Justice Matters: Prophetic Witness, Beyond the Bricks, and Educating for a Just Society.
Charles P. Bretan, Ed.D.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue” (D’Varim 16:20)
In November of 2011, several graduate students in my Contemporary Issues in Education class and I attended a screening of Beyond the Bricks at North Carolina A&T State University. The film and the town hall discussion which followed was one of the most transformative educational experiences any of us have had. Inspired by our experience, the entire trajectory of our class changed; instead of discussing the problems facing educators today, we found ourselves working harder to find solutions.
The purpose of this scholarly review is to (1) frame the Beyond the Bricks Project into the larger context of education for social justice, and (2) discuss how the documentary’s prophetic witnessing can serve as an impetus to envision the role of schooling in creating a just society. This will be accomplished by examining three elements of The Beyond the Bricks Project: (1) the potential of the project to engender discussions of social justice beyond those centered on the film’s primary focus (i.e. African-American male achievement), (2) the project’s call for civic engagement, and (3) the film as an act of prophetic witness.
Beyond the Bricks and Social Justice
The first issue which must be addressed is what do we mean by education for social justice. There is no easy answer to this question, as there are as many definitions for social justice as there are practitioners of it. Each has their own vision of what a just society would look like and what the role of education is in creating such a society. Hytten and Bettez (2011), in trying to gain an understanding of what we mean when educators use the term “Social Justice,” sorted the literature of social justice into five strands: (1) philosophical/conceptual, (2) practical, (3) ethnographic/narrative, (4) theoretically specific, and (5) democratically grounded.
Philosophical/conceptual literature on social justice aims to present us with broad, abstract ideas and principles for thinking about justice. Drawing on a variety of classical philosophical traditions, its goals “include defining terms, making distinctions, offering categories, grounding claims, and tracing their implications’ (p.11). The practical strand, on the other hand, “provides specific examples of what schools have done and of what works in challenging inequities and creating more genuine equality of opportunity” (p.13). Rather than discussing the abstract, these works present concrete visions of social justice education, including skills and competencies for practitioners as well as models for emulation.
Ethnographic/narrative works “offer portraits of injustice related to schools, reflections by educators committed to social justice, and narratives about personal experiences of lived injustice” (p.14). Because of the passionate and evocative nature of narrative, the works in this strand, as will be discussed later, are closely aligned with the prophetic tradition. The documentary film, Beyond the Bricks belongs in this strand.
Theoretically specific works draw from a number of theoretical positions to inform the “work and teaching within the field of education” (p.16). These movements “provide inspiration and resources for educators who connect their personal and pedagogical commitments to the goal of transforming oppressive social systems and structures” (p.18). Democratically grounded literature reaffirms the connection between social justice and the function of education in a democratic society: preparation for citizenship. Works in this strand present us with a vision of democracy that “balances individual rights and responsibilities and that is premised upon upholding the common good” (p.20).
So what is social justice and how do we educate for it? For Murrell (2006) social justice means “a disposition toward recognizing and eradicating all forms of oppression and differential treatment extant in the practices and policies of institutions, as well as a fealty to participatory democracy as the means of this action” (p.81). When exploring the socioeconomic roots of power inequities in society, Lucey, Agnello, and Hawkins (2010) assert that “for a socially just community to occur, decision-making must employ respectful procedures that value the input of all economic contexts” (p.16). Carlisle, Jackson, and George (2006) have developed a model of social justice education in schools based on five core principles: (1) inclusion and equity, (2) hold high expectations for all students, (3) develop reciprocal community relationships, (4) involve a system wide approach, and (5) entail direct social justice education and intervention (p.57).
In essence, social justice is a desire to destroy oppression, heal the wounds of injustice, and provide equitable opportunity for all members of society. Social justice advocates seek to identify the practices and institutions that perpetuate all forms of oppression whether they be physical, racial, gendered, economic, religious, linguistic, nationalistic, or cultural. Inequities in the distribution of power and resources as well as access to decision making processes are primary items of the social justice agenda. Furthermore, social justice is integral to any society wishing to call itself free and democratic, for oppression and injustice of any kind is anathema to democracy.
