By: Cristina Santamaría Graff
After the tumultuous election of 2020 and its continuing aftermath, one thing is clear, the division in our country rests heavily on our orientation toward how we define American and America’s values, how we frame democracy and our rights, and how we map out next steps toward reaching future imaginings of what we want this country to look like and be. For those of us oriented toward a world where each and every person is treated with fairness and is provided with equitable resources to reach and sustain an overall well-being rooted in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, next steps include a continued commitment to social justice. Social justice within this context is a recognition of systemic barriers imposed or perpetuated by structures – governmental, institutional, and media-driven – that marginalize specific groups of people and privilege others. It is also action taken toward confronting and dismantling these inequities for the purpose of creating opportunities and ensuring access for those who have been disenfranchised. In higher education, and specifically in the area of service learning, social justice has been conceptualized as a movement toward achieving equitable outcomes for all stakeholders. However, in its attempted enactment, social justice approaches can often end up reproducing practices that invariably diminish or disempower individuals, groups, or organizations that have historically experienced marginalization.
In this post, I think about what it means in higher education as a scholar and educator to work for and toward social justice. I contemplate Gandhi’s words, “Be the change you want to see in the world” as I consider my students who will one day be educators and teachers. Through this consideration, I explore what it means to “be this change” using Tania Mitchell’s (2008) tenet, “a social change orientation” (p. 50) as conceptualized in Critical Service Learning (CSL). I draw upon Mitchell’s work because it has greatly assisted me in better understanding the ways in which social justice not only manifests through external change, but also is a multilayered process of internal transformation. Further, as a teacher educator whose scholarship centers on Family as Faculty (FAF) approaches that recognize the expertise of family members of children with dis/abilities who co-plan and co-teach special education teacher preparation courses with me, CSL has been integral in providing me with a framework to probe what social justice means in my field.
Specifically, a social change orientation pushed me to think critically about what it means to prepare future special educators who will one day be making decisions that will impact the trajectory of students’ lives, particularly students with dis/abilities at the intersections of race, class, language difference and immigration status. A social change orientation influenced how I thought about and implemented the FAF activities that were embedded within a special education course on families. It helped me to consider ways that family members could share their stories with preservice special education teachers about topics such as inclusive practices, effective communication with teachers, culturally responsive collaboration, special education law, Individualized Education Planning (IEP) meetings, and transition. In addition, this orientation provided me with an understanding of what it meant to “be the change” as a scholar-practitioner committed to families with whom I collaborate and engage in my FAF-centered projects. The next section elaborates upon what it means to be this change within the context of CSL as conceptualized by Mitchell.
Background to Critical Service Learning
To begin understanding the internal and external processes involved in “being the change we want to see in this world,” means making sense of what social justice is and ways to strive toward it. I draw from Mitchell’s (2008) seminal article, “Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models” for this sensemaking. In this piece, Mitchell presents us with a reconceptualized framework of service learning that integrates a social justice approach to explain the way in which ‘service’ is understood and implemented in higher education. To differentiate, traditional service learning focuses on assisting college students in developing civic-mindedness through college-community projects where they have opportunities to ‘serve’ community organizations. In contrast, service learning that is “critical” shifts the orientation from doing service on or for communities to doing service with or alongside communities allowing for knowledge, goals, and outcomes to be co-creative and collaborative rather than top-down or solely transactional (Koster, Baccar, & Lemelin, 2012). In addition, a critical approach to service learning attends to power relations among and between colleges/universities and communities that can lead to more equitable and socially-just realities for community members who, in traditional service learning approaches, oftentimes are positioned on the periphery rather than centered in projects meant to benefit them. Consciously attending to power dynamics translates to an intentional redistribution of power whereby all stakeholders have decision-making authority around shared goals from the inception of these goals to their realization (Santamaría & Boehner, 2019).
