C4 Innovations

Working in Social Justice: What it Would Have Been Nice to Know

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Makeba Boykins and Ashley Stewart reflect on practical things to think about when pursuing higher education and preparing to work in social justice organizations.

October 3, 2022


Ashley Stewart, Host (00:05):
Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Dr. Ashley Stewart, a director and racial equity subject matter expert at C4 Innovations. Our topic today is, “Would’ve Been Nice to Know,” [laughter], a conversation about practical guide for folks who are interested in getting into social justice work, in social service delivery. My guest is Dr. Makeba Boykins calling from Chicago.

Makeba Boykins, Guest (00:29):
Hello. Hi, this is Makeba. So happy to be here with you. Ashley.

Ashley (00:33):
Thank you for being here. Makeba is our colleague for innovations in the role of health equity and housing subject matter expert. So glad you could be here with us, Makeba, and I’m so pumped about our conversation today, would’ve been nice to know. [Laughter.] This is going to be super fun. We’re going to talk about things that we wish we would’ve known, really keeping in mind and honoring people who are like, I want to do social justice work. I want to go in and make major change in the social service delivery field, and these are just some practical things to think about.

Now, the thing that I think is most fun about this is that it’s helpful for people who are thinking about going into social justice, but I think it’s also going to be helpful for people who are looking to recruit people who are interested in social justice so they can think maybe some organizational tweaks that they can make that folks might be looking out for if they’re interested.

So one of the things that came up for us, Makeba, as we were thinking about what are things that folks would need to know, and I bought in the dramatics with it, I said, “Forget everything you thought you knew.” So when we say forget everything you thought you knew, that obviously doesn’t mean dump all the information you have, but it does give us a nice framework to begin to think about what we should consider as we learn about social justice.

Makeba (01:54):
Absolutely, Ashley. So I feel like forget what you thought you knew was such a good way to start because I knew when I was entering into school, and I was entering working into social services, I was like, I got this. I know I’m going to be a social justice warrior, which there’s nothing wrong with that, but little baby Makeba was incorrect about that. She was incorrect about what she was doing. I thought I knew all the things. I thought I knew all the terms. And then I went to school, I got into work, and I was like, “Oh, I still have a bunch to learn. I have a bunch of stuff to figure out, but it’s going to be all right.” So yes, forget everything you thought you knew, go in and just accept the fact that it’s going to be a lifelong learning process. You’re always going to be learning, you’re always going to have to learn new stuff.

Ashley (02:39):
And it makes me think about how passionate and there was so much that was fueling me when I went into this work and I really did, I thought that I had all the tools that I needed and then I got into the practicality of it all, I got into the exploration of the field, and I was like, everything that I had in that textbook also doesn’t apply to all of these very specific scenarios. And then the other thing that I think about too is, well, if you’re getting into a social justice work, and you’re really diving deeply into it, you still have so much to learn. That’s a part of critical race theory, the suppression of narratives.

Makeba (03:17):

Ashley (03:18):
You absolutely don’t know things. Guess what? Because it wasn’t readily or easily accessible to you. So you’re going to have to do a lot of digging, and you’re going to need to continue to explore, and it’s going to be ongoing learning because what you need to know or the information you need to land and make real change probably isn’t something that you learned throughout the duration of any of your degrees unfortunately because of things like the suppression of voices of color or suppression of folks who are most systemically and structurally marginalized. Right?

Makeba (03:47):
Absolutely. When you go to school, when you start working in social work or counseling, these are two fields we come from before working at C4, and when you are in any of those spaces or places, you’re a part of a system. And I know that we talked about a little bit last time how we don’t like to think about systems. We don’t have to think about how we’re a part of systems. It’s icky, we don’t like it.

Ashley (04:09):
We are.

Makeba (04:09):
But the reality is that you go to school, you get a master’s degree or a PhD or bachelor’s degree, school education, that is a system, and it’s a system that people who exist in marginalized bodies have been oppressed by. The things that come out of academia, the things that come out of research often can contribute to the oppression of people, and then just those spaces, as you know, me as a woman of color in those spaces, I had trauma that I’m still unpacking from getting my PhD and really my master’s degree.

