What to do if you are called upon to bear witness to social and environmental injustice?
Spirit of Life,
Transcending Mystery and Wonder,
Ground of Our Being,
Be present with us now as we contemplate
How best to bring healing and justice to the world
And inspire us with a vision borne of compassion,
Where the bounty of the Earth is revered,
Where no one goes hungry or unhoused,
Where the weak are protected and the innocent are safeguarded,
And where the riches of creation are shared.
May all souls find their true purpose and become whole,
allowing who we are to inform what we do.
May we come to learn that it is often through our darkest nights
That we discover the glimmers of light that will guide our days.
May our suffering allow us to become wounded healers
With the gift of empathy to sustain our acts of compassion.
When we bear witness to social injustices and that which should not exist,
Let us find the courage to publicly speak our truth to those in power
Demanding changes in institutions and practices that inflict harm upon our neighbors.
Let us re-commit to building the Beloved Community.
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.
Each of our personal life journeys informs our public politics and shapes our involvement in movements for social change. Often our political engagements are ground in our personal grievances. Popular political consciousness is derived from an individual’s commitment to their everyday life, according to sociologist Richard Flacks. When the accustomed patterns of our everyday lives become threatened collective mobilization tends to increase. But the suffering of others also shapes our public stances. Finding ourselves face-to-face with a person who is suffering we may feel sympathy and have the urge to make things better. If that suffering is caused by injustice, we may feel outrage, guilt, shame, shock, and / or helplessness. Fueled by these emotions and understandings we may get involved in efforts to alleviate that suffering through changing policies and programs that perpetuate that suffering. My own life struggles have likewise shaped my convictions.
My journey through homelessness has given me the opportunity to confront horrible, ugly and unacceptable realities that were largely hidden from me prior to my becoming homeless. I have bipolar disorder and experience devastating episodes of major depression in which I lose the motivation to keep on going and can become suicidal and dysfunctional. To cope with these powerfully dark moods, I have self-medicated with illicit stimulants which elevate my spirits and make life seem worth living again. These challenges have lead me to become homeless three times in the past 17 years, to repeatedly lose all my possessions and to become involved in our criminal justice system.
My time on the streets, living in shelters and enrolled in rehabilitation programs, and later working as a social worker in such programs has allowed me to bear witness to innumerable social injustices. People with mental health challenges, physical disabilities, and other major life obstacles often lack access to care, housing, and public assistance; they must fend for themselves in the dog-eat-dog environment which comprises contemporary urban homelessness.
I have lived in all three shelters in Santa Barbara, been a part of rehabilitation programs and lived in transitional housing. Most recently, in November 2011, I had a particularly bad depressive episode which lead to my becoming homeless. Once again, I ended up losing everything. The pain was so unbearable that I choose to self-medicate with street drugs, which led to my entanglement with the legal system. Between these very bad moments I have had extended periods in which I held it all together, spending six years working as a social worker, doing street outreach, counseling and helping people transition off the streets.
Because I have spent a decade immersed within the social worlds of those who have the triple challenges of mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, I feel an obligation to testify in public about what I have witnessed. I have seen the human consequences of a society without an adequate safety net to prevent people from free falling to the bottom. I have seen the outcome of often indifferent civic leaders who year after year underfund the very programs needed to allow people to lead lives of dignity and worth. I have seen communities that seem not to care as people needlessly suffer and even die, often more concerned with shopping for trendy consumer items than knowing the pain of their fellow brothers and sisters on the streets.
Many of these people getting no care and having no place to go lead tragic lives filled with enormous suffering. Each of the women I have met sharing these three has been repeatedly sexually assaulted. Most others, both men and women, have been victims of other forms of violent crime. Many cycle in and out of jails, emergency rooms and homeless shelters in what has been dubbed “the revolving door” – never receiving the integrated and sustained psychiatric treatment they need and deserve. They often die unnecessary deaths at an early age.
It has been over 50 years since states began shuttering mental health institutions. “De-institutionalization” was supposed to be accompanied by the growth of local alternatives. The old asylums were seen as mere warehouses in which no one ever recovered and with treatment that was often inhumane. Unfortunately, the new community-based mental health services never emerged. When our economy faced yet another economic downturn the states reduced mental health funding to save money.
This failure to provide treatment and supportive services over burdens emergency rooms, local jails and homeless shelters. Only about a third of people who need treatment for mental disorders receive it. These people getting no care at all and having no place to go have been a major contributor to the increase in homelessness. Locally it is estimated that about half of the people on the streets suffer some form of mental illness. Half of those suffer from substance abuse issues.
In the city of Santa Barbara, our public housing agency has ceased to take new names for the waiting list for federally-financed subsidized housing because these lists are already so long that it will take seven years to serve. Hundreds of people live on the streets, including people in wheelchairs, people with untreated yet severe mental health challenges, elderly people, and youth. When the financial crisis hit in 2008-2009, the County was “forced” to downsize the number of workers providing various social services, including street outreach workers. And now as I now write these words threats of budget cuts are again sending shivers through the community.
A very chilly climate exists for many of our poorest neighbors in sunny Santa Barbara. Across the country there is a campaign by those in power to harass and penalize those living on the streets. Numerous local communities, overwhelmed by the numbers of people flocking to their cities, have implemented draconian laws to discourage people from staying. These local ordinances are devised to bring law enforcement officers into close contact with those on the streets to enforce arbitrary policies meant to harass those without homes. Sleeping outside is against the law2. Sitting on sidewalks is against the law. Selling handmade jewelry on the sidewalk is against the law. Panhandling is discouraged and can result in hefty fines.
