March 8, 2015

Profiles in Social Justice: Meet Beatrice

Thomas Aquinas depicted in stained glass
Thomas Aquinas depicted in stained glass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There is a great deal of confusion out there about what social justice means and what social justice advocacy looks like. This confusion is understandable. After all, there are many definitions of social justice, many social justice issues on which one may choose to focus, and many forms social justice advocacy can take. With so much diversity, some confusion is to be expected. Unfortunately, quite a bit of the confusion is due to the manner in which social justice has been mixed up with what social justice warriors do, much of which has virtually nothing to do with social justice.

This post begins what I expect to be a three-part series in which I plan to introduce you to three people who report caring deeply about social justice. Two are the three are real people; one is an amalgam of a couple of real people. My hope is that we might learn something about social justice and social justice advocacy in the process of meeting them.

In this post, we meet Beatrice. Beatrice is a life-long Catholic now in her late 60s. She is quite liberal on nearly every social or political issue I can think of, including her consistent pro-choice views. She is a feminist, a social justice activist, and a frequent source of inspiration for this atheist.

Beatrice attended a Jesuit university in her youth, where she learned about social justice, oppression, and the plight of the poor. This would have a significant impact on her life. She went on to earn a master's degree in social work. Although she is now retired, her entire professional life was spent working in settings where she was able to live her commitment to social justice. Beatrice worked with a variety of low-income or no-income clients, but most of her professional life was spent working with women and children escaping domestic violence. Most of her work did not happen in a cushy office setting but took her into the field. You'd have an easier time finding her doing home visits in dangerous neighborhoods and domestic violence shelters than anywhere else.

For Beatrice, social justice has always been about poverty, oppression, and unequal access to services. In her professional role, she excelled at doing what many mental health professionals do: she worked as an advocate for those she served while simultaneously working to bring about social change. She helped her clients learn to navigate the system in order to better meet their basic needs, but she also recognized that many aspects of the system were broken and needed to be changed. And so, she worked to bring about that change. What always made Beatrice so remarkable was how well she did this and how much of her person she invested in the process.

During her entire working life, Beatrice somehow managed to be actively involved in a variety of progressive and social justice causes. She was fortunate in that her husband had a high-paying job that - combined with her income - produced a comfortable life for her family. Beatrice volunteered in soup kitchens on the weekends and was involved in the peace movement, animal rights, and LGBT equality to name just a few. She has volunteered for more progressive political campaigns and attended more rallies and protests than I can count. After Beatrice's daughter came out as bisexual, Beatrice joined PFLAG and was an active member for several years. It was difficult to identify even moments of her day that didn't involve serving those in need and working to advance a variety of social justice goals.

Beatrice always had an interesting way of reconciling her Catholic faith with her commitment to social justice, one I would come to admire over the years. When her church was supportive of the area in which she was working, she worked with them. Some of her volunteer activity took place through her church, especially that which involved work with the homeless. For Beatrice, serving the poor was a key aspect of her faith. And yet, there were many times when she found that her church was less than supportive (e.g., reproductive freedom, LGBT equality). On these issues, Beatrice stood up to her church community, made her views known, and then worked outside the church. While I had no doubt that her faith was important to her, it was less important than her own sense of right and wrong. Beatrice could be counted on to do what was right, regardless of where her church stood.

After retiring, Beatrice's involvement in social justice work increased substantially. I think she is far busier these days than she was while she was working full-time. The time she used to spend working for pay has been reallocated into volunteer work. With her training (social work is one of those fields that tends to prepare people quite well to serve an advocacy role), professional experience, and passion, Beatrice continues to be an asset to any group she joins.

When I think of what social justice work looks like and what social justice advocacy involves, I immediately think of Beatrice. When I hear the famous statement attributed to Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," I think of Beatrice. Her generosity and tireless commitment have made a difference in the lives of countless people. Knowing her has enriched my life as well.

Continue to the next post in this series.

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