7 Lessons from a Decade of Social Justice Activism

My dad has started calling himself “ok boomer.” Meaning he signs off on emails to me “Love, - OK BOOMER (aka dad)". Chalk that up to one of the million things I could have never anticipated back in 2010.

I thought the year 2020 would be filled with flying cars, utopian world peace, food in pill form, and brain-implanted computers.

Instead, a permanent percentage of my brain is allocated to tracking the current charge level of my various devices, and the locations of nearby chargers to keep them above 20%.

I’m not proud to admit this, but: Doesn’t it feel like the walls start closing in when that little battery icon turns yellow? No thank you very much. When it gets below 10 and turns red my heart starts to race.

Food in pill form is a far cry from “Does anyone have a charger? Thanks! Oh – sorry, nevermind, not this charger. I need the basically-identical one for my basically-identical phone, but this one absolutely won’t work, because we’re in the future.”

We are in the future. It’s just not the good future.

Every day it feels more and more like we’re in the future that the time travel movie sends the hero back to change.

And now we’re on the precipice of a new decade, so I thought it was a good time to share some lessons I learned “on the front lines” of the social justice movement throughout the past one – in the form of a listicle, no less (One of this decade’s most sinister inventions, but ranked well below Instagram, CRISPR, and “President Trump”).

This isn’t going to be a walk down memory lane, or highlights of all the cool things my collaborators and I have made or done in the 2010s.

Instead, I want to pull out some of broader themes of doing the work, focusing on how its changed throughout the decade, and pinpointing the areas where I think we (as social justice people) might focus our efforts differently in the 2020s.

Before I go further, three things:

  1. If you’re wondering “Who tf are you?" (I ask myself that every single day) and the credibility breadcrumbs strewn about that subtitle above didn’t do it for you (they do nothing for me either), please read all about me here (wouldn’t recommend it), so I can keep the autobiographing in this piece to a minimum.
  2. This is coming from someone who has dedicated their life to social justice, and that hasn’t changed in the past decade (and I don’t see that changing). It’s going to seem critical (because it is), but it’s critical because I care deeply about the goals of the movements, and want to see us succeed (because we have to).
  3. It’s not all bad. Social Justice Land, as I call it – the mental geography of all of the varying, intersectional, identity-based and feminist-positive movements for equity, liberation, and dismantling oppression – has had a helluva decade. I live in Austin, TX, and even I look at all the people moving to Social Justice Land and think “damn.”

A decade ago, when I’d tell people what I do the first thing they’d say, invariably, was “What do you mean by social justice?”

I can’t remember the last time someone asked me what I meant by “social justice.” The word has spread. And, for a lot of us, that was a big goal. So mission accomplished.

But it’s feeling more like that George Bush standing in front of a mission accomplished banner in 2003 talking about a winning a war we’re still fighting type of “mission accomplished” – and now I’m getting ahead of myself.

On to the listicle I promised!

The List: Social Justice Lessons Learned from the 2010s

Here are the broad lessons I’ve learned doing all kinds of social justice activism & education, both in-person firsthand, by creating curricula others use in-person, and through all the resources I’ve created online.

1. A lot of people are saying “social justice” to mean different things.

We have a classic Inigo Montoya problem on our hands: we keep using that word, but we’re not sure what it means.

And people who aren’t us – people who aren’t advocating for social justice – really don’t know what it means.

I had a conversation with a fellow social justice person friend the other day, an educator, where I said something like, “Well, obviously, the ultimate goal of social justice is to reduce the suffering created by society, and create more opportunities for everyone to experience joy.”

And she said, “Obviously? I’ve literally never heard anyone say anything like that.”

I’ve noticed this when I’ve traveled as well. So many people are on completely different pages when it comes to what kind of “justice” we’re talking about.

Before “social justice” became popular as a phrase, people would call this work “diversity” or “inclusion” or “multicultural issues” (oof) or other things. I thought when we transitioned to “social justice” we solved the branding problem. Alas.

Now we just have more words that we use to explain what “social justice” means (e.g., “equity,” “intersectional feminism”), that, themselves, give way to dozens of different explanations and defnitions.

So, we should probably hold a meeting about this sometime in 2020. Whatcha think?

2. Silos do us no justice.

The 2010s were a decade of siloification, a word I just invented that – like the phrase “President Trump” – the world would probably be better without.

The siloification is happening on two fronts: we’re constantly being put into silos by every company that is utilizing big data to sell us shit; and we’re ever-increasingly self-siloing.

I’ll speak to the second part.

How many times have you read an article (aka skimmed a headline) that said something to the effect of “unfriend people who are different from you” – and presented the idea in socially-just wrapping paper?