Embodying and Enacting Social Justice
“Being the change” through CSL scholarship means both an embodiment (internal) and enactment (external) of social justice. The deep work of CSL, according to Mitchell (2008), hinges on social change being formative as students, in particular, have opportunities to develop into “agents of social change” (Mitchell, 2008, p. 51). In my own work implementing Family as Faculty (FAF) approaches, I have considered a social change orientation as an entry point to teaching preservice special education teachers about what becoming a change agent is within the context of advocating for students and their families. Becoming change agents in FAF means that preservice special education teachers are given opportunities to shift from seeing themselves as being the catalyst to change or save others – “service to an individual” (Wade, 2000, p. 97 as cited in Mitchell, p. 51) – to serving an “ideal” that involves both them, as individuals, and families learning from one another in their pursuit of mutuality around shared goals.
In past FAF projects spanning from 2016 – 2020, some of these shared goals have included finding common ground around challenging topics. For example, parents of children with dis/abilities and preservice teachers have not always seen eye-to-eye on their understandings of inclusion within the special education field. Many parents participating in FAF projects have spoken about the ways that a school’s practice of inclusion is not always inclusive for students with dis/abilities, particularly those deemed to have ‘behavioral issues.’ Preservice teachers, on the other hand, tend to enter into initial conversations around inclusion from a ‘textbook’ understanding of it and often assume that inclusion means that every student with a disability is included in all or most aspects of the general education curriculum. Through conversations embedded with FAF interactional structures that promote deep listening, thoughtful framing, and mindful communication, parents and preservice teachers generally arrive to an understanding around the well-being of individual children/students, even if they don’t fully agree with one another. Even in disagreement, when parents and preservice teachers engage together in pursuit of mutuality, there is always a movement toward shared understanding that provides greater insight into ways preservice teachers can better advocate for students with disabilities.
For students who are on the path to becoming change agents committed to social justice, serving an “ideal” – as mentioned previously – means going beyond their own understandings of the world and allowing other perceptions in. For some, it means questioning their philosophical stances, upbringing, and cultural schemas to invite in other viewpoints. In FAF projects, parents or family members of children with dis/abilities often provide perspectives, rooted in their lived experience, that elicit deep contemplation, reflection and questioning among preservice special education teachers. This questioning has caused some preservice teachers to feel confused, angry, sad, ashamed or upset. For example, there have been several preservice teachers over the years who have expressed shame for some of their preconceptions of those with disabilities after they have heard family members’ testimonies or teachings regarding their children. One preservice teacher expressed her feelings of regret after she listened to a mother of a child with Down Syndrome tell her son’s story of resilience and bravery in the face of opposition by teachers who did not take the time to understand his many strengths:
“After [listening to] Ms. S., I realized I had personal biases regarding individuals with special needs. Not one person is the same and I’m so ashamed of myself … [to] assume that all people [who] have special needs [are] the same.”
In this example, the preservice teacher takes responsibility for implicit biases she owns and states:
” Moving forward I will not assume that a person can’t do something just because they don’t do it the same way someone else does it.”
Like many other preservice special education teachers I have taught over the years through FAF projects, this preservice teacher internalized what she needed to address in order to ensure her future thinking would not reproduce harmful actions against individuals with dis/abilities. More generally speaking, FAF projects centered within a social change orientation provide multiple opportunities for preservice special education teachers to learn from (not about) families. Being the change in this example means listening, not judging. It also means being open to recognize and confront assumptions about others that may be internalized projections of an ‘untruth.’ For the preservice teacher this meant acknowledging the untruth that all individuals with disabilities are the same. It also meant that she made a decision to change her thinking, thus enacting a more just approach of understanding and reflecting upon disability.
Applying Mitchell’s (2014) Social Justice Sensemaking
In this next section, I explore the interplay between internal growth toward becoming a change agent of social justice and the external ‘actions’ emanating from this growth. Though I have been consciously thinking about and applying Mitchell’s (2008) social change orientation to my FAF projects, I find that a more systematic approach to my teaching about social justice within the context of advocating for students with dis/abilities is needed. This approach includes using critical self-reflective questions – for myself and my students (i.e., preservice teachers) – to make sense of ways my students and I can be more consciously aware of how we are striving toward the embodiment and enactment of social justice when collaborating with family or community members. These questions, rooted in Mitchell’s work (2014), can be used at different stages of serving learning projects as “accountability checks” to ensure that students’ and scholar-practitioners’ intentions and values are aligned with their actions in working with community stakeholders.
