Reflections on social justice

The following article is an essay I wrote in 2010 at the end of my BA in Education. I had decided a few years before that I could not continue to train as a school teacher and converted my teaching degree to a BA. I was required to write the essay as if I was a teacher going into the classroom, which I just could not do. This essay was my attempt to answer the question that the lecturer posed but keep it real and relevant to me.


I work in a diverse community in terms of the cultures represented, the socioeconomic status of the families I work with, and the social issues that impact on the community and its residents. This essay is a reflection on including social justice and multiliteracies into my practice as a community worker working with families and children aged 0 to 8 years, in a school which operates as a community hub.

The importance of inclusion is encapsulated in a statement by Adrienne Rich (cited in Sapp, 2010):

“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

It is a powerful statement. Inclusion has to be meaningful and ongoing. The challenge is how to integrate diversity and social justice into practice so that it is seamless, inclusive, and respectful rather than tokenistic and twee. How do I draw attention to the richness and benefits of diversity without singling people out? How can diversity be used as a resource and to be regarded as the norm (Moloney, 2010a)? It is essential that individuals are not singled out and made unwilling spokespersons for their culture (DeJean, 2010c) but are given the opportunity to participate and contribute to the conversation and other’s understanding (Wheatley, 2002; Welch, 2007). Intercultural communication and relations requires open-ended dialogue with the goal of reaching reciprocity, understanding, knowledge, trust, accord, sincerity, and truthfulness (Habermas, 1979, cited in Welch, 2007).

I believe the answer is in collaboration, or thinking and working together in new and different ways as Wheatley (2002) describes it. As I work primarily with adults to support their parenting skills, there is great scope for engaging them to bring their culture into the programmes and activities I facilitate. This may require me to scaffold parents (Moloney, 2010a) to enable them to feel confident in their participation.

Being inclusive of diversity requires divergent thinking. Multiliteracies involve not only text, but combining linguistic, visual, audio, spatial, and gestural elements (Moloney, 2010a). A look around the community room and the resources I use indicate the lens through which I view the world – white and Aboriginal. I need to display more bilingual texts (books, poetry) and images, music, and designs from other cultures. I need more information and resources for inclusive practice and social justice.

Integrating social justice is not an easy task at times. I recently asked a mother at playgroup whether she has any storybooks about children who have two mothers. This mother is in a same-sex relationship, and they have a child aged 16 months. She brought in the story Heather Has Two Mommies (Newman & Souza, 1989) and I read it aloud at group time. Some of the participants felt uncomfortable about me reading the story. I used interactive text reading to engage the children and read the sentences which told the bones of the story as the text is too lengthy for young children. Sapp (2010) advises that the older gay and lesbian story books are less engaging than the story books written since 2001. However, Heather Has Two Mommies is about a child going to playgroup and her interactions with the other children at playgroup about who is in their family.

One group member approached me at the end of the session and asked if I approved of homosexual relationships. I explained that there are now many different types of families and it is important for children to understand the range of families that children live in. I explained to this mother, who is living in a heterosexual relationship where there is violence in the home, that I approve of children living in a home where both parents have a caring, supportive, and safe relationship, regardless of their sex.

This was a difficult transition (Moloney, 2010a) and was it a necessary one? Did I have the right to read that story? I knew it would make people feel uncomfortable. Should I only read happy and colourful texts because playgroup is supposed to be a happy place? As a community worker, my funding relies on a steady participation rate, and I need to do things that welcome people in rather than turn them away. However, as a community worker, I also need to include the diversity of people attending the groups. Teaching is political work (DeJean, 2010d), and so is community work. Negotiating the balance and tension between keeping people happy and challenging the norm lies in the process. In hindsight, I needed to work up to reading Heather Has Two Mommies through an integrated programme of activities and less challenging texts such as And Tango Makes Three (Parnell, Richardson & Cole, 2005). My haste to be inclusive, possibly alienated the people I was intending to include, and galvanised opinion against rather than for. Social justice work does require small but tangible steps (DeJean, 2010d)

I must constantly be mindful of my identity and how I perpetuate white power and privilege. In conversation with Aboriginal Elder, Winsome Matthews (2010), I said that I have learnt that I must not become complacent in my interactions with Aboriginal people and I have to constantly examine how white power and privilege impacts my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions. Winsome replied that as an Aboriginal person she has to do the same because she has clean running water, can afford to pay the mortgage, and has two well-fed and loved dogs, and her identity as an Aboriginal person who is materially well-off can affect the interactions she has with Aboriginal people who have nothing. Individuals need to examine how they are privileged in different settings and how they are perceived by others (DeJean, 2010d). Aboriginal participants at a recent training course (Indigenous Triple P, 2010) agreed that they dislike white Australians adopting Aboriginal culture as if it were their own and using Aboriginal English, a process that Bennett, Hammer & Wiseman (2003) call “reversal” or “going native”. The risk here is that white Australians will assume that they can speak for Aboriginal people, and highlights the importance of having a deep understanding of one’s own identity and sense of self (Tatum, 2000) to avoid less visible abuses of power (McIntosh, 1988).

