Learning about social justice in New York: A journey within and without

Moiz Rehan

This Winter Study, I, along with three other students, had the opportunity of taking a course on social justice in New York with the stellar Professor Joy James. Till I took this course, I never had to ask myself: What is my stake in social justice work? I have known since an early age that I care about issues of marginalization but never thought about why exactly I cared and how my caring for an issue stemmed from personal traumas and experiences. 

Is it saviorism if I try to “help” people but in the process end up victimizing them? Is it even beneficial to just do something one time just to eventually leave those I was helping to their devices? What does a sustainable version of activism look like that empowers people and helps to create awareness about issues at a broader level? I have grappled with these questions in the past, but this Winter Study helped me unpack more and delve deeper than ever before.

The course started with an overview of the various issues faced by the education system in New York including issues of insufficient resources and funding for schools, lack of services for students with learning disabilities and the history of segregation. From the kids at Tubman and Wadleigh schools, I learned that I should never lose my own curiosity about the world. We also learned about housing segregation in New York and how the city has been historically constructed to demarcate boundaries of socioeconomic class, race and nationality among others. We focused on accountability with compassion during a community meeting at Connect, an organization whose mission is to combat domestic violence. Learning about the black manifesto while volunteering at Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) was another important part of this course. The US-Cuban Caravans organized show that community organizations can provide an outlet to turn our frustration into tangible and impactful action. That social justice efforts matter and they work. 

By talking to some alums, we learned about how some nonprofits emulate a corporate hierarchical structure which solidifies racial boundaries: The people on top of the chain are often white, while most people of color (POC) only have junior positions that are underpaid but demand high intensity labor. POCs are, therefore, tokenized as they provide “diversity.” This reminded me of the College and how many POC professors and deans have no choice but to leave Williams after some time because they feel suffocated by the whiteness of the place. Unfortunately, POCs have to sometimes choose between self-preservation and taking care of friends because of the intense labor that both these actions require. In the same vein, activism on campus is also quite divided. There is often (healthy) disagreement within POC groups on what the most important issues are and how to go about addressing them. 

This Winter Study helped me reflect extensively about my own stake in social justice. I’m tired of reciting the list of marginalized identities that I embody in the U.S. (gay, Muslim, international, brown, Pakistani) but it is this amalgam of identities that has given me the anger to realize what’s at stake for me through my activism. I don’t want to feel like I am a second-class citizen or deserve less respect or legitimacy because of my nationality. I don’t want other people to feel that either. I care about social justice because I have been privileged enough to learn about these issues and I recognize my own voice and abilities to help uplift myself and other people who are oppressed and marginalized. 

Growing up, I was taught to neverquestion authority. During my time here, I have learned how to speak up and demand space and ask for help when I needed it. This Winter Study course made me realize that social change truly is not possible without disrupting oppressive systems that are already in place. I cannot disrupt anything while trying to avoid offending everyone. Raising my hand at a police precinct community meeting and asking about racialized violence committed by the police was, hence, the first baby step towards learning to disrupt. The response we faced at the community meeting by the cops and the public made it clear that such disruptions need to happen much more often.

I had also voiced concerns about “losing perspective” after returning to the College in one of my final journal entries, but a conversation on the last day of the course made me confront this idea. I realized that maybe I am using this as an excuse to not engage in difficult conversations or challenge people’s beliefs, views and actions when they are clearly capable of harming someone else’s. Just because it is a college campus does not mean that instances of racism, sexual violence and other forms of harm are not as frequent as the “real” world. Perhaps these instances are better hidden, and most students choose to just not pay attention and address the issues when they rise. The stress I feel at Williams is real and, most of the time, I am struggling to take care of my mental and physical health while balancing coursework and extracurricular activities. But, this should not exempt me from using my voice and skills to support others in need. There is a balance that needs to be struck here and I am definitely not there yet, but it is something that I can aspire towards for my remaining time at Williams and beyond. 

Moiz Rehan ’19 is a political science and French major from Islamabad, Pakistan.