Defining Social Justice Poetry

What is social justice poetry?
Although this is perhaps the most basic question in regards to our group’s project, its answer has proven more elusive than initially imagined. After all, social (in)justice itself covers a broad spectrum of issues, including (but definitely not limited to):
• Gender
• Race, nationality, and ethnicity
• Sexual orientation
• Religion
• Ageism
• Language
• Access to education
• Basic human rights (safety, food, healthcare, dignity, respect, etc.)
• Anti-poverty and homelessness
• Politics
• Animal and environmental

Here is an academic definition of social justice (source: Social Justice Symposium University of California):
“Social Justice is a process, not an outcome, which: (1) seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities; (2) challenges the roots of oppression and injustice; (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential; and (4) builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.”

Video Clip from ‘Awakening the Dreamer’

Poetry and literature in general has always served as a means of inspiration, to influence and awaken the reader. Social justice poetry, however, is first and foremost a catalyst. It conveys a message in order to stir up a moral vision within the reader, to spark a call to action. In other words, it “Us[es] the power of figurative language to combat social injustices and inspire democratic visions of a fair and just society” (A. Vincent Ciardiello).

Social justice poetry focuses on “the marginalized.” Two OED definitions seem relevant:
1) To make marginal notes upon.
2) To render or treat as marginal; to remove from the centre or mainstream; to force (an individual, minority group, etc.) to the periphery of a dominant social group; to belittle, depreciate, discount, or dismiss.

These two definitions work together to give us a clear vision of the form and content social justice poetry employs.

Perhaps Chris Jordan, an environmental activist and documentary film artist, sums it up best:

“Much of activism is about trying to change people’s behavior, and the stance of trying to change people’s approach—‘Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, and you should do the solution that I tell you.’ But there are a lot of smart people who are saying what it takes right now is a radical global change of behavior. It’s too late for any incremental progress that the kind of other movements have been able to be satisfied with. We’re getting to the deadline. We need radical global shift. And so how do we achieve that? Through radical global change of consciousness.”


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