Choosing to Work Toward Justice

Last year, I had what I can only describe as a crisis of faith (for this nonpracticing Jew-nitarian American history nerd), believing that the majority of Americans are either asleep or actively don’t care about democracy and that therefore the whole idea of America is doomed.  I wondered aloud — to anyone who would listen — whether any of this critical reflection and narrative theory makes any difference at all, whether putting on our power goggles actually works, whether, in short the Arc of the Moral Universe really does bend toward Justice.

My amazing Critical Theory students helped me remember that none of this is about me. They reminded me that whether or not we believe that the idea of America is salvageable — let alone whether it is worth salvaging — we choose to work toward Justice. We choose to work toward Justice because we – those of us who are writing this, reading this, speaking this, teaching this — believe that Justice is worth working toward.  We choose to live in furtherance of Justice because we believe it is the right way to live.  We choose to “live this way because it is the only way we know how to live” (with apologies and gratitude to Pablo Neruda).

Or, if you prefer magic to love poetry, we ask not to be placed in Slytherin.  In the first Harry Potter book, with the sorting hat on his head, Harry whispers “please not Slytherin,” and is placed in Gryffindor. Later in the series, it is revealed that the Sorting Hat placed Harry in Gryffindor precisely because of what he said. Although he did not know it at the time, in asking not to be placed in the house from which The Dark Lord had come, Harry chose to work toward Justice.

We have chosen — whether consciously or not — to work toward Justice.  I like how Bryan Stevenson guides us.

1. Be proximate to what you care about:  This to me begs the question: what do you care about? What is your great joy, your deep gladness?
2. Change narratives:  This requires first identifying and deconstructing the existing (dominant) narratives:  the characters, events, causal connections, master plots, attempts at normalization, closure. And then working to construct new ones, with our power goggles on, that support greater Justice.
3. Protect our hope:  This to me is about staying connected to your deep gladness: find, honor and protect your passion, what moves you.
4. Choose to do uncomfortable things: Not everything that brings you deep gladness meets the world’s great hunger; and we all need to cherish and celebrate those many moments when you are not uncomfortable (that is part of #3).  But in order to meet the world’s great hunger, you must step into it.  Being uncomfortable lets you know that you are there. (

My work on this blog, and in my law school seminar and academic community, has been all about changing the narrative and protecting our hope.  Not surprisingly, those are the places I am most comfortable:  in my office, or the classroom, or — most likely — my sunny den, I work hard to deconstruct and question narratives about injustice and hierarchy; and to share what I learn with others.

What about the other two aspects of working toward Justice though? Am I as Proximate to injustice as I could be — even in my limited role as introvert law professor in the Twin Cities? And do I Choose to do uncomfortable things — again, even in my role as introvert law professor in the Twin Cities?  

With no judgment or shame, I say no. For me, continuing to work toward Justice means being more proximate and more uncomfortable; even as I continue to work to change narratives and protect hope.

My own journey into discomfort, it turns out, starts with showing up more authentically and honestly in my very own law school community, as we commit as an institution to work toward greater Justice. As we collectively push the edges of our comfort zones, I will continue to push my own edges; working to change narratives and protect hope, yes, but also to stay proximate and be uncomfortable.

That’s the plan for this semester’s blog.  I hope you’ll stay along for the ride.