When I work with children, I have to be conscious of my power as an educated adult responsible for caring for children. Having worked in child protection, I am mindful of what I tell parents about their children, emphasising their strengths and rarely mentioning their mistakes, as mentioned in the correspondence by Cowhey in Nieto (2003). A child is at risk of being severely punished if his/her parents hear negative reports from workers, which impacts on how much children can trust the significant adults in their lives. This reflects what Kime (DeJean, 2010c) said about pushing children away as opposed to drawing them in. Practicing social justice is being aware of the risks and struggles that children face in their everyday life.

As adults working with children it is our responsibility to do everything possible to enhance their wellbeing. Literacy practices need to include stories of struggle, courage, resilience, and strategies for getting on with others, to end the silence on child abuse and family violence and to give children hope and skills for the future. However, the stories we use for these purposes should also have a story and visuals that appeal to children and which are one-step removed so children can derive their own meaning and interpret for themselves how it applies to their own reality (Spitz, 1999, cited in Sapp, 2010). Years ago, I worked with a 12 year-old child who had endured horrific abuse from her parents, and was constantly comforted by the story book Matilda (Dahl, 1988).

As I do not work with children in a classroom environment, I don’t have the opportunity to practice all of those wonderful reflective and collaborative pedagogies where students are engaged in critical analysis and challenging accepted wisdom, as described in Gibbons (2008), Fisher, Frey & Williams (2002), and Sapp (2006). However, I think I have my work cut out challenging my own assumptions, identity, complacency, communication, bias, thinking, attitudes, actions, and ways of connecting to ensure that I am being socially and culturally inclusive (Tatum, 2000; McIntosh, 1988; Wheatley, 2002). Humility and reflection is necessary on a daily basis (DeJean, 2010a, 2010d, 2010e). It is important to constantly critically analyse what I am doing and reflect on how I can do better (DeJean, 2010a, 2010f).

Who amongst the group is not being heard or represented (DeJean 2010a)? How am I contributing to the oppression of other people (DeJean, 2010e)? How am I perpetuating stereotypes based on gender, class, disability, race, and culture (DeJean, 2010b)? This is an honest account of my experiences, struggles, and the opportunities that arise when thinking about social justice in a community setting. My study of social justice has raised many more questions for me than it has answered. Integrating social justice and multiple cultures through literacy requires concerted effort and a lifelong process of adaptation.


Dahl, R. (1988). Matilda. London: Puffin Books.

DeJean, W. (Producer). (2010a). Scott Gross. Internet address  Accessed 11/10/10.

DeJean, W. (2010b). Power and privilege: Thinking about our own identities. Lecture at Macquarie University on 16 August 2010 for unit EDUC373.

DeJean, W. (Producer). (2010c). Karen Kime. Internet address  Accessed 11/10/10.

DeJean, W. (Producer). (2010d). Anne Rene Elsbree. Internet address  Accessed 11/10/10.

DeJean, W. (Producer). (2010e). Nancy Dome. Internet address  Accessed 11/10/10.

DeJean, W. (Producer). (2010f). Jeff Sapp. Internet address  Accessed 11/10/10.

Fisher, D.; Frey, N.; & Williams, D. (2002). Seven literacy strategies that work. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 70-74.

Hammer, M. R.; Bennett, M. J.; & Wiseman, R. (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 421–443.

Indigenous Triple P. (2010). Triple P extension training course. Wednesday 3rd November 2010, at Nepean Rowing Club, Penrith.

Kohl, H. (2004). Teaching for social justice. In: The new teacher book: Finding purpose, balance, and hope during the first years in the classroom. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools.

Matthews, W. (2010). Private conversation. Wednesday 3rd November 2010, at Nepean Rowing Club, Penrith.

McIntosh, P. (1988). Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and multicultural education and staff development (pp77-80). Washington: Teaching for Change.

Moloney, R. (2010a). Multiliteracies. Lecture at Macquarie University on 18 October 2010 for unit EDUC373.

Moloney, R. (2010b). Development of the bilingual learners. Lecture at Macquarie University (number 12) for unit EDUC373.

Newman, L. & Souza, D. (1989). Heather has two mommies. Alyson Books.

Nieto, S. (2003). Teaching as democratic practice. In What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

Niland, K. (2007). Two tough teddies. Little Hare Books.

Parnell, P.; Richardson, J.; & Cole, H. (2005). And tango makes three. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Sapp, J. (2006). Cooperative learning. Teaching Tolerance, No. 30, Fall 2006. Internet address:  Accessed 30/10/10.

Sapp, J. (2010). A review of gay and lesbian themed early childhood children’s literature. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 35(1), 32-40.

Swain, G. (2004). Carrying. London: Milet Publishing.

Tatum, B. (2000). The complexity of identity: “Who am I?”. In: Readings for diversity and social justice: An anthology on racism, anti-semitism, sexism, heterosexism, albleism, and classism. New York: Routledge.

Welch, A. (2007). Cultural difference and identity. In: R. Connell, C. Campbell, M. Vickers, A. Welch, D Foley, & N. Bagnall (Eds.), Education, change & society (pp155-187). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Wheatley, M. (2002). Willing to be disturbed. In: Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


About Narelle Smith

Child & Family Worker


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