Countering Resistance Fatigue with a Both/And Approach

In the past few days, I’ve seen countless posts detailing “the horrors of this administration,” the latest of which include separating families and imprisoning immigrants. I’ve seen friends describing their embodied physical and emotional pain, including pain from complicity and always too-small actions. I’ve seen friends accounting their own family stories of separation, as the history of state-sponsored violence against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is long and unrelenting. I’ve seen trauma and responses via trauma-informed care. I’ve also seen requests for folks to share how they’re showing up, standing TALL, and caring for themselves and their communities at this time.

As I engage in interactions around these posts and similarly experience rage and heartache, I find grounding, inspiration, and re-orientation in what I’ve learned from feminists and womanists of color: that we need not only active resistance but also sustained investment in envisioning and building more just communities. We need both critique against injustice and critique for justice. We need a both/and approach to thinking, organizing, and relating with each other.

At this time, I feel it’s important to emphasize that both/and matters because it’s too easy to fall into the trap of either/or. It’s too easy to focus on a single action or single problem and let it consume all of our energy. It’s too easy to prioritize self-care over other responsibilities or, alternatively, to prioritize others at one’s own expense.

Photo from a crowded protest with a poster in the center reading: "Human Rights are Women's Rights are LGBTQ+ Rights are Native Rights are Black Rights are Latinx Rights are Immigrant Rights are Refugee Rights are Muslim Rights are All Religion Rights are Homeless Rights are Disability Rights are Survivor Rights are Veteran Rights are Elder Rights are Child Rights are Student Rights are American Rights." The poster includes blue and red letters against a white background. Photo credit to Lauren Fitzgerald.
Photo credit and thanks to Lauren Fitzgerald.

Let me explain further through two examples.

Example #1: Toward Dismantling Dehumanizing Systems

Yes, it’s important to make donations and call representatives and learn more and post/tweet/share widely. And it’s not enough to stop there.

The problems are much, much bigger than this moment, than this instantiation of violence.

What more can each of us to do invest in emotional literacies, resilience, and long-term staying power? What more do we each need to learn about transformative justice and alternative ways of organizing ourselves as people? What visioning can get us out of the ongoing violence associated with the nation-state? How we can learn “to survive the apocalypse with grace, rigor, and curiosity” (in the words of Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown in their podcast How to Survive the End of the World)?

Questions such as these call our attention to the need for both small, immediate actions and large-scale, long-term change. We need both direct, imperfect response and expansive, imaginative visioning. Let us not settle for the first without commitment to the second. We must not ignore the immediate nor the long-term.

Example #2: Toward Recognizing Relational Responsibilities

Yes, it’s important to empathize with families torn apart by naming this wrong as wrong. And it’s not enough to see only the most explicit manifestations of violence. 

One of the many lies of living in oppression (white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism) is that our imagined families include only those who share blood or those within close physical proximity. This lie allows for separation and division of people. It plays into scarcity logic, which goes like this: there are a limited number of resources, so I better get mine and make sure my people have all they need. So long as my people are protected and provided for, I am safe and good.

This lie undercuts our humanity, and it also mobilizes the conditions that allow for people to be separated and imprisoned.

To repair the larger damage of separation (related to individualism and social stratification), we need to learn again from feminists and womanists of color who study, name, and teach relational literacies. To see ourselves as truly in relation with—as family to all humans—we need to expand our circle of relations. Such work can begin by studying “abuelit@ wisdoms” (Licona and Chávez), “kinship” (e.g., Collins; Richardson), and the Indigenous values of relationality and “all my relations” (e.g., Powell; Riley-Mukavetz). Such work involves seeing one’s “family” (or familial circles) as expanding outward to include more and more relatives.

What work is needed to shift worldviews toward communal kinship and relational responsibilities? What needs to change in order to see ourselves as responsible not just to immediate family groups but to all humans and beings? Are we ready to let go of national and other dividing lines?