I’ve seen so many variations of those in the past few years that I’ve lost count. The gist of all of them is roughly the same: it’s okay to disconnect yourself from people whose political opinions are problematic, for social justice.

Unfriend the Trump supporters on Facebook. Unfollow problematic people on Twitter. Don’t invite conservative people to your progressive events.

Sometimes they’re delivered with an “it’s okay to…” permission (for self care, etc.!). Other times they’re shared as a moral imperative: “You need to do this.” (for revenge, etc.!)

Why might this be a problem for social justice?

In the US, we saw the results of this siloification in the 2016 election. Not only did we elect a person who pretty much everybody thought was an impossibility (including his supporters), pretty much all of my colleagues, collaborators, and comrades didn’t know a single person who supported him – because of our silos.

I’m not saying the presidential election is, alone, a social justice weather vane. Nor am I trying to overly center US politics (hello Brexit and the world).

I’m just pointing to something concrete to anchor the following more abstract ideas.

Because of our siloification:

  1. We’re increasingly losing touch with people who have different beliefs from us.
  2. This isn’t just happening because society is becoming more atomized, but it’s something that we’re doing intentionally within the social justice movement (SJM).
  3. As we share new social justice ideas or plans for the future, we’re only talking to (and hearing from) our silos, and we’re actively creating norms that insulate us from those outside our silo.
  4. This results in less criticism (constructive and destructive) of our ideas. So our bad ideas don’t get caught early, and nothing benefits from the insights of an outsider’s perspective.
  5. And we don’t need to be good at sharing our ideas with a tough crowd, or defending them. We aren’t encouraged to reach outside our silo, but when we do, we write off anyone who needs convincing.

But here’s the thing: social justice can’t be accomplished in a silo.

The project of social justice isn’t to create a small utopian, equitable, bubble that’s a subset of society-at-large – nor is that possible. At all. Even if we decided we didn’t really care about “social justice,” but wanted this instead.

Because the injustice that we’re working against, and the paths toward equity and liberation we’re trying to create, are entangled with society-at-large. And society-at-large is way (way, way) bigger than our silo (even if our silo has gotten rill big).

We need to be aware of other people’s views, perspectives, and beliefs. We need to create coalitions that bind together our atoms of society. We need to share ideas broadly, in order to vet and improve them, and to see them to fruition. This requires receiving criticism, and learning how to defend our ideas to tough crowds. And all of this applies especially to people who disagree with us, or are vehemently anti-Social Justice.

3. We’re developing a Social Justice Industrial Complex.

And it’s creating problems as quickly it’s creating solutions (if it’s even creating solutions). But that’s what “Industrial Complexes” do, I suppose, so we’re not special.

In 2010, if you’d asked me how I’d feel if a major financial institution had an “justice and equity” department to advance social justice within their organization, I’m sure I would have been ecstatic.

2015 me had seen that trend happening, where more and more corporations and organizations were structurally re-orientating toward social justice, and I started to visit these places, and talk with the consultants who worked with them, and I was starting to grow skeptical – but still optimistic.

2020 me is 9% battery level anxious about the whole thing.

What I mean here is a parallel to the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), the short version being that there is an “an informal alliance between a nation’s military and the defense industry that supplies it.”

The Social Justice Industrial Complex (SJIC) is similar: there is a burgeoning “social justice industry” (says a person who is part of it 👋), and an informal alliance has formed between it and progressive organizations and corporations (or orgs that want to appeal to progressives and progressive causes).

With the MIC, the result has been endless wars (problems) and every-growing defense spending (another problem), not peace (the purported point of it all – what it exists to “solve”) – and there is no sign of peace in sight.

With the SJIC, it might go a different way, but my concern is that it won’t.

What I’m worried about in the 2020s is that the byproduct of all the SJIC endeavors won’t be equity, justice, or liberation (i.e., the goals of social justice). But instead that merely more oppression will be identified (more problems), while countless dollars are spent on audits, certifications, and consultants (says a person who has opted out 👋), and not actually improving equity, dismantling oppression, or moving us toward social justice.

The same way that the MIC hasn’t ended war, the SJIC isn’t incentivized to end oppression.

4. Social justice is so fetch.

We’re trendy, y’all! A lot of nitty-gritty, theoretically-deep, academic-jargon-laced concepts have become mainstream in the past 10 years. Like privilege theory.

I wouldn’t have expected, for example, to hear “check your privilege” jokes in TV shows, comedy sets, or movies – ever, let alone so quickly after the idea getting infused into the zeitgeist.

There’s a whole fandom surrounding social justice now. wut.

(There’s also a whole counter-cultural “we’re cool because we’re not cool” industry of “Anti-SJW” people producing surface-level, obvious, reactionary, knee-jerk content. And you know you’ve made it when you’re cool to hate. lol.)