The real goal is to hit the most visible culprits with a barrage of tickets so that they will leave town. Many simply wander to the next beach community. Throngs of people shuffle between San Diego and Santa Cruz, never getting the assistance they deserve. Civil rights are routinely violated so that rich communities retain their tourist destination status. Civic organizations spend vast amounts on security teams who are charged with targeting homeless people in busy shopping districts. Social injustices abound, all in the name of profit. In Santa Barbara, with over a thousand people without homes but far less than 400 shelter beds, people are routinely written tickets for sleeping outside even though there is no place else for them to go. RVs are being banned on downtown streets. Attempts are being made to stop religious organizations and non-profits from feeding the hungry in our parks.
For the fragile and traumatized people sleeping in doorways and encamped along our creeks, this increased and unwanted attention by law enforcement teams feels like brute torment. Many get dozens of citations with corresponding court-dates, which turn into jail time when they are ignored. They feel singled out and penalized for behaviors for which housed people are ignored. Judges and courtroom personnel feel that their times and skills are wasted on people with no criminal intent, who are not really harming anyone. Through these laws, we inflict more suffering on those who are already marginalized, displaced and struggling to subsist.
These are the crimes of which I accuse my fellow citizens: that apathy, indifference and cynicism have befallen you, and have lead you to become numb to the suffering all around you; that you have given up the struggle for social justice and the hope that we can change the system so that all people can lead healthy lives; that you have forgotten your most sacred value–the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and that with an instrumental calculus difficult to comprehend that we knowing allow for the increase in suffering for those with mental disorders in order to meet budgetary requirements. Do we pretend to not know the human costs of deceases in funding for mental health services?’
These are but some of the unjust issues we face in the modern world, a small facet of systemic strife. These are times which demand witnesses who can testify concerning the social suffering of our world, explicitly contrasting the ways things are with how they ought to be. My journey exposed me to the plight of some of the most destitute in our contemporary urban settings. Most American cities are now filled with such nomads surviving on handouts, come-ups, and whatever meager edibles they forage in the garbage cans and dumpsters of these paved jungles.
While I have been housed now for over five years I continue to play an active role in reforming local policies concerning homelessness and mental health3. There is a constant need to advocate for improved services for these populations.
II. Extreme suffering seems to be all around us lately—victims of violent crime, people with mental /health challenges living on the street, immigrants receiving less than humane treatment, poor working families unable to put food on their tables. Many of these forms of suffering are the result of social injustices inherent in the workings of our social system. This means that structural transformations in the nature of that system are required to alleviate these horrendous problems. While charitable acts are often required—the hungry must be fed and the sick need to be cared for—these acts by themselves do not address the associated root causes, and are merely temporary stopgap measures.
Social injustice can be defined as the state in which people are treated without dignity and respect and are not provided access to basic human needs. Social justice thus incorporates both a “redistributive claim” which seeks a more equitable distribution of resources and goods, and a claim in the “politics of recognition”, in which so-called minority groups are accorded equal respect. Manifestations of social injustice include severe poverty, world hunger, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, oppression and exploitation based on ethnicity, gender or social class, and violation of human rights. Systems of oppression, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy, etc. operate on individual, institutional and societal levels through conscious and unconscious actions and beliefs to exploit some people and benefit others based on membership or perceived membership in social groups, including those based upon race, gender, class, age, ability, sexual orientation and religion, etc.
These oppressive systems are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Through these processes members of dominant groups receive unearned privileges. These unearned privileges come, not as a result of merit or effort, but as a result of these systems of oppression. Thus, the privileges that allow some people to live imperial lifestyles and the penalties that force others to sleep in doorways are both the outcome of same social system. Our detachment from scenes of suffering, in which we tacitly reject any responsibility for the horrors we observe, is unfounded. Each of us bears some responsibility for the fate of our world.
Deep down in our psyches we know this fact because each of us has met good, hard working and honest people who, through no apparent fault of their own, suffer unjustly. Chances are that we understand that the distribution of suffering is not random, nor based merely upon individual effort or merit, but reveals the working of powerful elites who have shaped social systems to serve their own interest.
While for some time the arc of the universe appeared to bend toward justice, with increasing numbers of oppressed groups becoming empowered and greater equality coming to the system as a whole, today the claim of never-ending “progress” is harder to maintain. The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House ushers in a period in which previously won gains are being rolled back. We are seeing an assault on the reproductive rights of women, the heath care needs of working people, the civil rights of African Americans, the social acceptance of LGBT people, to name but a few examples of political backsliding. I fear that things are going to get worse for lots of people and that suffering is going to increase.
To live in the modern era is to constantly be aware of other’s suffering. Whether our awareness comes from direct observation of tragic events, through the painful experiences of our close friends and intimates, or in what has been called “observation of suffering at a distance”– through ubiquitous photographic images in our various forms of media engagements4. The non-stop barrage of images of suffering can overwhelm our senses, and leave us numb, apathetic and indifferent, and thus diminish our willingness to take action to transform these unjust circumstances.
How can we transform our observations of another person’s suffering an intolerable situation into prophetic spiritual practices which inform and motivate our struggles for social justice? My concern in this essay is to develop the notion of “bearing witness to social injustice” as a prophetic spiritual practice and to articulate some essential components. I begin by describing “the cynical cycle of mindless inaction”–a common way of dealing with another person’s suffering in which we close down in apathy. Bearing witness to social injustice becomes a spiritual practice when the lived experience of another person’s suffering elicits deep reflection, public disclosure and potentially direct actions to alleviate the situation. We achieve this through staying fully present and aware, thoughtful and intentional, and integrating these actions into the cycles of our lives.
To be continued …
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.