Social justice education does more than address issues of difference and oppression. It seeks also to prepare learners with skills necessary to navigate a multi-cultural, diverse, often unjust world. By developing in the leaners empathy and compassion, social justice education endeavors to foster a tendency toward inclusion and equity. Social justices education challenges learners to recognize and come to the aid of those whom society has chosen to oppress. More importantly, social justice education is an education, which takes place in a setting of justice. All constituency groups are valued, and their participation in the decision making process is the natural order of things. True social justice education moves beyond including issues of social justice in the curriculum to imbuing every institutional policy, practice, and decision with the principles of justice and democracy.
As previously discussed, we can place Beyond the Bricks in the ethnographic/narrative strand of social justice literature. The film follows two students, Shaquiel Ingram and Erick Graham, as they navigate the Newark, NJ public school system. Hoping to avoid the “school to prison pipeline,” Shaquiel, a ward of the truancy court, and Erick, a high school dropout, manage to stay focused on school, with the help of compassionate community leaders and alternative education programs. The film also presents the views of experts and scholars focused on African‐American boys and their education as well as examples of programs, which are making a difference in these young men’s lives. In this way, Beyond the Bricks can also be seen as being a part of the practical strand of social justice literature. It is the practical components of Beyond the Bricks that allows the film to be used as a vehicle for civic engagement.
Beyond the Bricks and Civic Engagement
Like social justice, civic engagement is a complex term. Ehrlich (2000) defines civic engagement as, “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference” (p. vi). While Ehrlich focuses on knowledge and skills necessary for civic engagement, Musil (2009) emphasizes concepts such as “a heightened sense of responsibility to one’s community,” “global citizenship,” “building a civil society,” and “promot[ing] social justice” (p.59). The Center for Social Development divides civic engagement into four sub-concepts: (1) civic activism, (2) community engagement, (3) media attentiveness, and (4) financial contributions.
There are three ways individuals most often engage those in power: (1) adversarial approaches, (2) electoral approaches, such as voting, and (3) communicative approaches (Fusarelli, Kowalski, & Petersen, 2011). The first two often result in either conflict or apathy. Communicative approaches, often in the form of deliberative democracy on the other hand, “promote civic engagement through thoughtful, informed discussion and deliberation” (p. 47). Deliberation, in this case, can be seen as “a communicative process for resolving collective problems that depends on converting individual ends and preferences into shared objectives and values” (Ralston, 2010, p.26).
Deliberative democracy aims to bring together diverse groups of stakeholders to discuss public issues and participate in the decision making process. In this way, deliberative democracy imposes on citizens the same duties and responsibilities as those imposed on politicians and leaders: to participate in decision making, to stay informed so as to make the most informed decision possible, and to work collaboratively with others in a climate of mutual respect (Fusarelli, Kowalski, & Petersen, 2011, p.48).
The documentary film, Beyond the Bricks, is just one part of a larger project aimed at changing the educational outcomes for African-American males. According to their website, the project “seeks social change especially in communities where black male youth are most vulnerable, by encouraging grass-roots dialog and action planning that challenge all the stakeholders; educators, parents, policy makers, community members and the students themselves, to examine their roles as role models and community citizens” (para. 3). The Beyond the Bricks Project (BTBP) uses the film to initiate dialogue among all these stakeholders in order to “create a national network of communities, organizations, and individuals who are committed to shifting the trajectory of all our young people towards success and community advocacy” (para. 3). BTBP has established three goals for its National Community Engagement Campaign:
1. Help refocus the agenda away from merely identifying the problems among black males in the public school system to one that encourages, promotes and strengthen community-based solutions to increasing educational outcomes.
2. Increase positive public engagement in the lives of African American boys in the communities where they are most at risk for failure in the pursuit of a quality education.
