What is social justice?

Social justice can mean different things to different people. Meet several alumnae who approach the concept from a variety of angles, but all with the larger goal of building opportunity, equality, and inclusion for all.

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In a world of inequity, alumnae battle to provide rights and resources for all.

By Monique Beeler and Dawn Cunningham ’85

To live in a just society is an ideal widely shared in the Mills community, though we may not all agree on how to achieve it or where to start. For many, a just society must begin with the concept of “social justice.”

Yet social justice is a relatively new—and often controversial—idea. A 2006 United Nations report, “Social Justice in an Open World,” explains that the concept first surfaced “in the wake of the industrial revolution… as an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour.” But it was not widely used until the mid- 20th century. The philosopher John Rawls is commonly credited with developing the first theory of social justice, in 1971; for him, the concept meant having equal rights to basic liberties and opportunities, and taking care of the least-advantaged members of society.

The concept has continued to evolve as a subject of research and study as well as a rallying cry for social movements. Scholars, policymakers, and activists have examined the meaning of social justice as they confront specific areas of inequality, such as health and wealth. And the people most negatively affected by inequality—often because of race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, or national origin—have evoked social justice in struggles to claim their rights.

Today, definitions of social justice typically contain a moral imperative to allocate resources fairly. The 2006 United Nations report defines social justice as “the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” At Mills College, we define it as “a commitment to challenging social, cultural, and economic inequalities imposed on individuals arising from any differential distribution of power, resources, and privilege.” But social justice also has utilitarian value, providing the foundation for social cohesion and economic growth. Greater income equality is often associated with lower rates of violence, for example, and providing good nutrition for all improves economic productivity.  

Nevertheless, critics of the concept of social justice, from Nobel Prize–winning economist Friedrich Hayek to conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, maintain that it is “an empty phrase with no determinable content” and that it “means anything its champions want it to mean.” They also say that any act of government to redistribute resources to the disadvantaged under the banner of social justice is an unwarranted intervention in the free market—or even a violation of individual rights.

The work of UCLA Professor Ananya Roy ’92 helps answer the latter criticism by pointing out ways that government policies often end up distributing resources to the most advantaged members of society. She acknowledges the diverse understandings of social justice, but suggests that its greatest usefulness is to evoke “an ideal we strive towards” rather than an “end state.”

Mills alumnae are striving towards this ideal in almost every conceivable field. They are grassroots organizers and government officials, policymakers and plaintiffs, scholars and businesspeople. Most focus their advocacy on inequality in specific areas that reflect their individual passions: education, employment, environmental sustainability, elder care, food security, healthcare, immigration, marriage equality, and prisoner’s rights and criminal justice, to name just a few.

Here we present the stories of six alumnae working for social justice and bringing about change in their communities and the world. Nina Robinson and Kim Kerry-Tyerman demonstrate ways that social justice can be pursued through free enterprise. Jody Mock helped win a major legal victory for marriage equality. Sarah Palmer DeFrank and Esther Lucero advocate for more equal access to basic resources: food and health services. And Juniper Neill works for environmental justice as she implements government policy.

Their efforts—and the efforts of thousands of other Mills alumnae—are adding up to create a more just society for all. —DC

Investing in community

By night, she’s DJ Nina Sol, a self-described “music nerd” who serves up genre-bending mixes ranging from soul to hiphop, afrobeat to funk, and disco to soulful house in venues from Oakland to South Africa.

By day, she’s Nina Robinson, MBA ’11, managing director of portfolio and capital at Inner City Advisors (ICA). She advises dozens of businesses on growth strategies and manages an investment portfolio that has leveraged millions of dollars in capital.

But this isn’t a tale of a split personality. A look at her playlists and at the companies she’s advised reveals a singular passion. As a DJ, she gives exposure to independent artists working outside the mainstream music industry. As a portfolio manager, she helps mission-driven small businesses with raising growth capital that provides financial and social returns on investment. “In both these roles, I have the same commitment to empowering my community,” she says. Like many social justice professionals, Robinson seeks to empower women and people of color. But in her work at ICA and its sister organization, Fund Good Jobs, she’s using management consulting skills and financing strategies more typically associated with big business than with work that addresses income and wealth inequity.

“I focus on entrepreneurs who are committed to creating good jobs—jobs with a livable wage, health benefits, and a career ladder,” she says. “Many of them, especially women and people of color, have a difficult time accessing the capital necessary to get to the next stage of growth.” They need larger loans than microfinance institutions typically offer, Robinson explains, “But if they don’t have the personal collateral, they are viewed as too risky.

