By shifting focus toward historically marginalized people, Gaye Theresa Johnson, PhD, preps students to rethink the past and dream a different future.
Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies and African American Studies, UCLA
PhD in American Studies, BA Sociology and Ethnic Studies, minor in Spanish
Professor Gaye Theresa Johnson sees her work at UCLA as a platform for social justice. In fact, the very existence of her introductory Chicano/a studies course serves as a radical departure from the typical way that the past is taught in America.
History, sociology, and other major fields, she says, have generally been taught through a single lens—one that privileges straight, white male perspectives—which has ultimately determined what we collectively believe to be true. Johnson unmasks this tradition and, in doing so, tries to “awaken” students to the fact that what they have likely taken for granted as the truth of history is in fact incomplete, exclusive, and, in many instances, harmful.
Early in the course, she asks students to imagine a circle, at the center of which is a narrative history that privileges a very specific demographic. “What if we shifted the circle over, and allowed the center to rest on people who are not [white or male], and we told the story of the US from that perspective? If all stories are equally valued, why choose straight white men to be at the center? How do our stories about ourselves and others change when we shift the focus? What does this tell us about how history and narrative are constructed?”
While some forward-thinking fields do address marginalized perspectives via an added chapter in a book, one class in a curriculum plan, or a unit in a course, Johnson stresses that her approach is not an “add-on” in her course: It is the modus operandi. “We focus on the situated knowledge of people who’ve been forced to imagine democracy and freedom in different ways,” she explains. This includes people of color, trans and queer people, those who identify as differently abled, and economically marginalized or disadvantaged people.
However, her ultimate goal is not only to challenge students’ historical perspectives but also to shift their view of the present and future. She wants them to understand and question existing constructs and also to move forward with a new mindset that will challenge them to think fundamentally differently about what they learn and hear. To do that, Johnson believes they need much more than textbooks, lectures, and discussions that uphold the status quo, or that keep them sheltered within the confines of a classroom.
“If we’re going talk about social justice and what’s possible for democracy in our country, then we can’t be doing that at a distance, as many of us in the academy are used to doing,” she says. “We’ve got to be open to uncovering what’s really going on. We value situated knowledge of folks in communities, in the thick of the challenges posed to our society. Because [that’s how] we learn.”
Drive a perspective shift with lived experience (and grades)
In Johnson’s Introduction to Chicana/o Studies course, students learn about social justice and systemic racism through active community engagement. Using her knowledge of the transformative (and often unsung) work being done on the ground in real communities, Johnson decided to bridge theory with practice in a radical way: by creating assignments that would require students to meet the people and be in the places they are studying, then work to understand and, ideally, work with communities to positively impact the future. She believes that it is through this face-to-face, hands-on approach that “true learning” begins to take place.
Her conviction is so strong that she often, in fact, makes the class’s community engagement project account for the majority of their grade. Using active engagement as the main criterion for assessment, says Johnson, is “a radical departure” from “what a lot of people think is the mission of the university, which is to achieve, apprehend, make sure that you get this knowledge, and test well.” While her students are still required to take exams and write essays, they are responsible for incorporating into their answers both rigorous scholarship and the knowledge they acquire while in active engagement with everyday issues.
She sees learning differently: By requiring her students to become deeply invested in the community, they are more likely to dig into their research, ask probing questions, and engage with the subject matter in a very real way.
“While [10B] is intended to be a gateway course to the Chicano and Chicana Studies major, it’s also most students’ first intro to learning about race, racism, and cultural politics and political economy in the US. Even though [it's filled with] students from all walks of life, this is a class where I get to talk about why Ethnic Studies and the people who animate some of the most transformative visions for democracy and justice are important and relevant to my students’ lives.”— Gaye Theresa Johnson, PhD
Frequency: Two 2-hour class meetings per week
Class size: 890
Course description: Multidisciplinary examination of representation, ideologies, and material conditions of Chicanas/Chicanos, including colonialism, race, labor, immigration, poverty, assimilation, and patriarchy. Emphasis on critical reading and writing skills.
See resources shared by Gaye Theresa Johnson, PhDSee materials
Lesson: Community engagement for a grade
Here are some of the steps Johnson follows to “invite students to participate in an intellectual project of expanding and helping democracy everywhere they go.”
