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Spring 2015 Stories

On Being "Maladjusted to Injustice"

A Response to Cornel West

By Brett Johnson Solomon

By Brett Johnson Solomon
Associate Professor, Liberal Studies Program,
Santa Clara University 


Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola did when he charged his fellow Jesuits to “go, set the world on fire,” Dr. Cornel West has a similar charge for America’s younger generation. With our country’s social climate in crisis, and the notion of “liberty and justice for all” in question, there is a true urgency for cultural competence and compassion in action for all of our citizens. These necessities are particularly salient for our nation’s children and specifically for those from underrepresented and underserved communities.

I recently had the distinct honor of hosting Dr. Cornel West for a student Q & A session as the kick-off to Santa Clara University’s 2014-2015 Bannan Institute. This very meaningful dialogue underscored the significant role that youth have in implementing change in our country. West asked our students: “Have we forgotten how beautiful it is to be on fire for justice?” He argued that, since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., something has died in Black America, and he identified the culprit as the shift from a “we-consciousness” to an “I-consciousness.” Dr. West believes, that in order to resurrect the Black prophetic tradition, we need to move away from individualism in American culture. He stated that the motivation for his latest book, Black Prophetic Fire, was to resurrect the fire today, and particularly among the younger generation.

Throughout West’s visit and thereafter, I pondered the notion of “the fire” and what it represented: conviction, tenacity, collectivism, freedom, equality—the list goes on. Yet more specifically, I questioned how the individualistic nature of American culture has led to the fire’s near extinguishment. While the United States is the most powerful country in the world, we are also the most incarcerated country in the world. While the United States is home to the most prestigious universities and lucrative industries in the world, our K-12 public school system pales in comparison to our Asian and European counterparts. When constructs such as the “preschool-to-prison pipeline” become a part of our daily vernacular, and unarmed African-American males are being shot to death by white men who, for the most part, are not held accountable, it is not only obvious that the fire is near extinguished, but that its fading existence is a threat to the Black prophetic tradition. Without the fire, children from underrepresented and underserved communities will continue to be under academic, social and economic duress. Are we “maladjusted to injustice?”

Cultural Competence

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. West’s message to students led me to further discern my purpose as a teacher, a scholar, and a mother of two African-American children. As faculty, our role is to educate, guide, mentor, and support the younger generation of “fire starters.” In doing so, we must consider the tools we give our students, so that they are ideally equipped to experience and understand the injustices experienced by others. I believe the most significant tool that we can give our students is cultural competence. Cultural competence often refers to an ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.8 Possessing cultural competence is important for all vocations, including law, medicine, public health, environmental science, and has been a particularly relevant for educators.

“Rich kids get educated. Poor kids get tested.”

Currently, over 70 percent of K-12 teachers are mono-cultural (white, female) and monolinguistic (English speakers), while the children that they serve are increasingly multicultural and multi-linguistic. Numerous researchers have highlighted the cultural disconnect between teachers and students in public schools today, and they underscore the necessity of placing cultural competence and culturally relevant pedagogy at the center of teacher education and internship programs. Cultural competence needs to be the thread that connects 21st-century stewards of children (teachers, social workers, police officers, non-profit workers, etc.) with children, families, and their communities.

West refers to the moral disgrace of “ percent [of America’s children] living in poverty, and almost 40 percent [of] children of color living in poverty in the richest nation of the history of the world”.11 Further, zero-tolerance policies feed the pre-school-to-prison pipeline which continues to funnel the neediest of children out of school, and ultimately into the juvenile detention and adult prison systems. Black and brown children, as well as those with learning disabilities, are disproportionately overrepresented in the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Are we maladjusted to injustice?

Compassion in Action

“…[T]he quality of your service counts in terms of loving kindness to those… who are catching hell.”

The service begins with faculty, as we mentor our students to vocation, and extends to their role in the community. The service extends to challenging our students to consider privilege and to grapple with the expectations and judgments that often coincide with it. The service continues representing, standing up, and speaking out for those who may not be able to do so for themselves.

The service influences a change in consciousness regarding children who are underrepresented and underserved to children who are now represented and served! Though the service never ends, the above actions serve as a bridge between being maladjusted to injustice, to what love genuinely looks like in public.

“We must recognize we are who we are, because someone loved us.”

I was accompanied to the campus events with Dr. Cornel West by my 7-year old daughter. She sat through the student Q&A session, attended the reception and the public lecture, and subsequently had lots of questions about Dr. West and his message. Trying to explain his talks meant exposing her to some realities that I was not ready to expose her to, such as Ferguson. Our conversation underscored the reality that many African-American parents face in an effort to give their children the tools they need to stay alive and out of jail as they navigate their way through life. The above notion is even more salient for my 4-year old son, who is showered with love and nurtured and supported at home, but has to be prepared for a different reality outside of our family. “We need a love and justice renaissance that young folk hunger for, because so many feel unloved, unnecessary, superfluous.” This love and justice renaissance, which can also be called “a fire,” should be fueled by cultural competence and compassion in action. As my daughter and I wrapped-up our conversation, I asked her to tell me something that she learned from Dr. West. It took her no time to respond: “nobody gets anywhere without being loved.”

Brett Johnson Solomon is an Associate Professor in the Liberal Studies Program at Santa Clara University, where she also directs the SCU Future Teachers Project. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. in Educational Psychology from UCLA. She also has a Master of Education in Early Childhood Risk and Prevention from Harvard University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare from U.C. Berkeley. Her current research focuses on the pre-school-to-prison pipeline.


  1. Ite, inflammate Omnia. Nicolas Elffen, S.J., Scintilla cordis ex libello exercitiorum spiritualium S. P. Ignatii, Societatis Jesu parentis, 6 October (Latin, 1672; German, 1674, with the title Fünklein deß Hertzen).
  2. Cornel West, Student Q & A Session, 2014–2015 Bannan Institute: Ignatian Leadership series, October 3, 2014, Santa Clara University
  3. Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).
  4. Roy Wamsley, World Prison Population List, 10th ed., International Center for Prison Studies (21 November 2013).
  5. “U.S. Achievement Stalls as Other Nations Make Gains,” Report on the Programme for International Student Assessment-PISA 2012, Education Weekly (3 December 2013).
  6. Cornel West, “Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice,” lecture, 2014–2015 Bannan Institute: Ignatian Leadership series, October 3, 2014, Santa Clara University. A video of the full lecture is available online at:
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mercedes Martin and Billy Vaughn, Strategic Diversity & Inclusion Management (San Francisco: DTUI Publications Division: 2007), 31-36.
  9. West, “Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice,” lecture.
  10. Gloria Ladson Billings, Crossing over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
  11. West, “Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice,” lecture.
  12. Children’s Defense Fund, Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign (2015), information available at: campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/li>
  13. West, “Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice,” lecture.
  14. West, Student Q & A Session.
  15. West, “Black Prophetic Fire: Intersections of Leadership, Faith, and Social Justice,” lecture.
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