Practicing What You Teach: Making Space for Social Justice Conversations Among Faculty - Higher Education


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Practicing What You Teach: Making Space for Social Justice Conversations Among Faculty

by Stacey A. Miller, Byron R. Martin, Darquillius Mayweather and Michele A. Parker

Dr. Stacey A. Miller

As we kick off the academic year, we offer five suggestions for modeling a practical approach to social justice education.

The theoretical framework of cultural humility: The first aspect [of cultural humility] is a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Underlying this piece is the knowledge that we are never finished — we never arrive at a point where we are done learning. Therefore, we must be humble, flexible, bold enough examine ourselves critically, and desire to learn more. When we do not know something, can we say that we do not know? Willingness to act on the acknowledgment that we have not and will not arrive at a finish line is integral to this aspect of cultural humility. Demonstrated practice: Releasing the notion of faculty as an expert, and entering into conversations as learner, not just teacher. Even those with facilitating expertise can make mistakes and need space and grace to learn and grow.

Darquillius Mayweather

The theoretical framework of Intercultural competence: Intercultural competence is one’s ability to operate and work effectively across difference. We can shift, bridge, and adapt seamlessly to difference, not assimilate. Demonstrated practice: Learning to accept and hold multiple perspectives and understand that culture impacts almost every aspect of our lives. It is recognizing that life is not binary; that cultural differences are not always good or bad, just different. It is understanding that when it comes to the culture, there are multiple truths and that adapting to culture does not mean giving up your values and beliefs but choosing to be in a relationship of mutual trust, learning, and respect with others who are different.

The theoretical framework of understanding and interrogating mental models (P. Senge): According to Senge, mental models are conceptual frameworks consisting of generalizations and assumptions from which we understand the world and act in it. We may not even know that these mental models exist or are affecting us. Demonstrated practice: Mental Models are analogous to what Don Miguel Ruiz calls our “book of laws.” Everyone has one. It is invisible, and it most certainly at play in almost every aspect of our life. Our “book of laws” is developed from our family values, the cultures we are part of, societal, governmental, and faith-based institutions, and our own lived experiences. As a social justice educator and practitioner, it is our responsibility to excavate our book of laws, from the seemingly benign to the complex, asking questions like who put that law in my book, do I still believe it, and if so, why? The process of asking these critical questions can begin leading us, shifting our perspectives, and accepting new ones.

The theoretical framework of Critical Consciousness (P. Freire) involves the active and persistent curiosity and awareness that examines beliefs, practices, assumptions, and norms to detect how power and privilege operate to contribute to inequality and oppression (Freire, 1973). Critical consciousness can help us explore unexamined assumptions held at individual, institutional, and cultural levels. It allows us to question the power relations inherent at the micro and macro levels, and how individuals, groups, and systems may be (unintentionally or intentionally) complicit in perpetuating and reproducing the inequitable social conditions. Demonstrated practice: Critical consciousness is the interrogation of mental models on steroids. At any given moment, it is the ability to track all the positional power dynamics at play that might be silencing some, coopting ideas, or perpetuating inequity. It is understanding that each of us holds some level of power and authority, as a dean, department chair, or even as a faculty member and that to neutralize power dynamics, we must acknowledge that power and how it may be impacting others. It is also about continually asking the question, “why?” Why are some perpetually silent in a space, while others feel free to talk? Why do we have this policy, and who is it serving? Who created the department mission statement, and is it still relevant? When we operate from critically conscious lens, we often learn more about ourselves and our organization and can make substantive change.

Dr. Michele A. Parker

The theoretical framework of holding a shared language: For those who have made social justice their life’s work, there are an endless number of words that are used to explain the social constructs and dynamics of oppression and inequity, inclusion and justice, but if individuals in an organization do not have a common understanding of these words, it is easy to talk at and across each other, causing confusion, frustration and dare I say harm. Organizations that are working to tackle social justice conversations need a shared language that allows them to build mission statements and strategic plans to enact real organizational change. Demonstrated practice: Facilitating conversations that clearly define these words with a final agreement on these definitions as a shared language.

These theoretical models can be addressed in any particular order and can be facilitated in different ways. We encourage you to explicitly integrate social justice activities into your departmental meetings and retreats throughout the year, rather than as a one-off event. When you have these conversations, take time to prepare your colleagues for these conversations, and provide high levels of context. When possible, have members of your department contribute, through readings, video clips, and facilitate a dialogue. If you will have a social justice conversation, have experienced practitioners lead these discussions, or bring someone external to help facilitate the conversation.

Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Seabury Press.

Tervalon, M. & Murray-García, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care Poor Underserved, 9(2):117-125. doi:10.1353/hpu.2010.0233

Dr. Stacey A. Miller serves as the associate provost for inclusion and retention at Valparaiso University. Dr. Byron R. Martin is the executive director for international and intercultural engagement at Valparaiso University. Darquillius Mayweather serves as a leadership studies lecturer at the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Dr. Michele A. Parker is a professor in the Educational Leadership Department at the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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