Cultivating a self-reflective practice in doing social justice work

By Published On: 29th June 2017

Photo: Tamara, Living Young


As we all stood squeezed into the confines of the lift giggling with the familiar awkwardness of being too close to a stranger, the doors open. Ding! A black man stands on the other side readying himself to step into the already too full lift. I see only parts of him and realise that the lift is too full, he half-smiles, the doors close. “This is an apartheid lift”, someone says jokingly, unexpectedly. A heart-beat of silence and then more awkward giggles and clumsy attempts at changing the topic. I look down, bite my lip and wish the lift would reach the ground faster so that I could breathe again.

I am often taken aback by my own emotional response to such incidents. The frequency with which exchanges like these happen does little by way of lessening the emotional and psychological blow that comes with it. It is as if one can never truly get used to it. Spaces that were perceived to be safe can instantly be transformed into spaces that are violent and which reproduce unequal power relations.

My silence and momentary inability to respond to the offensive comment reminded me of how much we as practitioners working within the field of social justice, peace and reconciliation expect of our stakeholders. We create spaces for dialogue between persons who often hold diverse views and expect a certain level of engagement from them – that they do so honestly and with a willingness to struggle with the issues raised. Although these are manufactured and often carefully curated spaces the conversations nonetheless evoke very real emotions which can often be hard to deal with. It becomes infinitely harder and more complex when we are having these conversations in our intimate, personal spaces where the threat of being ostracised is real and where keeping quiet seems like the best option.

As a young woman of colour I am aware of my positionality and try to acknowledge how I incorporate into my work my own preconceived ideas, attitudes, and beliefs and the ways in which my personal experiences could potentially enrich the work that I do. It does not come automatically as it requires constant, deliberate and honest reflection. This in turn allows me to nurture an awareness of the different experiences and narratives people embody when they step into dialogue spaces. This process does however bring with it a certain level of risk of personal exposure and vulnerability and surfaces many things that need to be unlearned. It is a practice that can bring with it intense discomfort. But it is in the discomfort, at the edge of our stretch zone where the most valuable learning can happen.

As practitioners, it is important that we are committed to doing the emotional heavy lifting required in doing the challenging work of authentic engagement with issues of race, power, identity and the past. That we deliberately and with consistency cultivate a self-reflective practice. Incorporating self-reflective practice in our work is to be committed and confident about our knowledge and what we’re able to influence while simultaneously remaining open to new knowledge and ways of being in the world.

Eleanor du Plooy is a Project Leader for the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk and Project Leader for Gender, Justice & Reconciliation

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