Five Main Approaches to Taking Action
Creating a Balanced Social Justice Program
From UUA Social Justice Empowerment Workshop Handbook
Five Main Approaches to Taking Action Offering participants a variety of ways to be involved is key in maintaining a successful social justice program. And of course, all approaches to social justice should include an orientation of healing divisions, dismantling institutional oppression, and acting with accountability. The five types of social justice action are:
- SERVICE: The purpose of social service is to meet the needs of persons in distress.
Examples: collecting money, donating food or clothing, tutoring, sheltering the homeless, homes for senior citizens, programs for senior citizens, child care programs, food programs, youth clubs, scouts, hospitals.
Strengths: It is doing something in the present. Hungry people are fed; homeless people are housed. When done in an accountable way to homeless communities, such programs are done in partnership with those being served and some of the homeless themselves act as co-leaders of the project.
Challenges: Relieving the symptoms does not always solve the problem over time and often has little impact on public policy. Providing information on antipoverty legislation and opportunities for activism in combination with service can bridge this gap.
- EDUCATION: The purpose of social education is to educate people about the importance of a social issue. The goal is to inform people about the aspects of the issues and also interpret the issue within the context of liberal religious values.
Examples: Public meetings, workshops, resolutions, drama, public forums, worship services and sermons.
Strengths: People’s consciousness is raised. When done accountably, those most impacted by the issue have a voice.
Challenges: Talking about a problem may become a substitute for doing something about it. Providing advocacy action steps as part of education and having form letters and postcards available at the event, can help overcome this.
- WITNESS: The purpose of social witness is to make public by word or deed the convictions of an individual or organization regarding a particular issue.
Examples: Participating in demonstrations, vigils, and marches, writing letters to the editor, passing resolutions, communicating to the wider community through press releases and/or press conferences, organizing petition campaigns, changing our lifestyles.
Strengths: People in the community know where we stand on a given issue. At its best, our witness involves partnering with others in the community, especially those most affected.
Challenges: It may be tempting to believe that speaking out in itself will solve the problem. Gaining media attention that emphasizes solutions as well as highlighting the problem can create momentum.
- ADVOCACY: The purpose of advocacy is to work through the legislative process to impact public policy.
Examples: Visiting elected representatives in a delegation, writing letters to elected officials, giving testimony at public hearings.
Strengths: Public policy is, to some extent, affected. Policy makers can be particularly moved by testimonials from people experiencing hardship and oppression from current policies.
Challenges: Taking stands on controversial issues can split a congregation. A careful process should be used.
- COMMUNITY ORGANIZING: The purpose of community organizing is to participate in the process by which decisions are made in places of power. The focus is on the power of institutional structures and how that power is used for good or evil. This approach is based on the recognition that individuals have little power to change their situations without the empowerment of groups who know how to organize and influence power.
Examples: Developing a strong organization, influencing policy and decisionmakers and holding them accountable, empowering people so they can achieve self-determination.
Strengths: Oppressive systems are transformed. Accountability is established. Partnerships are formed across lines of race, class, gender identity, and faith, and new relationships are transforming for congregational members.
Challenges: Working in coalitions can be difficult and time consuming. Patience is required. Acceptance or tolerance of other religious beliefs and language can be challenging for Unitarian Universalists. This approach may involve more political struggle than many members of a congregation feel comfortable with.
It is important to remember these five approaches when structuring social justice programs. In fact, these five approaches to doing social justice ministry do not exist in isolation from one another. Rather, they are complementary. Ideally, we would have programs in our congregations on specific issues which would include all five approaches and are done in a way that heal divisions and are accountable to marginalized and oppressed communities.