Re: Social Justice

In the March 6, issue of The Student Katrin Marquez ’14 penned an opinion piece about the ongoing search for an Interim Director of Amherst’s Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). In the piece Marquez expressed revulsion at the idea of a person with an awareness of social justice leading the new MRC. Troublesome is the most benign description of the piece I can offer. Misrepresentation by omission is another. Although I would love to put forth an argument for justice in society, though I question why I or any person should have to defend it at all, I’m confident other adept students can and will issue those due responses. I instead will address the argumentation in the Marquez piece.

On the search committee…
By opening her piece with the example of myself and others going out to solicit feedback from various campus groups, Marquez undermines her claim that the search committee desires to hire a leader for the MRC who will exclude students. I, along with a number of other students and administrators met with numerous student constituencies. We reached out to groups ranging from Athletics, affinity organizations and the Quest-Bridge Student Network to RCs, College Council, the AAS and roughly fifteen other groups in between. The EDU was one of those other groups. We visited these groups with the intent to solicit input on what type of background and qualifications to include in the written job description of an Interim MRC Director. What Marquez elides in the “Social Justice” piece is the fact that neither I nor other persons from the search committee approached groups in order to proselytize or speak at students, but rather to listen to them. Marquez also fails to mention she broached social justice as a factor, not anyone else in the room. Students in The EDU, as well as other groups visited, piped up to list some of the qualifications they wanted for their college’s MRC Director (e.g. a candidate with a Master’s or PhD, someone with at least 5 years of experience successfully directing a similar center at a peer institution, etc.). Some words I noted included “charismatic,” “entrepreneurial,” “visionary,” “trained in sensitivity,” “skillful dialogue facilitator” and “liberal arts background.” None of these words ring antagonistic to me.

On antagonism and hate…
Marquez’s piece indicates a distrust not just of the students and staff working to hire an Interim MRC Director, but also the broader campus. Yet, it was the students who went out to students like her to solicit genuine feedback. These same students formed an ad hoc working group with the administration (and members of the MRC Steering Committee, which Marquez its on) and petitioned administrators to expand the reach of student input (inclusion) in this search process. Rather than making the student body labor to have their say — i.e. relying on students to self-select, draft application essays and hope to be selected by the student government to a precious few at large spots on a committee — these students decided to incorporate the broader campus by living democracy and going out to meet students where they are. The search committee members are sufficiently aware that the Center will play a key role in student life and social constructions that permeate campus. Therefore, I question, call out and challenge the patronizing tone Marquez carries in her piece. The search committee members recognize the spectrum of positions and understandings that exist on issues of magnitude in this country and on this campus — far greater than the reductive liberal-conservative binary that Marquez offers. Moreover, the members have no motivation in guilting or antagonizing any segment of the campus. Simply, social justice is not about that life.

Marquez makes a false equivalence between social justice and hate. The piece makes an assumption that a person with an understanding of social justice will necessarily spew hate and breed animosity among students. Moreover, it supposes that an MRC (specifically because of its link to social justice) will tokenize students. That is wrong. The leader of the MRC, particularly if they understand social justice, would accept their role to build the campus’s intellectual community by recognizing and valuing unique histories as well as intersections that challenge the us-them mentality. Social justice is not about dehumanizing.

A person who understands social justice does not “impl[y] the existence of a form of structural social injustice.” There is no need to hide behind an implication. There is nothing to imply. Structural injustices exist. People are not “thought to be oppressed” as Marquez writes. People are oppressed, people are silenced and people are shut out and marginalized.

Myself or any other person speaking words such as power, privilege, oppression and dominance should not be perceived as an attack on person. These words target ideas. The consequences of ideas that shackle these words to our society transcend a mere individual. An MRC director at Amherst — as with MRC directors at nearly every other one of our peer institutions — will not attack students, incite riots or espouse hate. A person who understands social justice rises to the next level and works to effectively address injustices. They employ the concept of inclusion, but do not use it as a means to dilute real problems, real stakes and real consequences. An MRC director will come to this campus able to effectively engage all constituencies and will have a palatable presence.

On division…
Palatable, however, does not mean buckling to fear and drowning ourselves in what is comfortable to just the identities we are a part of, or the experiences we have had. Challenging issues are not the easiest things to think about, talk about, or work through. If they were easy they wouldn’t be a challenge. But, that doesn’t give us the license to ignore that these challenging issues exist.

Though Marquez acknowledges divisions on campus (and in our larger society), her piece fails to get at the heart of the matter: Why do these divisions exist at Amherst? Why do some students feel tokenized or targeted? How can work through these issues? Without going further to posit these questions, is the piece suggesting we should live in this squalor? Our peers and the college have spoken, and they say “No.” An MRC Director, particularly one with an understanding of social justice, would be able to help the campus constructively navigate these difficult issues, difficult issues whose unanswered questions still guide the way we think about ourselves, society and our relationships to others.

On moving forward…
The EDU itself is a diverse group, spanning the spectrum in everything, save age. The EDU is also a group committed to social justice. And, it is a testament to this, social justice vis-à-vis education, that both Marquez and I are active members of the group. Therefore, I think the opinion piece published last week was against social justice, but against the incorrect conception of social justice that it relied on. A new full-time, qualified director of the Multicultural Resource Center, who will hire a full-time staff, will come to the campus. This is a milestone for Amherst, not a reason to incite mayhem. Amherst College deserves this, and this is what it gets.