Ashley (04:48):
It will continue to impact.

Makeba (04:50):
It will continue to unpack for the rest of my life. Ongoing learning, yes, we love it. If you’re a social worker, you’re not out of the school realm, you’re going into working in a shelter or housing or residential services or a hospital. Those are systems too, healthcare, housing, those are all systems that again, folks with marginalized bodies who live in marginalized bodies have had historically negative experiences with. And so as you are trying to do social justice, you have to unpack where you work, what you do, you have to unpack a bunch of stuff. [Laughter.] And I know that that can seem daunting, but it helps. If this is what you’re signing up to do, really thinking about that, unpacking it, being intentional. Not only does it help, but it’s necessary to do the work. So that’s the first piece. Forget everything and get introspective. Get deep.

Ashley (05:38):
Get deep. It’s a journey. Get deep, get deep, get deep. I think that’s a perfect segue to, I know I have 10 years of higher ed[ucation] under my belt as a student. Makeba, how many years do you have?

Makeba (05:53):
An eternity. [Laughter.] No, probably about the same. Probably about the same.

Ashley (06:00):
So I think that we have a really good understanding of higher ed[uction] that is across four different universities for me. And so looking for or having the right school is so important, whether it’s school or technical training or whatever type of educational enhancement you are looking to involve yourself in as part of this social justice journey is also really, really important. And finding a place that’s going to be supportive of the things that you are most passionate about can’t be understated. What do you think, Makeba?

Makeba (06:37):
Absolutely, Ashley. When you are deciding to go to school and also I would branch this out to when you’re deciding where you want to work.

Ashley (06:46):
So true.

Makeba (06:47):
Where you want to spend your time providing your services, it can be really daunting, especially if we’re talking about jobs. We all need health insurance. We’re not necessarily trying to get out there and be like, “Is this the best place for social justice?” But if you’re trying to set yourself up for success, thinking about the school environment you’re going to be in, the work environment you’re going to be in, is this a place where I can really do the work that I’m looking to do is critical? And part of that is thinking, are there people on staff, are there people… So if you’re thinking about a job, are there people on staff who promote social justice or who are involved in activism or advocacy? If you’re thinking about school, thinking about is my program chair down for social justice stuff? All of that kind of stuff. As you’re thinking about where am I going to spend my educational journey, where am I going to spend my work journey and is that going to fit into my social justice priorities?

Ashley (07:42):
Oh yeah, for sure. And here’s my secret for what I do. I’m on their site. What are the issues that are most important to me? If they’re not writing about it or posting it publicly or talking about it or programming around it or don’t have a organization for it. If they’re not talking about the work that they have committed to a cause that’s important to me, that’s a high probability that they may not be doing it.

And if there’s some place that I was really interested in, I really passionate, I really want to work here, I really want to go to school here and I looked and I didn’t see it in an interview, informal or in the interview, if you’re applying, I’m going to ask that question because that response is going to tell me exactly what I need to know about if I’m going to be supported in doing this work. If folks are apprehensive at the fact that I’m asking the question, that might mean that there’s not too many resources that are going to be allocated for my continued growth in this area.

Makeba (08:41):

Ashley (08:42):
And that’s really important for me. I want to be able to talk about it, do meaningful work, but I also want to be supported in growth in that area too.

Makeba (08:49):
Ashley, everything that you’re saying resonates so much and it’s so important because in my journey in applying for my PhD and applying to schools, I met resistance when I met with people in interviews who were not super jazzed about me wanting to do research on racism. And so absolutely everything you said is so true. Ask the question. It can be really scary. You’re like, “I’m trying to get into this school, I don’t want to ask pressing questions,” but you need to, because it’s going to be four to seven years of your life that you’re going to spend in this program getting your PhD. You need to know that it’s going to be a place that’s going to wrap you in its arms and hold you and make you feel comfortable and safe and allow you to do the work and grow in the way that you need to grow.

