“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks directly to our mission at the Adler School: to correct social injustices, no matter how small, to improve the well-being of our communities.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, Kevin James, Ph.D., Adler School Director of Community Engagement, reflects on what Dr. King and the African-American civil rights movement can teach us about leading the quest for social justice. Prior to his work at the Adler School, Dr. James was Director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University in South Bend. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology with a specialization in race, ethnicity and gender.
Q. Why do you think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was such a strong force in leading the cause for social justice?
The African-American Civil Rights Movement was a collaborative effort, but Dr. King became more than just a leader. He became a tangible symbol of justice and freedom. He represented somebody for the masses and showed how, through grassroots efforts, the work of “ordinary people” could create real change.
Dr. King also stood out as a leader because he listened to the people. He visited African-Americans from all areas of the South and country. He didn’t assume that their experiences and concerns where the same everywhere. And, by listening through their pain and frustration, he found the common thread of what all human beings are looking for – human dignity and respect – and helped them find their voices to express this need.
Q. What legacy did the African-American civil rights movement leave for us?
The movement was a struggle in motion from the time of slavery through today. It was an African-American struggle, but through this fight for freedom and rights, came social changes that provided more opportunities for all minority groups to have their voices heard.
What also has endured from this movement is a desire among everyone to see justice done. I think for the most part we can agree – across race, age, economic status – that we all want to see a more equitable future. We just differ about how to best get there.
Q. What does Dr. King’s quote about justice say to you?
I truly believe that when we remain silent and allow an injustice to exist, we give permission for it to affect us. We have to work together to support freedom and equality and to make sure everyone has access to the “American Dream.” We have a right – and a duty – to stand up for that.
Q. How can mental health practitioners create lasting social justice change?
Part of creating lasting change is teaching people about diversity. But it also is about knowing the risk of standing up against the norm and challenging public opinion. As social practitioners, we have to know what we are going into when we work with a disadvantaged population, but we also have to know what we are bringing with us. This requires us to look inside to assess our own place in the issue.
We then have to know how to use systems, such as legislation, politics, education and health care as mechanisms of change. At the Adler School, we focus on how our students can effectively serve a community, but also teach them how they can work to enact policy and social changes that create a lasting change beyond one community.