The Justice, Identity, and Social Change Initiative:
Spiritual Life Meets Social Justice


It feels like the World is burning. This is what Sensei Ryumon Baldoquin, Community Religious Adviser, said at our first “Peace Meal,” a gathering for dialogue and discussion of difficult problems. Certainly in the last few weeks, with the earthquake in Nepal and the rise in media coverage of racially motivated violence, it feels as if the world is burning.

The Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL) must be a force for quenching fires; because religious and spiritual life on a college campus is most relevant to the extent that it confronts global and social Issues head-on. The Justice, Identity, and Social Change Initiative are the center’s formulation of its strategy for bringing together the internal, contemplative life of the spirit; and addressing the urgent, immediate problems of injustice that plague our world.

Religion is used as a weapon in complex global antagonism over resources and power, with unique intensity, and its spoils have been historically tragic. However, most religions, whose root comes from “ligare” to bind or hold together, began as earnest efforts to make meaning in the midst of chaos and suffering. The role of a religious institution then is not primarily to uphold the norms of society but to question them and speak truth to power. The JISC initiative is a way of promoting this vision on the smith campus.

Spirituality, often marginalized in the intellectual discourse about social problems, is defined by Wikipedia as “the praxis and process of personal transformation, either in accordance with traditional religious ideals, or, increasingly, oriented on subjective experience and psychological growth independently of any specific religious context.” The Justice, Identity and Social Change initiative is the forward motion of the incorporation of a “heart centered” approach to social justice into our discourse on campus and beyond.

Social Justice is defined as the extension of the full rights of society, both human and civil, equally to all groups of people. For Smith, the institution is a parallel of society. Social justice must be the work of religious and spiritual life in so far as a life of the spirit involves deep listening, reflection on our experiences in relationship to those of others, and who we are in the world in relationship to those around us. At the same time, “Justice, Identity and Social Change”, takes the word justice by itself to highlight what it really means when taken by itself without the “social” in front of it. The “conventional” way we think of justice is retributive. Focusing most solely on punishments meted out for crimes, both on the personal and the institutional level. Restorative justice, on the other hand, focuses on healing from the inside out-the rebuilding of communities and the reversal of the kind of social and economic conditions that nourished the soil in which injustices take place. As Smith students and faculty and staff work to eradicate oppressive systems at the intellectual and political level, religious and spiritual life has a unique role to play offering, supporting, and engaging in the kind of deep introspection, dialogue, and interpersonal relationships that undergird authentic and successfull; social action. Righteous anger and outrage are necessary ingredients of social change work. However, practices of moral reflection are like the leaven-our work cannot reach a nourishing fruition unless we add them.

“Identity” relates to how it is through an understanding of our own experience of social location, and all its complexities, that approach social change. Social identity is such an important part of understanding privilege and oppression and where we are located in the world we want to change. The three concepts in this initiative fit together-creating fairness in our own communities: justice allows us a deeper understanding of our identity, both social and spiritual, which is the place from which we can move toward social change. All social change comes from the deep internal work of the individuals doing it, and this work must be supported by our contemplative lives. A simple way to put this might be this quote from Gandhi that is driving our mission: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The JISC Advisory Board
The CRSL Advisory Board for Justice, Identity, and Social Change began working in earnest this semester, after members spent the fall convening and getting to know one another. Their charge has been to advise and collaborate with our Center especially on our “Justice, Identity, and Social Change” initiative. This board has worked closely with our center this semester to help us develop our initiative, which both places social justice work at the center of the mission of spiritual and religious life and seeks to extend an ever widening reach into areas of importance in students lives, community engagement, ethical reflection, social action, and personal reflection; whether or not the way students relate to those realms is overtly religious.

The mission statement in its current form of the board is as follows:

Help to advise the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life staff on our “Justice, Identity and Social Change” initiative whose goal is to draw upon an interfaith vision as a resource for progressive social change in our community and the wider world. It will help the Center advance this mission through dialogue, creative input, and participation in program review and planning.

The Advisory Board prizes cooperative work and seeks to garner human resources by collaborating with other student groups, and has worked with Al Iman, Students for justice in Palestine, the Interfaith Alliance, the Eco Reps, and several others. The work of the board is a kind of community organizing- it seeks to create coalitions and find common ground in the very richly diverse environment that is the Smith campus. Indeed, the initiative is designed to create spaces where dialogue can occur across difference and varying perspectives are used to enrich approaches to problems. This work can be interpersonally and relationally challenging, and board members were asked in their applications to reflect on their goring edges and commitment to leaning into discomfort; and to identity the times when their moral and ethical convictions might override their commitment of dialogue-both are important. Board members were also chosen for their varied involvements in diverse social issues and academic arenas. In addition to identifying as Muslim, agnostic, and Christian, board members are involved in the Study of Women and Gender, sustainability, climate activism, and animal advocacy.

This semester the Advisory Board reflected on campus events like the lecture by Angela Davis, pressing social issues such as the racial justice and #black lives matter. Through the semester, the board helped plane and cosponsored a vigil each week on Wednesdays at noon. These vigils are a time of coming together at the intersection of social change, contemplative practice, and a non-sectarian interfaith milieu. The students helped organize a speak out/vigil in response to the shootings of Muslim students in North Carolina, an earth week vigil, and a vigil in response to the massacre in Garissa. The Board meets weekly and some members will be helping with programming for the new student orientation program at the CRSL in the fall. We are looking for applicants who are interested in serving for the 2015-2016 academic years, and information about the Board can be found here.

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