“I help them find the type of capital that values their business and their mission. I work with them to create a growth strategy, financial projections, and their investment pitch,” she says. “It is good business to take care of your people, have a diverse workplace, and improve the community around you.”

Robinson attributes her concern for social justice—as well as her musical aesthetic—to her Afro-Latina background. “Growing up in San Diego, I saw more people of color on their way to prison than on their way to college. I saw a lot of institutional injustice, so it’s always been an important part of my personal mission to address inequality in whatever work that I do.”

After graduating from California State University San Marcos, Robinson worked for an IT consulting firm that served K-12 schools and nonprofits. She returned to school to strengthen her business and finance knowledge, choosing the MBA Program at Mills because of its focus on social innovation. While there, she landed an internship with ICA that later developed into a full-time position.

Today, Mills has an ongoing partnership with ICA, providing classroom space for the ICA Business Institute’s courses on startup and growth strategies for small business owners. Through the Business Institute, ICA identifies entrepreneurs who want to grow and create good jobs. ICA provides them with pro bono advising and consulting; Robinson steps in to help them raise capital through Fund Good Jobs and other investors.

Among the Oakland-based companies that Robinson has assisted are Impact Hub Oakland, Red Bay Coffee, and Firebrand Artisan Breads. ICA and Fund Good Jobs track the performance of companies they advise and invest in, looking not only at standard metrics such as revenue growth, but also at job quality indicators such as employee wages, benefits, promotions, and the diversity and accessibility of jobs to people facing barriers to employment.

Robinson wants consumers to be aware of these metrics, too. “There’s been a lot of innovation around fair trade,” she observes. “People are thinking about the source and social impact of raw materials in the products they buy. It’s also important to think about the source of capital a business takes on, which has a big impact on equitable employment and job quality.”

Whether she’s working as DJ Nina Sol or portfolio manager Nina Robinson, she’s doing a job that inspires her and engages others in social justice. “So many justice issues stem from economic inequality,” she says. “As you start to peel back the layers— whether it’s health, education, or a housing issue—it all comes back to getting a good job.” —DC

Getting to “I do”

Many dates stand out as momentous in the life that Jody Mock ’76 has shared with her wife, Beth Kerrigan. There’s the day the couple met 22 years ago; the day they bought their West Hartford, Connecticut, home; and the day they welcomed to the family their twin sons, Carlos and Fernando, adopted from Guatemala. 

But in order to celebrate the joy of their wedding day, the couple first had to make legal history. In 2004, they served as lead plaintiffs in Kerrigan and Mock vs. the Connecticut Department of Public Health, a case that worked its way through the court system for four years before it received the blessing of the state’s Supreme Court. That ruling made Connecticut the third state nationwide to legalize same-sex marriage. Approximately one year later, on November 12, 2009, Kerrigan and Mock finally said “I do”— a judge who ruled in the case performed the ceremony in their living room, surrounded by dozens of friends and family. 

Mock and Kerrigan (pictured above) didn’t set out to become public symbols in the battle for marriage equality, but they enthusiastically accepted the mantle when the opportunity arose. “We were both kind of activists already,” says Mock, who came of age in the era of the Women’s Rights Movement and Vietnam protests and participated in many peace demonstrations. Kerrigan grew up in a union organizing family. Mock adds that her time at Mills further strengthened her dedication to social ideals. “My college experience had a lot to do with who I am and feeling empowered as a female. It’s a foundation for being confident, being committed.” 

Working with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the organization that strategized the case’s course, Mock and her family sought to show that gays and lesbians who wanted to marry were no different from other state residents. “We kept saying, ‘We’re regular people.’ We just happen to be two women with two kids and a mortgage and jobs.” Lending their faces to the lawsuit, Mock reasoned, would help normalize families led by same-sex spouses and advance equality in general. 

“Equality neutralizes differences,” she says. “A lot of what civil rights and social justice are about is accepting differences, being tolerant. No culture, ethnicity, gender or sexuality should be discriminated against in any way.” 

Mock, who recently retired from a 33-year career in the insurance industry to teach third grade, says that participating in this piece of history was “amazing” and that serving as the public face of the lawsuit brought sometimes unexpected, but always gratifying, support. “While the case was going on, two dads came up to us and asked, ‘Are you Jody and Beth? We are so proud of you.’ It brought tears to our eyes.” 

Many of the people they met through the process became close friends, including some who continued the pursuit for marriage equality all the way up to last June’s Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States. Most years, in fact, she and Kerrigan are apt to raise a toast on their wedding anniversary in the company of their fellow plaintiffs and their children. 

