Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?
I’m a Vietnamese, feminist of color research scholar who ended up getting a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley in 2014. I’m also the Founder and Director of Transformative Research, an institute that trains organizations and community groups in community-driven research and data analysis as well as works with agencies as a strategic partner on issues of racial/gender advocacy. In this capacity, I’ve worked with organizations such as Girls for Gender Equity in NYC and Monsoon: United Asian Women of Iowa to train their staff in community-driven qualitative research and data analysis. We’ve written and published reports and articles based upon our research for the purposes of community organizing, popular/political education, and advocacy. Through this work, I’ve also been asked to co-develop and facilitate local as well as national forums about the intersections of interpersonal, institutional/state, and structural violence for educators, students, community organizers, service providers, and policy advocates. I’ve recently been brought on by EducationTrust-West as an Education Equity fellow to help inform their work on racial and gender justice in education.
My current work is informed by my personal, political, and professional experiences. As a former Ethnic Studies and English high school teacher, advocate for sex workers, anti-sexual assault counselor, and community/student organizer, I hope to bring a particular lens to the field of education and educational settings. I think that because of my experiences and knowledge, I am acutely aware of racial and gender violence in its micro and macro forms. My political education began 20 years ago, when I attended the Asian Left Forum, Critical Resistance, and Color of Violence conferences and when I was a community advisor to the Prison Activist Resource Center. The education I received in these spaces from feminists of color and other radical scholar educators helped me to understand the things that I experienced as a first generation, poor-working class Vietnamese girl who was born in Oakland and raised throughout the Bay Area.
While I am fortunate to have had a handful of amazing high school teachers (including a white woman who helped me to fall in love with Toni Morrison and a Black male MacArthur Genius speech coach), it wasn’t until I was in these alternative educational settings that I became an active learner. In these spaces, I learned about the history of imperialism (its indefinite impacts upon myself and my family), the prison industrial complex and carceral state (their relationship to my communities and people I’d never meet), and complexities of intersectional violence (as they played out everywhere in my life). In time, I learned about how they were all connected.
My experiences with these various educational spaces informed my doctoral research on girls of color, violence and school discipline. They also informed how I understand the ways that racialized patriarchy plays out in K-16 education, namely the ways that mostly white liberal educators and some cis-gendered men of color scholars relate to cis, trans girls and women of color and our politics. I am acutely aware of the micro and macro aggressions that happen – consciously or unconsciously.
As an extension of this history and to pay it forward, I do this work because I am invested in the type of educational experiences and lessons that help more individuals to identify racialized gender violence as it structures society, its institutions, relationships, feelings, and politics. My work centers the experiences of cis and trans girls and women of color because I think we sit at the interstices of multiple forms of violence. And as Black feminist scholars and other women of color scholars have historically noted, our experiences with violence – including strategies for survival – can help others to understand violence much more complexly. It is these narratives and analyses that will help to develop more imaginative solutions or alternatives to the world that we have lived in and that exists as at the expense of communities of color. My goal is to help others to own our experiences with this world, to complicate and expand our understanding of its violence against our communities, and to galvanize support for our efforts to change things as they have been. It’s a lofty goal, but because of all the violence I’ve known, it is long overdue.
What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?
Anzaldúa, G. E. (1990). Making face, making soul: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists of color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.
Hartman, S.(1997). Scenes of subjection. New York: Oxford.
James, J. (1996). Resisting state violence: Radicalism, gender, and race in U.S. culture. Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press.
Meiners, E. R. (2007). Right to be hostile: Schools, prisons, and the making of public enemies. New York: Routledge.
Richie, B. (2012). Arrested justice black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York: New York University Press.
What are three things you love about what you do?
I love that I get to teach people what I was teaching my undergraduate and graduate students, but outside of the academy and with the purposes of advocacy, community organizing, and political education.
I love that people I train, especially young women of color researchers, are enthusiastic about research and learning theory. It is especially amazing when researchers ask for more readings on topics such as criminalization and colonialism so that they can better understand their communities and the data they have collected on contemporary political and social issues.
Most recently, as a feminist of color scholar, I am thrilled that I am able to use my different resources to support important projects and organizations as they work against the carcerality of schooling in the U.S., gender based violence in their communities, and structural violence at large. When I was in graduate school, one my advisors asked if I was planning to be either an activist or a scholar. I think that I’m proud to say that I’m able to do both in this lifetime and with such amazing groups of people.
What misconception about education would you like to correct?
Education happens everywhere. It is a dynamic, vulnerable, and humbling experience. I don’t know if I’d correct anything about “education,” but I would challenge educators and students to feel as though good education is a creative process. It is an emotionally challenging experience. It requires introspection and limited defenses. In order to learn, one should be able to feel safe enough to do so. In my experience as an educator and learner, students, especially those that have experienced violence, have to feel safe enough to not know before they (or we) can begin the journey of owning our own expertise and to learn from others. I believe that traditional U.S. educational institutions – which are structures and sites of violence for many, especially gender non-conforming, cis/trans Black and poor, working class non-Black girls of color – have a difficult time selling themselves as “safe spaces” for learning. It then becomes the objective of critical educators to own and display their own humility and vulnerabilities to their students – to genuinely lead by example and to welcome the growing expertise of their students (without romanticizing them). As responsible educators, we should be able to own what we know, support our students with what they know, encourage everyone to learn more, and be willing to not know anything. Hopefully, that gets us to a feminist of color educational praxis.