Throughout my budding career in the Student Affairs profession, I have often heard the phrase: “do your work through a social justice lens”. But, what does that REALLY mean? As a new professional, this is a concept I have been challenged by in my second job post-grad school. I went from Multicultural Affairs to the Residence Life functional area. In my position as the Assistant Director of Multicultural Student Programs & Services, it was literally my job to think about social justice, diversity education, & equity issues all day every day. Now, as I wrap up a year of being a Resident Director, I have been reflecting on the following: 1) What is my personal definition of social justice? 2) How do I implement social justice values into my student affairs practice? and 3) What does it look like to have a social justice lens in functional areas that do not explicitly have equity initiatives in their job descriptions? This has been a hard reflection period for me since I still struggle with seeing myself as a “knower”, but this is what I have come up with thus far:
At its core, social justice to me is the golden rule: “do unto others as you would want done unto you”. This is not to ignore the importance of cultural competence, personal experience, and/or expertise—I say this because I have come across a myriad of people (myself included) who believed that in order to do social justice work, there had to be big, elaborate, actions & outcomes. As a result, intimidation, anxiety, & fear were rampant when it came to taking part in any social justice initiatives. It is important to remember that not 1 single person has worked for a socially just society without a support system. Even those who are remembered as social justice activists throughout history had people behind them assisting their efforts.
The biggest way I try to implement social justice values into my student affairs practice is to have empathy. It may seem small, but I try my best to focus on extrinsic factors, not intrinsic assumptions when interacting with both students and colleagues. To be blunt, this is NOT an easy feat. Ironically, I have found myself most likely to fail at empathy when I am stressed and want others to have grace with my own actions. However, striving for solidarity is a cycle that goes forward & back—all I can do is own my mistakes and learn from them so I don’t make the same ones in the future.
After reflecting on year one of being a Resident Director, I think I utilize my social justice lens in conduct hearings, facilities walks, student staff selection processes, and in a lot of daily tasks. It finally sunk in that diversity education & equity initiatives don’t just make up a functional area—they are some of the pillars that currently drive the Student Affairs profession. While I always “knew” this subconsciously, I really get now that multicultural affairs, equity initiatives, diversity education, & social justice will always be a part of my life, whether that be personally or professionally. And most importantly—the work is NOT about me. If I keep leading with the ideology that students should always be at the center of my practice, then I will sleep soundly at the end of the day (unless the duty phone rings).
Kata Traxler is a Resident Director in the Department of Residence Life at Loyola University Chicago. The passion she has for social justice & equity initiatives motivates her to continue learning and growing via research, personal experiences, and professional development opportunities. She received her M.Ed. in College Student Personnel Administration from Marquette University and her B.A. in Psychology & Communication Studies from DePaul University. When Kata isn’t trying to dismantle the heteronormative, Christonormative, cisgender, ableist, white supremacist patriarchy, one can find her watching home improvement shows on HGTV, critiquing decisions made by both the Chicago Bears & Chicago White Sox organizations, or adding more leopard print to her wardrobe.