And Mock and Kerrigan’s sons, now an athletic pair of 14-year-olds who keep their mothers busy bouncing between baseball and soccer games, have learned how powerful one person’s—or one couple’s—stand for equality can be. Seeing the political process in action, literally in their own living room at times, showed Carlos and Fernando that peaceful revolution is possible and has set the stage for them to effect change in the years to come. 

After all, it’s a well-established family tradition. Mock and Kerrigan show us how social justice can effectively be promoted by simply participating in your community and providing a positive example to others. “We’re very involved. We don’t believe in sitting back,” says Mock. “My wife just ran for—and won—a seat on the town council. We even organize our block party.” —MB

Hungering for solutions  

Pounding out veal cutlets and preparing escargot may seem an unlikely route to a career fighting hunger, but Sarah Palmer DeFrank, MPP ’14, says her lifelong relationship to food has been as multilayered as a cake, and by turns a source of joy and angst. 

Case in point: her recent work as advocacy manager for the California Association of Food Banks promoting a state bill that would have raised the cash assistance benefit for seniors and people with disabilities receiving supplemental security income (SSI) to equal the federal poverty level. It would have been an important increase: SSI benefits had been slashed following the 2008 recession but, as the result of a long-ago ruling, SSI recipients do not qualify for CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps), a program proven to be the best defense against hunger. 

Those low-income seniors and people with disabilities are among the staggering one in six people statewide who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. For children, this can lead to poor school attendance and performance; for adults it can lower workplace productivity; for everyone, it can result in chronic and severe physical and mental health problems. 

Despite broad support for the bill from legislators and advocates alike, the increases were deleted as part of the deal to pass the state budget. “The California budget process has been a cold, hard place to be,” Palmer DeFrank observes. “It took the wind out of my sails.” 

The sense of deflation was brief. Within weeks, Palmer DeFrank was back at the capitol for a Hunger Action Day rally, making the rounds to legislators’ offices to keep them educated and focused on hunger issues. 

From preparation to policy, food has long played a central role in Palmer DeFrank’s life. As a young child, spending quality time with her mother meant helping out in the restaurant kitchens where her mother put in long hours. 

“My mom worked in an upscale tourist region, but we certainly couldn’t afford to eat at the restaurants she cooked at,” she says. The same held true for her mother’s hardworking restaurant colleagues and their families, none of whom received health insurance or paid sick days. The experience clearly illustrated the ties between food security and economic capability. 

Still, she thrived in the restaurant environment and, after attending culinary school, went on to work as a cook at such notable northern California venues as Greens, César, and Zazu. 

“It feels good to feed people, to nourish them,” says Palmer DeFrank. 

Dishing up vegetable-laden curry, gratins, and paella for well-heeled diners was rewarding, but after the birth of her first child, the lack of affordable childcare meant she could no longer put in the hours restaurant work demands. 

To improve her options, Palmer DeFrank enrolled at the University of California, Davis, to study sociology and social welfare policy. While waiting for a slow-to-arrive financial aid check, she lived with an unexpected roommate: hunger. 

Grocery money ran out before the end of the month, and she had only enough fruits and vegetables for her daughter—even with supplemental food from a nearby food pantry and the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children. As a struggling single mom, she says, “I became even more aware of inequities in our society.” 

Despite her hardships, Palmer DeFrank knew that her food insecurity was temporary; not so for individuals she’s gone on to advocate for, starting with an undergraduate fellowship with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. The experience fueled her passion to find broader social solutions and led her to the Public Policy Program at Mills College. 

“The program really helped me learn how to approach a problem,” says Palmer DeFrank, who still enjoys cooking for her family (pictured above), including her 7- and 10-year-old daughters. “It helped me think about diplomacy and approaching a problem as a partner instead of as an adversary.” 

It’s an outlook she employs on the job with the California Association of Food Banks. Despite the setback of the ill-fated bill for elderly Californians and people with disabilities, she counts that project as a great success in building community, bringing together like-minded organizations that plan to partner on future projects, such as streamlining delivery of services and improving client experiences and outcomes in other social services programs. 

“The hunger issue is an anti-poverty issue,” DeFrank says. “Yes, people are hungry, but more broadly, people are hungry because they don’t have enough money. So anti-hunger work is anti-poverty work. I will never not advocate for improvements.” —MB

The right to thrive

Fewer than 700 eastern black rhinos roam the rangelands of Kenya today. Listed as critically endangered, these rhinos are poached for their horns, which can sell for $60,000 a pound on the black market. Saving the black rhino is just one of the challenges that Juniper Neill ’91 confronts as a Foreign Service environment officer with the US Agency for International Development (USAID)

Based in Nairobi, Neill directs the USAID office responsible for advancing critical environmental policy objectives in Kenya and East Africa, including the US Global Climate Change Initiative and the USAID Biodiversity Policy. Besides rhino protection, her work supports such efforts as helping local authorities manage ecosystems and water resources in the Lake Victoria Basin; funding research into new technologies to combat wildlife trafficking; and helping people prepare for extreme weather caused by El Niño as well as long-term climate change. 