Again, these questions call our attention to the both/and. We need both inward-oriented healing and outward-oriented building. We need both self-care and community care. We need to engage in the work of looking both backward (reckoning with the colonial past and present) and forward (imaginatively creating a relational future).

My hope in sharing these examples is that we might use this moment of mobilized political engagement to engage in bigger dreaming and scheming. To move beyond resistance fatigue, we’ll need to leverage both this moment and all the moments to come.

Recently, I shared with my Reiki teacher that I’ve been “burning up” with anger, and we reflected on the contrast of fire as warming versus fire as all-consuming. Instead of allowing the fire to rage out of control (and to burn down the house), how could I tend to my anger (my fire) as I would tend to a fireplace that provides light and warmth?

At least in part, the answer involves ongoing attention. Whereas an either/or approach alternates between a raging fire and burned-out embers, a both/and approach invites continued maintenance and planning: from preparing materials and adding wood to fanning the flame and keeping it alight. May we embrace the both/and approach and keep the fire burning—to brighten our path into the darkness that surrounds us and is still to come.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice,” “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Turning 39 and Thinking about Age(ism)

A few weeks ago, I turned 39.

The number 39 printed in blue within an orange circle against a gray background.

I get excited about birthdays, believing that age is cumulative, as “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” I think of new ages as adding experiences and insights while keeping all the previous ones: I’m still my toddler and teenage selves, and now I’m adding multiple adult selves into the mix. I joke that “I’m greedy and want all the ages” as a way to affirm and reclaim the joy of aging.

And I do see joy in aging—in experiencing more of life, in growing into different embodied identities—despite the prevailing cultural messages that denigrate the very young and old alike. With awareness of how ageism constructs and constrains ideas about aging, this year’s birthday felt significant for at least three reasons:

First, I’m not freezing myself at 39.

I remember being conditioned in childhood to see 39 as a benchmark, as the age when adult women “freeze” themselves in place. When asked their age, older women would respond, “39, of course!” Laughter and cautious reminders would ensue: “You know better than to ask a lady her age.”

Witnessing these interactions taught me a lot about the intersection of ageism and other -isms: women, particularly able-bodied, cisgender white women seeking class standing in the United States, didn’t want to be associated with older age. Thirty-nine (and later I’d hear 29) was the last desirable age.

As a young girl who already understood how adultism made me seen as less-than, I took note of this form of gendered ageism. Before I had the language to describe myself as a feminist or to play the rebel, I’d made a promise not to freeze myself at any age. I looked forward to reaching 39 and all the ages to come.

Second, I’m reclaiming feminine strength expressed in 39 (a multiple of 13).

I grew up seeing the number 13 as unlucky until learning a few years ago that 13 has a long history of being associated with goddesses and the divine feminine. It’s not just that aging (moving through cyclical stages of maiden, mother, mage, and crone) has been interrupted and interpreted negatively (hence, women being frozen at 39). It’s also that whatever is considered “feminine” (from intuition to caretaking) takes on negative associations: in this case, 13 has literally become the basis of many superstitions and prophesies of bad luck.

What if 13 conveys good luck instead?

Luckily, 39 is a multiple of the number 13. As I count up by 13s (13, 26, 39), I recognize ages that have signaled important turning points for me and ages that feel powerful for reclaiming and integrating characteristics considered “feminine.” I’m particularly excited about 39 being a time to become more fully humannot limited by gendered expressions but able to reclaim what’s been cast off and to heal what’s been broken.

Third, I’m making choices that break from what’s “age appropriate.”

Throughout childhood, I also learned cultural scripts about what’s expected at what age. I questioned these scripts, especially when I realized as a pre-teen (around ages 11-12) that I didn’t want to have children. I had so few models for women pursuing lives of learning and activism that I looked to the few I saw on TV and thought briefly about becoming a nun.

