Being in Just Relationships

By Erin O. with much thanks and appreciation to Jondou Chase Chen for the ideas shared

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Photo taken at the National Portrait Gallery by Erin Okuno

Today, at my organization’s coalition meeting I threw out an ice-breaker question inspired or riffed-off of (as he likes to call it) from Jondou. “What does community justice look like?” and “What does it mean to be in a just relationship?” The question left some scratching their heads and others dove right in. The answers that were shared out were interesting. One person shared that a sense of community justice had to be rooted in place and history, especially as it relates to understanding Native American and Indigenous contexts and the connectedness of land. Another person said a just relationship felt focused in the present and it was important to see it and feel a connection to each other. From what I could hear people wrestled and grappled with this prompt individually and had to define justice for themselves.

Justice is often conceptualized as a big and imposing idea. When I think of justice I often think of formal justice like law enforcement, judicial and court systems, and judges who adjudicate. There is a buildings called the “Temple of Justice” where court are held — it sounds very ethereal like justice floats down from the heavens on soft puffy clouds or more harshly through thunderbolts if you are in the wrong.

Yet in our everyday lives we have to balance and shift relationships to achieve what Jondou calls person-to-person justice, he uses the metaphor of the Chinese character (ping), shaped as balanced and translated to mean equal, level, peaceful, calm. When I pause to think about the people I value most in my life and the people I have the most meaningful and thoughtful relationships with are those where we seek to have person-to-person justice. This idea has stuck with me this week because of some activist moves I’ve had to take to advocate for my community to seek justice for ourselves.

What is a Just-Relationship

When I say just relationship, I mean to strive for and participates in acts of justice. I am using the adjective form of the word defined as “behaving according to what is morally right and fair,” not the adverb form meaning “exactly.”

Being in a just relationship implies, firstly, there is a connection of some sort. The relationship can either be a deep relationship such as a spouse, familial tie, friends or colleagues, or more loose such as two-Facebook friends, or in elementary school two kids who are friends one-week but frenemies the next. Add on levels of racial awareness, wokeness, sexism, gender-identity, power dynamics, and other layers of social context and relationships begin to get complex. Being in a just relationship means we need to attend to these complexities and sort through them as co-participants in the relationship.

In the book The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything James Martin, SJ, writes that friends do not exist to simply support, comfort, and nourish us. Friendships, which I broaden to define as relationships, serve as secure bases and there is a sense of freedom. Relationships aren’t a possession to own. Being in a just relationship with each other means we seek to balance and comfort and nourish each other as the relationship needs fit.

Since this is a blog about race and equity, I want to name that for too long white people and white institutions treat people of color relationships as something they can own and at the same time dispose of when the relationship becomes a liability. An example include Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who refused to stand during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. He was valuable when he performed on the football field, but his form of seeking justice wasn’t palatable to NFL owners and due to his protest he remains a free agent with no NFL team signing him. Some might say Kaepernick should have known not to rile things up, that his job is to play football and to protest police brutality while in his role as an NFL is uncalled for. Yet can a person have justice and be in a just relationship with others if they have to censor themselves?

In another more local example, earlier this year the YMCA of Greater Seattle announced they are closing a beloved education program, Powerful Schools. The details are shared in this op-ed. When the announcement was originally made a group of parents sought justice through information, we wrote a letter requesting a meeting with the Y’s leaders– a call-in to build a relationship however fragile. Yet, from the start the relationship felt transactional and there was little person-to-person justice. Communication, transparency, and a willingness to engage in forms of justice seeking can help to balance power and build towards more just relations. These values have to be shared, when it is one sided the relationship is unbalanced and justice is harder to seek.

When justice is lost in a relationship we’re forced to seek other forms of justice, such as having to publicly call out an organization and institutions for their acts of injustice. Cell phone videos showing state-sponsored violence is an example; police (loosely using the word not saying every law enforcement officer) can be perpetrators of injustice and now with mobile technology and social media evidence of this is more widely shared — people seeking their own justice through social media. We lose a sense of humanity and good relations when forced to seek punitive forms of justice.

Historically white led institutions need to get better about realizing their responsibility in helping to bring about justice. They also need to get better about acting with humility and recognizing the histories of injustice that have led to our present day situation. My bitterness runs deep since I see how my community is owned, used, defunded and under prioritized because white-led institutions have the power to prioritize other relationships. If I don’t seek some justice for myself and my community we will be left behind again.

Before I end this on a completely bitter note, I will make a public commitment to seek person-to-person justice first. Relationships are important and we achieve more if we can be in just relations with each other. I will do this as a way to work towards justice and to hopefully write a more just-seeking future.

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