Rethinking Academia and Social Justice: Reflections from Emerging Scholars

Nikita Carney

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the responding protests served as a catalyst for the resurgence of #BlackLivesMatter, a movement working to shift national and local conversations about race, class, gender, and inequality. In this essay, the authors reflect on how academia can answer this call, from their positions as emerging scholars.


Following the tragic killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014, a small group of sociology doctoral students came together to work for social justice, focusing on our role as emerging scholars. This article outlines the events that drew us together and our ideas for how we can use these experiences to bridge academic endeavors with social justice work. We hope to develop a framework for public scholarship that pursues rigorous research while contributing to program interventions, policy recommendations, and positive change in marginalized communities.

Responding to Injustice from the Ivory Tower

November 24, 2014. Monday night. Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecutor, announced the grand jury’s verdict not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. We awaited the announcement anxiously, streaming news coverage on personal computers along with friends and colleagues across the nation. We were not shocked by the verdict since we study social inequality and are well aware of the prevailing power relations in the U.S that devalue and criminalize Black bodies. Nonetheless, we felt angry about the injustice, saddened for the family of Michael Brown, and frustrated that despite all of the touted “progress” around race relations in the U.S., we continue to see young Black men killed in the streets with no legal repercussions. We remain afraid for the personal safety of the young Black people in our lives.

A number of graduate students in our department at UC Santa Barbara were planning to attend an event later that evening to discuss whether the graduate student union should support boycott, divestment, and sanctions in solidarity with Palestinian labor unions. One of our professors accepted an invitation to join us, speaking passionately about the occupation of Palestine and the systematic disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people. One of our peers drew powerful connections between oppression in Palestine and the failure to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, highlighting systemic violence and injustice across the globe. We spent the rest of the evening debating with Zionist union members about social justice and the oppression of the Palestinian people. 

November 25, 2014. After an emotionally draining evening, the next day we tore ourselves away from the social media coverage of the events in Ferguson and headed to class. We attended our sociological theory seminar, where we read and discussed the canonical works of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. We were prepared to ask the professor to give us a few minutes to talk about Ferguson, but before we could make the request, he opened the class with a somber statement about the grand jury’s verdict, inviting us to speak on the subject before turning to our scheduled class discussion. No one quite knew what to say, but one student shared information about a protest that would be taking place later that same day. That evening, almost everyone from the seminar, including the professor, turned out to march in the streets.

I (NC), as a Black woman, fought back tears at the start of the march when we took up the chant “Black Lives Matter.” I needed to march that night because I felt helpless to protect my brother or my young cousins from meeting a fate similar to that of Michael Brown. With my academic peers beside me, our peaceful protest was accompanied by a K-9 unit that conjured imagery of young Black protesters being attacked by police dogs during the Civil Rights Movement. We also confronted a line of police in riot gear with shields. Behind the line of police stood a black armored tank, threateningly looming over our nonviolent protest as we marched in solidarity with Ferguson.

December 1, 2014. On the Monday following Thanksgiving, one week after the grand jury’s verdict in Ferguson, we attended a Hands Up, Walk Out demonstration on campus organized by the Black Student Union. We spoke about disrupting business as usual and refusing to let our community and our nation forget the crisis in Ferguson—and the emerging movement across the nation. After a moment of silence, we broke into small groups to discuss next steps before forming a large circle to share our thoughts. One professor in attendance cried and expressed frustration at having to demonstrate once again, remembering a similar protest that took place following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Several participants suggested concrete actions that we could take, such as advocating for Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act and writing opinion pieces for local newspapers. Another participant, an activist from the local community, collected the contact information of students who were interested in collaborating on addressing racism in Santa Barbara.

After the demonstration, we walked to our next seminar. We tried to make space to talk about the events in Ferguson, to discuss how we were struggling to process the situation individually, and to think through our role as academics in these trying times. Our concerns seemingly fell on deaf ears, as the professor and a handful of students worked to steer the conversation away from Ferguson and back to a discussion on how to “get ahead” in academia. Because we had just attended a demonstration where we spoke passionately about the need to disrupt business as usual to fight for social justice, one at a time, five of us announced our decision to leave class in honor of the nation-wide Hands Up, Walk Out protest. About half of the students present announced their intentions, stood up, and filed out of the classroom.

I (AK) was confused and surprised to find that not all of our colleagues seemed to feel a sense of urgency to directly respond to the events in Ferguson, and to integrate these responses into our academic work. As a white man, I felt a particularly strong call to action given the ways that I benefit from the systems that conditioned and justified the murder of Michael Brown, as well as the ways the privileges of whiteness and masculinity are constitutive of the privileged position of academia as an institution of which I am a part. Having been introduced to research through participatory, intersectional feminist frameworks, I—perhaps naively—expected that sociologists would want to engage in this pivotal historical moment.

