Creating social justice spaces in high schools


As a first year, I came into the University knowing I was passionate about social justice, but I did not necessarily have the vocabulary and resources to articulate my beliefs. I knew that there were practices in place that exploit marginalized people economically, but I did not know that the driving force behind this was called unregulated capitalism. I knew that there was a difference between the way half of my family lived versus the other half, but I did not know the driving force behind these differences was due to institutionalized racism. I knew that there were more than two genders, but I had never heard of the term gender binary until halfway through college. Being a very reflective student during college coupled with doing research on Tumblr, has helped me to learn, unlearn and relearn all things social justice. I feel confident in my ability to understand identities, power, privilege, space, race, oppression and how these concepts all relate to and complicate each other. I can have meaningful conversations about these issues with my friends, and we can bounce ideas back and forth over wine.

As a graduating senior, I feel as if I have turned into this little creature that passionately spits out academic terms in everyday language, sometimes without even realizing that younger people, people from back home or simply people who have not had access to the academic side of social justice, do not understand what I am saying. Somehow, social justice has turned into an elitist and inaccessible thing. Universities all over the country have de-colonial majors, safe spaces and cultural centers in order to challenge the white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal society we live in. All of these programs and centers came about in an effort to empower marginalized people but also to provide them with the spaces and resources that they may need to heal.

Despite this, these spaces are not readily available to the people who need them most, because they are typically underrepresented at universities. This is not even to mention the marginalized people who have the opportunity to go to college, but attend universities that do not have de-colonial resources. That does take away from the amazing things that these programs and centers do for the people who have access to them, but it proves these resources are not accessible. In order to have access to these de-colonial spaces, one must have some sort of privilege to get them into these spaces in the first place. This is directly upholding the hierarchies that have already been put into place by the white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal system that we are trying to deconstruct and transcend. We cannot fight to overcome these systems while simultaneously perpetuating oppression in the form of maintaining systems that remain inaccessible to the majority of marginalized people. In short, inaccessible social justice is a contradiction that we need to be highly critical of and avoid at all costs.

I've spent my whole life wondering what I wanted to do as a career. I knew that I wanted to work in a field related to social justice, but I did not know which avenue to take. In the past few months, I have felt an overwhelming need to make what I have learned here at the University more accessible to the communities who would benefit from it the most. There is no reason for racially marginalized groups to face microaggressions on a daily basis from their “friends,” or for trans folk to receive visibility but not support or the countless other ways in which marginalized people need to navigate their identities, at a young age with no guidance, in a society not meant for them.

Too many times, high schools do not have the resources available for their marginalized students to learn about themselves and their environment. There is a strong need for social justice spaces in high schools as these spaces play a major role in the formation of students. Bringing a social justice center to a high school would allow students to learn, unlearn and relearn at a much younger age. Furthermore, this would have the potential to reach a much larger population, many of whom may not make it to college to be able to receive these same services. This could aid in a decrease in suicides in marginalized communities, as well as an increase in confidence and understanding. Accessible social justice would be revolutionary because it would work to deconstruct established hierarchies by reaching the students who would normally fall through the cracks.

Kenya O’Neill is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in planning and public policy and Latin and Hispanic Caribbean studies with a minor in Spanish. Her column “Cloudy with a Chance of Controversy,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Kenya O'Neill

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