It’s been expressed that if we treat everyone justly, fairly, and impartially, then “social justice” doesn’t mean any more than “justice” by itself. Jessica Ruffin, director of Carlow University’s newly formed Social Justice Institutes, and Susan L. O'Rourke, EdD, special education graduate professor and program director of special education, shared a conversation about social justice.
Carlow University Magazine: Why do you think the word “social” is needed in front of “justice”?
Jessica Ruffin: Social means we’re interacting with people. Through that interaction, we start to understand ways in which people are oppressed or disenfranchised. We also empower those people to communicate how they need to be treated, or what they need in order for things to be fair.
Susan O’Rourke: Some people think social justice means some kind of redistribution of wealth. That’s not the case at all. What we are talking about is equity of opportunities. Each of us has the right to develop ourselves fully and contribute fully to society. Oftentimes people are unable to reach their potential because of barriers we ourselves place in front of them—in addition to barriers put up by society.
Carlow University Magazine: You both work with students in your positions at Carlow. How do you impart the need for social justice to your students?
SO: In my classes, I am very deliberate in discussion of global issues. Through my work internationally and my initiatives in developing countries, creating opportunities for kids with disabilities [is] often a life or death issue. I want my students to understand that they come from a space of privilege in the United States, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to do what we can to help make the road a little bit easier for others.
JR: For many of our students, this is the first time they are acknowledging or understanding that they carry some privilege in their lives. It is really around meeting them where they are, keeping an open mind, and understanding what they are bringing to this university experience. Then it's explaining things in a way that empowers them to feel like their efforts can make a difference—and that they have a responsibility to take action.
Carlow University Magazine: How do you get across the concept of privilege to someone who has their own struggles and doesn’t feel they have had any privilege?
SO: I tell students about Nicaraguan children I’ve met who live in a garbage dump, who tear open bags of garbage in search of anything of value that will help them survive that day. I talk about Ugandan children who were orphaned or who became child soldiers after the Lord’s Resistance Army came in and killed all of their family members. And I talk about what I’ve seen in Kuwait, where, though they have the means to provide services to individuals with disabilities, I came across a teenager with above average intelligence who was segregated from his peers and placed in a school for disabled children because he had a limp. Once students recognize that such things would never happen in our country because of laws and opportunities that give access to anybody who is a little bit different or who learns differently, they begin to realize that they do come from a place of privilege. And they realize it’s a privilege to live in a place that is relatively peaceful.
Interview by Drew Wilson