We met in the hallway, shocked with ourselves for being so bold as to undermine authority and leave seminar but determined to continue our engagement with the emerging movement. After relocating to the food court, our small group met for the first time to discuss our roles and responsibilities with regards to social justice and to outline concrete steps we could take as academics to support the work of the movement. After a couple of hours, we left this first meeting with a list of ideas and action steps, feeling hopeful, re-energized, and committed to integrating social activism with our daily lives as graduate students. Our action items included:

  1. Reaching out to Professor Victor Rios about the events in Ferguson to ask for suggestions of ways that we could support the movement.
  2. Putting out a call for submissions across the university to collect reactions and reflections from graduate students and engage in a dialogue about our role as emerging scholars.
  3. Creating an online platform where graduate students can critically engage with each other

We have met every week since this original, impromptu meeting. We do not pretend to have the all the answers, but we have decided that inaction or passive observation is simply not an option. We are trained to critique current systems and identify the flaws and shortcomings, but we do not spend nearly as much time addressing concrete steps for change. We did not see enough space for active dialogue about social justice and how to merge activism and academia in our department and on our campus. So we decided to create that space.

Our Position on the Margins of a Discipline

We see a range of possible ways that we can contribute to social justice movements as scholar-activists. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore states, “Where scholarship and activism overlap is in the area of how to make decisions about what comes next.”[1] However, academia as an institution often discourages scholars from engaging in activism by reinforcing oppressive ideologies and practices within the academy.

Part of the challenge moving forward is how to reshape our epistemologies so that our knowledge production does not fall into patterns of privileging white, male/masculine, “Western” knowledge at the expense of marginalizing knowledge production that falls outside of the norm. Established academic disciplines tend to involve a great amount of gatekeeping in an attempt to preserve the essence of the discipline.[2] Unfortunately, that can lead to the systematic exclusion of scholars from marginalized populations and a lack of respect for alternative modes of knowledge production.[3] These modes of knowledge production are embedded not only in the methodological and theoretical assumptions of the disciplines, but also the embodied practices of professionalization, especially the persistent barriers (re)produced between activists and academics.

The shifts necessary to transform our epistemological frameworks will require the questioning and re-drawing of various disciplinary boundaries. However, we find ourselves in a discipline that struggles to remain relevant and engaged with social change while retaining credibility within the academy.[4] As doctoral students in sociology, we often find ourselves on the margins of the discipline as we seek to find our place in academia while resisting pressures to assimilate to the norms of academia.[5]

As we struggle to find our place and voice, we look to the ways in which our professors chose to engage or refrain from engaging with social justice activism during the course of the week outlined above. One of our professors fearlessly spoke out against injustice in Palestine at the student event, despite the fact that his past activism around justice for Palestine has had very serious repercussions that at times included threats to his job and his personal safety. Another professor set aside class time to give us space to discuss the events in Ferguson and then took to the streets to march with us in solidarity. The third professor mentioned above seemed nervous and uncomfortable by our attempts to bring our discussion of social justice and activism into the classroom and found himself in the difficult position of choosing between socializing us into the discipline or allowing us to derail the scheduled discussion.

The tensions between the expectations of the discipline and social activism were seen most clearly in the case of this third professor. He performed his job as is expected by the norms of academia. Despite his personal investment in addressing injustice, the classroom is typically seen as a place to prepare students for their future careers as academics rather than a place to organize and effect change.

An increasing push toward professionalization lays bare the power structures of academia, and then prescribes a set of behaviors to navigate—rather than correct—them. A focus on publishing, grant-getting, and job-seeking brings conversations to the fore that must deal with issues related to power, access, status, and hierarchy. However, greater resources directed at helping students navigate these structures can also cover up the insidious ways that they operate. Often, these conversations end in a defeated tone about “the way things are.”

Graduate students are perhaps the most susceptible to the issues of academia as well as the best suited to offer strategies to transform it. Our organizational position puts us at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. Moreover, graduate students, particularly those who face daily microaggressions with regards to race, gender, and sexual identity, may experience impostor syndrome most acutely. Marginalized students who engage in activism and other forms of resistance may also be particularly visible targets for racist, sexist, and heterosexist violence, highlighting the need to move beyond diversity and multiculturalism programs to larger visions of racial, social, and economic justice within academia.

At the same time, our marginal position gives us a unique vantage point from which to reimagine the future of higher education: we have not yet become so indoctrinated in our discipline that our creativity has been dulled by routinization.[6] Rather than waiting until we are tenured faculty to engage in a conversation about how academia could better serve marginalized students and communities, we seek to begin contributing to the conversations now. As #BlackLivesMatter and other “new” racial justice movements advance political, discursive, and social change, we both demand and seek to create academic apparatuses that are capable of working in solidarity with these movements.