To develop these questions, I find Mitchell’s article (2014), How Service-Learning Enacts Social Justice Sensemaking, particularly helpful. In this piece, Mitchell describes six properties of ‘social justice sensemaking’ that emerged from a qualitative research study focused on university students who, as a cohort, were enrolled in a scholars’ program consisting of four consecutive semesters through which they engaged in 60 hours of service per semester. Noteworthy here is the fact that the program described is organized to provide students with a focus on service for a sustained amount of time. Though beyond the scope of this post, it should be said that the applicability of this type of service learning program at most universities is structurally challenging. That stated, the thinking behind Mitchell’s social justice sensemaking is useful for service learning projects, courses, or programs committed to students’ critical self-reflection in working with any community. Specifically, Mitchell’s sensemaking properties (identity, retrospect, referencing, contradiction, social, and plausibility) and their operationalizations can be used to generate understandings of the ways students (and instructors) can embody and enact social justice within project or course activities.
For context, it is important to note that these sensemaking properties emerged through Mitchell’s systematic analysis and documentation of her students’ comprehensive service learning experiences through which they developed important relationships (e.g., mentoring minoritized youth) and experienced different environments (e.g., a First Nations’ reservation). Further, students had multiple opportunities to deepen their understandings of social justice and what it meant for them to embody and enact change. These understandings were captured in reflective journals and essays to provide context for their movement toward developing introspective, critical stances in relation to the ‘service’ in which they were engaged. Then, these understandings were operationalized into six properties (as previously stated) to reflect students’ ‘social justice sensemaking’ defined as a conceptual process through which meaning is constructed around lived experiences and intellectual engagement to uncover inequities operating through power and privilege. In one example, a student examined her identity in relation to making meaning of group membership from a social justice standpoint:
“…the privileges I get from my race and class overwhelm the ways in which I am marginalized, all these ‘identities’ are important to consider…about how I function in this world” (p. 79).
In another example, a student reflected on her evolving realizations of social justice as viewed through a societal lens:
“I used to see social justice as this system of order that kept order among people, but justice can’t be given by authority it comes from the people…” (p. 82)
These student examples demonstrated tangible ways that students were waking up to their own sense of embodying or enacting social justice as they contemplated a better, more just world.
In consideration of Mitchell’s six sense making properties and her analysis of them, I am interested in not only expanding upon this sensemaking framework, but also getting closer to answering the question how we, as scholars and educators, can deepen our students’ sense of embodying and enacting the change we want to see (See Table 1). To do this, I have created questions to assist students’ and scholar-practitioners’ self-reflexivity and internal growth about becoming or being better agents of change. I also have generated questions that help students and scholar-practitioners examine the ways their internal work and understandings of social justice are externally manifested through action. These action-oriented questions focus more on “doing” than “being” and can be answered by observing the impact of ‘action’ on, with, or through a project.
Table 1: Mitchell’s Social Justice Sensemaking Adapted as Critical Self-Reflective Questions. *Click on the thumbnail to enlarge the table*
What Being the Change Means to Me
As scholars and educators of higher educational institutions who are committed to social justice, Mitchell’s orientation toward social change is helpful as we contemplate how we can support our students in becoming the change we want to see in the world. In service learning or community engaged projects embedded within or occurring outside of our courses, we can draw upon ‘sensemaking’ properties to assist students in thinking along ‘ethical lines’ as they engage with stakeholders whose backgrounds, languages, or experiences may be different than their own. As Mitchell reminds us, an orientation toward social change requires a deep consideration of how justice is conceptualized.
“Being the change,” I have realized, begins with the internal work of exploring implicit and persistent biases attached to our identities, upbringing, and social conditioning. It is also externalized and seen through the manifestation of hard, persistent, and sustainable work discernable through specific actions, outcomes, or results. For me, professionally, arriving at these understandings has taken time. In my own community engaged work, I have had to do “social-justice sensemaking” as some of my projects have not elicited the transformative change I had hoped to see. Some of these pitfalls have resided in my own idealized perceptions of what social justice should look like.