Ashley (09:34):
Yes. I love that. Yes, you want to feel supported and you don’t want people putting down your work. I think about when I was applying for PhD programs, I’d be in these interviews and folks would say things like, “Oh let me guess, you’re going to study those issues for poor people of color,” degrading things or minimize the work. And so you have to be able to be cautious and see what people are saying in the environment because you could easily be somewhere where it could cause you more harm trying to study this information or pursue this type of knowledge than it is support.

Makeba (10:09):
Absolutely. I know it’s hard, you want to get into school, I want to be really mindful and realistic of people as they’re listening saying, “Girl, I’m just trying to get into school or girl, I’m just trying to get a job. I need to pay my bills.” And I get it. I totally understand. We do what we have to do. However, if you are in a position where you can make choices, make those informed choices, go to some place where people are going to support you, whether that’s work or school or community work, whatever it is that you’re doing, set yourself up for success. Don’t make it harder. Because social justice is hard. It’s hard. So set yourself up for as much success as humanly possible.

Ashley (10:49):
Yes. And we’re going to dive in a few minutes into self-care, but that’s a big part of self-care too. We have to know how to navigate through some of these really complex things, but if there’s opportunities for us to be supported in doing it, that’s going to lead to a higher level of retention for us, and we’re needed in this work. And so finding a place that will support you is key. Absolutely critical. So another thing that came up for us, this is point three if you will, is coalition building and finding like minds in doing the work.

Makeba (11:22):
Absolutely. I mean I think let’s just like pare it down. We’re talking about coalition building. It’s really the second part of what you said, Ashley. It’s just finding like minds and bringing those like minds together to say we’re going to offer support to one another and in the workplace or in school, we’re going to work together to move social justice initiatives or social justice, whatever it might be, forward. We’re going to have each other’s back in this stuff because it’s hard and you need that. You can’t do this all by yourself. Even if this is just writing your dissertation. I said just like it’s not a whole thing.

Ashley (11:59):
Now we know that’s not a just.

Makeba (12:03):
I feel like people are listening in their car and they’re like, “What? Just?” No, I’m sorry, I don’t mean just, but I’m saying if you’re writing your dissertation, you’re writing your thesis or you’re coming up with something that you’re advocating for, it’s important to have people who are behind you find the minds because that’s so important.

Ashley (12:20):
Yes. Find the folks who are going to do this work with you. Whether that’s emotional support, whether that’s validation, that what you’re doing is critically important. Bounce ideas off to challenge you. Please have folks in your corner who would challenge you and say, “I know that you’re really passionate about addressing these microaggressions, but let’s also think about these necessities and needs that people have in addition to and their feelings of safety and other, you need people who are going to challenge you and support you.”

And the other part of it is that there is not a one way to advocate. My favorite saying of my own, my favorite saying of my own is that the best tool that you have in advocacy is to know yourself. I never do what advocacy training without saying that the best tool we have for advocacy is to know ourselves.

Makeba (13:06):

Ashley (13:07):
And I know that if I am in an uncomfortable situation where I’m addressing a social issue, I’m going to be like, “Hello, I have something I need to say,” and that’s going to feel like self-care to me. But guess what? That’s not what it feels like for everyone. And it, there are people who have other skills in other areas, someone who’s going to take meticulous notes in a way that I never could that I need to be in that space too, that I need to be working with to be able to have the best outcome, and so by building a coalition of people with different strengths and skill sets, what?

That’s where we need to be.

Makeba (13:41):
Absolutely. I mean it’s incredibly important to bring those like minds together.

Ashley (13:45):
And you can build lifelong friends.

Makeba (13:47):
You can build lifelong friendships. Yes, absolutely.

Ashley (13:52):
Okay, so point number four, and I think this one, I love all of them, but this one really sits with me: learning how to manage your own emotions to be effective in delivery when it comes to social justice work. Because let’s be honest, most of us get into it because there’s something that makes us want to flip a table. I’m ready to go. I’m passionate about, this is keeping me up at night. But I am a trained specialist to help move these issues forward. And my number one priority is making sure a point lands. I’m more interested that people are able to take something away from it that’s going to lead to concretized change than my own feelings or sentiment about how a particular conversation’s going. And I think that learning how to manage your emotions to be effective in delivery, that’s been like its own type of self-care for me because it’s about strategy. There’s no winging it in this work, it’s strategic work, and so learning how to manage and regulate your emotions has been critical for me.