This isn’t necessarily bad, or something we need to move away from, but here’s the part I want to focus on for the 2020s:

Like other pop culture trends, the things that stick don’t necessarily make sense (See: slap bracelets, Pogs, and super tiny backpacks). Trends don’t become trends because they’re the best version of whatever idea it is. There’s no meeting. No deliberation. It just sorta happens. And the other similarity: trends, by definition, don’t stick for long.

These are problems for social justice because the things that become trendy aren’t necessarily (or maybe ever) the things we’d really want everyone to get behind.

They’re often niche ideas, or have convoluted connections to a future socially-just world. Sometimes they’re directly antithetical to living social justice. But there’s momentum! And energy! And it’s hard enough to get people to care about anything, let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by criticizing the efficacy of this popular thing!

And the other problem is we need ideas that have staying power. If everyone is doing this thing right now, but tomorrow they’re on to something else, it really doesn’t matter what it is – it’s not going to move the needle toward social justice.

If we’re letting trends be the wind in our sails, I don’t see us getting where we want to go. We need to be our own wind.

5. We’re holier than thou.

Social justice become rife with dogmatic, elitist, moralizing, and dehumanizing stances. We’re against binaries in general (like the gender binary), but okay with the binary of we’re good and you’re bad. We shame laypeople when they’re not fluent in our [intensely academic] jargon. We intentionally violate [certain] people’s feelings and sense of self, then disregard their suffering – but it’s not cruelty when it’s justified by a theory.

And pushback to any of this – when it comes from within or without – gets met with even more elitism and theory: “You clearly don’t understand.”

6. Money scares us.

The social justice movement – and many of the movements within it – have a complicated relationship with money.

Many of us are afraid that a focus on class (or socioeconomic status) will derail our focus on other dimensions of discrimination and oppression (e.g., via race, or gender). So we don’t do it, or when we do (e.g., talk about upper-class privilege) we often couch it within an intersectional framework, focusing on race and gender through the lens of class.

And we struggle with the money aspect of what we do, as a movement. Many of us charge exorbitant fees to access the work we create, or to access us as ambassadors of that work. Or put up paywalls, intellectual property fences, and restrictions on its usage. And we justify this in complicated, theoretical ways (based on either our identies, the historical nature of oppression and marginalization of anti-oppression work, or both).

All this despite the 2010s bringing a greater level of social awareness about the pitfalls of capitalism, predatory nature of money in the education and healthcare systems, and the seeds of a working class movement germinating all around the world.

In the 2020s, I hope we can reconcile this. And recognize that not only should the working class be included in the social justice movement, and a direct beneficiary of our efforts, but that these “class-only” issues and causes (like Universal Basic Income) are actually levers of broader social justice: we just need to pull them.


7. We’re surrounded by incredibly creative, thoughtful, compassionate, and brilliant human beings.

This has, I’m sure, always been the case. But because of the internet and social media, the 2010s put it on display: social justice people are astounding.

So much of the art that we’ve seen in the past decade for justice, activism, and protest has been breath-taking. Soul-hugging. Earth-shaking.

The theoretical underpinnings of our movement are deeply thoughtful, moving, provocative ideas. And the thinkers behind them genius, and generous with their gifts of mind.

Social justice people don’t wear their heart on their sleeve: we give our heart freely, completely, to strangers. Entrusting its care to people of different walks of life, identities, experiences, from the “other side of the tracks” to the other side of the globe.

We’re surrounded by so many brilliant people, who shine brightly through the fog of oppression.

We have a big decade ahead of us

Climate change, geopolitical trends toward nationalism, a resurgence of white identitarianism, the same ol’ patriarchy, the widening wealth gap, the fact that I’m literally writing this while the votes are being tallied for our president’s impeachment for ethics violations (giving us another new phrase: “Impeached President Trump”)… the list goes on.

The 2020s will be made of mountains for us to climb. I think we can climb them.

We have momentum, the glimpses of cultural consciousness, and tons of tools at our disposal and crafty people to wield them.

We just need to do it together. That’s one thing that’s never changed.

Have you learned a lesson I didn’t include? Or do you want to hear more from me about a particular lesson above? Hit the reply button and let me know. I’d love to update this list and expand upon it based on your insights.


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About the Author

Sam Killermann Self Portrait

Hi! I'm Sam Killermann. I'm the author of A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook, and I was featured in Katie Couric's NatGeo documentary "Gender Revolution". I created It's Pronounced Metrosexual in 2011. I write everything here and doodle the doodles myself. Bonus: everything I create is uncopyrighted and freely accessible — I even coded (& open-sourced) this site itself, my gift to you. Read More →

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