• Caroline James

Social Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Don't Work

Article Summary: 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?

The One Injustice Americans Agree To Address

Social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion all assume that WE have a shared desire and vision of justice. Without considering our political positions, what is the American, agreed upon, not political- "because it’s just a human right," kind of justice?”

The United States is facing countless unresolved social justice issues and there is little agreement on any of them.

However, in a 2020 survey of voters, one justice concern was almost universally shared. The article explains:

While there is no doubt that our nation is deeply divided on most issues [...], there is uniform and tremendous “tri-partisan” support for making significant progress on children’s issues [.]

Regardless of gender, race, age, income, geography, education, marital status, or religion, Americans tend to agree that children are deserving of progress on justice issues.

Since WE all agree on justice for children, let's examine justice for the most vulnerable children in the United States: foster children.

During this journey, WE will ask ourselves "what does our commitment to the most vulnerable children indicate about social justice, equity, and inclusion in the United States?"

Childhood Injustices

At the age of ten, I identified that my father was dangerously neglectful and abusive.

Shortly thereafter, I successfully got myself and my brothers placed in foster care.

I remember the moment I realized that I'd not guaranteed us a brighter future.

Like many foster kids, 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 homes. Unfortunately, this is common.

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.”

The statistics of child abuse within the child welfare system are not new. Every year, without fail, multiple stories break around this country about foster youth being killed in foster homes. One of the latest I found included a toddler who was beaten with such violence that her blood vessels burst. South Carolina lawmakers are facing petitions to pass a bill to reform “the current screening process to become not only an adoptive parent but as a foster parent as well.”

Despite the apparent "tripartisan" support for ensuring that children's rights and lives are protected and improved, these are long-term systemic issues that repeat constantly.

Living under that broken system taught me the deepest lessons in my work today.

As a child in foster care, I learned that "justice" and "injustice" are sometimes the same package and either way, you’re getting burnt.

Justice For Children is an American Pipe Dream

As children, our lives were directly underscored by every unaddressed social justice issue in the United States. In fact, there was no real justice for most children I met in the system, even those who went home.

In the Survey of Youth Transitioning from foster care, I find the same realities I experienced. 72% of foster youth expressed the desire to be listened to, heard, and emotionally supported. As I felt so frequently, one respondent said “The trauma and pain us young adults endured wasn’t our fault.” This overwhelming call for emotional support also maps on to the request for more mental health support.

Research indicates that becoming a “ward of the state” increased my access to necessary resources for emotional, academic, and developmental support. However, like 71% of foster youth, I found I needed better resources and support.

Despite their legal rights, foster youth are less likely to receive critical resources, including those for academic interventions. Accordingly, foster youth are the most academically vulnerable youth in this nation.

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.

The rate of foster youth graduating college is 10%. In other words, 90% of foster youth who even make it to college do not graduate.

As a child, I realized that even though most Americans (like those in that 2020 survey) express a deep commitment to children and their welfare, being a child meant nothing if I was also black, poor, a girl, and in foster care.

Growing up within the child welfare system taught me that injustice is real and activism is survival.

Those identities meant that my life was on me and me alone. I learned that not knowing "the rules" meant you had no power to demand justice. I learned that if you could not be assertive enough to fight for those rules to be honored, they would be disregarded. And finally, I learned that for people like me, life could be made up of a string of disregarded rights.

Three Gaps That Are Actually Opportunities

Justice for children, including foster children, is a specific example within the larger movement for Social Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. At the beginning of this article, I showed you evidence that Americans across the political spectrum believe that children are deserving of justice. However, I also illustrated the often inhumane outcomes of our systems facing our most vulnerable children. i

Within the larger movement for Social Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, there are at least three gaps between "agreeing" on the need vs. "addressing" the need.

Gap 1: WE become aware too late.

These issues start the moment a child is born, so they are at the core of our lives. So, DEI and social justice education should be continued across the entire education lifetime with both students and educator. Within organizations, early awareness means ensuring that this work is a part of everyone's agenda and professional development right away and continued throughout. For community or family members, the same is true: start consistently making sure that your children,family and friends are engaging in these conversations.

Gap 2: WE do the work haphazardly.

In the United States, WE have to address the common misconception that these topics are relevant in some fields and not in others. This is a farce. Social Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are relevant in anything humans have created or run. For example, in medicine how else would you address the systemic inequality in healthcare outcomes? In banking how else would address the tendency to target the marginalized for unfair banking practices and discrimination in lending? Even babysitting presents the opportunity to teach children how to be kinder humans or ensure that children who are poor receive extra support in their education. No matter what you personally do for work, you can become part of the movement to ensure that these important conversations are part of your work.

Gap 2: WE often have lackluster reasons to bring these issues to the forefront.

Often the reason for DEI is to increase the presence of minority groups, address a recent scandal or event, or correct the prejudice in someone close to you. These are all lackluster reasons to do this work and will not produce strong or lasting results. Social Justice and DEI conversations are hard and they require change. Think about it like a diet vs. a lifestyle change. If you want strong and long lasting results from social justice and DEI, you need a reason that gets at the core of who you want to be or how you want to live.

If these were adequately done throughout society and within the child welfare system, WE would not have the outcomes WE see today. Social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion to spring from a collective mindset that normalizes inequity and injustice. WE have to fundamentally deepen our awareness, be consistent and be invested beyond today.