What do these environmental programs have to do with social justice? Plenty, Neill points out. “My current work is linked with issues of tribal land rights, anti-corruption, decentralization of governance, gender equity, and countering violent extremism and poverty.” 

For instance, the biodiversity policy Neill is implementing is as much focused on community empowerment and poverty reduction as on wildlife conservation. One of the most successful ways to protect black rhinos and other wildlife is to establish “community conservancies.” USAID-funded conservancies empower farming and pastoral families to manage their own resources sustainably, conduct anti-poaching patrols, and host wildlife sanctuaries, which bring income from tourism. “The heart of this model is really community ownership, governance, accountability, and sustainability,” says Neill. 

“All people, and our planet, have basic rights, not just to survive, but to thrive,” she says. “Everyone has a right to clean water and air, and to unpolluted soils, crops, and fisheries. Environmental justice is part of a broader social justice agenda. It’s about equity of resources for all people.” 

Neill’s commitment to environmental and social justice runs in her family. Her grandfather, Denny Wilcher, was a lifelong activist for social and environmental justice and founded the Alaska Conservation Federation in 1980. Neill, who spent much of her youth in Alaska, says, “I remember helping him in the first, small headquarters, doing everything necessary to get a fledgling organization up and running. Being exposed to this kind of activism in my early years showed me that ideas are worth pursuing and that anything is possible with hard work.” 

When she was in high school, her grandfather suggested she consider Mills. She was already interested in global development and environmental issues, so she was attracted to the College’s international relations major and newly established environmental studies minor. In her junior year, she participated in the 1990 strike to keep Mills a women’s college. “It was a pivotal experience for me,” she says. “I believed that we had a right to take a stand. That was my first exposure to direct civil activism, and it was profound.” 

After college, Neill worked in environmental consulting for six years, then served with the Peace Corps in Ukraine as an environment volunteer. She completed a master’s in international affairs and environmental policy at Columbia University, and went on to manage climate change research programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2005, she joined USAID, working in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and across Asia before landing in Kenya. 

This global trajectory has brought environmental justice issues into sharp focus for her. “In Ukraine, I remember children made sick from the remaining pollution of the Chernobyl nuclear accident,” she says. “It was a stark reality of the impact of a major environmental disaster.” In her work with USAID, she has witnessed how “unsustainable global consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution have resulted in a planet-wide depletion of natural resources and an irreversible shift in our climate. “Sometimes the challenges of working on environmental issues can seem insurmountable,” Neill says. “But I’ve seen so many tremendous examples of positive change that it helps me to believe that we can change our course, because we must.” —DC

Restoring the balance

When Esther Lucero ’09, MPP ’10, won a national sales award, one more achievement in her skyrocketing retail management career, she found the triumph disturbingly unfulfilling. 

“I called my mom that night and told her ‘I’m just not happy,’’” Lucero recalls. “She said to me, as only a Navajo mom can: ‘That’s because you’re not doing anything for your community.’” Those words struck home for Lucero, who explains that Navajo culture emphasizes connectedness and giving back, not wealth, as central to one’s success. “We believe we are just a small component of what makes this world whole,” she says. “We have a responsibility to live life with reciprocity at the core of our existence.” 

She walked away from her retail career and decided to serve the American Indian community by pursuing a career in medicine. She excelled in pre-med studies at City College of San Francisco and worked as a case manager for the Native American AIDS Project. One young man’s case there, she says, exemplified deeper problems. “He had HIV as well as substance abuse issues. He had been homeless for seven years, and had just received Section 8 housing assistance.” She found him an apartment, but he didn’t hold on to it for long. 

His story illustrates a cycle of instability that she saw frequently, often because individuals did not receive adequate treatment for what she calls “core problems,” such as poverty, depression, and even survivor guilt. Such problems stem from historical trauma, she says, and need to be addressed holistically rather than as separate, independent issues. 

Facing such challenges and inequities, Lucero altered course once more. “I just wasn’t sure I was going to make enough impact with 15-minute, one-on-one patient appointments,” she says. 

She transferred to Mills, where she carved out her own major in Native American studies and earned a master’s in public policy. Her goal was to forge systemic changes that will help larger populations—specifically, one often neglected group: American Indians living in urban settings. 

