A social justice activist guides allies 

Who made your clothes? Your cell phone? Who grew the food you’re eating?

When the social justice activist and educator Paul Kivel asks these questions, his audiences begin to realize that their lives are interdependent with those around the world – including those who are often unrecognized and highly exploited.

“There’s a mythology of individual achievement and hard work in this country, which leads people to think their success is based upon their own achievement rather than the legacies of resources and privilege,” Kivel says.

Over the decades, Kivel has tackled interrelated issues such as racial and gender justice, Islamophobia, cultural competency and male violence. Born in suburban Los Angeles, he came of age in the late 1960s, when he attended Portland, Oregon’s socially progressive Reed College. After graduating, he traveled around Central America, the Caribbean and Asia, opening himself to perspectives outside the United States.

His latest book, Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, examines Christianity’s role in the United States’ social problems and how people might work toward justice and peace.

“Our history is based upon certain values in Western culture that make it hard to build nourishing, sustainable communities,” Kivel says. “Humans are given dominion over the natural world, and you see a palpable impact on public and foreign policy.”

Justice for All

Committed to training youth and adults in ending oppression, Kivel previously wrote Uprooting Racism, How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, to explain the history and effects of racism and how best to be an ally.

Here, he shares tips on how all people can work for social justice:

  • Acknowledge your privilege. As a white male, Kivel has been socialized to be in charge and to have answers. But the issues of privilege and inequality are not only personal; they are also structural. Recognize the leadership of women and people of color, Kivel says, and respect that leadership from the front lines.
  • What do you stand for? Who do you stand with? Allies stand with those who are under attack; they are not concerned solely with their own well-being. “If I show up as a man to support women under attack for reproductive rights,” Kivel says, “or as a Jewish person to stand up with Muslims, that’s a visible contradiction to the message that we are enemies with each other.”
  • Prepare for the struggle of a lifetime. Commit to social justice in a way that is sustainable for the long haul and also encompasses all facets of your life, from how you raise your kids to the way in which you show up for work.
  • Nurture yourself. “The revolution will not happen tomorrow and neither will the apocalypse,” Kivel says with a chuckle. He nurtures himself by playing with his grandchildren, working in his garden and practicing qigong.
  • Work with youth. “With young adults, the question that always comes up is, ‘Why? Why is this happening?’” Kivel says. “It’s a less constrained way of looking at the world. They get that we’re all in this together, and it constantly inspires me.”


Challenging the Legacy of Privilegeby Vanessa Hua was originally published on Spirituality & Health.

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