Understanding and promoting social justice through your library

It’s such a cliché to say that 'children are our future'. It’s true also that young people’s opinions, passions, and actions matter now. How can you help your students understand social justice issues, and encourage them to act so that they will have the bright future they deserve?

Ask a young person what questions they have about the future, and they say things like this:

  • What will happen to the environment?
  • Will I have access to the education I want or need?
  • Will I feel and be safe in my own identity?
  • How will technology affect my working life?
  • How can I have a say in what happens?

Protester holding a banner with the words 'A BETTER WORLD' Home Defenders Demonstration 57 by Stephen Melkisethian. CC BY-NC 2.0

What is social justice?

‘Social justice’ is a term that wraps up some big ideas about society and individuals, about what’s fair and equitable. It includes our most profoundly held beliefs — shaped by our politics, religion, ethnicity, and sense of identity — about the world, and the sort of life we want for ourselves and others.

The United Nations has designated February 20th as the World Day of Social Justice.

Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.
— United Nations World Day of Social Justice

Learning about social justice

It's exciting to see young people in your school growing and developing year by year. They’re learning all the time, not just in the classroom, but from what they see, hear — and read — every day. They need:

  • experiences that can help them develop empathy and compassion for others
  • to understand concepts of fairness and equity
  • to grow their awareness of the wider world and their place within it
  • to become increasingly capable of making decisions and taking action themselves.

Aspects of social justice are woven throughout the National Curriculum (the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa).

  • The principles and values of the curriculum include the Treaty of Waitangi, diversity, equity, inclusion, respect, ecological sustainability, and community engagement.
  • The key competencies students need to develop include participating and contributing — being actively involved in their communities.
  • Achievement objectives within learning areas address issues of social justice, for example at level 6 of the social sciences curriculum.

Individual school or student-led initiatives may focus on social justice issues, for example, school values programmes, religious education, and interest groups such as UNICEF Clubs, LGBTQI+ support, or environmental awareness groups.

Social justice and school libraries

Your school library has a part to play too. Think about how issues of social justice are addressed in your library:

  • Through the services you provide — are they responding to the diverse needs of your students?
  • Within your library spaces — do you encourage student groups to meet in the library?
  • Do all your students feel safe and welcome in your library spaces?
  • Can you create displays about social justice issues that are compelling and create a sense of urgency?
  • Can you make connections to your students’ own lives in a graphic way, perhaps including something interactive that lets them share their ideas or experiences?
  • In your collections, do you have fiction and non-fiction that accurately represents diverse lives and experiences, without bias or prejudice?
  • How do you make it easy for all students, regardless of their background or abilities, to find and use everything the library has to offer?

Social justice resources

Here are some websites to explore, that can help you develop your collection, or provide resources to share with your staff and students.

Children’s and young adult literature

Sustainability resources

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes 17 goals, that together aim to "...end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all." These UN websites support young people to learn about and become involved in social justice issues:

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals The global goals for sustainable development by Project Everyone and the Global Goals Campaign. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Social justice action websites

These sites encourage young people to participate in social justice campaigns or initiatives. They have some great ideas and advice for young activists and the people who want to support them:

  • The Harry Potter Alliance and their Wizard Activist School — you can be part of a real-world Dumbledore’s Army!
  • DoSomething.org campaigns — plenty of inspiration here, no need to sign up for any campaigns. Not everything on this site is suitable for young children as it’s designed for an older (teen+) audience, but there are many ideas you could adapt and use with your young students.
  • Youth-led activism — here's an approach that gives young people skills in advocacy and community organisation.

By Miriam Tuohy

Miriam is the Senior Specialist (School Library Development) for Services to Schools.

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Jackie Cameron February 19th at 11:55AM

Many thanks for this thought provoking piece Miriam. I think we pay a lot of lip service to these values without thinking fully about how we might 'enact' them within our learning environments.

Karl Luhmert April 25th at 5:24AM

Thank you for the helpful thoughts and resources! As someone new to the profession, I am hungry for all the ideas and resources I can get. I am from BC, Canada, and with our recently redesigned curriculum, social justices issues are beginning to be diffused throughout, as it sounds like yours is too.
The questions you ask about what a socially just school library looks like are an engaging checklist that I can see myself checking back on frequently.