Despite my recognition that normative age expectations do harm by reinforcing whiteness, heteronormativity, and other parts of “the mythical norm” (and thanks again to Audre Lorde for this language), I’ve still found myself internalizing scripts about what’s possible at particular ages. Like internalized sexism and white superiority, these scripts involve internalizing class superiority and then denying the privilege and power it carries. What if instead of denying my class privilege and the choices it allows (choices to follow or to break from what’s considered “age appropriate”), I locate my choices within the finding that “white families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families”? What if I recognize privilege as possibility and, moreover, responsibility? What is I see power as not to be hoarded but to be yielded, wielded, spent, and transformed?

The more I work on releasing myself from age expectations (and expected timelines), the more I am called into action. Currently, as I enter 39, I’m making major career changes and a cross-country move, which involves downsizing to roughly the amount of “stuff” I had when entering college at age 18. It’s seemingly a move backward to move forward. A move that involves giving myself permission to “retire” from a career in academia. A move to pursue commitment-driven “passion projects” that I’ve been allowing to backslide for too long.

Realizing that I’ve been holding off on passion, I’m hoping to course correct mid-stream. I’m hoping that “retirement” at age 39 allows me to act on the enormous privilege to pursue my heart’s desires. It might not be age appropriate, but it sure feels age-igniting, inviting, and inspiring …

This year’s birthday (my 39th) has me asking a range of questions, which I hope might to speak to others whenever you’re experiencing age:

  • What if we think differently about age and aging?
  • How might we interrupt aging timelines and other age expectations?
  • How might better understandings of ageism mobilize understandings of other -isms (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, sizeism, nationalism, +++)?
  • What possibilities come with redefining ages and our associations with them?
  • How can we do more to interrupt ageism and its limitations on who we are allowed to be, what we are allowed to do, and how we are allowed to play?


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books,” “Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose,” “‘We’re All the Ages We’ve Ever Been.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Learning to Ask for What I Want

I’m learning to pay attention to small signs and recurring themes that show up in my life, and in the past week, I’ve seen time and again messages to ask for what I want. I’ve seen these messages through friends’ social media posts, through conversations with former students, and even through Chani Nicholas’s astrological reading:

Screenshot of Chani Nicholas’s Facebook post saying “Note to self: ask for what you want.”
With gratitude to Chani Nicholas for so often saying the thing I most need to hear: http://chaninicholas.com/ …

These messages are reminding me of how often I encourage other writers to do the big, bold move of submitting work before it feels ready. How often I encourage students to pursue their “strong yes,” even when it means taking risks and speaking, writing, or acting through fear. How often I repeat the line, “Go ahead and ask; let someone else tell you no”—believing that it’s important not to close the door before attempting to open it.

How well do I follow my own advice?

At times, fairly well. At other times, eugh … (I bury my head in my hands.)

I don’t doubt that I’m seeing these messages NOW because I need the reminders. I want to follow my own advice—readying myself for the possibility of rejection and asking for what I want anyway. I want to see the Universe as generous and to imagine the abundant possibilities that can come from asking. I also want to stitch myself into complexly woven relations in which I give and receive, ask and answer, share with others and value what others have to give.

To ask for what I want, I need to do some things that I’ve been shortchanging recently:

  1. Pay attention to my desires or what it is that I want.
  2. Counter internalized sexist dialogue that’s conditioned me as a white woman to see my wants as selfish (leading me to internalize judgment and resistance through over-indulgence in sugar and other forms of acting out, which can hurt others).
  3. See my wants as worthy—that is, value my dreams and desires and, therefore, myself—and not as more or less than anyone else but as fully human (neither dehumanized nor super-humanized).

Toward following this guidance, I’ll be practicing asking in the days, weeks, and months to come. I’m asking toward healing long-held messages that I should do everything on my own and suppress inner desires and prioritize work over play. I’m asking from a place of prioritizing right relations—understanding myself as a part of relational whole—with much to give, to receive, and to grow.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Everyday Divination,” “Expect Miracles,” and “Caterpillars and the Butterfly Effect: Noticing Small Signs and Taking Small Actions.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Crocheting Granny Squares, Connecting to Grandmothers, and Crafting a More Just Future

Recently, I felt inspired to pick up crocheting again, after many seasons without touching a needle, hook, or yarn. Feeling the call for creative self-care, I ordered vegan yarn in the colors of the 7 chakras and laid them out, planning a small afghan of granny squares.

