Resisting the Siren Song: Charting a Course for Justice

Joe Blosser


The future of the movement will depend on the ability of SLCE leaders to recognize and navigate the neoliberal incentives on our work, using them to further our objectives but resisting the urge to let the work be co-opted. The neoliberal frameworks that infuse American life today strive to monetize all human interactions, turning institutions of higher education into sites of efficiency, productivity, revenue production, and customer service.

Quite often the incentives offered by our stakeholders urge us to travel in the direction of charity work: to hitch our wagons to easy, fun, assessable, visually-rich (for the media), and meaningful service opportunities that fit neatly into people’s preconceived categories of “giver” and “recipient.” But the further in this direction we travel, the harder it is for us to see the deeper injustices and policy failures that require such charity work to be done. Many of the SLCE professionals with whom I talk want to engage in justice work, but they also feel the pressure from their stakeholders to engage in charity work to justify SLCE programs. Charity work fits more cleanly into the neoliberal framework because it reinforces the often unspoken power inequalities between giver and recipient.

The hard part about justice work is that to do it we may have to push back against the stakeholders we have spent years cultivating. We still need these stakeholders if we are to exist within higher education. We must struggle head on with how to navigate these competing pressures. We must become aware of and adept at navigating the incentives driving our stakeholders, but we cannot surrender to the neoliberal siren song.

I am asking the pragmatic question, “How do we use the incentives that exist to move the work of justice forward?”

REV. DR. JOE BLOSSER (jblosser@highpoint.edu) is the Robert G. Culp Jr. director of Service Learning and assistant professor of Religion and Philosophy at High Point University (HPU). He is the founding director of the HPU Service Learning Program and Bonner Leader Program, and he teaches courses in Business Ethics, Educational Ethics, and Modern and Contemporary Christian Theology. Dr. Blosser specializes in the ethical implications of economic theory and Christian theology. He has published articles in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, Encounter, Homiletic, and Religious Studies Review.

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