Silvia Bettez, professor in the Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations Department at the UNCG School of Education, discusses her recent publication and the importance of social justice activist teaching.
1. Your first book, But Don’t Call Me White: Mixed Race Women Exposing Nuances of Privilege and Oppression Politics was published a year ago. Could you please talk about your research behind this publication and what inspired you to write on this subject matter?
I address the answer to this question in the opening to my book, so I will share that here: I believe that the more intimately interconnected people feel—the more we take the time to learn about and connect with people across cultural differences—the less separation, segregation, and oppression there will be. Connecting with others in a way that has the potential to minimize oppression, however, requires striving to understand the complex operations of privilege related to race, class, gender, and sexuality. My beliefs about the importance of cross-cultural connections, my desire to do work that dismantles oppression, and my personal mixed race identity, led me to seek out life stories by mixed race women, individuals who simultaneously embody racially/ethnically oppressed and privileged identities and thus could speak directly to the challenges of deconstructing hierarchies built on emphasizing inequity in differences. For this project, I conducted extensive interviews with 16 biracial women in three parts of the United States; each has one White parent and one parent who is a person of color. I approached this research with a sociological lens searching for meaning related to issues of social justice: What can these women’s stories tell us about how to better communicate cross culturally? How do their multiple positionalities – of gender, race, class, and sexuality – affect the ways in which they claim agency and are limited by structure? What do their stories reveal about racial politics?
2. Could you describe ‘social justice activist teaching’ and why this topic is important to you?
When I was a graduate student I wrote a book chapter in which I identified seven skills, practices, and dispositions of activist social justice education. The list includes:
- Promoting a mind/body connection
- Conducting artful facilitation that promotes critical thinking
- Engaging in explicit discussions of power, privilege, and oppression
- Maintaining compassion for students
- Believing that change toward social justice is possible
- Exercising self-care
- Building critical communities
As I state in my chapter, these are not meant to be all-inclusive, but to engender critical discussions about activist teaching in hopes of promoting a more conscious connection between theory, politics, and practice. Several years have passed since I originally wrote this manuscript, but I still believe in this type of activist teaching and strive to enact and embody it as an educator. Having taught this chapter a few times now, what fascinates me is how the topic of exercising self-care seems to be what most students want to discuss; often they share stories of how little self care they have done since beginning graduate school, struggling to balance the high expectations of school, work, and family. I feel passionate about modeling self-care and encouraging others to practice self-care, which I believe can be aided by engaging in critical communities. Thus, I consciously strive to engage with students to promote community building.
3. What do you enjoy most about the ELC program at UNCG?
The first line of our department statement of commitments reads: “The Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations is committed to the development of a just and caring democratic society in which schools serve as centers of inquiry and forces for social transformation.” I am honored to be a part of a group of committed faculty and students striving to promote justice and equity in education and beyond. Having a background in community education, it was difficult for me to make the decision to remain in academia; however, I am inspired by the work of the students with whom I work. I see that the work we do together, as teachers and learners, has a direct impact on their lives as students and on the lives of the people with whom they work. As they share stories of implementing what they learn, I know my work is making a difference far beyond the walls of the university. This inspires me to be an increasingly better professor, mentor, and researcher.
4. You actively mentor doctoral students in submitting conference proposals and preparing conference presentations at UNCG. What do you find most rewarding about this process?
When I was a graduate student, regularly attending conferences and engaging in every aspect of that process—writing proposals, preparing and conducting presentations, writing scholarly papers, working collaboratively with co-presenters, being offered opportunities to publish, engaging with peers across the country, connecting with people who became mentors—assisted in my preparation to become a successful scholar and faculty member. My hope is that students with whom I work also gain valuable skills and experiences from attending conferences. Furthermore, I envision the process of engaging in conferences as ripe with potential for critical community building. When I began this mentoring process, it entailed a tremendous amount of work because students required significant guidance; however, over the years students have increasingly supported each other in preparing for and presenting at conferences, and I now have the pleasure of being one of many participants in this critical community building process.
5. Can you share some highlights of your scholarly work over the past year or two?
My research revolves around work for the promotion of social justice. I choose projects that push me, and hopefully those engaged with my work, to better understand the theory and practice of education for social justice; ideally this understanding will inspire equity-promoting practices. It is also important to me to engage in scholarly endeavors with other colleagues, both faculty and students. One accomplishment that relates to my commitment to mentoring is that in 2012 I co-edited a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal, The Urban Review, on the topic of the educational and social significance of HBCUs in which four students from our department have single-authored publications. I also co-authored a presentation and publication with a student from another department on the role of social media in the coming out process for individuals who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or queer.
Currently, I am preparing for a presentation at American Educational Research Association and am about to submit a related manuscript for publication that I co-wrote, with colleagues in the Teacher Education department, that is based upon research with refugees and immigrants to learn about their experiences, needs, and expectations of the United States school system. This project came about as a result of my involvement in the Coalition for Diverse Language Communities.
In addition, I have been continuing my work on social justice activist teaching; I recently published an article titled “Navigating the guilt vs. innocence dichotomy in teaching for social justice.” This year I was also invited to give two keynote addresses on the topic of social justice. These experiences were particularly meaningful to me, and I hope I inspired action and raised critical conscious related to social justice. I am passionate about my pedagogy, and writing and speaking about this topic is important to me. Relatedly, I have continued my work on critical community building. Just last month, an article I co-authored was published in Educational Studies titled “Community building in social justice work: A critical approach.” Continuing with this line of research, last semester I embarked upon a qualitative research project in which I worked with students asking them what their thoughts and experiences are about community building. I identify strongly as a qualitative researcher and I take a critical approach to my work, but for this project, I shifted to engage in collaborative, participatory, community engaged research. With student participants, now co-researchers, we are submitting proposals and working on a collaboratively written manuscript to submit to a journal. I am excited about this new shift to community-engaged research; working collaboratively with people fits best with who I am. Recently, thanks to an invitation to from a colleague, and a Fellowship from the Coalition for Diverse Language Communities, I have embarked upon a new community-engaged project. Although I enjoy writing and conducting research on my own, the process is much more enriching when done with others. I look forward to increased reciprocal exchanges as I continue with my scholarly work.