Thread yarn onto hook. Chain five, and connect stitches, making a circle.

Days after purchasing the yarn and only a few stitches into my first granny square, my mom shared some news. Betty, the woman who’d taught me to crochet from the back of her bait and tackle shop in rural East Tennessee, had died of cancer. She’d died as I was casting yarn onto my hook, beginning this new project with red for the root chakra and grounding.

Red yarn cast onto crochet hook and chained into a circle.

Chain three (to count as one double-crochet, or dc), and then add two dc stitches.

The summer before fifth grade (at age 10), I learned to crochet in the bait shop with fish lures, rods, and night crawlers as backdrop. I spent Wednesday afternoons sitting at a counter with Betty—watching her create elaborate projects, as she taught me stitch after stitch. That summer I made several potholders for my mom, a football for my brother, and an afghan for my grandmother. All projects were gifts, just as Betty gifted the blankets she made.

Chain two, and then add another three dc into the circle’s center.

I’d become interested in crocheting after watching my great-grandmother. She crocheted until her 90s and made gifts that decorated the homes of family and friends, near and far. The trouble was we were never in each other’s company long enough for her to teach me, so my mom inquired at work and learned that Betty was willing to become my teacher.

Continue with the pattern: chain two, and add three dc. Chain two, and add three dc.

What followed were weekly tutorials in Betty’s shop, which involved my mom having to rearrange her schedule and transport me to and from daycare during her work day. I was aware of the sacrifice this involved: my mom working longer hours and paying Betty for the lessons. I was aware, too, of her love for me and desire not only to foster my interest in arts and crafts but also to free me from required afternoon naps at daycare, which I despised. To this day, my mom’s efforts feel important as symbolic and literal work to connect me with my great-grandmother and other women crafters in my family. My mom didn’t crochet, but she found a way for me to learn and to see myself as part of this lineage.

Red yarn crocheted into the center round for a granny square to emerge.

Chain two, and use a slip stitch into the top of the first chain of three to finish the round.

In the past few months, especially since spell-casting to heal my concussion, I’ve been thinking about ancestral healing: how to be connected to a lineage of white women, while working to heal the harms associated with white womanhood.

At the same time, I’ve been hearing others share stories and raise questions about ancestral healing—thanks especially to the How to Survive the End of the World and Healing Justice podcasts. And I’m re-reading essays by Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks (among other feminists and womanists of color), who carefully trace ancestry lines and speak of elders with truthful grit, gratitude, and generosity.

I find in these sources language that feels ground-shifting. I see myself recognizing lineage, while highlighting how whiteness has falsely constructed and eroded connections, including with the people who raised me, my mother, and my grandmother.

As I pull on ancestral threads, I’m considering when and how to call on grandmothers for support, while recognizing this lineage as both the perpetuation and denial of white supremacy. What are my responsibilities (response-abilities) as a white woman wanting to heal the harms of whiteness backward and forward in time?

Begin the next round by chaining three in the first “corner” of the granny square. Add two dc.

Through Reiki, I’ve learned to see myself as part of a lineage and to ask for assistance from ancestors and other spirit guides. When opening Reiki, I visualize my teaching lineage, naming teachers in order. I then ask for support in channeling energy, imagining especially two great-grandmothers: Daisy, who crocheted, and Selma, who prioritized daily contemplative practices.

I know too little about these great-grandmothers. What I know is that they both endured and got free from abusive, alcoholic marriages. I don’t doubt that they have their own #metoo stories and stories of enduring and surviving violence. I can see that internalized oppression (inferiority and superiority) were passed through them and the family, reinforcing sexist, racist, and other sorts of bullshit. So, through Reiki, I talk with these white women, women who made my birth possible, asking us to face collectively not only the hurts done to us but also the hurts done by us.

