2016 Room at the Table: Jessica Toft

December 20, 2016 / By: Jessica Toft for Fall 2016 Perspectives newsletter
Dr. Jessica Toft was the first speaker at the St. Kate's - St. Thomas School of Social Work's 2016 Room at the Table event, VOTE for Participatory Justice: Working Together for the Promise of Democracy
Dr. Jessica Toft shares themes from participants' table conversations

VOTE for Participatory Justice: Working Together for the Promise of Democracy

In support of the School of Social Work’s 2016-17 annual theme Participatory Justice

On October 14, our community participated in its annual Room at the Table event, this year reflecting on the power of our vote to influence and shape the political, economic and social future of our nation, state and local community.

The first speaker, Dr. Jessica Toft, associate professor, School of Social Work, and president, NASW-MN, provided a framework of participatory justice (see below). Dr. Katharine Hill, associate professor, School of Social Work, and a national thought leader in Voting is Social Work, built a compelling argument that supporting nonpartisan voter registration should be a part of every social worker’s professional practice (read Hill overview). Justin Terrell, the Justice4All (J4A) program manager at TakeAction Minnesota, shared his work on removing barriers to employment and democracy for families impacted by the justice system, including voting rights restoration (read Terrell overview).


By Jessica Toft

I was among the ardent supporters when the School of Social Work faculty selected Participatory Justice as our 2016-17 annual theme. Then, when I was asked to speak, I balked. How do I speak to that gargantuan concept?

I realized we faculty had left the thought incomplete: Participatory justice … in what? After some thought, I landed on the larger collective – our democracy. The complete proclamation might read: “We believe in participatory justice for all members of our democracy.” As a profession whose founders wrote Democracy and Social Ethics (Addams, 1905), Common Human Needs (Towle, 1945), and Group Experience and Democratic Values (Coyle, 1947), this comes to us naturally, even if not always consciously.

To understand the concept of participatory justice, we must look throughout a democratic lens of inclusion; in the United States, this would be the idea of citizenship. Hannah Arendt (1949) captured it best when she claimed all persons have “the right to have rights.”

Therefore, one’s political humanity – the right to exist and be seen as equally morally worthy – is at the heart of a democracy. Simply put, a democracy is a government ruled by the people in which there is equal political voice and full inclusion (Hudson, 2010).

Dahl (2000), the noted democratic theorist, argued that democracies have advantages that other political systems do not. Among them, democracies:

  • help people protect their own fundamental interests
  • provide maximum opportunity to exercise self-determination
  • provide the maximum opportunity to exercise moral responsibility
  • foster human development more fully than any feasible alternative
  • foster a relatively high degree of political equality (p. 54)

It is important to note that these are aspirational; they are not necessarily borne out. In fact, Shklar (1991) contends the history of American citizenship has not been one of inclusion, but rather exclusion. Shafir (1998) further states that the lived experience of citizenship involves gradations of inclusion.

We can further understand citizenship as involving four rights and obligations: civil, political, social and economic (Marshall, 1950; Janoski, 1998), and can briefly test this contention. Groups who have not been fully recognized as citizens provide historic and contemporary examples.

The struggle for political rights is evident in the history of African-Americans. Although not allowed to vote, African-American men were counted as three-fifths of a person during the Constitutional Convention of 1786, resulting in more seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College to southern slaveholders. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the 13th Amendment in 1865 declared slaves free. However, southern Black Code laws limited the rights of freed persons, including that of voting. In response, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 stated the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Regardless, after Reconstruction, southern states suppressed African-American men’s ability to vote through poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation.

With women’s enfranchisement in 1920, African-American women could vote in theory, but not usually in practice, joining the leagues of black men who were disenfranchised legally. The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited discrimination at polling places based on race or spoken language, overriding previous state laws and practices. States with a discriminatory history were required to gain “preclearance” before changing their states’ voting laws. This provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and six of these 15 states have since passed more restrictive voter ID requirement laws (Gomez & Harven, 2016). Overall, 20 states have passed more restrictive voter ID laws since 2012 (Brennan Center for Justice, 2016).

This is but one example of the enfranchising citizenship project. It’s a work in progress meant for all of us and social work, certainly. If a democracy requires both equal political voice and full inclusion in the polity, we have not yet seen or experienced true participatory justice, but we must continue to try. Proust’s declaration calls to us:

“The question is not to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong.”

Jessica Toft References - Participatory Justice

Other resources can be found on the event page: stthomas.edu/socialwork/Vote4ParticipatoryJustice

This article was published in the Fall 2016 School of Social Work Perspectives newsletter