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What is Our Capacity for Justice?

Throughout this autumn, we have been convening Maine Insights conversations around the state. Ten so far. To talk about justice and equity in Maine. And people come. It is incredible.

Now, I am a glass-half-full person, no doubt. My default setting is to believe that everything is going to work out in the end. Perhaps I watched too many episodes of Family Ties growing up, or maybe that is just who I am.

Even so, I am consistently amazed and inspired to see how many people will come out on a weeknight to have a conversation with their friends and neighbors about justice and equity.

You may recall from a previous post that, in talking about our work, I have been known to cite the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as an article of faith for many of us working to advance justice and equity in our communities.

At the same time, these words are also a call to action. We know that the only way the arc will bend toward justice is if we make it so. If we come together. If we act individually and collectively to make it happen.

This is because justice and fairness in our community and in our state are public goods.

In using the term public goods, I don’t mean in the traditional economic sense of the term. Economists rightly use public goods to refer to commodities (such as clean air) that are non-excludable: available to all people in equal measure, and non- rivalrous: one’s enjoyment of it does not diminish or limit another’s. Were that it was true that justice in our society was available to all people in equal measure. It is not.

I mean that justice and equity are public goods in the sense that they are public expressions of our private values. In this sense, they are a bit metaphysical: no one individual can create justice, but justice only exists to the extent that it is collectively constructed.

The power and potential of this notion is the following: Our capacity for justice is limited only by our individual and collective commitment to making justice a reality.

As seen through my permanently rose-colored glasses, this is good news. We must always fight injustice. At the same time, we mustn’t be limited to a deficiency orientation (injustice, inequity) in thinking about our community. It is not only about what is lacking. It is also about unrealized potential. It is about maximizing our individual and collective commitment to making justice a reality.

As we convene Maine Insights conversations around the state, I am consistently amazed and inspired by how much Mainers value justice and equity in their communities.

What is our capacity for justice? The sky’s the limit.

–Phil Walsh

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