Lucero observes that members of the urban Indian community frequently grapple with common sets of health and economic challenges. At Mills, she learned that, in exchange for ancestral lands American Indians surrendered in long-ago treaties, the federal government promised to provide health care, food, and education to native peoples. But many of these services require ties to the reservation system, while fewer than 30 percent of American Indians nationwide live on reservations. In California, only about 10 percent do. This leaves the majority of Native Americans living far from those mandated services. Lucero herself, for instance, is a third-generation urban Indian who has never experienced life on a reservation. 

“When it comes to tribal health services, urbans are left out,” she says. Although relatively few in number within the general population, urban Indians suffer disproportionately poor health outcomes, including low birthweight and communicable diseases. “Only 1 percent of the entire national health budget goes to urban Indians. We end up being forced into other systems where we are invisible.” 

Since completing her MPP, Lucero has been a lecturer on American Indians at Bay Area colleges and has worked in policy positions with the Native American Health Center and the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health. Last September, she became chief executive officer of the Seattle Indian Health Board

She continues to use a dog-eared textbook on federal Indian law from her undergraduate years. “It’s my job to find loopholes in the government’s legal agreements with American Indians to promote justice for my community, so we can assert ourselves and attain self-determination,” Lucero says. 

It’s not enough to make sure American Indians receive health services they are entitled to in their health centers specifically catering to their community. Her advocacy and the organizations she serves also help ensure that culturally relevant health practices—such as talking circles, sweat lodges, and consultations with traditional healers—are available, and that clinics can bill for and receive insurance reimbursement for cultural practices. 

“It’s impossible to work for American Indian people without working for social justice. For me, it’s a way of life, a way of mending the circle. My passion is about restoring the balance.” —MB

Facilitating philanthropy

Kim Kerry-Tyerman, MPP ’12, is a philanthropic matchmaker. She has access to an ample supply of well-educated, talented, technologically savvy workers— employees of software giant Adobe—and ties to dozens of community organizations in need of skilled volunteers. Her job, as part of Adobe’s corporate responsibility department, links those professionals and nonprofits for the benefit of all. 

In one example, Kerry-Tyerman matched a graphic designer with Blue Planet Network, an international nonprofit dedicated to increasing communities’ access to clean water. Blue Planet was having a hard time explaining the nuances of its work to the public, so the corporate volunteer drew on his media technology skills to create a series of “what we do” videos for the organization. The project was such a success and Blue Planet was so grateful, Kerry-Tyerman says, that the designer was motivated to increase his involvement and has pursued training to become a nonprofit board member. 

“It’s all about motivating people to be civic servants,” she says. “My main responsibility is to inspire change agents: when you give volunteers the encouragement and resources, they can move mountains.” 

It’s a win-win situation, she adds. The nonprofits gain valuable expertise to advance their mission, and the employees find personal, meaningful reward. 

And for the corporation? While it’s easy to question the motives of any profit-driven company, the benefits of such programs— which can range from pro bono service to charitable financial contributions to a commitment to environmental sustainability—extend far beyond the bottom line. There are excellent public relations opportunities, of course, but proponents also point to greater staff morale, productivity, and retention; better relationships with partner organizations; and cost savings from sustainable production processes. In fact, corporate responsibility departments in Fortune 1000 companies are expanding in scope, focus, and resources, and many companies now define their goals to focus on a “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profit. 

“It’s exciting to see what once was an emerging field become absolutely standard,” Kerry-Tyerman says, adding that many of her department’s activities, such as encouraging more women and people of color to pursue high-tech education and careers, strive to ease societal inequities. It’s another issue that, in the long run, stands to benefit a company that will need competent and diverse workers in the future.

Working in corporate responsibility would have seemed an unexpected career choice to a younger Kerry-Tyerman, a lifelong singer who majored in theater as an undergrad. Looking back, however, she says that it seems almost inevitable. Her first post-college job fundraising for a professional theater company was followed by an overseas service trip to assist a rural girls’ school in Ghana and a year with the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program. These experiences sealed her commitment to social responsibility work and led her to a Mills MPP. At Mills, she says, “I was introduced to lots of new thinking, groups of people I had never thought about, and policies I hadn’t considered before.” 

Today she believes that corporate responsibility and social justice encompass a collective responsibility to each other that extends beyond the present moment. “Responsibility is a great term to think about,” she says. “Who are you responsible for? Some companies may have a narrow view, but we all have broader responsibilities, even outside our daily lives and beyond the present day. How are we as society taking care of future generations?”