Healing Justice and Our Nation’s Schools

By John Schlitt, President, School-Based Health Alliance

Shawn GinwrightHope and healing. Both are in short supply for too many young people today. Hopelessness—brought on by exposure to poverty and violence—often leads to alienation and civic disengagement among young people. The long-term consequences of such social toxicity are well known: poor health, school failure, marginalization, criminalization.

Shawn Ginwright, a leading national voice on African American youth activism and the keynote speaker at our upcoming convention, insists that hope and healing be the business of our social institutions—especially our schools. In his book, Hope and Healing in Urban Education, Ginwright describes social change movements that are reinventing community approaches to youth development. At the heart of these models is the understanding that harm to children caused by toxic environments and oppressive social conditions must be repaired. Healing is critical to youth well-being, fostering hope, and civic engagement:

Together, healing and hope inspire youth to understand that community conditions are not permanent, and that the first step in making change is to imagine new possibilities. For young people, healing fosters a collective optimism and a transformation of spirit that, over time, contributes to healthy, vibrant community life.

Ginwright traveled the U.S. and South Africa to meet with social justice leaders and education reformers from highly stressed urban communities. He sought to better understand how activism and education could restore—and even transform—healthy communities from within. What he discovered was a progressive movement to roll back zero tolerance policies, redefine punitive disciplinary practices, and introduce restorative justice. Instead of doling out harsh (and ineffective) punishment, schools offered peer-to-peer conflict mediation, healing circles, meditation, and other mindfulness practices to nurture peace and healing.

What did each of these communities have in common? An abundance of healing justice. A strong belief that well-being is a necessary function of social justice. “Healing justice focuses on both the systemic consequences of oppression on hope, as well as how communities can heal and be restored to vibrant, healthy communities.” It represents the convergence of two interdependent movements. Merely social justice and its goal to change policy is insufficient, says Ginwright. We must also repair the harm inflicted by systemic oppression. Conversely, healing without addressing adverse social conditions is inadequate—even counterproductive. “Social and emotional learning and development is incomplete without engaging young people in actions to improve the conditions necessary to improve quality of life.”

As professionals dedicated to serving and supporting youth, we are called upon to be first-responders to hopelessness, helping to restore human dignity, meaning, and possibility for all young people. Ginwright offers a way forward for those of us committed to building healing-centered approaches to school and community change:

Recognize signs of individual and collective harm. “We cannot discount the significance of how community issues like violence impact what happens in the classroom. We need to pay attention to our own and others’ social emotional states.”

Define what well-being looks like rather than focus on harm. “We have to explore what can exist rather than what does exist.” Radical imagination turns traditional deficit-minded strategy planning on its head to inspire new possibilities in communities.

Implement policies that facilitate healing from harm. “The complexity, depth, and breadth of social conditions call and beckon for merging new and old ways to change our lives and our communities.”

I am haunted by a rhetorical question he poses to all of us: What does it mean to really live, rather than simply survive? For far too long we’ve lacked the political courage, currency, and radical imagination to envision a society where all children do more than merely survive—they thrive. Ginwright implores us to imagine new education and health policies that are rooted in hope, restoration, and love.


Shawn Ginwright is the keynote speaker at the 2016 National School-Based Health Care Convention. He is Associate Professor of Education in the Africana Studies Department and Senior Research Associate for Cesar Chavez Institute for Public Policy at San Francisco State University.

His book, Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Urban Activists and Teachers are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart, was published by Routledge in 2016.

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