3 Experiential Social Justice Tools and the Black Women who Built them

3 Experiential Social Justice Tools and the Black Women who Built them
Submitted by Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, MA, Founder, Bridgebuilder Consulting


Deep reflection and interrogating our own experiences are central methodologies of both Critical Identity Studies and Experiential Education. This focused self-examination serves as a powerful tool both for:

LEARNING new insights about our position in the world, the systems of power in which we function, and how to shift unjust systems while uncovering ongoing effects of injustice


UNLEARNING harmful “truths,” patterns, habits, or behaviors we didn’t realize we had learned in the first place

In social justice education, holding experience and reflection as valid and fruitful ways to construct knowledge follows the idea that the “personal is political,” meaning our individual experiences both feed into and are a function of much larger overarching systems of power and how it is allotted. This belief in the value of personal experience is consistent with the Kolb Cycle of experiential learning, which holds that learning takes place and knowledge is built through a process that involves concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, then active experimentation.

Educators in Critical Identity Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies have long used experiential tools like personal narrative, evocative metaphor, and familiar imagery to help explain abstract, complex concepts that govern our world and profoundly affect daily life, relationships, and our sense of self. Below are three such powerful experiential social justice tools crafted by Black women scholars, educators, poets, and activists.

Kimberlé Crenshaw
Professor, researcher, theorist
Term: “Intersectionality.”

A concept coined by Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality describes the matrix of intersecting identities, like race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, nation, religion, etc., that combine and interact to award or withhold power and privilege. For example, Crenshaw first introduced the term to help describe how the experiences of black women differ from those of white women, and of black men.

Read: “Kimberle Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later”

Watch: Crenshaw TED Talk: “The Urgency of Intersectionality”

Watch: Teaching Tolerance: “Intersectionality 101”


Beverly Daniel Tatum
Author, administrator, psychologist
Metaphor: The Moving Walkway

In her foundational book, ­­Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, Tatum uses a compelling metaphor to help us understand how systems of power built long ago continue to grind forward, and how each of us is complicit unless we intentionally act.

Excerpt:Tatum: “I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.”

Read: “Updated Classic on Race Relations”

Watch: Tatum TEDx Talk: “Is My Skin Brown Because I Drank Chocolate Milk?”

June Jordan
Poet, activist, teacher
Essay: Report from the Bahamas

In a candid narrative, Jordan vividly recounts her experiences as a Black American woman traveling in the Bahamas. She reflects on how her own encounters relate to broad concepts like colonialism, class, and gender roles.

Excerpt: Jordan: “My “rights” and my “freedom” and my “desire” and a slew of other New World values; what would they sound like to this Black woman described on the card atop my hotel bureau as “Olive the Maid”? “Olive” is older than I am and I may smoke a cigarette while she changes the sheets on my bed. Whose rights? Whose freedom? Whose desire?...”

Read: “Report from the Bahamas”

Watch: June Jordan Collection at Harvard

Watch: June Jordan at the Brockport Writers Forum

Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, MA, is a social justice writer, educator, and CEO/founder of Bridgebuilder Consulting. She presents frequently at the Association for Experiential Education & National Women’s Studies Association, and has written for Teaching Tolerance, Sojourners, Ms. Magazine, American Camp Association, and Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal. Follow:facebook.com/AnnaCNjustice

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