You likely hear the term ‘social justice’ everywhere you turn these days.
It’s not surprising, given recent news headlines. The Black Lives Matter movement. The global climate crisis. The challenges facing Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The impact of COVID-19 on families already in desperate need.
Social justice is critical to all these issues – and countless others. But, what’s the connection? What does social justice even mean? And why should you get involved?
Because your voice is needed. As history has shown us, joining the social justice conversation can do more than change our societies. It can transform our world.
This guide will explain the ins and outs of social justice. You’ll learn what it means, why it’s so important, and how we all suffer without it. You’ll discover ways to get involved.
1. What is social justice?
- What is social justice?
- What is the opposite of social justice?
- How to tell if you care about social justice
- Why call it social justice?
- How long has the idea of social justice been around?
- How did 2020 stand out as a year for social justice movements?
- What does social justice look like nowadays?
- What social justice issues need my attention right now?
- How soon can I expect to see change in society?
Social justice is simple. It’s about fairness in societies. It’s grounded in the idea that every human being deserves the full spectrum of political, economic and social rights, and opportunities.
To withhold this access is the opposite of social justice: it’s discrimination. According to social justice principles, society should never withhold rights and opportunities because of a person’s:
- sexual orientation
- sexual identity
- ability or disability
- level of education
- economic situation
- geographic location, or anything else that’s beyond their control
2. What is the opposite of social justice?
“The opposite of social justice is ignorance and inaction.”
– Azeeza Kagzi, Canadian university student
Social injustice happens when our society treats people unfairly. We create a kind of hierarchy, then place certain people ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than others. As individuals, we often don’t realize how we’re reinforcing that subtle hierarchy. It’s known as unconscious bias.
The passionate movement against institutionalized racialism in 2020 has prompted many North Americans to consider the many faces of social injustice. Photo: Ames Eades on Unsplash
The reality is that we all have biases. And most people in North America enjoy privileges of some kind. The social justice journey begins when we show willingness to examine those privileges. Until we do, we won’t realize how many challenges we never have to face in our daily lives.
How many of the painful realities below don’t apply to you?
- Women are less likely to earn equal pay, especially during COVID-19
- Black people are more likely to be presumed untrustworthy or guilty
- Children in developing countries often have to quit school to work
In Afghanistan, immense poverty means many children must resort to dirty, dangerous and degrading work, instead of attending school. Photo: Mohammad Elias Hatimi
- Most people on the planet don’t have quality healthcare
- People with disabilities can’t enter all the buildings they want to
- Indigenous people in many communities lack clean, running water
- Girls in the world’s toughest places are sometimes forced into marriage
- Members of the LGBTQ community are often ridiculed, ostracized or threatened
3. How to tell if you care about social justice
“I think I was just brought up to want a world that is a bit kinder than it was the day before.”
– Wren Walker, Canadian student
As a young person, did you ever speak up when someone was bullied or brutalized at school? Perhaps the child was a refugee. Or had a speech impediment. Or had just confided to his untrustworthy friends, “I think I might be gay.”
It might have happened years ago. But willingness to speak out indicated that you weren’t okay with what was happening. It bothered you that someone was being belittled or physically hurt.
Perhaps you feel the same now when you learn of people enduring discrimination, ignorance and suffering. It’s a sign that fairness, kindness and human dignity are important to you. Your voice will be important in the social justice conversation.
4. Why call it social justice?
There’s a difference between legal justice and social justice. There is some connection nowadays, which is great. Enough social pressure can eventually lead to the writing of more fair, careful, inclusive policies and laws. But generally:
Legal justice tends to focus on justice for individuals wronged. That means the person does something, it’s against the law and justice is served. Say someone commits a murder or robbery, for instance. That action will be dealt with in civil or criminal court. The facts are discussed, arguments offered, decision rendered, and punishment served.
Social justice, on the other hand, tends to focus more on relations between people and groups within societies. It operates on the understanding that all people should have access to wealth, health, well-being, justice, privileges and opportunity. And that this should be true, regardless of people’s:
- skin colour
- racial or religious background
- status as a displaced person or refugee
- sexual orientation
- ability or disability
- socio-economic status, just to name a few.
5. How long has the idea of social justice been around?
You’ll see examples of social justice values and heroism throughout history, from as far back as the Old Testament of the Bible. People were urged to act justly, caring for widows and orphans, for instance, instead of casting them out. Later, Christians like British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, born in the late 18th century, worked to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.
