Award-Winning Journalist Urges Students to Consider Social Justice in Difficult Times

Farai Chideya challenged a Saint Mary's audience of students and staff on April 21 to think about what social justice means and how a person can live it out in their daily lives, especially in this time of economic crisis.

"These are critical times because social justice is often the causality of hard times… This is the time when people's character will be forged in a crucible," she said.

Chideya, a Harvard graduate and former host of the National Public Radio show "Notes and News," spoke in the Soda Center as part of the Social Justice Speakers Series and the First Year Experience.

Chideya cited many examples to help dig deep into defining social justice, touching on the experience of former South African president and political prisoner Nelson Mandela. She pointed out that he handed over control of the government to a person he did not necessarily like in an effort to preserve what is right. Chideya used the story to demonstrate that social justice needs to include looking at things not for the moment but beyond that because, "Sometimes the best short-term decision is not social justice."

Chideya noted that most of the greatest violations of human rights, including the Holocaust and slavery, have been legal. "Legality is not social justice," she said. "The question then becomes not, 'is it legal' but ‘is it right?' "

Chideya said that for too long, social injustices transpired under the desire to protect a way of life. However, she concluded that a particular way of life which requires a society to oppress others is not worth preserving.

The role of the journalist is to ask these questions without prejudging the answer. Chideya said reporters should "comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."

A person can lead a life championing social justice, Chideya said, only if they are willing to sacrifice. She said a person must be comfortable with the knowledge that often the only recognition they will get is from knowing that they did the right thing.

"Social justice is most profound and most difficult when you have to do something that is right not simply because you will be rewarded or because someone will stroke your ego," Chideya said.

Sometimes, she added, a person must be willing to be an outcast to carry out social justice.

"Are you willing to withdraw your ability to fit in? You must be willing to withdraw from your need from approval if you want to stand up for what is right," she said.

Chideya also motivated the audience to be ethically minded.

"Social justice comes to us when we are asked to sabotage someone else (in the work place), when we are asked to be successful at the expense of someone else," she said. "It happens in work, school and families every day."

-- Caitlin Graveson '11