(Re)producing barriers: relationships and resources

We, like many people across the United States and the globe, interpreted the events in Ferguson as an urgent call to action.[7] For us, this call took the form of a question: How can academia create conditions that are more conducive to work that is effective in meeting the needs of communities, engages with these struggles, and is accountable to the priorities of social movements and marginalized communities? We feel a pressing need to bring our energy and perspective to the ongoing conversations, dialogue, and praxis of transforming academia and resisting the corporatization of higher education and the interrelated systems of white supremacy, neoliberal capitalism, sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.[8] Our collective and individual experiences of working to stand in solidarity with the movements to end racist policing and violence underscore the ways that academia has failed to create these conditions. Instead, has been patterned by tendencies that consolidate and reproduce privilege.

First, graduate students are only sometimes encouraged—and rarely supported—to develop supportive relationships with our peers. Instead, we are often encouraged to focus on developing relationships with faculty members in our department, leaders in our academic areas, funders, and other key stakeholders that can advance our careers—and by extension, the prestige of the department. At the same time, many of the core assumptions of mainstream knowledge production create barriers to forming collaborative and supportive relationships within academia, as well as effective relationships with activists and movement leaders.

Second, copyright laws create a sense that knowledge can be owned and attributed to an individual. This core focus in academia on scholars as individuals with a unique area of expertise encourages competitive, rather than collaborative relationships, while privileging certain people as legitimate sources of knowledge production. This privileging of individualized scholarly knowledge marginalizes the “everyday,” and “commonsense” strategic and practical knowledge of activists and community leaders.

Third, patterns of relationships in academia have significant consequences for the voices that come to represent legitimated knowledge, which consequently shapes policies, programs, and the allocation of public resources.[9] There are few—if any—institutional supports within academia for forming meaningful relationships with community members and activists. Many of these relationships continue to be patterned by doing research on populations, including exploitation and condescension.[10] In many instances, academics are actively discouraged from forming relationships with community members, as the type of trust and relationship building in communities is often more time-consuming than mainstream methods. These various dissociations between academics and community members prevent the creation of effective mechanisms of accountability and responsiveness to movement goals.

Moving forward

Despite these barriers, we have been witness to a few bright spots. Individual and organizational efforts to build communities based on justice, struggle, and collaboration within academia can be a powerful vehicle for rectifying the existing disparities. For example, by developing professional, activist, and personal relationships with one another, we now have a grounding force to move our collective work forward, as well as sustain us through our graduate program. These relationships can be a crucial source of solidarity and accountability to our social justice commitments, as they were when we walked out of our seminar together after Ferguson.

We have also observed some promising strategies for knowledge-production that lend themselves to a more open and collaborative context. For instance, publishing knowledge in interactive and web-based platforms can help academics be more agile and responsive to community needs.[11] These platforms also may help develop a culture of open exchange within academia, as well as extend academic conservations to include a broader range of voices and perspectives.

Community-based and participatory research (CBPR) methodologies encourage relationship-building between community and academic partners. These partnerships can contribute to the potential for cutting-edge research on social change without ceding any of the rigor of more conventional approaches. These frameworks can help contribute to a critical imagination that elucidates existing systems of power while also engaged in envisioning and enacting new possibilities. For instance, Photovoice is a method that can bring together academic researchers with community organizations in mutually beneficial collaboration. Graham and colleagues describe how one such project was implemented in Detroit, bringing together young people across divisions of sexuality, race, class, and gender to identify structural causes of violence alongside existing resources and interventions present in the community; these findings were further used as a photo exhibit by youth-serving organizations to advocate to local policymakers, who were identified as most influential in directly shaping the quality of marginalized community member’s daily existence.[12]

If we, as academics, are committed to social justice, then we need to see academia in relationship to social justice movements, whose leaders are often systematically denied access to academic institutions . By developing relationships with these community leaders and their constituents, we better understand how academia can be more responsive to their needs, and move from research on to research with, for, and by community leaders.[13] 


The adjunct crisis in academia brings to the fore, among many other issues, the fraught relationship between research and teaching among academics. The exploitation of adjunct instructors demonstrates keenly the devaluation of the teaching role. However, teaching offers a crucial opportunity for academics to engage with a broad audience about pressing issues. In order to effectively utilize teaching as part of our academic social justice practice, institutional support must provide appropriate compensation and support for teaching.

We hope that we can extend the role of teaching through and beyond course instruction. First, by engaging and endorsing critical pedagogies like popular education and feminist pedagogy, we can better engage and train students to become more effective critical thinkers and engaged community members and leaders.[14] To do so, we must take a holistic view of the educational project, from the design of our syllabi, the layout of the classroom, the types of assignments and grading, and the norms and expectations set and followed in the classroom. In particular, when we think about how higher education transfers knowledge to students, it is critical to engage with texts, voices, and narratives that are produced outside of academia. This can include assigning “non-academic” texts, having students engage in local and online communities, and having community leaders as guest lecturers and panelists.

