Written by Austin Farrow //
Embracing diversity is perhaps the most important quality in a person who hopes to change the world. Without embracing and working with all members of your community, injustice is unavoidable.
This is a bold statement, but it is true. Working toward a more just and equitable world necessitates that we are awake to the present inequalities existing in our communities. This is difficult to do. Most cities are de facto, spatially divided based upon socio-economic status, religious community, and ethnicity. It is highly unlikely these lines of division will be crossed by chance. Cities, civic and religious institutions, and residents must attempt to cross these boundaries intentionally. This can be done by visiting other religious institutions, meeting your neighbors, or going to other communities to learn or serve. Essentially, it takes work.
The most strategic way to act collectively is by forming relationships. Knowing people and their stories increases our understanding of what the most important issues in our community are. This requires you to intentionally seek out others and create a space to hear their stories and share yours. In order to share, you must reflect on your own life to more clearly see where injustice, joy, and tragedy live.
I recently worked as an intern for a community organizing group in DuPage County, IL, called DuPage United. We built these relationships with individuals, but even more essential was building relationships between our institution and other community institutions. Institutional relationships tend to have a longevity that individual relationships do not. So if you are seeking to do justice with others, join an institution that is partnering with other institutions–or get your institution (e.g., church, mosque, civic group) to do so. This will help facilitate your ability to cross the diving lines, learn from others, and work alongside others.
Justice is of practice not of theory. It may be practiced at the individual level when one has the power to do so (a boss practicing justice in addressing an incident of workplace discrimination), but most injustice happens in spaces where we do not have the power to influence it. Therefore, collective action is necessary in order to create the power base to do anything about the injustice present at larger levels. So collective action is not only a way of practicing justice, but it is the primary way of practicing justice.
In good collective action, the community is sensitive to hearing unheard voices. The community is conscious of those who are in need of support. The best collective action is inclusive, and involves people from minority groups within the community. They do not act as token representatives, but as equal partners who are both heard by other community members and who hear other community members.
Collective action develops a community consciousness that changes the context in which people live. Justice begins when it becomes valued by individuals building a community. Collective action develops a community consciousness oriented towards justice. Therefore, it is itself a way of practicing justice.
I am originally from Detroit, Michigan, and while we have a great potential for collective action–particularly due to the deep connections among the network of churches in the city–we do not often act collectively. My own church back in the city has not joined with other religious or non-religious groups to seek change.
Sometimes collective action does not occur because the relationships do not exist to create the confidence or desire for two groups to join together in action. Other times, it is because of a lack of awareness or ignorance. Different groups do not know how extensive a given problem is in their communities and so they try to deal with it themselves instead of joining with other groups who are secretly facing the same problem and trying to find a solution. And still, at other times there is no initiative. If people do not care about an issue or if they do not care enough to change their circumstances, then they will not work to do so.
Currently, I live in Carol Stream, IL (DuPage County), and here, in this mass of wealthy suburbs I have participated in more social action than ever before in my life! Although it seems like some places are barren of opportunities to practice social justice, every location has opportunities to participate in social action. Through DuPage United–an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate based out of DuPage County–I have come to work with different ethnicities and religious groups toward justice. DuPage County is not the most diverse place in the world, but we do have a number of different immigrant and ethnic groups in our midst.
For me community action looks like engaging with people who are different ethnically and religiously, and represent a cross-section of the political spectrum. We work together via church partnerships or inter-institutional ties and and we discuss the challenges that our county continues to face. And in doing this we reach across the border lines and step together into collective action.
Austin Farrow is a recent college graduate who strives to develop communities and empower community members in DuPage County Illinois.