Bridging domestic action and global impactPublished: February 10, 2012
The first ’Deis Impact highlighted the university’s social justice mission statement this week, with speaker events, question-and-answer panels and workshops. Faculty and students joined forces in discussions to address social justice in the Brandeis curriculum across departmental lines.
“Social Justice” is a popular cause at Brandeis, though its definition is often ambiguous. In a round-table discussion with students, Professor Timothy Hickey (COMP) defined the term as “the process of seeking out unfairness and injustice and looking toward the creation or evolution of a more fair society.” Professor Alyssa Stimmel (LGLS) defined it as, “listening and empathizing with those who don’t have a voice in our institutions and helping them find a voice.”
Individual efforts, participants agreed, were necessary to the pursuit of justice. Students took their own stands and donated money to low-income families in a “Giving Tree” exercise, in which the donors painted their own leaf on the glass of the Atrium.
Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), addressed Brandeis as ’Deis Impact’s keynote speaker with a message of individual activism having the potential to profoundly improve the world. She discussed the intricate connection between local and global social justice efforts.
Messinger urged Brandeis students to follow their passions and pursue social justice. “If you don’t work in an area of your passion,” said Messinger, “you will burn out much too soon.” Brandeis’ social justice initiatives make the university a valuable resource to institutions like the American Jewish World Service.
Messinger described the AJWS’s goal as supporting every individual who believes things can be better. It works together with grassroots NGOs to improve various aspects of life in developing countries. AJWS leads several programs across the globe where volunteers can have first-hand experience improving the lives of others.
Student Union President Herbie Rosen ’12 and Marci McPhee of the International Center of Ethics, Justice and Public Life, alluded to the power of the individual. Working through local organizations, says Messinger, allows a single person to make a positive impact in developing countries where issues such as hunger, poverty and gender-based violence are prominent. Often when discussing social justice, people underestimate the power of the individual. The world’s greatest leaders and social justice activists, however, are all individuals who act on their desire to make an impact.
Tempering idealism, one workshop taught, was necessary to successful progress. AJWS is regularly able to make profound impact on these societies by paying close attention to the actual needs of the community. “Westerners do not have all the answers,” Messinger warned. Traveling to an impoverished African country and building a school may sound noble; however, it is not an effective effort if that school was not what the community truly needed at the time.
Messinger also made the point that it is possible to take small steps toward social justice on a daily basis right at home. The interconnectedness of our world makes it important for us to pay close attention to our resources: from where our food comes, where our clothing is made, etc.
As consumers, she says we are not always as ethical as we would like to think. As Messinger said, “government policies can make it difficult to be ethical.” Being conscientious of from where the products and services we use come can help us come closer to achieving social justice at small yet progressive steps, she said.