One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong. Only through the bringing together of head and heart-intelligence and goodness-shall man rise to a fulfillment of his true nature. —- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Introduction to Part One
Strength-Based Justice (SBJ) is fundamental to a prosperous and successful society. Unlike social justice models which focus on societal problems and challenges, SBJ seeks to create a social order that maximizes opportunities for all so every person can reach their full potential. SBJ is based on the reasoned belief individual success is the pathway to a just and flourishing society. Justice exists when all individuals have the opportunity to develop and apply their natural talents and society flourishes from the strength-based contribution made by each individual.
No place is SBJ more important or essential than in the public schools. Public education represents in many ways an institution whose purpose has often changed throughout history. Pushed and pulled in multiple directions, our public schools have been both the means and the ends to political, economic, and social causes. Through various structural and governance changes, public education has, however, been continually characterized as the great equalizer.
While the origin of this perspective, can be debated, it is most often attributed to Horace Mann, the first major advocate for public education. Mann believed education should be free and universal, nonsectarian, and reliant on well-trained, professional teachers. Mann found “social harmony” to be the primary goal of the public schools.1 The words of Horace Mann are clear, “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” 2
Unfortunately but understandably, public education, as the great equalizer, has often been interpreted in deficit-based terms. Deficit thinking focuses on problems, weaknesses, and obstacles to student success; success which is often measured through the lens of a standardized curriculum. Faced with a curriculum which may hold little relevance, a growing number of students lose interest and withdraw, causing them to become alienated and indifferent to public education. Using the deficit model as their guide, social justice advocates have identified and described these students in marginalized terms to include persons of color, students living in poverty, immigrants, students having limited English proficiency, and students having learning or developmental disabilities. 3
A goal of the social justice movement has been to fix the problems and challenges these students face in order to create a just and successful learning environment. Because it is believed the problems are caused by various forces within society, social justice advocates are working for structural and governance changes through litigation, regulations, and legislation to create a more equitable and just teaching and learning environment.
While SBJ is aligned with the goals of social justice, SBJ focuses on the individual and not society. Instead of attempting to change society, SBJ focuses on individual talents and strengths, personal responsibility, and resiliency. SBJ is grounded in practical and pragmatic solutions by focusing on “what works” and what teachers view as successful practices for increasing student opportunities.
SBJ emphasizes strengths over weaknesses and opportunities over obstacles. Promoting optimism and confidence, SBJ seeks to create a public school environment where student talents drive the teaching and learning process. Beginning with student talents, supported by the strengths of teachers, parents and community members, teachers create opportunities for students to transform their talents into strengths.
In such a learning environment, each student has the opportunity to discover their talents and the possibility of finding their purpose and productiveness in life. This is the true nature of genuine self-esteem, where students enhance their own image by valuing their strengths and the strengths of others. Continue reading