Single granny square with red center and orange outward layers (7 rows in total).

Continue the pattern, using dc and chains to construct granny squares.

Granny square. There—in the name of this craft pattern—is the connection to lineage: to grandmothers, those by blood and those by human kinship.

Betty, who taught me to crochet, became an elder (now ancestor) connecting me to granny squares and grandmothers. Her death from cancer occurred as I was reading Alice Walker’s “Longing to Die of Old Age”—making intimately real for me the connections among environmental destruction, detached food systems, and dehumanizing structures that Walker correlates historically with cancer becoming commonplace. I see before me lifespans limited by the loss of right relationship with the earth, each other, and ourselves. I grieve, and I pray, and I commit again to righting wrongs.

I’m understanding more and more that repairing relationships involves the both/and of looking backward (reckoning with the past) and looking forward (imaginatively creating the future). This both/and of repairing relationships involves honoring those who have taught and raised me and honoring a commitment to justice by naming, truth-telling, and healing wrongs associated with my upbringing and ancestral lineage.

Multiple stacked granny squares, balls of colorful yarn, and crocheting in process.

Repeat process to create multiple granny squares, sew in the loose ends, and then stitch-and-sew squares together to assemble an afghan.

Stitch by stitch, I talk with grandmothers through the movement of my hands, through embodied-soul-connection that speaks beyond words.

I’m far away from understanding ancestral healing, but I’m committed to healing with my whole body: heart, head, and hands. I’m hopeful that crocheting will allow me to keeping pulling on threads of the past (memories held in my body, if not yet in my head)—toward building, assembling, and crafting a more just present and future.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books” and “Revisiting Fear Through Walker’s Essay ‘Everything Is a Human Being.’Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Love Letter to Students Surviving Sexual Violence

As we near the end of spring semester, students in both my “Contemplative Writing” and “Writing for Social Justice” courses are pulling together projects to make interventions in some way. Several students are addressing rape culture, and one student is compiling a book of letters by and for survivors of sexual violence. She hopes that others at our university will read the letters, write additional ones, and add threaded response—facilitating healing through storytelling and solidarity-building.

I agreed to write a letter for her book, and I share that letter here with the hope that it speaks to others engaged with similar healing, storytelling, and solidarity-building work:

Dear Reader,

Every semester I’ve taught, students have shared with me stories of sexual violence and survival.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve experienced everyday enactments of rape culture.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve seen sexual violence create new wounds and rip open old ones.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve raged at limited and lacking response.

Every semester I’ve taught, I’ve been encouraged by incredible resilience and creative healing.

These words are too few and do too little, but with a commitment to justice, I say to readers and to your friends-colleagues-peers who have experienced sexual violence:

I hear you. I see you. I believe you.

I hurt with you. I learn alongside you. I speak and write UP for you. I advocate for change. I call violence violence. I build critical imagination to envision more equitable ways of being.

I write as a professor who carries with me story upon story of sexual violence that I’ve been called to witness. I carry my own #metoo stories alongside those of family, friends, colleagues, and students. I’m learning how to hold these stories as gifted memories rather than weight holding me down, and I’m learning to leverage these stories toward collective healing, truth-telling, reckoning, and liberation. These stories matter, and so do we.

With fierce love keeping hope alive,

A Feminist Educator

Blogging is often always a process of countering perfectionism and sharing words that feel not-ready, not-right, and not-refined. Writing this letter, however, twisted me in knots, as there are never ready, right, or refined words to speak into the violence I know many students are experiencing and even perpetuating.