The expansion of social justice ideals continued in early 19th century Britain, during the Industrial Revolution. The wave continued throughout Europe and into the United States, as people fought against the exploitation of human labour. Early social justice focused mainly on capital, property and the distribution of wealth.
For 41 days in 1919, workers in Winnipeg stayed off the job, calling for the right to collective bargaining and fair wages. Photo: Public Domain
Social justice meaning expands
Throughout the 20th century, social justice movements began including race, gender, the environment and other forms of inequality.
In Canada, women including well-known Manitoban writer and suffragist Nellie McClung, campaigned for the right of women to vote. In January 1916, a new law was passed in Manitoba. It gave women the right to vote – and to put themselves forward as candidates – in provincial elections. It took until 1918 for a similar federal law to be passed in Canada.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1955. Her quiet but firm statement had incalculable value as part of the Civil Rights Movement for social justice for Black people. Photo: Public Domain
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States took place in the 1950s and `60s. Rosa Parks has become an iconic figure in the movement, for her simple gesture of resistance in 1955. She quietly but firmly refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
This led to the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized by a young Baptist minister: Martin Luther King Jr. King would go on to be one the most influential civil rights leaders the world has known. It was the beginning of the end of racial segregation laws in the U.S.
Events like these helped mobilize Black Americans – and many white Americans – to begin an unprecedented fight for racial justice that spanned two decades.
Social justice becomes universal
At this time, too, the measure of social justice expanded to include a universal human dimension – factoring in not just our fellow citizens, but humanity as a whole. People began asking questions like these:
- How is it fair that we spend so much on Christmas gifts while millions go without?
- How is it fair that children in Bangladesh are paid a few cents an hour to make my clothes, while I make $50,000 a year for a much easier job?
- How is it fair that climate change is causing drought and hunger for people who’ve done nothing to contribute to the problem?
In Kenya, thousands of families have lost the livestock they rely on for nutrition, income and security to the ravages of climate change. Photo: Jon Warren
6. How did 2020 stand out as a year for social justice movements?
“The murder of several Black North Americans caused people to start reflecting, not just on institutionalized racism, but on how disadvantaged peoples within our society are treated.”
–Rabia Tahir, Canadian student
Many people have noted that the movement to overthrow racial injustice took on a new momentum in 2020. While some see Black Lives Matter as a continuation of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, others call today’s chapter “a new iteration.”
“There’s no one or two true leaders of the movement, they are less willing to work within the system, they are looking at more than just policy change and they are looking past politicians as they push for change,” notes Eugene Daniels, in Politico magazine.
Social justice through social media
Many Canadians joined social justice movements in 2020 through social media. After the killing of Black American George Floyd, millions of people expressed their outrage and empathy, shared their personal stories, and expressed their deep desire for change.
Social media was critical in the organizing of hundreds, if not thousands, of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests cross the world. Here in Canada, people who had never attended an in-person rally for social justice turned out to BLM events.
COVID-10 worsens social injustice
In countries around the world, the question of how a global pandemic highlights and worsens social injustice was dissected online. On social media, people are noting that economic inequality goes hand-in-hand with racial inequality and gender inequality.
In developing countries like Venezuela, women and children are often vulnerable to numerous forms of social injustice at once. The same is true for many people in Canada. Photo: Alberto Gulin
“As the current situation evolves, the number of people put in vulnerable circumstances will grow,” noted the Canadian Human Rights Commission. “The rights and needs of these people cannot be forgotten or ignored.”
A study published by Toronto Public Health noted that both racialized and low-income groups have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the city. The study noted that 83 per cent of cases involve members of a racialized community.
Women have been affected, too, by the global pandemic, even in privileged countries like Canada. The Charity Village website notes that twice as many women lost their jobs as men in 2020.
7. What does it mean to advocate for social justice?
It doesn’t have to involve attending a dozen rallies a year – though that never hurts! Here are some tips from social justice advocates who volunteer with World Vision Canada:
- It’s your responsibility to get involved. Standing by while someone gets bullied is just wrong. Take the initiative to get involved with your community, whether local, national or global. Read your local newspaper, for instance. Learn about the issues people face. To do this is the responsibility of every citizen.
- Recognize your privileges – and your biases. Historically, being straight, finishing high school or living without a disability are just a few of the factors creating privilege for some. The flipside of this is social injustice for others – which you may unconsciously be reinforcing today. Are all your friends white or employees white, for instance? Do you make assumptions about people who are gay? Do you buy ‘fast fashion’ without thinking about the age, pay and working conditions of the people who made it?
