Pursuing social justice in an institutional context

- Kayla Pepper

Drawing inspiration from graffiti to strategic plans, from unions to the occupy movement, panellists probed what it takes to pursue social justice in an institutional context Jan. 24 as part of the Provost’s Diversity Research Forum, Critical Conversations: Living Social Justice.

Facilitated by Dr. Bill Carroll (sociology and social justice studies), the panel included Human Rights Education Advisor Moussa Magassa; Mela Brown, who is completing her thesis in Studies in Policy and Practice; Anushka Nagji, a law student, activist and organizer of the People’s Assembly of Victoria; and Dr. Jo-Anne Lee (women’s studies).

Magassa outlined UVic’s polices, plans and initiatives to combat discrimination and pointed out that two objectives included in the university’s strategic plan include creating a diverse, welcoming community and recruiting and retaining students from diverse regions.

“I look at social justice through a human rights lens,” said Magassa. Policy is in place, he explained, “to prevent discrimination and harassment from taking place first, and to take action with complaints promptly, judiciously, fairly and with due regard for confidentiality for all parties concerned.”

Mela Brown serves as a graduate assistant to the Social Justice Studies Program and was previously a UVic equity advisor. Her biggest challenge when incorporating social justice in institutions is, she says, “navigating tensions around identity.”

People are discriminated against, she said, because of entrenched practices including homophobia, racism and sexism. These practices spring from processes such as gendering and racialization that are further supported by “historically constituted structures of domination” such as colonization and patriarchy.

“The reason someone is bullied is because of structures and systems and processes that support individual and collective practices of hate, violence, homophobia and discrimination,” said Brown.

In her remarks, Brown drew upon intersectionality scholarship. Intersectionality de-emphasizes categorizing people by marginalized identities, emphasizes relationships between these categories and calls for alliances, foregrounds and surfaces systems of power, and states that systems of oppression are locked into institutional structures and hierarchies.

She recommended that the audience “get curious about the institutional use of identity categories” if they are interested in applying an intersectional lens.

Nagji shared the story of her involvement with the People’s Assembly of Victoria (PAOV). Last October she connected with other activists interested in starting Occupy Victoria.

From their first meetings, Nagji utilized her experience as a facilitator to co-ordinate how the occupation would manifest in Centennial Square. Her role was challenging because the general assembly meetings, based on the Occupy Wall Street model, relied on consensus decisionmaking.
She encountered resistance from municipal authorities in the time between the first march on October 15 and the eviction order in mid-November. However, she emphasized that even today the movement is far from over and the PAOV continues to meet and organize.

One of the mandates of the PAOV is to challenge institutions that disempower individuals. They aim to build supportive networks and communities to combat social and technological isolation. The objectives of the group are determined collectively and shift to respond to current events and injustices.

“We’re not teaching anything, we’re not preaching anything,” she said. “We all know how messed up things are.”

Lee’s presentation outlined some of her work to engage students in participatory action research. In particular, she showcased her students’ films and findings addressing racist, sexist, homophobic and hateful graffiti carved or written on campus surfaces.

Incorporating participatory action research in the classroom poses challenges because the course content and outcome objectives are collaboratively determined by the class and because “Students today have never seen themselves as part of a community,” said Lee.

Lee has shifted from being a teacher who lectures “bite-size digestible pieces” of knowledge to one who is a “co-learner.” The graffiti case forced Lee to find new conceptual tools to enable her students to make sense of what they were finding.

She then talked about the theory of ambient violence and how it helped the class reflect on the type of discrimination occurring at UVic. “Fear and violence are not something irrational which comes from the individual, it is institutionalized,” said Lee, referring to subtle hateful language that had been normalized in and around campus. The work of her students disrupts that normalization.

“Critical participatory action research allowed us to link theory, action, reflection and strategy,” she said.

For more information on Provost’s Diversity Research Forum 2012 visit www.uvic.ca/diversity/forum2012/and to read more about Lee’s project and watch the video visit http://ring.uvic.ca/08apr03/ambient-violence.html.

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Keywords: Provost’s Diversity Research Forum, human rights

People: Bill Carroll, Moussa Magassa, Mela Brown, Anushka Nagji, Jo-Anne Lee

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