"Notes of A Sojourner"

Rethinking inequality, prejudices, and social justice one topic at a time.

Updated: Apr 29

Article Summary: The business world has been ablaze with a realization that some of us intuitively know: something ain’t working with this diversity, equity, and inclusion thing. Let’s remove all of the fancy marketing, new “interventions” and policies from the conversation and start with one basic question. Do we even have the orientation towards justice that would support efforts towards social justice, diversity, equity, or inclusion? In this article I look at the state of justice for one of the only issues folks of all political backgrounds tend to agree on: children should have justice. Drawing on my personal experiences and research, I ask myself- what can our treatment of our most vulnerable youth tell us about why social justice and equity aren’t working?

Social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion all assume that WE have a shared desire and vision of justice. Do WE? What are WE defining as justice?

I don’t mean social justice; I know social justice can be seen as a liberal political word. Without considering our political positions, what is the American, agreed upon, not political- "because it’s just a human right," kind of justice. ”

In a 2020 survey of voters, one justice concern was almost universally shared across political beliefs. The article explains:

While there is no doubt that our nation is deeply divided on most issues and the 2020 election results and aftermath confirm those divisions, there is uniform and tremendous “tri-partisan” support for making significant progress on children’s issues with little to no demographic divide by gender, race, age, income, geography, education, marital status, or religion.

What is the state of justice for children and what can that tell us about moving towards social justice, equity and inclusion?

Fleeing Injustice

I’ve been trying to find justice since I was a little girl. In fact, I remember the day I first went searching for justice. I was an elementary student in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was hot. Or maybe I was just uncomfortable.

This new land [Tuskegee] was my life’s first extreme departure. Here, below the Mason Dixon line, I saw things differently because they were different.

For example, “water bugs;” seemed like unfair mutations of hood roaches. But at least, I understood hood roaches. Why the hell did a waterbug need to fly and be as wide as a thumb? The world, as I knew it, was upside down.

My “normal” Chicago inner-city landscape [buildings and concrete] were replaced with lush Southern trees and open fields which lazily stretched between destinations.

On the way to Alabama, in a cold Greyhound bus, I registered this; if something went wrong, safety would be miles away. In fact, it would be miles away on foot.

In Chicago, we moved relatively freely between shelters and food lines; in this new land [whose name I couldn’t pronounce] our resources for food and shelter seemed even more undependable.

On this day, I was preparing to gamble my life to find justice.

Steadying my sweaty palms, I walked up to an educator and asked for help: my brothers and I were being abused and neglected.

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire

As early as 15 BCE Greeks popularized the concept of "jumping out of the frying pan (one bad situation) into the fire (an even worst situation.)

Let’s update that wisdom- call this: “A People’s Philosophy-” a particular brand of wisdom only learned from being under the foot of broken systems.

A month after I'd successfully gotten my brothers and myself into foster care, I learned "A People's Philosophy" lesson many marginalized adults knew and know:

"A People's Philosophy- Lesson #1"
Sometimes the choices for seeking justice are equally unsatisfactory: either stay in the original fire of the injustice or jump into the grease fire of the system. But either way, you’re getting burnt.

Like many foster youths, I quickly realized that my new “home” could be loving foster parents or abusive ones. In fact, after escaping my father's abuse, I lived in more abusive homes than non-abusive.

The Executive Director of the National Coalition of Child Protection Reform, says: “The rate of abuse in foster care is much worse than official statistics suggest. [...] That’s because official statistics are just agencies investigating themselves.”

Like so many children, running into the arms of the government and people who “wanted to help,” I found that it didn’t actually mean justice.

Childhood Activism For Survival

Growing up within the system taught me the realities of justice. Again, being under the system creates a lived knowledge of injustice: "A People's Philosophy."

For example, I learned that not knowing "the rules" was the first greatest way to never see justice, second only to not being assertive enough to fight for those rules to be honored.

Imagine that: A child's survival, quality of life, and future depending on them being both knowledgeable of the system, aware of their needs, and an effective activist within the system. Systemic injustice demands these insanely developmentally inappropriate expectations of foster youth.

And I do not exaggerate how necessary knowledge and activism are within a system, particularly foster care.

As compared to being home, research demonstrates that becoming a “ward of the state” increased my access to necessary resources like emotional, academic, and developmental support. However, that same research also indicates that social workers commonly under-identify youth needs and under-refer them for those resources. Resultantly, foster youth are less likely to receive critical resources for academic interventions. In fact, in the United States foster youth are considered the most academically vulnerable youth.

When I graduated high school, I watched many of my foster sisters and brothers struggle to even beat the current rate of 50% of foster youth graduating high school. When I went to college, I was one of two foster children in my group home to even go. And honey, I wasn't exceptional nor intentional.

I remember the day my teacher asked where I was going to college.

I smiled and coolly shrugged my shoulders: ”I don’t know. I haven’t decided. Maybe Harvard.” It was my senior year near the final semester that I was even told you could only go to college if you applied and took the ACT. I thought you just showed up. This illustrates how college was almost entirely a dream. The rate of foster youth graduating college is [wait for it] 10%. In other words, 90% of foster youth who even make it to college do not graduate.

I want you to imagine the faces and lives behind those statistics. Those humans went from being child victims of injustice, then victims of injustice within the child welfare system, and (often) became adults facing every injustice in the American system at higher rates.

For many of us- myself included- justice just never fully came.

Is Justice For The Innocent?

At the beginning of this article, I showed you evidence that Americans across the political spectrum believe that children are deserving of justice.

As a society, many of our arguments about why certain social groups are experiencing injustice are based on the assumption that if they somehow improved themselves or became more deserving, they wouldn’t be experiencing such inequity.

The lived realities of foster children throws a major wrench in that argument. If WE agree that children deserve justice and WE accept the idea that inequality and injustice are due to issues the minority groups has, then what about foster children justifies suc inequality and injustice?

In fact, what have most American children done to warrant injustice .

Global data unequivocally illustrates that WE are uniquely failing at getting justice right for children (not just foster kids.) In fact, “Only Chile, the United States and Malta are in the bottom third of rankings [of rich countries across the world] for each of the three well-being outcomes [for children].” In fact, our case of inequity is actually fairly unique because we are one of the few nations that have very high income and very high inequality.

How Can Equity and Justice Become Reality?

It appears that we live in a country where access to justice [social justice or otherwise] is relatively determined by the time the child is born. The same lack of justice trapping my parents, trapped us kids within the system. That hot day in that Tuskegee elementary school, my fate was mostly sealed before I even asked for help.

Foster children, in fact, most American children, illustrate an undeniable gap and contradiction in our story of injustice; injustice begins long before WE are even adults. So, clearly, something greater than "inept adults" is driving injustice.

WE aren't finding justice and equity because WE are expecting social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion to spring from a collective mindset that normalizes inequity and injustice. WE have to fundamentally shift our beliefs if WE are going to make fundamental shifts in our world.

  1. WE have to abandon the fiction of believing prejudices only apply to the adults. There is no real separation. For example, the rate at which black and Hispanic children are shot to death by police mirrors that of black and Hispanic adults.

  2. WE can not offer children equity and justice while normalizing discrimination. For example, as a result of racism, Black and Hispanic children are 6x more likely to be shot dead than white youth.

So, if WE want equity and justice, WE first have to unlearn the prejudices against social groups that fuel inequity and injustice. If WE are serious about addressing inequality and injustice, even for children, learning and unlearning are inescapable requirements.