3. Encourage the development of public policy and practices that incorporate the research and lessons learned by scholars, educators and community groups who have demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing school age black males and who offer successful models to address those challenges. (para. 4)
In pursuit of these three goals, BTBP is directly involved in promoting civic engagement and deliberative democracy. To date, the film has been screened in 34 venues and town hall settings. The purpose of these screenings and town halls is to create deliberative democracy as a vehicle for educational reform. The espoused purpose of BTBP is “to encourage communities to address not only the educational and social inequities that contribute to failure, but also look at the change that’s necessary within so that everyone is accountable and takes responsibility for the education of our children” (para.3).
However, deliberative democracy does not “just happen” because you invite people together in a public forum. There must be mutual respect (a respect not afforded, parents, students, and other “non-educational experts”) and trust (a trust not granted school boards, administrators, and politicians) in order for true candid discourse to occur. There must also be a willingness to share power in the decision making process: a willingness that school administrators are reluctant to embrace in the current atmosphere of high-stakes testing and accountability. In order for deliberative democracy to flourish, power and leadership in decision-making must be equally distributed among all stakeholders. And, any distributive power can only succeed when “relationships become as important as tasks, cooperation become[s] more important than competition, and sharing become[s] more important than controlling” (Fusarelli, Kowalski, & Petersen, 2011, p. 52).
Beyond the Bricks as Prophetic Witness
Unlike social justice and civic engagement, prophetic witness, while no less complex, is easier to define. West (2004) defines prophetic witness as “human deeds of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery” (p.114). The goal of the prophetic is to “stir up in us the courage to care and empower us to change our lives and our historical circumstances” (p.114). The prophetic tradition begins with the spiritual narratives of the biblical prophets and, according to Purpel (2010), “remains a vital and powerful force for those committed to a world of justice and peace” (p. 6). This commitment to justice and peace is what Purpel calls a “metaphor of social prophesy” (p. 5) which is made possible due to the “broad but profound influences some Biblical narratives have had on our consciousness” (p. 5). Furthermore, the narrative pattern of the prophetic voice (i.e. critique, outrage, exhortation, hope, possibility, and vision) originating in the texts of the Biblical prophets, “recurs not only in other religious narratives but in other social texts as well as historical events across time and space” (p.5). Beyond the Bricks is one such social text.
The film first introduces us to two young men, Shaquiel and Erick, who will serve as exemplars of the plight of African-American males in today’s urban educational environment. This critique of current conditions is closely followed by detailing the obstacles, resistance, and lack of support these students faced in trying to navigate a system established to ensure their failure. Outrage is expressed by them and by the experts who give testimony to their experience. The film maker, however, does not dwell on or multiply this outrage. Instead the narrative quickly moves away from a continuation of recitation of the litany of problems and conditions which compound the difficulties faced by these young men and others like them, toward instead an exhortation to find solutions. The majority of the film, in fact, is spent documenting the efforts of a few community leaders and programs working to make a difference in the lives of many trapped in a failed urban education system. The hope and possibility these programs offer is finally extended into a vision of a just society in which the inequities of opportunity are confronted by those who refuse to accept them as de rigueur.
Beyond the Bricks is an evocative narrative of injustice; the Project calls for civic engagement as a means of educational reform; the film’s narrative arc is prophetic in structure and demands attention to issues of social justice. The focus of the film and the project is civic engagement to seek solutions to current urban educational practices and the adverse effects they have on African-American males. Examining BTBP in a larger context of social justice and prophetic witness is not to suggestion BTBP broaden the scope of their mission. On the contrary, it is important that they continue to advocate for solutions to these very real problems. However, as Dr. King reminded us, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The prophetic witness of Beyond the Bricks is a clarion call to fight oppression and injustice wherever we find it. And, it is incumbent upon all of us to heed this call. One need not have been oppressed to know oppression is wrong. One need not have felt the sting of injustice to know injustice is wrong. One need only follow the second of Rousseau’s two natural laws: our innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer.
The power of the prophetic is its ability to activate our innate compassion. And, once this compassion is activated, once we begin engaging in the processes of deliberative democracy, once we acknowledge the necessity of creating a society of justice and peace, we will recognize that the solutions to the specific issues raised by Beyond the Bricks will benefit all of society.
Beyond the Bricks Project. (2011). About the Project. Retrieved from Beyond the Bricks website: http://beyondthebricksproject.com/about-project.
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