Hilliary's PhotoAs yoga service workers, it is crucial that we try to understand the layers of oppression that affect the people we work with and that we try to approach our work within a social justice framework and a strengths based perspective.  Youth in Street Yoga classes may be experiencing several forms of oppression, whether it be in the form of racism, adultism, dominant culture’s views around mental health, or homelessness, to name a few.  Understanding social justice concepts and models and approaches of service delivery can help us to not reinforce this oppression, to see and value the strengths and beauty in every individual, to recognize how society reinforces oppression, and to honor each person with whom we encounter on this journey.  We can then begin to work together towards dismantling systemic and societal oppression.

According to Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a leading scholar in education, a social justice framework is one that “actively addresses the dynamics of oppression, privilege, and isms, and recognizes that society is the product of historically rooted, institutionally sanctioned stratification along socially constructed group lines that include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability (among others).”

Working for social justice means guiding others and being guided in critical self-reflection about the socialization into the matrix of unequal relationships and its implications, analysis of the mechanisms of oppression, and the ability to challenge these hierarchies.

Basically, a social justice framework is a way of seeing and acting aimed at resisting unfairness and inequity while enhancing freedom and possibility for all. It pays primary attention to how people, policies, practices, curricula, and institutions may be used to liberate rather than oppress those least served by our decision-making.

Where do we start?

A first step in understanding oppression and social justice is to recognize that there is a dominant culture in our society.  Within this dominant culture, people view their culture as the right or superior way of being.  So, for example, within the dominant culture wealthy/upper class is viewed superior to poor/working class, Heterosexual is viewed as superior to Bisexual/Homosexual/Queer, folks without mental health histories are viewed superior to folks with mental health histories, and adults are viewed superior to children and youth. There are many more examples of this in our society and it has created and reinforces the vast amount of oppression within our society.

Two common models in social work practice today

Within social work, there are many models of approaching work with the individuals being served.  In the medical model, which spans many service providing organizations in our society, a person has a condition (a deficit), diagnosed or labeled by dominant culture, which is seen as unwanted or a person has past experiences which manifested a behavior or response that doesn’t fit dominant constructs.  The medical model treats presenting “issues” as a person’s physical or mental impairments which have personal and social consequences.  The limitations faced by people experiencing the issue are seen as resulting primarily from these “impairments,” however in reality they are behaviors deemed inappropriate by the norms of our culture.  The dominant culture in our society tends to have issues with people who express themselves in a way that deviates from this norm.  This model explains the unjust segregation and institutionalization of people experiencing mental, physical, and emotional challenges and the way in which people are pathologized.

In contrast, the social model, which falls under a social justice framework, see the presenting issue as a relationship between the person and their environments and believes that if the environment is modified people can overcome the challenges they are facing and become active members in society.   In this model, the physical and mental characteristics are limiting primarily due to social practices that lead to the exclusion of people with those characteristics.  This exclusion is manifested not only in deliberate segregation, but also built in to environments and social practices that restrict the participation of people regarded as having the presenting issue.

A fundamental aspect of the social model concerns equality. 

The social model implies that attempts to “change,” “fix,” or “cure” individuals, especially when used against the wishes of the person, can be discriminatory and prejudiced. This attitude, which may be seen as stemming from a medical model and a subjective value system, can harm the self-esteem and social inclusion of those constantly subjected to it (e.g. someone experiencing homelessness being told they are not as valuable as someone who is not, or being told , that if they just got a job and stopped being lazy then they wouldn’t be homeless).

At Street Yoga, we believe that the youth we serve are experiencing challenges due to barriers and their social environments.  We aim to work from a social model and share tools with youth in hopes that they will help them to navigate the environments they are in, build self-confidence and self-worth, and learn ways of self-empowerment.  We hope that each youth begins to see their own strengths, rather than dwell on the deficits they have been told they have.

We hope to create space which allows the youth to be themselves, connect with their bodies and minds, and use their inner strength to address the issues they face in life.  Being as the youth we serve have experienced trauma in their lives, we also hope that youth can connect with their bodies through yoga and work through the physical manifestations of trauma.

In the end, we hope to create space for the youth to simply “be”.  We envision an oasis in the midst of chaotic life events, treatment plans, and deficit-based thinking.  We support this vision through addressing issues of power, privilege, and oppression in the environments we work in; using inclusive, strengths-based language in our yoga and mindfulness classes, and seeing the youth as full, complete, individuals whose social environments and the perception of dominant culture have created barriers in their lives.

Strengths Based Language

Strengths based language focuses on “person first” language (recognizing a person’s individuality and humanity before a diagnosis or label), is not stigmatizing or objectifying, and interprets perceived deficits within a strengths and resilience framework, as this will allow the individual to identify less with the limitations of their disorder.

Here’s a few visuals to help you understand the social and medical models (visuals based on disability) and strengths based language.  (double click to enlarge photos)





Deficit Based Language

Strengths Based Language

An addict/junkie… A person diagnosed with an addiction that experiences the following….
Suffering from… Working to recover from, experiencing, living with…
Resistant/non-compliant… Not open to….Chooses not to….Has own ideas about…
Patient… Individual, consumer, person receiving services…
Hopeless… Unaware of opportunities…

Adapted from Tondora, et. al., (2007) – see reference below.

*Written by Street Yoga’s Program Director, Hilliary Black.  Hilliary is a yoga teacher and social justice oriented social worker who believes in working towards equity for all and in using anti-oppressive practices and strengths based approaches when working with individuals, families, organizations, and communities.


Center for Multicultural Affairs, University of Colorado Boulder (no date).  A Social Justice Framework.  Retrieved from https://cma.colorado.edu/

Democracy Disability and Society Group (2003).  Taxi Driver Training Pack.  Retrieved from http://www.ddsg.org.uk/taxi/

Perring, Christian, “Mental Illness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)/  Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/mental-illness/

Tondra, et. al., (2007).  Yale University School of Medicine Program for Recovery and Community Health.  New Haven, CT.

Wasserman, David, Asch, Adrienne, Blustein, Jeffrey and Putnam, Daniel, “Disability and Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/disability-justice/>.

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