation to do social justice work—particularly at this point in the semester.

Over the past two weeks, I have been reminded of the power in shared experiences through stories by students in class, online discussions and one-on-one conversations. Thus, I share some reflections in the hope that others can relate. I’m grateful to have colleagues and friends who share similar commitments and a passion to act in the community. I’m privileged to have identities that afford access to work with marginalized individuals, to teach students about social justice work, and to engage in actions that I value. I’m hopeful that I do enough to inspire action in my students the ways that others have for me. I’m concerned that I don’t. Finally, I’m inspired, awed, and exasperated by the many challenges with critical issues of diversity presented in higher education today. Who’s with me?