A lot of schools celebrate “diversity” or host culture fairs, but how many students, teachers and communities move beyond that into deep, authentic conversations of race, justice, gender, equity, oppression and other issues surrounding social justice? Paul Gorski is founder of EdChange, an organization that develops resources, workshops and projects dedicated to progressive change grounded in social justice and equity in schools and communities. He and his partner, Jennifer Hickman, have created a platform for helping educators and activists integrate the lens of comprehensive social justice (human rights, animal liberation, environmental protection) into their teaching.
Paul and Jennifer were kind enough to share with us about their work.
IHE: Paul, what led you to your passion to create a just and equitable world through education?
PG: Many, many factors pushed and pulled me in the direction of social justice education work. From the time I was a kid I was struggling to understand the relationship between some of the bigotry in my own family and my experience running in diverse circles. I started looking for opportunities to understand these complexities a little more deeply and was very lucky to find a group of folks during my late teens and early twenties whose lives were dedicated to human rights and social justice work. If it wasn’t for those folks — Charlene Green, Allen Saunders, Bob Covert — I’m not sure where I’d be right now, because there were plenty of forces tugging me in other directions. They were activists, but their activism came through education, both in terms of doing community education and in terms of transforming the education system to be more equitable and just. The most important thing they helped me do was take all of this energy I had to dig into things and push boundaries and focus it into thoughtful action. Without the three of them, there would be no Paul Gorski, social justice educator. There would be no EdChange.
IHE: Jen, much of your life’s work has been dedicated to animal protection. How did you become involved in the intersection between social justice education and the welfare of animals?
JH: My awareness of this intersection has evolved and grown over the years, and in many ways is still in its infancy, but I’ve always been sensitive to the vast and unnecessary oppression so many disadvantaged humans face, particularly where some communities of people are disproportionately affected by some of the worst environmental abuses. The more I studied the environmental and animal protection movements, the more I saw the overlap and similarities between human oppression and exploitation and non-human oppression and exploitation, and what strikes me in particular is how the oppressors and exploiters are often the same. In terms of translating this awareness and activism into education, that’s where my partner, Paul, comes into the picture. He is the educator, and I’m just beginning to explore where and how I might turn my passion and experiences into transforming human awareness and behavior through education.
PG: In my work in the worlds of multicultural and social justice education, two things always stood out: (1) a lot of organizations focus their work with schools and other organizations on “celebrating diversity” and “heroes and holidays,” but very few dig deeper than that, helping organizations address deep-seated and institutionalized inequities and injustices; and (2) there always have been great social justice education resources, but they tend to be very, very expensive. I started EdChange ten or so years ago as an organization dedicated to pushing the discourse beyond “celebrating diversity” and providing free resources for educators and activists. In essence, though, EdChange became a sort of umbrella organization housing, in a conceptual way, a variety of projects I was working on with some very, very cool colleagues and comrades.
It all started, actually, with the Multicultural Pavilion—a site I started building in 1995. SoJust and JUSTICE: the People’s News are two of the free online resources designed under the auspices of EdChange. The former is a collection of historic materials—songs, treaties, poetry—related to human rights and social justice. The latter is a free email aggregator designed to distribute a weekly collection of news articles about social justice, environmental justice, and animal liberation concerns from publications around the world.
IHE: The Multicultural Pavilion includes a new section dedicated to humane education, exploring the interconnectedness of human rights, animal protection and environmental protection. Many organizations concerned with social justice issues don’t include all elements of that triad in their circle of concern. What led you to do so?
PG/JH: The beautiful thing about EdChange’s flexibility is that it allows us to work with people who have philosophical frameworks that are similar to mine, but who apply those frameworks to other kinds of activism. So Jen and Paul meet. Jen and Paul share a similar activist outlook informed by progressive ideas and critical theories, but Jen applies her framework to animal welfare and Paul applies his to human rights and social justice. Paul hears Jen talking about her work against factory farming, against animal exploitation for human entertainment, and so on, and Jen hears Paul talking about his work to challenge consumer hegemony, systemic racism, and heterosexism. The big a-ha moment comes when Jen and Paul realize that the biggest abusers of animals are, as well, the biggest abusers of humans and the environment. Take any corporation that systemically abuses animals—KFC, for instance—and it’s quite easy to see how the triangle fits together: animal abuse, environmental abuse, human abuse. So we added a modest page to the Multicultural Pavilion, realizing there are several better resources on these sorts of issues. But we felt that addressing animal welfare on a long-established, award-winning web site dedicated to multicultural education might encourage cross-discourse. And by the looks of this interview, it has!
IHE: Jen, you initiated the Humane Education Station on the site. How have teachers and other users reacted to adding animals and the environment to the circle of social justice concern?