We are acutely aware of the limitations on who can access academia, including academic classrooms. While efforts to democratize higher education focus important attention on increasing recruitment, matriculation, and retention of students from marginalized backgrounds, we are a long way from reaching parity.[15] Indeed, as access to higher education increases, Black and Latino students are disproportionately under-represented in this growth, and these disparities are further intensified along gendered lines.[16] Racial intimidation, sexual violence, and other forms of discrimination continue to impede the quality and effectiveness of campus experiences for marginalized students.

Given the persistent inequalities in access to higher education, we must also find ways to teach outside of the typical classroom settings. Free or affordable courses offered outside the university provide one way to do this, including offering publicly available courses and research resources online.[17] Although some disciplines have institutionalized channels for reaching young people through K-12 curricula, radical work is rarely included in these curricula. By developing direct relationships with young people in and outside of schools, academics can have broad impacts beyond the sphere of adult education. Academic teaching, then, should be broadened to include the wider range of activities that many already engage in without appropriate recognition or compensation. Facilitating workshops with high school students, for example, could be a recognized form of academic teaching and service. 


In the spirit of dialogue, we conclude by summarizing our recommendations and offering two questions to help us envision and create new epistemologies in academia. Our aim is to offer these tangible actions stemming from the analysis presented above and building from our experiences working to stand in solidarity with social justice movements in the #BlackLivesMatter:

  • Incentivize publishing in open-access journals and versatile formats that can reach academic and non-academic audiences
  • Integrate the values and best practices of community-based and participatory action research by continually centering the leadership, voices, and needs of marginalized communities throughout research projects
  • Re-evaluate the metrics, expectations, and timelines associated with tenure and promotions to provide more support for engaged and impactful scholarship
  • Engage with education and critical pedagogies within and outside of undergraduate classrooms
  • How can institution support accountable relationships between academics and social justice movements? And, can academic institutions establish formalized accountability structures with these communities?
  • What would change if activism became a valued (and expected!) part of academics’ work?

Author Note

The content of this paper is based on a collective effort and would not have been possible without the contributions of our colleagues: Gabrielle Gonzales, David Feldman, and Megan Undén.

Nikita Carney is a doctoral student of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include race, gender, and migration, particularly looking at migration with regards to the Caribbean.

Alex Kulick is a graduate student in sociology at UCSB. His studies focus on the contextual influences on health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth communities.

References and Footnotes

  1. R.W. Gilmore. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 2007, p.27.
  2. Liz Stanley, Feminist Praxis : Research, Theory, and Epistemology in Feminist Sociology (London ; New York: Routledge, 1990).
  3. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness (London ; New York: Verso, 1993), p. 5; Victor M. Rios, Punished : Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York: New York University Press, 2011).
  4. Orlando Patterson, “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 1, 2014,; Lawrence T. Nichols, Public Sociology : The Contemporary Debate (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2007).
  5. Michael Burawoy, “For Public Sociology,” American Sociological Review 70, no. 1 (2005): 4–28, p. 14.
  6. Patricia Hill Collins, “Learning from the Outsider within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.,” Social Problems 33, no. 6 (1986): s14–32; Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, 1950, 402–8.
  7. Paula Meija, “Ferguson, Eric Garner Protests Spread Worldwide,” Newsweek, December 6, 2014,
  8. Andrea Smith, "Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing." Transformations: Feminist Pathways to Global Change (2015): 264.
  9. Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2012).
  10. R. Koster, K. Baccar, and R. H. Lemelin, “Moving from Research ON, to Research WITH and FOR Indigenous Communities: A Critical Reflection on Community-Based Participatory Research,” Canadian Geographer-Geographe Canadien 56, no. 2 (Sum 2012): 195–210.
  11. Claire Bond Potter, “A Hacker in Every History Department: An Intelligent Radical’s Guide to the Digital Humanities,” Radical Teacher, no. 99 (2014): 43.
  12. Louis F. Graham et al., “Addressing Economic Devastation and Built Environment Degradation to Prevent Violence: A Photovoice Project of Detroit Youth Passages,” Community Literacy Journal 8, no. 1 (August 21, 2013),
  13. Koster, Baccar, and Lemelin.
  14. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress : Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994); Myles Horton et al., We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Temple University Press, 1990).
  15. Laura Norén, “Race and Gender in Higher Education – Who Gets Degrees? - Graphic Sociology,” Graphic Sociology, September 4, 2012,
  16. Julie Renee Posselt et al., “Access without Equity Longitudinal Analyses of Institutional Stratification by Race and Ethnicity, 1972–2004,” American Educational Research Journal 49, no. 6 (2012): 1074–1111.
  17. Potter; Norén.