Last Saturday I went to the lower ninth ward to do some social action/justice work with several of Tulane's political science professors and their classes. It was optional, so turnout was rather low, but we still had around twenty or so people and a good half a day of work to put in. This, in and off itself, is a problem with social justice, and the trade-off that must be made in all social justice work: do you want it to be easy to do and so short it is trivial, or do you want it to be meaningful and staggering in cost in both time and effort. We were squarely within the bounds of that first pattern, and our work consisted of grounds keeping. Some of us planted sunflowers, ostensibly to remove toxins from the soil. The rest of us, with lawnmowers, weed whackers, and machetes, cleared foliage, trying to level the growth of the swamp reclaiming a neighborhood. We were chopping through growth in the foundations of houses. The 9th ward is surreal. That's almost a side note - the major point is that we didn't accomplish much good. The cynical professor pointed out that our work would be done in a day by a developer, and with much less labor. I responded, saying that while this is true, the work we were doing wasn't the point.
We were there to be made aware of the scope of work that needs to be done. Minor social action work is constituency building. Those people who go through projects like this, who visit the 9th ward and who take part in Common Grounds meetings, are made aware of the plight, and they leave not so much with the place changed, but with a commitment to the place, and to making it better. This social action takes volunteered hours gives people a vested commitment. It isn't the best way to do things, and the organization doesn't really have it all together with making the volunteers feel their work is valuable, but this is a newer technique, and it has a better feel than most of the social action I have done.
The work contrasted interestingly with the lecture. As we ate our meal of red beans and crawfish (at least, the non-vegetarians had crawfish), I sat in a circle with many people visiting Common Grounds from elsewhere. They told interesting tales of involvement with social justice, of moral callings, and of fears about the failure of government in their personal communities. This bit was great. Following that, the coordinator of our group, who had led the discussion, gave a long, angry spiel, filled with accusations and vitriol and conspiracy theories. It was among the most uncomfortable things I have ever listened to. It was filled with a righteous anger, and that anger was powerful. The guilt thrown at everyone at every thing was less justified, and it had an "us or them" feel to it. If you did work, you were an us, and if you weren't in this circle, the unjust world is against you. (The place has a sign that says "Shame on you Tourist. You pay to see our shame. Stay and lend a hand". While we were in the field with machetes, a tour van drove by, and I couldn't help feel that part of our role was to just make them uncomfortable by being confronted with white people doing hard labor while they would later go on to spend a night of debauchery on Bourbon Street.) The man giving the speech powered his exhortations on guilt, and he tried to shock and shame people into giving a shit.
I've a huge disagreement with this as a tactic, and I think the emphasis on guilt is the biggest failing of social justice activism. Guilt, and more specifically white guilt, force a negative on a person that can be alleviated in two ways: stop falling short of the expectations of the guilting person, or stop knowing and adhering to the same ideals of the guilting person. Guilting carries a risk, and it relies on the strength of personal relationships in combination with shared moral world view. This works with close friends and/or with universal standards. It doesn't work with groups, with casual acquaintances, and with people intended to be new converts. Plus, it's negativistic. The reward is to not feel guilty any more. That is a crappy reward.
Edit: No part 2 coming. Thoughts on duty have led me elsewhere.