'DEIS Impact! What is Social Justice?
Se Jun Lee '16 interviews members of the Brandeis campus community about this question - What is Social Justice? Click title for full-screen video.

What is Social Justice?

'DEIS Impact! is part of a long Brandeis tradition of pursuing and emphasizing social justice in every aspect of academics and daily life. We know what some pursuits of social justice look like - giving back to our communities, activism and advocacy for the issues most important to us, and working to ensure a fair and just society - but do we know what social justice is? How do we define it, and how does it define us?


Each event in 'DEIS Impact! 2013 dealt with social justice, but some focused even more on the task of defining social justice as a concept. Click here to learn more about these events in particular.


Before, during, and after 'DEIS Impact! members of the Brandeis and Waltham communities offered the following definitions of social justice. Click below to explore their definitions.

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Daniel Terris - Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life

Before and after 'DEIS Impact, Ethics Center Director Dan Terris wrote two blog posts about the issue of pinning down a definition of social justice.

  • In the months before 'DEIS Impact, Dan Terris describes why having a definition matters, and writes his working description of social justice: "working with the disadvantaged to change society for the benefit of all. Do you agree? How would you change social justice? Add your comment to his blog post, and read comments from others: Social Justice: Towards a Working Description 
  • A festival of social justice - Dan Terris' thoughts on social justice after 'DEIS Impact. He particularly highlights what he sees as three important features of social justice: its concern with the basic needs and human dignity of people in need and/or suffering from oppression; its concern with improving the lives of individuals through broad social change that will positively impact many; and that it is not a solitary activity, but integrally operates in the spirit of collective action. What ideas about social justice did 'DEIS Impact spark for you?
Brandeis Faculty

During an event "Social Justice in the Brandeis Curriculum" held as part of 'DEIS Impact 2012, selected faculty participants produced the following definitions:

  • Jennifer Cleary - Theater Arts

    "Through a conversation about oppression with my theatre students, we discussed (among many things) that oppression is denying another's, then, I make the statement that social justice is about validating the experiences of others.  In the “theatre for social change” course, we are starting to consider achieving social justice or social change on an individual level, where it can then lead to community-wide and then potentially systemic change.  But I believe that social change and social justice can begin with one person really hearing and validating another person's truth."

  • Gordon Fellman - Sociology and Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies

    "Social justice includes fairness, empathy, compassion, empowerment, mutuality, full recognition of self and other as entitled to all rights and aspirations, etc.  Violence, physical and structural, violates the rights, dignity, and possibilities of people.  Social justice includes an end to violence, both physical and structural."

  • Laura Goldin - Environmental Studies and American Studies

    "From my base of working with disadvantaged communities and individuals most affected by environmental harms and deprived of other basic rights, I approach social Justice as a process, requiring engagement and change. As such, it is the pursuit of equitable access to and distribution of resources, opportunities and responsibilities, and empowerment of all people to exercise self-determination and control and realize their full potential.  It also challenges the roots of oppression and injustice, and seeks to build community capacity, collaborative action and social solidarity."

  • Tim Hickey - Computer Science

    "I define Social Justice as the process of seeking out unfairness and injustice in society and working to right those wrongs and build a more just society."

  • Sue Lanser - English, Women's and Gender Studies and Comparative Literature

    "I define social justice as the fully equitable provision of rights, distribution of resources, and access to opportunities for every individual and every group.  Clearly each of these elements requires a more complex delineation and raises challenging questions of just the kind that a Brandeis education should be designed to address."

  • Melissa Stimell - Legal Studies, and Social Justice and Social Policy

    "Influenced by my background as an attorney for vulnerable populations, my definition of social justice is listening and empathizing with vulnerable populations who do not have a voice in our institutions and helping them to be heard."

Brandeis Community Members

For thoughts from a range of Brandeis community members, see the video "DEIS Impact! What is Social Justice?" by Se Jun Lee '16.

An Intergenerational Definition: BOLLI and Students

In the event "Social Justice: an Intergenerational Conversation," Brandeis students, faculty, staff, and members of the Brandeis Osher Life-Long Learning Institute (BOLLI) sat down to debate what social justice is, how it is enacted, and how it should continue in the future. This is the definition they came up with:

"Social justice is a process by which we create judicial systems and other social mechanisms that are equitable and allow all people an opportunity to reach their full potential."

Brandeis National Committee

"Social justice is defined as the distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities within a society. A socially just society understands and values human rights, and recognizes the dignity of every human being.

"There are many different ways that Brandeis National Committee chapters work within their communities to make this kind of social change. They do so by sponsoring community service projects." - From the BNC brochure.

Waltham High School Students

During 'DEIS Impact! both Brandeis community members and Waltham community members participated in events. In particular, Waltham High School students answered the question "What is Social Justice?" Here are some of their responses:

  • Social Justice is the equality required to maintain the natural rights of men and allow the pursuit of happiness to go uninfringed. – Livingston 
  • Social justice is justice, equality (etc.) in society (in and outside America!) empowering people to promote change and empowering people to receive change. – Rita 
  • Social justice is the preservation of equality in a community. It gives people the right to be who they are.  – Stephanie
  • Doing the moral and right thing no matter what, standing up for what is right and what you believe in. – Andrew
  • Social justice is achieved when equality is reached for all and everyone is able to respect each other; everyone has the same opportunities and chances to succeed in life. – Rachel
  • Social Justice: Internal (within the dynamics of a nation) equality, and search for truth, and righting the wrongs (of society). Whether it be discrimination, criminal, ethical matters abroad, or other issues the primary objective is to better the properties and members of a society. To improve ourselves and others. - Michael
Other Reflections On This Question

"Concept of social justice actually perpetuates societal injustice" (10/22/13) by Nelson Gilliat, contributing writer to the Justice newspaper at Brandeis University, presents another definition and critique of "social justice." N.B.: This article was not written in conjunction with 'DEIS Impact.

In letters to the Justice, members of the Brandeis University community respond to the aforementioned article. Read "Healthy and civil discussion needed" (10/29/13) and "Evaluate what should be published" (10/29/13).