The English Avenue community is Georgia Tech’s poor and distressed neighbor in the West of campus. In collaboration with the Westside Community Alliance, CET develops projects relating to social justice and the ethics of the built environment that are designed in collaboration with partners in the English Avenue community and integrated in regularly offered courses and seminars. The program started in the fall of 2013 with the newly developed Seminar “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Philosophy of Design,” taught by Michael Hoffmann.
From Theories of Social Justice to Projects in the Atlanta Westside Neighborhoods
A report on two problem-based learning projects pursued in the course “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Philosophy of Design” (PUBP / LMC 6748, Fall 2013)
Student authors: Christopher Bellew, Parker Cleveland, Kristena Cooksey, Farshid Ghasemi, Janelle Johnson
Faculty: Dr. Michael Hoffmann
In order to establish a long-term relationship with neighbors in the English Avenue and larger Westside communities, and based on theoretical discussions on social justice in the class, the first goal was to identify and launch a few projects for future student groups to continue. The work started with an analysis of previous work on social justice in the Westside communities and talking to representatives--especially Dr. Sheri Davis Faulkner and Mackenzie Madden – from the Westside Community Alliance. We also talked several times to Mother Mamie Moore from the Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council. This document comprises the framework and a presentation of the outcomes.
John Rawls deals with the issue of social justice in his landmark work “A Theory of Justice” (1999 <1971>). His second principle of justice allows for inequalities in the society, as long as they satisfy two conditions: “First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second [the difference principle] they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (Rawls, 1993; p. 291) In contrast to Rawls, Elizabeth Anderson’s democratic equality requires a less demanding condition on the inequality, reading “Once the citizens enjoy a decent set of freedoms sufficient for functioning as an equal in society, income inequalities beyond that point do not seem so troubling in themselves.” (Anderson, 2004; p. 179) The extent to which the citizens enjoy such freedoms is an outcome of the social processes that render part of the society more capable in fulfilling their desires, while leaving others at a disadvantage.
Using both these philosophical approaches as standards to measure the degree of justice in the Westside neighborhoods can only lead to the insight that there is a social justice problem. From Rawls’s perspective, the inequality between the wealth increase of the richest in the nation and the Westside communities of Atlanta over the past decades can hardly be justified because there is not much of any benefits that the neighborhoods saw during this time. And it is doubtful that the residents experience a “decent” standard of living as Anderson demands. This situation is exacerbated if Zygmunt Bauman is right with his observation that the social forces of modernity led and lead to a “redundancy” of large parts of society that are not needed for anything, “human waste”. According to Bauman, what redundant people experience is loss “of their dignity as workers, of self-esteem, of the feeling of being useful and having a social place of their own” (Bauman 2004; p. 13). If we agree with Rawls that “the most important primary good is that of self-respect” (Rawls, 1999 <1971>; p. 386), then the conclusion can only be that we, as a nation, deny these “redundant” people a basic right that should be guaranteed in a just society.
What can be done to address social injustice in the Westside communities? The project started from an observation in the report by the Social Justice Committee on community participation in the English Avenue that highlighted “a low level of community engagement in the neighborhood” (SJC report 2012; p. 30). Low community engagement can be both an indicator of missing self-esteem and and a major obstacle in addressing the problem of self-esteem. Among a pool of projects discussed, two ideas, to be explained in next sections, have been further pursued. The first project looked into the problems in the implementation of Safe Route To School (SRTS) for the community, and the second one dealt with realization of a think tank wherein Georgia Tech academic assets and community knowledge could work hand in hand to the benefit of the neighborhood.
Safe Routes to School: Roadmap for Project Implementation
Initially we contacted Nicole Hollis of Safe Routes to School Georgia (http://www.saferoutesga.org/), which is a project similar to the Chicago based Safe Passage program. We learned that the program is predominantly successful in affluent schools and that underserved schools are difficult to keep involved in the program. From this meeting, it was determined that the best way to offer our skills to Nicole was to contact principals, parent/PTA liaisons, and other people who would be able to facilitate opening the program in new schools. Some schools that had been participating also needed their contact information updated. Furthermore, Nicole mentioned that increasing the participation level of schools on the Westside could be a goal we would reach. We also discussed starting a program in a high school in the Westside. Nicole also informed us that Safe Routes to School does not have a social justice aspect to its mission and we discussed working with her to add that to the organization’s objectives. Additionally, we proposed gathering data between schools in well off and in-need areas to identify problems specific to schools in poorer areas. Another recommendation was to manage parent involvement in schools with low parent and student involvement.
Community Think Tank in English Avenue on Human Development
The idea to create a “Think Tank” in the English Avenue has been proposed to us by Mother Moore, a local resident and a member of Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council (HWCAC). Starting with a first meeting on November 23, 2013, which was organized and hosted by HWCAC, the process of developing this idea and considering how it could be realized is still an ongoing process. Additionally, the presence of a series of smaller meetings after the first one, as well as a series of meetings tentatively planned to be held roughly once every three weeks in the spring of 2014, can be already seen as a manifestation of the community think tank. The intended goal with the Think Tank seems to be to offer an open place in the English Avenue neighborhood for the community, and for adjacent communities, on Atlanta’s West Side to explore and deliberate conditions and possibilities of human development for the people living there. The focus is largely on African Americans and others who are marginalized by public and social policies. The development of the Think Tank so far is driven by questions such as:
- Can thinking about conditions and possibilities of human development be a means of empowerment, skill development, and community building?
- What kind of knowledge on human development do we need to not only shape public and social policy but also the work of organizations, social workers, teachers, and activists all over the country who are attempting to impact the lives of disadvantaged people?
- What is the relevance and impact of individuals' "entrusted circle" of relationships which either empower or disempower?
- How can those personal challenges be addressed that prevent and block the empowerment of African Americans who have been marginalized by public and social policies?
- What is a community? How to engage with plurality? How to negotiate? How to develop community practice?
- What is a just society?
- What are the conditions of creating social justice? What should be the central focus of discussions about social justice?
- Anderson, Elizabeth S., “Against Luck Egalitarianism: What Is the Point of Equality? In: Clayton, M., & Williams, A. (2004).Social justice. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
- Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted lives: modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge: Polity.
- Rawls, J. (1993). Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Rawls, John (1999 <1971>). A theory of justice (revised edition). Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- SJC report: “English Avenue | Sector 2, community analysis and recommendations” Georgia Institute of Technology | School of City and Regional Planning | Social Justice Committee with the New Life S.A.Y. (Save America’s Youth) Yes! Center, Inc.