Justice Moves

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I’ve been thinking a lot about justice because the more I look at society, the less I feel like I understand what justice represents.

Is it this: “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments”?

Or does this come closer: “the administration of law; especially the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity”? (Merriam-Webster)

How might it help to think more closely about what it means to be just? Try these on: “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good ,” “being what is merited,” or “legally correct.” (Merriam-Webster)

Tell you what, try to decide what’s fair and you cannot get around asking “for whom? Under which policies/laws/structures? To what end?”

By now more of my attention runs in the direction of injustice because we’re surrounded by it. (Whether we know to acknowledge it or not.) Yet my picture of what justice is, does, sounds and feels like is so ill-defined as to be nearly illegible.

The immediate association with the courts and therefore the state prompts grief and bone-deep distrust. I do not trust the state to deliver justice to anyone really.

When we see the crime with our very eyes, on our devices, through 100 media outlets, we call for justice. We demand accountability. We expect the perpetrators to receive punishment. We speak of charges, sentencing, damages, jail time. The process is usually long and deeply uneven, depending on whose life, whose honor, whose reputation, whose money is at stake. Right and wrong are not necessarily the measures against which all crimes are actually measured.

How can I be an aspiring abolitionist if I desire to see certain people serve impossible jail terms? How can I say I dream of community repair while lusting for the punishment of vigilantes, terrorists and insurrectionists?

Abolitionist Mariame Kaba references Oakland organizer Morgan Bassichis’s idea that

“basically the very systems that we’re working to dismantle live inside us. And that really stuck with me when I first read it. It forced me to acknowledge my own complicity in forms of violence that I may not even personally be perpetrating in a intentional way… When you’re always in a position of seeing everything as outside of you, then you’re always on the outside looking in, which isn’t necessarily the best way to address forms of violence. We have to do both. We have to be on the outside looking in but also on the inside looking out.” –

Mariame Kaba, “Accountability Is Not Punishment” in We Do This Til We Free Us, p. 140

Cultivating a different, more humane understanding of justice requires a level of unlearning that I do not always feel prepared or equipped to take on. Sometimes the prospect of vengeance suggests an eventual relief. But I’m also sure that’s an illusion. I want to be in right relation with others

But hesitate to give anything up for it.

Again, Kaba

“If my focus is on ending harm, then I can’t be pro-deathmaking and harmful institutions. I’m actually trying to eradicate harm, not reproduce it, not reinforce it, not maintain it. We have to realize that sometimes our feelings – and our really valid sense of wanting some form of justice for ourselves – gets in the way of actually seeking the thing we want.”

“Accountability Is Not Punishment” in We Do This Til We Free Us, p. 155

“[S]eeking the thing [I] want” means holding this tension between my rage-adjacent feelings and my lofty hopes for a better, more just society. It means looking for how I practice justice in my day to day. How am I acknowledging harm, seeking repair, rebuilding trust?

Unlearning will tire a body out. Uprooting mental models that are so deeply ingrained requires support and community. Where will we open up space in our minds for justice to move and breathe? When will we become the sowers of justice in our communities? How shall we prepare the soil for forms of justice that allow us to grow in right relation with each other and our planet?

Knowing more is not always the answer I need. Some things require action – doing more, while saying less. Paying attention. Observing closely. Reflecting. Justice moves, a workout.

Landing Space, Post-PoCC

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In the past, when I’ve returned to school after my singular experience at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (NAIS PoCC) I’ve written a blog or e-mail to share with colleagues, to let them them know where I was, what I experienced and how it might be of interest to them. It feels like good practice on a number of levels: modeling a means of sharing professional learning after an event, giving myself a space for recap and reflection, providing conference organizers and attendees with one person’s publicly documented feedback. I may do that again this year but it may take a bit more time.

It’s Sunday. The day after the close of an intense four-day professional and personal learning experience. I have a long day/night of travel ahead and the calls of re-entry are already audible through my inbox. Frankly, I’m exhausted. The 9 hour time difference is about to serve up another punch to my somatic system upon returning home, my sleep patterns have been off since I arrived and I maximized my conference involvement by hearing all the major speakers and attending a workshop in every slot. I am deeply grateful for every conversation, shared smile, knowing nod, sudden laughter. This is that conference where I show greedy tendencies: I show up here and there and there because this special opportunity will not present itself again for another year. I am feeding my educator soul for the long season in between when I am not surrounded by colleagues of color and local conversations on justice become rare and hushed.

As I leave this place and the thousands of impressions I am holding, I feel a sense of lonely release back into the overwhelming whiteness of being. I have chosen these spaces. I am fully accustomed to being the only or one of a few. Non-threatening, amenable, easy to welcome. I don’t harp on my Blackness and that seems to make everyone feel more at ease. I’ve said it before: for white folks, I’m a very comfortable Black friend and colleague to have.

What I’m thinking about now as I head back into my life in progress, is not so much about dramatic change in myself or others. I notice that my attention is desperately looking  for a good, solid place to land. A place to process and sort. A cleansing space for feeling the feels without apology; an interior home base to reassemble the pieces of myself I have given more free reign than usual in these four days. There’s gratitude, joy, concern, curiosity, wistfulness, pride, fear, overwhelm, ambition, purpose and wonder to make sense of. What’s next? Who do I need to lean on? Where can I lay some of these burdens down? Where do I need to pick up some slack? Who am I now and what is different from a week ago?

After visiting with my favorite uncle here in Seattle I’m thinking about family history. How do we account for all the unknowns which, in my case, outnumber and outsize the known? How have my ancestors’ sacrifices manifested in my life and those of my children? What does it mean to know, I mean really know, whence we came? The older I grow, the more cognizant I become of how deep these questions run. And then to understand the impact of growing up in a society that told me time and time again that my past didn’t matter. It is at turns physically painful to recognize how that double-edged sentiment has been applied to deny the legacy of dehumanizing racism while uplifting the doctrine of rugged individualism and exclusive self-responsibility. It is a shock to my system to decide post-50 that I’m ready to battle these demons.

So, attending PoCC means that a lot of my thinking has been stirred up; my emotions are hanging about me, still exposed. I am vulnerable and unprotected. To name that seems important. The conference is identity based, identity grounded, identity moving, identity shaping. That’s the wonderful part and also the risky part. I will take my time before I decide what and when to share with colleagues. I will try to be gentle with myself as I return to the ocean of other folks’ expectations. I will give myself time to process, rest and heal even if it means saying no to some things.

There were so many people at the conference who let me know that I am valued, accomplished, welcomed and loved. I am taking these gifts with me and thank you for sharing your time, care and wisdom with me.