When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say about social justice for this blog post, I found my thoughts returning again and again to the distinction between justice and charity.
During my time at the National Advocacy Center in Washington, D.C., advocating for justice for immigrants, those experiencing poverty, and survivors of human trafficking, this distinction has been at the center of my work. I think about the difference between justice and charity almost every day, a fact which is funny considering that prior to beginning my year of service with Good Shepherd Volunteers, I had never given the difference between justice and charity any serious thought.
Working at the National Advocacy Center, I have learned to change my mindset, to stop seeing social justice work as “giving back” or “helping out”. The idea of achieving social justice through acts of charity reflects the antiquated view that the marginalized and the poor must depend on the privileged and the powerful. It implies inequality, reinforcing unjust power structures and existing in sharp contrast to what is at the true heart of social justice – true equality.
At the National Advocacy Center, I am incredibly lucky to work with Sister Brigid Lawlor. Sister Brigid founded the National Advocacy Center in 2001. For over a decade she served as Congregational Leader of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd and was recently appointed as a Consultor to the Pope at the Vatican office for religious. Sister Brigid has some pretty incredible stories, one of which I think exemplifies the difference between charity and justice.
A few Mondays ago, Sister Brigid popped by my desk at the National Advocacy Center to chat and ask me about my weekend. I told her how I took the bus from where I live in the Brookland neighborhood in D.C. over to Georgetown, where I walked around for a while, window shopping and admiring the neighborhood’s high-end federal style rowhouses.
“I used to live in Georgetown,” Sister Brigid told me.
Back in the day, Sister Brigid was a temporary professed sister living in Georgetown and working at a soup kitchen a few blocks from the Capitol building. Brigid would get to know hundreds of struggling people, particularly women and children.
Brigid felt a strong sense of injustice during this time. Every day she went home to Georgetown after working at the soup kitchen in Capitol Hill, and every night she would watch the news and see lawmakers on Capitol Hill making decisions about the country while doing nothing to address the poverty and suffering in their own backyard.
Brigid began to work with Dr. Veronica Maze, a professor at Georgetown University, to set up a home for the homeless women who went to the soup kitchen. They found an abandoned building in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and bought it from the government for one dollar. Sister Brigid and Dr. Maze convinced companies to donate time, money, resources, and services to fix up the house and make it habitable. Eventually the women were able to move in.
Working in the soup kitchen, Sister Brigid and others were helping the poor and homeless survive. When she saw that lawmakers were doing nothing to enact the kind of structural change that would lift these people out of poverty and off the streets, she took matters into her own hands. To me, this is the essence of social justice.
I don’t mean to downplay the importance of charity – quite the opposite. But it is important to understand that charity is incomplete without justice. Charity is good and is an important way to relieve suffering. But if you don’t work to address the source of the suffering, the suffering will persist. It’s like there’s a hole in your rowboat and you’re trying to stay afloat. You can bail out water with your bucket, which is a good and smart thing to do, but if you don’t find the hole and plug it, you’re going to be bailing out water forever. For me, this is the difference between charity and justice.
Sister Brigid founded the National Advocacy Center fight for social justice at the federal level, to achieve structural change that gets to the core of issues like poverty and immigration reform. I feel so lucky to work at the National Advocacy Center, where social justice is at the forefront of our work. I came to work at NAC because I wanted to help people. And now, because of NAC, I understand so much more about social justice than I did before. I understand that to truly help people, to truly achieve equality, you need to fight for justice.
Washington, D.C. '21-'22