In Bangladesh, Choity was 13 when she dropped out of school to work, earning about $10 a month. Much of the ‘fast fashion’ in Canadian stores is made by workers overseas who are underpaid and poorly treated. Photo: Laura Reinhardt
- Try not to be defensive. If you find yourself in a position of ‘privilege’, no one is blaming you or asking you to feel guilty. But supporting social justice does mean considering what to do next. How can we work together to build bridges and improve all lives in the here and now?
- Listen to the stories of others – in all their complexity. Look beyond the social injustices you have personally experienced and ask others about their journeys. Be a good listener and learn from what they share. Your white, male, university-educated friend may have been fired from jobs because of a mental illness you didn’t know about. Social injustice presents in people’s lives in ways many of us never considered.
- Self-interest and insecurity can get in the way. If factors like your gender, age, race or sexual orientation grant you power in society, the temptation can be to go with that. But if we only ‘work those advantages’ without advocating for people who don’t share them, social injustice can and will persist.
- Learn from people with a variety of different life experiences. You likely know people with different racial or cultural backgrounds than you. Perhaps you have a colleague with a disability or know someone who is transgender. It’s not up to them to ‘educate you’ – but as friends, you will naturally come to share life experiences. What do they follow in the news or post on social media? What organizations can they recommend to support?
- Get involved with an organization you truly believe in. Then sign up as a volunteer. Perhaps you can’t physically get out during COVID-19. But you can educate yourself about the group’s work, learn about the injustices they work to overcome, sign petitions and tell others!
8. What social justice causes need my attention right now?
“It’s simply about being involved in issues that one cares about. Everyone has the capacity to do that.” – Azeeza Kagzi, Canadian student
There are countless social justice issues needing attention right now. The global COVID-19 pandemic has triggered economic downtowns in our communities, in Canada and in countries around the world. People who were already disadvantaged are often the ones who suffer most.
Here are a few examples of social justice in the news recently:
Anti-Black discrimination – This critical issue has made headline news in Canada over the past year. Some Canadians tend to see our country as one which models inclusion. Yet many critics say we have a long way to go toward achieving equity for Black people in Canada. This past summer, many Canadians attended Black Lives Matter events for the first time.
Canada’s Indigenous peoples – Social justice is about having the same political, social and economic rights and opportunities. This hasn’t been so here in Canada, for Indigenous peoples. Groups like Project of Heart call on all Canadians to get involved.
Shrinking ice caps and more severe weather makes accessing traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds more dangerous for Inuit families. Naval traffic is increasing in the North, worsening environmental challenges. Photo: Paul Carroll on Unsplash
Environmental issues – Fighting climate change isn’t just an environmental concern, it’s a social justice issue, too. Climate change is most likely to impact developing countries, according to the Government of Canada web site. And those countries are least able to afford its consequences. Within developed countries like Canada, Inuit families who rely on ice and the ocean to hunt, fish and trap are being drastically affected.
Global poverty and injustice – In a world of such plenty, the fact that anyone lives in poverty is socially unjust, in and of itself. But poverty also creates other forms of social injustice. And that will get worse, due to the impact of COVID-19. Here are two ways you can help through World Vision Canada:
In countries like Malawi, Canadians can purchase tools for children with disabilities, helping them attend school and join other activities. Photo: Limbikani Kamlongera
People with disabilities – Canadians with mental or physical disabilities have the right to live free from discrimination, enjoy the same quality of service, education, vocation, inclusion and life as anyone else in Canada. We have a long way to go on this front – especially as COVID-19 disables more people every month.
Women’s rights – True, women in Canada can vote, attend university, enter any profession and make decisions about marriage and children. But a report published in 2018 by the Canadian Women’s Foundation noted that women still face systemic inequality of many kinds. And as many groups point out, women are still exponentially more vulnerable to gender-based violence.
9. How soon can I expect to see change in society?
It starts the moment you learn something new about another person or yourself. It continues when you make changes in your life: checking your biases, rejecting privileges which hurt others and speaking out for causes you believe in.
Sometimes it feels like the world is on fire for social justice, like it’s done recently, with movements to overturn racial injustice. Other times, progress will seem to slow or even grind to a halt temporarily.
But even if the social justice fervor quiets down for a bit, on social media or in the news, it doesn’t mean change isn’t happening. Be patient and persevere. Keep reading, keep learning, keep advocating. Keep faith that things will change. And most of all – get involved.
“Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
This article was written by Deborah Wolfe with Azeeza Kagzi, Rabia Tahir and Wren Walker contributing.