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By Peter Hopkins, Newcastle University


For many, doing geography is about working to make the world a better place. One way to do this is to promote social and spatial justice. This often focuses on exploring the ways that inequalities and injustices exist and the processes that work to maintain the unequal status quo. Examples of the type of work here might include research about housing inequalities, racism and religious discrimination, exclusions based on gender, sexuality, or gender identity, or experiences of poverty and social exclusion, to name only a few.

There are many examples of researchers working on issues of social and spatial justice through writing for policy and practice audiences, through engaging with politicians and policymakers, and through engaging students about such issues. Others still work alongside community groups, or participate in different forms of activism, with the aim of generating positive social change.


Opportunities through our institutions

Another mechanism that may be open to those interested in promoting social justice is through funding and related opportunities that may present themselves through the institutions in which we work. Some universities have specific initiatives focusing on public and community engagement, and often have funding, training, and resources related to this. However, in some universities, such initiatives might be quite limited were there might be a preference for industry or business development. In other institutions, the focus may be on links with schools, or in promoting global connections, both of which have a primary focus on recruiting students. However, even in such institutions, there might still be space for doing geography to promote social justice through some of these routes, if appropriate, given the space, resources, time, and knowledge that can be found within our institutions. 

Newcastle University has often promoted itself as a civic institution that works to foster meaningful and engaging relationships with non-academic organisations and groups in the North East of England. The university currently has four strategies, one of which focuses on ‘Engagement and Place’. One aspect of this strategy focuses on the promotion of social justice with the intention of advancing the legacy of Martin Luther King who was awarded an Honorary Degree by Newcastle University in 1967. In his acceptance speech, he says “there are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face … that is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war”.


Social Justice Advisory Group

As part of Newcastle University’s work in this area, we developed a Social Justice Advisory Group to steer the University’s work in addressing social justice. Membership of the group included leaders from community, voluntary and social enterprise groups, academic colleagues working on key social justice issues, as well as professional service staff working on issues relating to engagement and impact. The University’s Engagement Manager and her team organised the Social Justice Advisory Group and provided support in terms of organising meetings and facilitating connections between voluntary sector groups and academics.

We collectively developed guidance for a funding initiative that supported collaborative projects between academic researchers and voluntary sector organisations, and non-academic members of the Social Justice Advisory Group also participated in the grading and ranking of the applications. Nearly 20 new projects were funded in the first couple of years, including projects with a local foodbank, a youth project in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, with women’s groups exploring transgender issues, and about environmental justice.

Also, we jointly hosted regular Social Justice Forums focused on key issues of interest to the voluntary sector. For example, we held a forum focused on bringing together refugee community groups and researchers working on migration and asylum issues. This enabled new connections between voluntary sector staff and university researchers to emerge as we learnt from each other in the process.


Some things to think about

  • Consider what funding possibilities there might be available within your institution for you to promote social justice through doing geography.

  • If funding within your institution is very limited, consider additional opportunities to release resources to promote social justice such as space, time, and expertise.


How to cite

Hopkins, P. (2023) Promoting social justice. Working with voluntary and community groups. Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Guide. Available at:


About this guide

Working with voluntary and community organisations for some is a very important way to do geography. These organisation come in various shapes and sizes and may also often be referred to as the third sector, the voluntary sector, not-for-profit organisations, community groups or the civic sector. In this guide, we share the experiences of researchers doing geography in collaboration with community and voluntary organisations. A range of topics and issues are explored from health, disability and care, through to austerity, violence, and craft, amongst others. We learn about the approaches taken by geographers in their work with community and voluntary organisations, and some of the challenges they have negotiated in the process. 


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