What has a university got to do with social justice?



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What has a university got to do with social justice?

I recently enjoyed an introductory chat with Matthew Reason, Director of the newly formed Institute for Social Justice at York St John University. It’s a fascinating role, with the potential to make some significant and sustainable changes to the city, so I was naturally excited to share our conversation. Over to Matthew:

What has a university got to do with social justice?

The answer, we hope, is everything.

Certainly, that is our ambition with the launch in July 2020 of the Institute for Social Justice at York St John University. We hope this new initiative will be an impactful part of efforts towards greater social justice in York, our wider region and nationally.

We believe that York St John is a very particular kind of university. It has strong roots in its community and has a commitment to social justice written into its mission statement. The Institute for Social justice draws on this history and is designed to support and conduct research and practice that addresses inequalities, injustices and helps tackle some of the significant challenges facing society today.

Which is all very worthwhile, but what does that really mean? What will the Institute do? And what is social justice anyway? Most importantly, how can we ensure that this is a genuine commitment and not just empty ambition?


Social Justice in Action

At York St John our academics and students often conduct work with partner organisations, community and participants that seeks to make a difference. This is social justice in action, the university working in conjunction with our community to help deliver positive change.

Examples include the Military Human, which aims to support veterans making the transition to civilian life. Or Converge, which runs university-based courses for people who have experienced mental ill-health. Or Moving Minds, which offers dance classes to people with dementia and their partners. Or the Prison Partnership Project, which runs theatre courses in women’s prisons. Or Parenthood 2021, which aims to improve experiences for new parents in York. Or All About Respect, a collaborative project that aims to raise awareness of sexual harm in young adults. Or… the list goes on with work engaging with a wide range of often vulnerable or marginalised groups within our community, including young people, asylum seekers, the elderly and people with disabilities.

At its core the Institute for Social Justice seeks to work with people, with partners and with communities in a manner that sees action and change as a vital part of its mission.


Activity for 2021

As part of its launch the Institute for Social Justice is developing its activity across a number of areas. There are two where we would particularly like to increase our engagement with partners in York, seeking opportunities for collaborative research and practice. These are:

Participatory research with, by and for young people.

By participatory research we mean processes where the young people are themselves involved in research into issues that are important to them, whether that is bullying, climate change, covid-19, mental health or body image. We have researchers working in each of these areas that are seeking to work closely with schools, third sector organisations or other partners. By conducting research with young people its impact is far greater and their voices shaped and determine the outcomes.

Covid-19. Resilience and Adaptation

The disruption caused by Covid-19 has forced many third sector organisations, often working with vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, to drastically adapt their activities. We would like to explore how different groups have adapted and what is needed next to support the legacy of those who have been most effected or left-behind during social distancing.


How you can be involved?

An image we’ve used to describe our ambition for social justice work at the Institute for Social Justice is to turn the university ‘inside out’. That is to challenge the traditional idea of a university as a place apart from the wider world and instead make active connections with external communities.

We’d welcome hearing from people or groups who’d like to get involved in any of our projects, particularly those described above. Stronger collaborative connections are vital as we develop participatory practice and research, working with people in a manner that values their expertise and lived experiences in a non-hierarchical manner.

Please visit and subscribe to our blog https://blog.yorksj.ac.uk/ISJ/ or follow us on twitter @YsjSocial. And get in touch if you would like to know more, be put in touch with those leading any of the projects described here, or would like to propose a way of working with us in the future.

Contact Matthew Reason, Director, Institute for Social Justice on m.reason@yorksj.ac.uk


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