Makeba (14:57):
Yeah, I mean Ashley, I think about it in our last episode, one of the things we talked about was however you react to racism is okay. So if you react in an incredibly emotional way, that’s okay, that’s fine if you want to flip a table because something awful happens. But it is important that you, when you’re working with others, cannot let your emotions I guess run away. Not only to be effective but again, you hear me talking about self-care again, it’s part of self-care. Like if your emotions fill up an entire space, we don’t communicate the best when we’re emotional, we don’t always think clearly when we’re emotional, sometimes we say stuff we don’t mean. And if you let your emotions fill up a space where you’re trying to advocate for a cause, it’s maybe not going to be the best version of you. Maybe it is, but it’s maybe not going to be. And so really thinking through how do I know how to cope with things so I’m taking care of myself, how do I know how to cope with things and manage things so that I’m strategically pushing a message and mission forward. It’s all part of it. It’s not just being effective but it’s also taking care of you, which is incredibly important because if you don’t take care of you, you can’t do this work.

Ashley (16:12):
And that brings up something, it’s about boundaries too. So when I’m working to help to relay a really important topic as it relates to equity, that’s very different than something that’s happening to me in my neighborhood or at the shopping mall. How I react to that, it’s going to be really different. But when I’m in the space where I have the opportunity to create transformational change, strategy is always on my mind. Learning how to breathe and to regulate to sense in my body, oh, something was just said that was harmful and problematic. Let me facilitate a conversation that demonstrates how we can have these conversations in really productive and healthy ways while also holding people accountable, but that comes with a whole nother level of skill and training and emotion regulation to be able to facilitate that kind of dialogue. And it makes me think of the words of Ken Hardy to channel our rage appropriately.

Not to eradicate it, but to channel it appropriately, and really recognizing what is going to be a useful tool that I can bring in right now to hold folks accountable that’s also not going to have the rest of this room disengage. And being able to see and experience myself as a person who’s experiencing this thing that just happened and the professional in the room who’s helping to facilitate others through it, that requires a different set of strategy. And when I began to learn that and adapt that and develop in that skillset, it was transformative to me because I felt like I had so much more opportunity in every space that I was in to really make change and impact. And that’s so important to me. That feels so good to me.

Makeba (17:57):
I mean ultimately, going back to having support when you’re working in a work environment or in a school environment, just make sure that you have somebody that you can go to for supervision so that you’re getting constant support around this because you can’t learn the skillset unless you have people to support you.

Ashley (18:13):
Exactly. Point five, Self-care is essential to be sustained in this work.

Makeba (18:21):

Ashley (18:22):
Period. Self-care is not selfish. It is the most selfless thing that we can do because it assures that we can continue to get up and do it again and again and again and again.

Makeba (18:35):
Yeah, you can’t do work for somebody else if you yourself aren’t full. If you are just pulling from an empty well, you can’t give to others, and so making sure that you’re taking care of yourself as you said is absolutely selfless. Also our mental health is part of our health. If you had a toothache, if you had a whatever, you would go to the doctor, you’d go to the dentist. Making sure that you’re taking care of your emotional and your mental wellbeing is incredibly important just as a person. But also, again, when you’re doing stuff that’s heavy on a regular basis, you need to make sure that you have your mind so that you can step into situations and be strategic and channel your rage in a way that is safe, has boundaries, and is effective. Self-care allows you to do all of this stuff.

Ashley (19:29):
Absolutely. And boundaries also means there’s some conversations, I’m not going entertain. I don’t know about you Makeba, but I’ve always loved school. And there’s so many different ways that people can embrace and engage with education. It doesn’t necessarily always need to be in one of the formal, I’m making quote fingers here, formal ways that we think of higher education. There’s so many ways that folks can dive into and learn more and gather more information and to develop themselves professionally. For me, I really enjoyed school. And so when I started my associates, I knew I wanted to do, my bachelor’s, when I started my bachelor’s, I knew I wanted to pursue my master’s and from the very beginning I always knew I wanted to get a PhD, but I’m going to let you know, the desire for Dr. Stewart got me through the door, but it did not sustain me through a PhD program.