So, I share this letter with Reiki, love, and mantras:

May these words do some good.
May what’s still unsaid be heard and healed.
May this offering reach those who desire/need it.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence,” “Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Revisiting Fear Through Walker’s Essay “Everything Is a Human Being”

Book cover for Alice Walker’s Living by the Word: Selected Essays 1973-1987.This spring I’m reading Alice Walker’s Living by the Word slowly, mindfully, as part of my “Contemplative Writing” course. I appreciate this book of essays for many reasons, including its title, which makes an argument that we live by the words we put into the world. As a writer committed to everyday living for justice, I am taken with this idea of “living by the word.”

I am taken, too, with Walker’s reflections on her many relations, including with her father and daughter, readers and publishers, ancestors and elders, horses and snakes. Across her essays, Walker shows the interconnectedness of all beings, tracing lineages of trauma and healing as well as fear and (in)justice.

Recently, the essay “Everything Is a Human Being” stood out to me. As a keynote address Walker gave at the University of California, Davis, in 1983 for MLK Day, this piece weaves together reflections on fear and humans’ destructive impact on the earth and each other. I found myself lingering over words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages …

In class, several students read aloud from the following passage, one I’d earmarked, as it spoke to my recent blog post on interrogating fear (fear of spiders and people alike).

Screenshot of blog post “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist”

Here’s a bit of Walker’s reflections on fear, which resulted in a neighbor killing a small garden snake:

“Everything I was taught about snakes—that they are dangerous, frightful, sinister—went into the murder of this snake person, who was only, after all, trying to remain in his or her home, perhaps the only home he or she had ever known. Even my ladylike ‘nervousness’ in its presence was learned behavior. I knew at once that killing the snake was not the first act that should have occurred in my new garden, and I grieved that I had apparently learned nothing, as a human being, since the days of Adam and Eve.

“Even on a practical level, killing this small, no doubt bewildered and disoriented creature made poor sense, because throughout the summer snakes just like it regularly visited the garden (and deer, by the way, ate all the tomatoes), so that it appeared to me that the little snake I killed was always with me. Occasionally a very large mama or papa snake wandered into the cabin yard, as if to let me know its child has been murdered, and it knew who was responsible for it.

“These garden snakes, said my neighbors, are harmless; they eat mice and other pests that invade the garden. In this respect, they are even helpful to humans. And yet, I am still afraid of them, because that is how I was taught to be. Deep in the psyche of most of us there is this fear—and long ago, I do not doubt, in the psyche of ancient peoples, there is a similar fear of trees. And of course a fear of other human beings, for that is where all fear of natural things leads us: to fear ourselves, fear of each other, and fear even of the spirit of the Universe, because out of fear we often greet its outrageousness with murder.” (Walker, Living by the Word, p. 143)

Walker’s words not only touch my heart but also remind me of the deep work I have to do with confronting, befriending, and watching for fear. I notice, for example, that fear of snakes is close-at-hand when hiking. I’m fascinated by and try to learn all I can about snakes, yet I still have much to do to quiet the learned/internalized fear that drives me to keep watch along trails.

Similarly, fear of myself and other humans is never far away. Such fear leads to literal and figurative murder—from police and state-sanctioned violence to dehumanization and discounting others. It erupts in microaggressions and denial of anger and grief. It leads to destruction of the earth, disproportionally impacting people of color. It’s also why we all (and white folks especially) need to strengthen emotional literacies for racial justice.

Fear blocks the ability to see beauty, the potential for human connection, and the work of striving for justice. Fear tears down instead of building up.

In Walker’s words: “[W]e should be allowed to destroy only what we ourselves can re-create. We cannot re-create this world. We cannot re-create ‘wilderness.’ We cannot even, truly, re-create ourselves. Only our behavior can we re-create, or create anew” (p. 151).

With humility, I commit again to revisiting destructive fear and re-creating behaviors aligned with justice. To do so, I see the value of “living by the word”: words of relationality, connectedness, and kinship. Kinship with spiders and humans, snakes and structural change. Kinship linking why I’m vegan with why I’m committed to social and racial justice. Kinship toward blocking destruction and creating anew.

