Toward Deeper Justice for All

The Urban Social Justice Report

Kara Powell | Jun 25, 2007

NOTE: This article has an accompanying FREE downloadable assessment tool entitled “Our Ministry Plan for Deeper Justice,” available as a pdf (86 KB—you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download this resource. Click here to download Acrobat for free).

The singers, sponsors, and fans of “American Idol” give back…to the tune of $70 million.

“Evan Almighty” floats into our movie theatres and our churches, beckoning us to match our skills and talents with the needs of others.

Bono wants us to see “(Red)” when we think of AIDS and poverty around the world, and take at least “ONE” step to make a difference.

These days there is no shortage of philanthropists jumping in to respond to the needs of the least, the last, and the lost. While it’s great to swim in a pool crowded with activists, it’s quite possible that in the midst of all the splashing around, the water’s gotten a bit muddy.

At least that’s part of the rationale driving the Urban Social Justice Project, coordinated by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), World Vision, Community Solutions, Inc., and the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI). The goal of the Urban Social Justice Project (USJP) is to survey urban youth workers in order to eliminate the murkiness swirling around what social justice is, what it isn’t, and how to bring the most dignity and transformation for all.

In phase one of the USJP, approximately 60 urban youth workers participated in focus groups held in eight U.S. cities in conjunction with the 2006-2007 UYWI ReLoad tour. [[The eight cities involved were Fresno, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Philadelphia.]] In April 2007, FYI sifted through the focus group answers in order to identify social justice “best practices” already being implemented around the U.S. as well as the most pressing justice concerns. In phase two of the USJP, FYI presented that report to a group of 27 strategically-invited leaders both to elicit their feedback and to pinpoint the focus groups’ most salient insights. [[That presentation was held on May 17, 2007 at the UYWI Conference at Azusa Pacific University.]]

In the midst of the waves of attention devoted to helping the poor, perhaps you’ve even stuck a toe in the social justice waters yourself. But how do you know if your justice work is making a deep impact or just adding a few drops to a leaky bucket? As a leader, do you know what separates good justice work from truly great justice ministry? Regardless of whether you serve in an urban, suburban, or rural/small town context, hopefully these combined findings from both phases of the USJP can help you and your students plunge into deeper justice for all.

Deeper Question #1: How Would You Define Social Justice?

While identifying a precise definition of social justice is beyond the scope of the USJP, the research revealed eight themes that help define effective ministry with the “least of these”. [[The order of items in this list, as well as the lists corresponding to the other three Deeper Questions, does not reflect any hierarchy of frequency of response. Items are listed in random order.]]

  • It involves righting wrongs, often through systemic change.
  • It levels the playing field and provides equal opportunities, especially in areas of housing, education, safety, and holistic support.
  • It speaks the truth.
  • It develops skills that enable people to help themselves.
  • It gives a voice to those who are often voiceless.
  • It creates economic and social well-being.
  • It is rooted in our love for one another.
  • It is contextual and will manifest itself differently in different communities.

Deeper Question #2: What is Social Justice NOT?

Often surprising to social justice novices is the widely held distinction between service and justice work. Service is offering a thirsty person a cup of cold water. Justice is not only offering a cup of cold water, but asking why they’re thirsty to begin with, and partnering with them to make sure not only that they are never thirsty again but that they can get their own water.

That distinction between service and social justice wove its way through the most common themes of what social justice is not:

  • It is not handouts.
  • It is not focused only on individuals but is instead focused on both helping individuals and creating systemic change.
  • It is not free giving without personal involvement and relationship.
  • It is not just programs.

Deeper Question #3: What Makes Youth Workers Who Are Effective in Justice Work So Effective?

When asked to think about the qualities of effective justice leaders, focus group members in phase one of the USJP repeatedly mentioned the importance of building relationships, usually to the point of becoming “part of the neighborhood.” In addition to quality relationships, both phases of the USJP revealed eleven other important qualities of social justice leaders.

  • They have a theological conviction about God’s intended shalom that motivates their work.
  • They don’t view others as projects but as people.
  • They realize that they don’t always know what others need.
  • They involve kids in their work and understand kids’ potential to catch a vision and be justice leaders.
  • They work holistically instead of focusing only on “spiritual” needs.
  • They ask why.
  • They think communally instead of individually.
  • They “keep it real”.
  • They realize that they need to collaborate with others outside of their own church.
  • They realize they can’t wait for someone else to act.
  • They need an effective support system so they don’t experience compassion burnout. [[For more on urban youth worker stress and burnout, please see the FYI research report entitled Stress in the City: A New Study of Youth Workers]]

Deeper Question #4: What Justice Issues are Most Important to Your Community?

In the midst of the myriad of diverse needs facing communities today, nine issues emerged as the most dominant.

  • Poverty
  • Police/criminal justice system/juvenile justice system
  • Unequal access to services, especially services related to housing, health, education, and safety
  • Violence and gangs
  • Housing
  • Gentrification
  • Education
  • Family/home life
  • White privilege

Action Points: Your Own Plan to Dive into Deeper Justice Work

I wish you and I could simply read an article like this and presto, our ministries would automatically dive into deeper justice. Unfortunately, reading isn’t enough. Deeper justice involves not just exposure to new ideas from the USJP, but also opportunities both to reflect and to act.

In order to help your ministry put feet to the USJP findings, we’ve developed a free downloadable assessment tool entitled “Our Ministry Plan for Deeper Justice,” available HERE. We encourage you to print it out and take some time to assess your justice growth areas. Better yet, invite others to help shape your ministry’s justice journey by making copies for the rest of your adult leadership team, your spouse and other friends who know you well, as well as the students and parents in your ministry. The justice pool may be crowded, but there’s still room for your ministry.

For more research-based resources related to social justice, see our upcoming November 2007 and January 2008 releases of the FYI E-Journal which will be largely devoted to social justice, as well as the upcoming FYI book, Deep Justice in a Broken World, by Chap Clark and Kara Powell, to be released by Zondervan/Youth Specialties in January 2008.

To read the actual FYI report as well as notes from the meeting with 27 leaders held at UYWI in May 2007, check out . You might also be interested in online resources available at

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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