The Jones library expansion proposal may be many things but one thing that it is not is a social justice project. Almost six months ago, I wrote an op/ed calling out those who argue that spending $36 M (not including debt service and likely to be considerably more as cost estimates continue to grow during the design phase) must be a high priority of the town but are silent about spending money where the need is greatest. This ongoing claim that the library is social justice work because of a small service component contained within the overall project and without any effort to address or acknowledge the considerable injustice and need that lurks within our midst, is cynical and offensive. I suggest that the critique is even more germane today.
And so, we reprint below that editorial in its entirety.
What is social justice work? Most simply defined – social justice work is work that dismantles injustice. While the Jones library expansion project will offer amenities that will likely diminish the misery of some of Amherst’s most needy residents (e.g. providing free computer access, a place for the unhoused to get out of the rain, or a safe place to catch a mid-day nap), and while these contributions will be most welcome when the library reopens, this is hardly justice work. Social justice work is work that endeavors to dismantle injustice. This would include work that attempts to address the structural conditions that diminish the lives of too many people in our midst. It might be anti-racist work, or anti-hunger work, or mentoring work to give at-risk youth a better chance. It might be work to protect voter rights or to prevent wage theft, or to promote a living wage. There is no shortage of injustice that needs to be eliminated
The Jones library does indeed do some work like this. Providing a home for the town’s literacy programs is one example. But to label the $36M+ Jones renovation (don’t forget the interest) a social justice project as many of its advocates do, not only strains credulity but does harm by deflecting attention and resources from those actually struggling to eliminate injustice. By the standard used by some Town Councilors and Jones Trustees, almost any kind of help would qualify as social justice work.
But imagine what we might be able to do in terms of promoting justice if the library project were not going to cost $36M or $22M, or whatever the final cost with interest comes to, but 10% less. What if that 10% savings were reallocated to all manner of justice projects – anti-racism work, anti-poverty efforts, food security efforts like the expansion of public gardens, expanding youth services? People out there who are engaged in the struggle would have no trouble coming up with ideas of how to spend, to good effect, $3M or $2M or even $1M. But to my knowledge, no one who is claiming that the library expansion (or proposed zoning bylaw changes) are social justice projects are proposing to direct any funds toward directly taking on injustice.
An open Jones library may offer a welcome salve to some folks in need. And an expanded Jones may offer even more salve. But let us recognize that it is only a salve. It’s kind of like offering an unhoused person, standing in the rain, a few dollars to buy themselves a meal. The meal is most welcome but at the end of the day they remain unhoused, insecure, and most likely hungry again. That donation is a good deed, but it is hardly justice work. Those who are disturbed by what they perceive as extravagant spending on the library in the midst of so much injustice are not anti-justice, even though they have been subjected to that calumny by some supporters of the library expansion.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s Amherst had a human services budget. There was a time when this town had a youth and children’s services director. Those budget items were zeroed out long ago but the needs that were met by that spending did not disappear from the Town when the services disappeared from the budget.
Many of us who are critical of the Jones expansion as proposed, welcome an improved library. But we see other needs in the town that are not being met and a more modest Jones project might have freed up some money to address the circumstances of those most in need as well as the structural conditions that create that need. I would like to hear the same kind of advocacy for spending on justice as I hear for the Jones expansion and I would like to see a commitment from our government to spend money where the need is greatest. But that’s not what I see nor what I hear. To justify extravagant spending as social justice, gives folks permission to ignore the pressing needs that remain unmet, and to say we’ve spent wisely, and to say we’ve done the best we can. And that is intolerable.
Art Keene is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass Amherst. He was co-founder and co-director of two social justice-based civic leadership programs at UMass – The UMass Alliance For Community Transformation (UACT) and The Community Scholars Program. He is Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy.