Defining "social justice" - What is social justice?

Social justice, when it occurs on the Internet, is often defined less by words and more often implicitly by the direct actions and work of those that strive for it. As Innosanto Nagara from DesignAction Collective replied, "I'm usually consulted for my visuals, not my words!" Nevertheless, here are some of the definitions that a variety of leaders in peace and social justice work were willing to share with me.

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What is "Social Justice"? - A collection of definitions
by Derrick Kikuchi, Reach and Teach

In my experience as a journalist I once believed that service in feeding the hungry and working to change policies causing hunger are two largely separate things. And there is some truth to that. But it is also highly subversive to do work. It is not possible to do justice in the abstract — you must touch real people. God's work in the world is for all to have enough to eat and to not be afraid.

- Sara Miles, Journalist, Author of Take This Bread, and Director of St. Gregory's Food Pantry


Social justice means moving towards a society where all hungry are fed, all sick are cared for, the environment is treasured, and we treat each other with love and compassion. Not an easy goal, for sure, but certainly one worth giving our lives for!

- Medea Benjamin, co-founder Global Exchange and Code Pink


Social justice means complete and genuine equality of all people. Not exactly stuff for Bartlett's, but there you go.

- Paul George, executive director Pennisula Peace and Justice Center


Social justice provides the foundation for a healthy community. It grows out of our sense that each person — each created being — has value. Only as we recognize the value and dignity of each person can we build a healthy community, so it's a slow, painful process of learning and growing. To help the process along we develop attitudes of respect for one another. We also shape policies and patterns of behavior to protect and enhance the worth of each person. We do this by building governmental and economic structures, educational and religious institutions, and all the other systems that provide for health and social welfare. This justice is not a goal that we'll ever reach, but a process, a struggle in which we can be engaged through all the pain and all the joy.

- Doug King, editor and WebWeaver, The Witherspoon Society of the Presbyterian Church USA


By social justice I mean the creation of a society which treats human beings as embodiments of the sacred, supports them to realize their fullest human potential, and promotes and rewards people to the extent that they are loving and caring, kind and generous, open-hearted and playful, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and tend to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of creation.

- Rabbi Michael Lerner, co-founder of the Tikkun Community


Social Justice means no kids going to bed hungry, no one without shelter or healthcare and a free and lively discussion and participation by all people in the political direction and organization of our communities and nation.

- Kirsten Moller, executive director and co-founder, Global Exchange


A long and mysterious historical process in which those who are excluded and exploited by social forces of privilege and power attempt to consociate into movements that struggle for: a more equitable distribution of social and economic goods; for greater personal and political dignity; and for a deeper moral vision of their society. Social justice is a goal toward which we move, always imperfectly, and persons and groups are motivated to realize it by their deepest spiritual and political traditions. Justice is only meaningful when it is historically specific and embodied (as opposed to theoretical or abstract).

The degree to which social justice is achieved in a given time and place should be measured by two (seemingly contradictory) notions: 1) the greatest good for the greatest number, and 2) how the least powerful and the smallest minorities in a society are faring. The vision of social justice is best articulated through stories that have the marginalized as their subject and that present hard questions to those at the center of power — stories like the ones Jesus of Nazareth told.

- Ched Myers, ecumenical activist, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries


"Social Justice Work"' is work that we do in the interest of securing human rights, an equitable distribution of resources, a healthy planet, democracy, and a space for the human spirit to thrive (read: arts/culture/entertainment). We do the work to achieve these goals on both a local and a global scale. Of course, except for those who require we follow the alleged dictates of one god or another, almost everyone could probably agree to such a broad definition of social justice. So, I would also want to articulate the specific systems that I believe we should be working to implement.

- Innosanto Nagara, co-founder DesignAction Collective


"Social Justice" — I love this term because it's a big enough umbrella for all of us. It brings together people of many different faith traditions, human rights and environmental activists, labor organizers, young people who want to make the world a better place, and on and on. When I speak of working for social justice, I begin with the teachings of Jesus, and his commitment to basic fairness and a life of dignity for the poorest of the poor. In our world today, that means we walk with the majority of the world's population that works hard every day with no expectation that life will ever get better. It means we cannot rest until everyone, everywhere, is paid a wage with which he or she can provide for the basic needs of his or her family. It means that those of us who have privilege must be willing to give up those things that cannot be sustained in a fair world — especially those things that use an unfair percentage of the world's environmental resources.

Social Justice isn't something I expect we'll attain in my lifetime. Fortunately, nothing could be more fulfilling than working to make it happen.

- Rick Ufford-Chase, international director, BorderLinks and moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)