Defining Justice

What is justice? What do you think of when you hear justice? 

We can’t seem to make up our minds. 

Justice, it turns out, is a lot like love or obscenity: I know it when I see it. So I’m going to tell you my experiences, and I want you to ask yourself: is this justice?

I’m an attorney. I’ve always been attracted to the romantic image of a social justice warrior, so becoming an attorney made sense: the laws and lawyers are part of the justice system, after all. So I went to law school, passed the bar, and started working for Legal Aid in Arkansas. We provided free civil legal services to the same families that get free lunches in our schools. Our slogan was “equal access to justice.”  

I was part of the housing department, which essentially meant I defended clients against evictions and foreclosures. It was high-stakes, fast-paced, and litigation heavy. Poverty is not a defense, and housing not a right, so it was often a sad job, too. I learned quickly that, for all the good work we were doing at Legal Aid, our slogan was still incorrect: we provided equal access to the courts, not justice.

Let me give you one day in the justice system, you tell me where the justice is when you see it.

My clients were a married couple with two kids, husband and wife both members of the working poor. They were renting a small, two-bedroom house, and didn’t pay rent for March. The landlord had made some alterations to their house that let in water through the roof. Their son’s room grew black mold which aggravated his asthma, and they spent their rent money on emergency room medical care when his asthma became deadly. They told the landlord, and he didn’t fix it. Their landlord was evicting them immediately for non-payment of rent, and they came to me to defend them long enough to find a new rental property and recover their medical costs. Defending them was justice, right?

I thought so. I was all geared up, collected expert testimony, took photos, tallied up medical bills, coached my clients. I prepared a brutal cross examination for the landlord, filed aggressive pre-trial memoranda — I wasn’t leaving that courtroom until my clients had everything they were asking for.

And then, the morning before the hearing, I saw the landlord on a bench outside the courtroom. White, 60’s, shaking, hunched over, red eyes rimmed with tears. He had on a thin blue windbreaker that said security guard in gold letters across the back. I knew he wasn’t employed as a guard anymore — he was afraid to be there, and this jacket was like armor for him, the costume of someone stronger, more fearsome.

And it dawned on me — this rental property might be his sole source of income. Could he afford to help my clients out? Where was he going to live when he defaulted on his mortgage because I made him wait to get paying tenants? Did he also have medical bills? Was there anyone who would remind him he was still worthwhile after I unleashed the cross-examination I had prepared? More than that — there was no law in Arkansas at the time that obligated a landlord to provide a safe living space. Whatever righteous fire I had felt was extinguished.

High medical costs and low wages were the real enemies in the room that day. Both my clients and the landlord were victims of the same imbalance of power that I couldn’t reach from where I was standing.

I left the firm a few months later. When I signed up with FoodCorps, I wasn’t looking to change the world or do anything terribly important. I certainly wasn’t thinking about justice. I just wanted to be happy. I like playing with kids, in the dirt, full stop. But what I’ve learned in my two years as a service member is that FoodCorps has achieved justice in a way I never could as an attorney, and that’s what I hope to share with you today.

As a FoodCorps member, I’ve watched kindergarteners learn that soup really starts from dirt, not a can, and learn how they can control what they eat by inventing their own recipes. Is that justice?

There was the fifth grader who asked if he could grow plants at home. When I offered him a seedling someone else had already started, he said, no, thank you, miss, but do you have seeds? I know I can start it from seed, and I want to show my family how easy it is so we don’t have to buy it. Is that justice?

There was the fourth grader who approached me during class and asked if our next taste test could be green peas. And I asked, do you like green peas? And she said, I don’t know, but I want to find out. Is that justice?

There are the seventh graders who come up to me in the hallway now, excited to show me the labels of processed food that isn’t made with GMOs or has a healthy balance of calories to sugar and fat. Is that justice?

There are the multitudes of children who recognize, birds, bees, bats, butterflies, worms, pill bugs, praying mantises, wasps, spiders and fish as our food allies, and understand that choices they make can help or hurt them. Is that justice?

There was the eighth grader who interrupted my nutrition class – hold up miss, hold up. He got out of his chair, stood on his desk, waved the nutrition facts for mozzarella sticks in the air and asked: why would the cafeteria serve these to us? Is that justice?

Through education, experience, and access, FoodCorps changes the balance of power in favor of the populations we work with. Our students are armed with an education necessary to make informed choices about food. They no longer listen blindly to advertisements and their experiences with us have taken them beyond the walls of a subpar grocery store.

All over the state of Connecticut, FoodCorps has been empowering youth. They know what to look for on labels, they know how to cook, they know which questions to ask, they know how to grow their own food, and they know to demand more from the world. Food is no longer a mystery to our students. Food is now a tool they can use to shape their lives and their world in whatever way they see fit. And that’s justice.