Social Justice Coalition kicks off speaker series with David Stovall

Stovall, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor, visits Erikson to discuss the nature of social justice-centered work.

Addressing a packed room at Erikson Institute, guest speaker David Stovall, Ph.D., challenged faculty, staff, and students to think about what they mean when talking about social justice-centered work and what goals they are seeking to accomplish when doing it, particularly as it relates to education and work with young children.

David Stovall speaks at Erikson Institute.

“Any time you hear someone say ‘social justice,’ you have to ask: ‘What do you mean by that? Who is deserving of justice? What does it mean for them to have justice? What are you willing to do to help them have justice?’” said Stovall, professor of African American studies and educational policy studies at University of Illinois at Chicago.

His talk was the first in a planned speaker series organized by Erikson’s Social Justice Coalition, a group of Erikson community members working to create a space in which faculty, staff, students, and alumni can establish a dialogue about social justice issues and find opportunities for action and influence.

“As a group, we might not always agree on the issues or the solutions to solving complex social problems, but we believe it is important to create a space to have these conversations,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, director of policy at Erikson.

Stovall discussed social justice issues as the result of a tension between a power structure that is built on an “ideology of white supremacy,” in that those who hold influence are predominantly white, male, Western, Christian, heterosexual, and able-bodied. As a result of this structure, marginalized populations, which include many children and families, are negatively impacted by rules, policies, and other decisions that are imposed on them.

This structure has an adverse effect on people as policies begin impacting children at birth and continue through school and adulthood. Children become “criminalized” at a young age by those who establish rules and compliance for school behavior, Stovall said.

Often these rules are implemented as a way to establish a baseline for “normal” behavior but end up making children feel oppressed, he continued. He described schools in Chicago and other cities where children are escorted to the bathroom and frisked when they seem suspicious, drawing a connection to the level of control exerted in prisons.

Fighting for social justice, he said, is a matter of working to change a system in which these activities take place. However, doing so can be a challenge. As an example, he cited a recent proposal to merge two public schools in close proximity to each other near downtown Chicago. One school has a predominantly affluent, white student population and is overcrowded, while the other has a predominantly black student population and is under-enrolled. Parents of children at the overcrowded school fought the merger, and as a result, their school is receiving a multi-million-dollar addition. An opportunity to ease segregation in a highly segregated school system was lost.

“The proximity to black bodies is equated with a preceived proximity to failure,” Stovall said.

He urged the audience not to be satisfied with quick-fixes and one-time shows of solidarity around social justice issues. Lasting change, he said, will only come about through sustained, organized efforts and ongoing dialogue. When all parties are engaged in discussion, they can better understand the problems they face and find solutions.

“We can’t think of this work as conversion work – you’re not proselytizing to people,” he said. “People can initially be on the fence about change. But when you act in ways that show you are committed to them, they start to ask questions and become engaged in the process. It’s really about a willingness to have that conversation. People’s first reaction is to wall up because they have a history of being exploited.”

Additional Social Justice Coalition events are planned at Erikson in coming months, including new guest speakers and a book club.