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Social Justice in Education

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As more open and frank conversations about institutional racism and sexism continue, it is apparent that the work is far from done. Past social justice revolutions called for ‘equality’ — as in being equal to those in privileged positions. However, activism conversations today call for ‘equity’ which is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “justice according to natural law or right; specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.”

This concept is particularly poignant in educational environments, as we acknowledge that treating all students as “equals” may not be the goal. Instead, we should strive to recognize everyone’s differences, strengths and struggles and guide students to become the best possible version of themselves. In addition, school leaders must inform themselves about issues concerning race, gender identity, social class, disabilities and dismantling one’s personal biases.

It’s not enough, however, to engage with these topics passively. For example, Brenda Álvarez from the National Education Association (NEA) News said, “Social justice is about distributing resources fairly and treating all students equitably so that they feel safe and secure — physically and psychologically.” To go a step further, education leaders and administrators need to consider applying social justice concepts to their everyday lives, even when there is a risk of backlash.

At Southern Oregon University (SOU), the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion seeks to “ensure equitable access to opportunities, benefits, and resources for all faculty, administrators, students, and community members.” SOU’s curricula reflect this mission, as well, with the School of Education offering a master’s program focused on adult education (ESL).

Here are some ways that education leaders can help foster diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environments:

  1. Support Student Activism

A significant way teachers and administrators can join the social justice fight is by actively supporting student unions, organizations and clubs that call for change. As voices of authority, education leaders can show support by encouraging students to create their own activism. Support will also help students feel seen and heard.
Under Southern Oregon University’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiative, the SOU community can get involved through identity-based clubs as well as offices and programs focused on EDI.

  1. Offer Opportunities Outside of Class Time

Spanish teacher Elizabeth Villanueva from Sacramento encourages education professionals to engage students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. Villanueva created a class for her Latino students to prevent gang affiliation.

“By the time the second cohort had enrolled, the group changed its name to New Age Latinas — NAL, for short — and focused on leadership skills, college readiness, community service, personal growth, and networking with other Latina college students and professionals,” she said.

  1. Broaden the Concept of Learning

Achievement tests may be the traditional way to assess a student’s learning outcomes, but they also traditionally neglect to evaluate other essential practical and soft skills. According to Ashley Jochim from The 74, “Low-income students and students of color are more likely to attend schools defined as low-performing under conventional achievement tests.” With that in mind, assessing students through means other than testing can be a first step toward equity in the classroom.

  1. Representation Matters

This popular slogan rings true for a reason: When students see celebrities, athletes, role models, teachers and leaders who come from a similar background as theirs, they gain confidence in themselves and what they can achieve. Therefore, hiring diverse personnel and staff is vital to break the cycle of institutional bias.

  1. Continue the Conversation

There is always room for improvement within structural systems. Teacher Angie Powers said on NEA News, “Education and equity are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other. When inequity plagues the educational system, [the system] fails to serve the needs of each child. It is our most important work to battle inequity in each classroom across the nation, [and within] our educational institutions as a whole. Our children are worth this fight.”

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Adult Education, ESL online program.

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