JH: This is new and in formation, so feedback is coming in, and we’re looking for more insight into how we can make this better and of greater use to social justice educators. We’re looking to add additional teacher resources that can be applied to the classroom and feel strongly that to be fully socially aware in any context, you must open your mind and your activism to include all humans and non-humans alike.
IHE: Paul, in a recent essay, you said: “I, a social justice educator, have come to see animal rights, social justice, and environmental justice as movements that, separately, cannot be whole. And I can not be whole in a spiritual sense, nor in my roles as an activist and educator, if I don’t understand deeply, and work at the intersections of, all three.” What would you say to social justice educators and activists who don’t see that connection among those three movements?
PG: To be clear, I think it’s important to have people and organizations working intently in all three areas, even if they focus a bulk of their energies in one of the three. But if I don’t, at the very least, understand the connectedness, I’m missing part of the picture. This is a bigger problem in social justice circles, as it is in animal welfare circles: a sort of lack of willingness to see complexities and intersections. So we have sexism and heterosexism in anti-racist movements; racism and heterosexism in feminist movements, and so on. But when we step back to see the bigger picture, all of this abuse feeds a bigger corporate-capitalist machine. I can’t imagine how we’ll stop this machine if we don’t find ways to do it together rather than competing with each other over whose issues are more important, over funding sources, over who’s more progressive. So in that essay I very purposefully used a language of ownership. I see the intersections. I’m lucky enough to have a life partner who helped open my eyes to some of the intersections. Now that I know, I compromise my humanity and my activism if I pretend I don’t know.
It’s critical, as well, that I acknowledge that, as somebody who fits the “privilege” profile around most identity dimensions—as somebody who identifies as white, male, heterosexual; as somebody whose first language is English; as somebody who is lucky enough to have a job—I have a sort of luxury to work across issues, to summon the energy to do so, because I do not expend energy dealing with being targeted with racism, sexism, and so on. It’s one thing to fight for social justice, but it’s something altogether different to fight for justice while one is experiencing injustice. So I do not imagine myself as being in a position to judge what other folks who claim “social justice” are doing. But for me, knowing what I know, I understand that I cannot be a social justice activist if I am not, as well, an animal liberation and environmental activist.
IHE: For teachers who are new to thinking about social justice as an integral part of education, what messages and elements of social justice are you finding receive the most welcome (when you’re speaking at conferences and writing articles), and which meet more significant resistance? How have you been working to overcome resistance to social justice in education?
PG: Working with teachers is wonderful! I would say the idea of improving conditions for kids—of doing whatever we can do in order to accomplish this—is most welcome. As for resistance… An idea that people struggle with at times is that social justice means social justice for everybody. We do not get to pick and choose who gets it. So it’s not OK to say “I will fight for my students of color, but I will not fight for my LGBTQ students.” My biggest challenge, though, tends to be engaging people in real conversation about class, poverty, and economic justice. The hegemony around those issues is so deeply embedded—the myth of meritocracy, the conflation of democracy and capitalism, and so on.
IHE: What advice would you give to other educators who might like to integrate social justice/humane education issues into their teaching, but don’t know how or are concerned about the obstacles to doing so?
PG/JH: Social justice and humane education are not topics or subjects. Instead, they are frameworks. So it’s not always about adding a bunch of new material. Instead, it’s about engaging with material through a different set of lenses; asking a different set of questions.
Take advantage of organizations that offer free resources (in addition to IHE and EdChange: Teaching Tolerance, Rethinking Schools, and United for a Fair Economy are good places to start). And find networks of other teachers who are interested in these movements, both to share resources and to share support. It’s also important to point out those areas where it can be counter-productive to work in silos, and instead bridge those gaps with awareness and without fear. For example, imagine the liberation individuals and communities could see if we accepted, as a premise, that you can’t fully fight domestic violence, and help those who are victimized, without seeing the non-human victims as fully integrated in the cycle of abuse.
IHE: Any future plans, dreams or projects?
PG/JH: We intend to build and run an animal and human refuge and retreat center in Costa Rica, for starters….
Paul Gorski is the founder of EdChange and the Multicultural Pavilion, as well as an assistant professor of Integrative Studies in George Mason University’s New Century College, where he teaches classes on class and poverty, educational equity, and environmental justice. Paul is a frequent consultant, trainer, author and lecturer on social justice issues and serves of the board of directors of the International Association for Intercultural Education.
Jennifer Hickman has a strong and passionate work history dedicated to conservation, environmental justice and animal welfare. She has worked for the Galapagos Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, and Esquinas Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica and has volunteered for several other organizations. In addition to her work with EdChange, Jennifer is the Events Manager in the Philanthropy Department of the Humane Society of the United States.
Jennifer and Paul live in Washington, DC, with their cats, Felix, Poo-Poo, Meepy, Unity, and Buster.
Like our blog? Please share it with others, comment, and/or subscribe to our RSS feed.