And there were a lot of moments in times where I had to tap into my why, to lean into self-care in a whole new way to sustain myself through that process. And I often think about my why, but I wonder for you, did you also have to tap into like a deeper level self-care or a deeper level of honoring to get yourself through your journey in academia?

Makeba (20:46):
Yeah, so absolutely. There were definitely moments, particularly in getting my PhD where I was like, “Nope, I’m out. I’m good. I can just go do anything else besides this. Anything.” But reminding myself that I got into the work because I wanted to help people because of my background and my past. My dad was born in 1928, and he’s no longer with us, but he was born in 1928 way before, just in a time where there were no rights, we’re just leaving reconstruction, we’re still really in reconstruction, and it is a totally different framework. And growing up with that history from a parent, not even just your grandparent, but growing up with that from my dad really influenced me to want to do this work.

And so reminding myself of that, of what I learned and things that he had been through, the things that other family members had been through and that really pushing me forward is the way that I was able to sustain myself. That and cookies, I advocate for anyone to eat oatmeal cream pies. It’s not sponsored content, they’re just really good.

Ashley (22:01):
I love that, Makeba. [Laughter] Similarly, I’m a first-generation college student across all degrees. And for me, I would sit back, and I’m thinking about the space that I was in, and I would be honoring my grandfather who literally taught himself Freud and taught himself aviation through going to a library because similarly, not having access to… Physically being told, “You cannot go to school here,” physically being told, “You cannot eat here,” physically being told, “You cannot work here.”

And having just such a fervent desire to learn and having to overcome extreme obstacles to be able to learn, and then reflecting on the opportunity that I had to not only get this expanded experience with higher education, but also to be able to utilize that and mobilize that to make serious meaningful change. And so I would have to continuously tap back into that all the time. So I recognize that this is so much bigger than me, and so that for me was a form of self-care centering and focusing on my why, honoring our loved ones, our family members, the folks who we do this work for is a really great way to be sustained in this work. So Makeba, I’m going to reflect back the five points to our audience, and I would love if you have any closing remarks before I do that.

Makeba (23:35):
Closing remarks, take care of yourself, y’all. If you want to go, and you want to do social justice work, that is beautiful, that’s wonderful. We need more people out there who want to be a different kind of ripple in the pond and change the way the world looks. But to do that, you need to take care of yourself, and having these sort of tips and hints when you’re like entering the work is helpful, but make sure you’re taking care of you. And drive safe if you’re listening to this while driving and eat oatmeal cream pie, those are my last words. [Laughter]

Ashley (24:05):
I love that. I love that. So point number one, forget everything you thought you knew, AKA it’s always going to be ongoing learning. A lot of the information that you want to have access to, you might have to dig for it and that’s the beautiful part of learning about social justice, the work that’s come before us and the work that is still yet to come. Two, be sure that you’re looking for a space, whether that’s an employer or a university or an educational opportunity of all different types of sorts, find a place that’s going to be supportive to you that also values addressing the social justice issues the way that you do. Point number three, make sure that you are building a coalition of like minds, both for support but also to enhance the work that you’re doing.

Point number four, make sure you learn how to manage your own emotions for effective delivery. This is important not only for your own wellbeing, but to make sure that the work that you’re doing is sustainable. And last but not least, point five, make sure you’re actively participating in self-care that feels like self-care to you. There’s a list of different ways of self-care on the internet. You can go and Google how to self-care, and it’ll give you more suggestions than you’ll ever know what to do with. But it’s really about knowing yourself in understanding what feels like self-care for you and applying that fervently, passionately, and as a part of the process. It is not supplemental, it’s not additive. It is absolutely required and necessary for you to be able to be sustained in the work. Makeba, thank you so much for joining us today and for another amazing conversation.

Makeba (25:48):
Of course. It was so much fun. It’s always so much fun when we get together and chat. And thank you all out there for listening. Such a good time. Thank you for having me.

Ashley (25:56):
And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (26:00):
Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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