Contributions to Diversity
In the last few years, Minnesota has been consistently voted one of the best states to live in, a great state to raise a family, a wonderful place to explore the arts and environment, accolades that hide the reality that Minnesota is also one of the worst states for racial disparities in housing, education, and employment. This is the environment that shapes how my students think about themselves and the world, an environment that is far from my own upbringing. As I have explored my own privilege in university situations from Washington to Ohio to Nebraska to North Dakota to the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, I have needed to learn how to approach racial and class diversity as my students’ lived experiences, that their challenges are not simply lenses to our studies, but entirely the foundation of our work in the classroom.
My students are Liberian refugees, part of the second-largest Liberian population in the United States. My students are Hmong, the largest Hmong population in the country. My students are Somali, the largest population outside Somalia. They are Native American; they are African-American. In my work with the W.H. Thompson Scholars at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a learning community of first-generation and low-income students, I learned that the educational needs of this community are different from traditional students; in particular, these students view community differently and they struggle with the responsibilities they feel to their families at home. I see this in my students’ lived experiences every day. Adapting my place-conscious pedagogy, doing more work into suburban place pedagogy has proved a necessary link between the rural/urban divide of my Nebraska students and the racial/class divides of my Twin Cities students: creating courses that recognize their specific knowledge as valuable is the beginning of diversity in my classroom.
With racial tensions currently elevated, locally and nationally, my students feel particularly vulnerable. And yet, my Muslim students are particularly positioned to advocate to the administration for prayer space at NHCC; my Hmong students know the roadblocks to preserving the Hmong language and traditions; my north Minneapolis students know the reality of food deserts. As place-conscious pedagogy is at the heart of actively valuing my students’ experiences as essential and inextricable from what we discuss in class, my goal has become to reinforce the value of their place, their personal experiences, and inherent knowledge as a strong foundation for their voices: their place is an asset, not a drawback. This will lead them to reaching the outer aspects of place-conscious pedagogy, which is active citizenship and action. My classes end with action, a deliberate move to reinforce that they can make a difference and effect change, even on a local level. I remind them that in 2016, Minnesota elected the first Somali-American woman, Ilhan Omar, to state office; this fall, one of my Somali girls took the initiative to contact Omar for an interview for her project.
Teaching diverse texts takes on new meaning when my students come into our literature class after reading Joy Castro’s novel Hell or High Water and tell me they’ve never read a book with a Latina protagonist. Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir The Latehomecomer, about growing up Hmong in St. Paul, is, for many of my students, the first book they’ve ever read by someone who has experiences like them. But diversity in the classroom is more than texts by writers of color: it also means shifting the classroom structure so no one voice is privileged, not even mine, so that my students have the opportunity to steer our discussions on the strength of their experiences, knowledge, and world view. Diversity means that moment where three nineteen-year-old single mothers, one white, one Hmong, and one Latina, can come to common ground. When we talk about literacy and who has the power to decide whether someone is literate or not, my student D. quietly shares, in broken English and a thick Liberian accent, that she speaks five languages. Our discussions of place and power give them vocabulary for their lived experiences, valued knowledge that becomes power and a path forward.