Why You Can’t Do Social Justice Alone

  • Social Justice Network

Last summer’s California drought caused severe water shortages. That resulted in higher prices of grain which increased the price of beef. Therefore fast food places cut workers’ wages and the worker sent less money to his family in Mexico. In Mexico, people were dealing with that same drought, which caused immigration in the first place. Kristin Moe raises this issue in her article “Get Intersectional!” in Yes Magazine, April 2014.

Who or what is to blame?  – – – Climate change? Labor policies? NAFTA flooding Mexico with cheap US corn? – – –  Probably everything. All issues are related. One action leads to another. No person lives a single-issue life. Social movements from climate change to immigration reform are re-organizing on all fronts, realizing that to be effective, one must deal with all the issues, not just one.

Intersectionality is the word to describe that method of organizing. Look at the big picture. “Intersectionality is a way of thinking holistically about how different forms of oppression interact in people’s lives.”

This term has been around for 25 years, but is now being used more often as more people realize we are all connected and therefore all our issues are connected. Intersectionality looks at a problem in all its dimensions. Individuals have many identities. The problems they face come from an “interaction of all those identities.”

The term was first used in a legal article by Kimberle Cranshaw, a law professor at UCLA in 1989. “The meaning of the term has evolved from a way of describing the problem—the interactions between different forms of oppression—to a way of describing the solution.” For example, we can keep fighting the single issue of increasing wages—or we can look at the whole system—why wages are decreasing.

Wouldn’t you enjoy reading more descriptions of solutions rather than descriptions of problems? Many groups are organizing across issues: the National Nurses United works to stop the Keystone Pipeline, connecting that with national health.  The Black women’s Health Imperative is connecting the many ways that bodies of women of color are endangered. The Occupy Wall Street movement brought different people with many different viewpoints together.

“One way to take alliance building a step further is to reframe issues so that they’re no longer issues, which can be divisive, but values, which have more power to unit.”

The Cowboy-Indian Alliance has spent years building relationships between white western ranchers and Native American tribes. They plan to lead a five-day action to oppose Keystone XL in Washington D.C. By working within their diversity and claiming their common value (land protection), their alliance is much stronger than when each had a separate movement.

The key is to ask: “what are the core themes that intersect all of our work?

As social movements move toward a broader framework, other aspects will be affected. Groups will give up their former identity such as Women of Color or Fast Food Workers. They will find their common theme and be stronger for it. We, the readers, will be more hopeful as we read of solutions rather than problems.

Read more about intersectionality at