View of the book’s inside binding coming loose and pages falling away.
Speaking of destruction and re-creation, here’s my well-loved book on its way to physical destruction, but ingested as nourishment and fuel for ongoing action.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For related posts, check out “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist,” Refueling with Feminists of Color,” and the series of posts on why I’m vegan. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

What Is Justice?

What does it mean to strive for justice in everyday life? This question is front and center for me most days, but especially now, as I’m teaching two undergraduate courses focused on justice and as I’m offering a 40-day practice for a local church on “Building Resilience for Racial Justice.” These teaching spaces—the university and the church—are predominantly white and marked by whiteness that obscures understandings of race, racism, white supremacy, and systemic oppression. To uncover what’s hidden, there’s a need to slow down and examine every assumption, including what we’ve learned (or haven’t learned) about justice.

I start my course, “Writing for Social Justice,” by asking students to define “social justice”—a term we’ve heard and often use without really understanding or unpacking. Together, we cover the board with words and concepts, asking questions like:

  • What’s fair?
  • What’s equitable?
  • What’s impactful for local and global communities?
  • Who do we imagine as community members?
  • Who’s centered/normalized, and who’s marginalized? And why?
  • Who’s considered human, and whose humanity is undermined?

These questions become more than intellectual inquiry. They help us with processing interactions, course readings, and other texts. They help us with re-telling stories and guiding actions and everyday living.

From asking these questions and sharing our felt-sense understandings of social justice, we read Lee Anne Bell’s “Theoretical Foundations”—one of the framing articles from the excellent collection, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.

readings
Book cover for Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism.

Bell defines “social justice” as a process and a goal: both the means and the ends of achieving equitable relations. Justice includes the right to self-determination for all people and the ability for individuals to direct their lives as agents and actors. It also includes social responsibilities and interconnectedness, underscoring the importance of an equitable distribution of resources and shared participation in decision-making. Social justice, therefore, must ensure the rights of individuals, while also positioning individuals to act within larger social networks and communities. Social justice invites thinking about how we—as humans—relate with each other, with non-human animals, and with the earth, as all are interconnected and impactful.

To envision living for justice (equity, liberation, peace, full humanity), we need to understand and spend time tracking the contours of injustice (inequity, oppression, violence, dehumanization). As I’ve learned through research with co-authors (thanks especially to Rasha Diab), we must engage in BOTH the critique against injustice (problem-posing) and the critique for justice (vision-setting). Engaging in either without the other can leave us feeling frustrated or at a loss for how to respond, what to do next.

This spring I’m reminded again that it’s important to move beyond purely conceptual understandings of justice (head) and into emotional and embodied understandings (heart and hands). Using the heart-head-hands reflection prompt, I’ve been thinking with students, colleagues, and community members about how we experience systemic oppression, white supremacy, and other injustices in our everyday lives. To enact justice, we must feel into its definition, considering what opens space in our bodies and, alternatively, when our bodies intuitively constrict or send signals through pain.

There’s always more to learn, and so pursuing justice involves humility, resilience, and other emotional literacies needed for learning and un-learning. With the recognitions of (1) knowing only a little and (2) always needing to learn more, here are three of my guiding principles for pursuing justice in everyday life:

  1. Since justice is not only the goal but also the process, small and sustained actions matter. In the words of organizer Myles Horton: “We make the road by walking.”
  2. A commitment to justice needs to be “actionable” across everyday spheres of interaction: with ourselves, with others, and within institutions.
  3. Justice requires working against dehumanization, on the one hand, and super-humanization, on the other. To pursue justice, we must work with internalized inferiority and superiority and recognize our own and others’ humanity (and related rights to existence, self-determination, and much more).

So, what is justice? And what does it mean to strive for justice in everyday life?

Like the passing of days, answers to these questions accumulate and deepen over time. Still, it helps me to remember these guiding principles—and the teaching conversations, conceptual knowledge, and emotions that underlie them.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice,” “Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a White Woman in the Work for Racial Justice,” and “Going Public as an Educator.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!