My hope is that by asking difficult questions, like the ones in Table 1, I will continue to open my eyes to the ways my expectations of social justice have been unrealistic or grounded in assumptions that have been ‘true’ for me, but perhaps not realistic or beneficial for others. For example, in my work with Latina/o/x families, I have learned that – depending upon the context – using the terms “Latina,” “Latino,” or “Latinx” for the sake of being equitable in how I address the Spanish-speaking families with whom I interact in my projects can actually be offensive. Where I understood “Latina/o/x” to be inclusive, for others who preferred to self-identify by their nationality (e.g., Mexican, Dominican, Venezuelan…), Latina, Latino, or Latinx was an exclusive term.
In this example, by using Table 1, I could have been more proactive in asking questions before making assumptions. In the case above had I thought about the question, “How can I create environments to hold space for all stakeholders who will, most likely, have multiple and varying perspectives?” (Table 1, “Social” Property, “Embodiment” for Scholar-Practitioners) before assuming “Latinx” was the most inclusive term, I could have provided a space for the Spanish-speaking families to self-identify and tell me their preferred identity marker. If I had been more conscious to hold space for them (internally), then I could have shown them (externally) that I valued and honored their ways of knowing (Table 1, “Retrospect” Property, “Enactment” for Scholar-Practitioners).
“Being the change” as an additional layer to a social change orientation and social justice sensemaking in community engaged or CSL projects means to understand the symbiotic relationship between doing the hard, internal work of excising implicit biases and seeing authentic and sustained social justice in action. In many ways the embodiment and enactment of change as conceptualized through Mitchell’s scholarship (2008, 2013, 2014) is similar to Paulo Freire’s (2000) work where individuals awaken to the systemic oppressions around them (i.e., critical consciousness – the ‘internal’ work of social justice) and liberate themselves through agentic action (i.e., praxis – the ‘external’ manifestation of social justice). As attested by both Mitchell and Freire, “being the change” begins with questions and questioning. By questioning the injustices in the world around us, we can also imagine ways to confront and take action against them. We can also find solutions to transform current realities that divide and impede our ability to pursue a life where we, and all others in the world, can experience hope, joy, and a sense of justice.
Cristina Santamaría Graff, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education, Urban Teacher Education at IUPUI. She has expertise in bilingual/multicultural special education and applies her skills in working with Latina/o/x immigrant families of children with dis/abilities in family-centered projects. Her scholarship focuses on ways community engaged partnerships with families and other stakeholders can transform inequitable practices impacting youth with dis/abilities at the intersections of race, class, and other identity markers of difference. Cristina is one of the Editors for the special education journal Multiple Voices: Disability, Race, and Language Intersections in Special Education. She is also a recipient of several awards focused on community engagement including the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) Exemplary Contributions to Practice-Engaged Research and The Ernest A. Lynton Award for Scholarship of Engagement presented by Campus Compact in affiliation with Brown University’s The Swearer Center.
Follow Dr. Graff on:
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (Revised 30th Anniversary Edition). Continuum. (Original work published 1970).
Koster, R., Baccar, K., & Lemelin, R. H. (2012). Moving from research ON, to research WITH and FOR indigenous communities: A critical reflection on community-based participatory action research. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien, 56(2), 195 – 210.
Mitchell, T. D. (2014). How service-learning enacts social justice sensemaking. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 2(2), 73 – 95. https://doi.org/10.31274/jctp-180810-22
Mitchell, T. D. (2013). Critical service-learning as a philosophy for deepening community engagement. In A. Hoy & M. Johnson (Eds.)., Deepening Community Engagement in Higher Education: Forging New Pathways (263 – 269). Palgrave Macmillan.
Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2), 50 – 65.
Santamaría Graff, C., & Boehner, J. (2019). Forming a mutually respectful university/parent-to-parent organization community partnership through a “Family as Faculty” project. Engage!: Urban University Community Journal, 1(1), 46 – 63. DOI: 10.18060/22816