Start with systemic injustice
Before assigning the community engagement project, Johnson delivers a “really solid explanation” of systemic racism and injustice. “I talk a lot about the material realities of oppression, whiteness, and privilege, and how structural racism operates,” she says. In doing so, she disrupts the very way that US history is taught and how people “center the stories of marginalized people” within it (or more often, how they are overlooked altogether).
As the discussion progresses, students begin to question their preconceived notions, which typically opens their eyes and hearts.
Expand their social justice vocabulary
Developing a strong understanding of the subject matter also means becoming well versed in relevant terminology.
“I often give vocabulary quizzes, asking first-year students to define and give examples for terms like methodology or hegemony,” says Johnson. “I get them using this language because I want them to be able to speak proficiently in an academic setting, [while] also developing a consciousness that makes community work possible.”
Meet them where they are
Johnson strives to remember that each student has a unique belief system. She states from the outset that all contributions are welcome in classroom discussions, as long as they are not deliberately insensitive or racist. She puts a mental timer on unconscious participation as well, taking care to create opportunities for traditionally silenced students to speak.
“Wherever everyone is starting is OK,” she notes. “Whether [they] have no knowledge of Ethnic Studies or systemic oppression, all are welcome into this project if they are sincere.”
Johnson admits that talking about social justice issues can make for some thorny conversations, but she encourages educators to foster discussion in spite of—or perhaps because of—this.
“[Social justice] has never been an easy conversation, especially with what’s happening in our country and the world now,” she says. That is why she feels it is all the more urgent to create safe, respectful, and challenging spaces so fruitful dialogue and exchange can occur, even when it leaves people feeling unsettled.
Engage with experts and research
Students must consult with and learn from experts who deeply understand the issues that people are facing, says Johnson. “Almost everything I teach about—housing rights, reproductive rights, immigrant detention, deportation, structural racism, surveillance regimes—[is] through cutting-edge research material,” she says.
In addition to examining readings, Johnson’s students also look at the graffiti, spoken word, murals, music, and other materials of the “people who change history but didn’t make the history books,” as her colleague and mentor George Lipsitz has written.
The point of consulting a variety of materials, she says, is “to show students that research scholars are not necessarily the experts. The experts are organizations and collectives that have been deep in this work for much longer than we’ve been writing about it.”
This deep dive into research helps students cultivate fresh perspectives and generate new paradigms, ways of knowing, and ways of being. “Students really need to feel like they’re apprehending and learning about these things, and the only way you can do that is to [offer] relevant texts that they engage and research with,” she says.
Ask students to decide where they will make a difference
Johnson understands that people are more invested in devoting their time, energy, and talents to the greater good when they feel passionate about a particular issue. So she tasks the students themselves with seeking the issues within their community—either on campus or in the Los Angeles area—and investigating them.
On a practical level, students in this large course are required to attend a smaller discussion class (usually capped at 30 students). Each discussion class then breaks into smaller groups of five to seven students to accomplish this assignment, and this group chooses an issue, social problem, or example of a community solving a social problem.
Once students are in their small groups, Johnson encourages them to “dig deep” by encouraging them to ask questions such as these:
- What are the structural dimensions of the issue?
- Who is suffering the most from it and how?
- Which populations are losing out?
- Why is it happening—and how can that be?
- How are communities resisting these forces to create their own visions and realities?
Only after students have developed a sufficient understanding of the issue itself does Johnson encourage them to identify (and, subsequently, contact) community organizations that are addressing it.
“Some students were interested in disenfranchisement, so they registered people to vote [on campus],” she says, by way of example. “Other students were interested in gang injunctions, so they visited organizations that do the kind of work that resists police surveillance.”
Don’t create more work for the organization
Once students select an organization to serve, Johnson wants to ensure that their efforts will be welcome, not burdensome. She explains that when students or interns are involved with community-engaged scholarship, they can easily end up creating more work for an already overextended organization. “I learned this the first time I used this approach,” she says. To avoid this, Johnson advises students to simply ask of the organization, “What do you need?”
Because many organizations are strapped for resources, they usually “need something useful to give to their beneficiaries or to get the word out about what they are doing.” For example, one community garden organization told the students they needed a website, so the class built one for them. This was a great help to the organization and did not require them to find additional gardening tools or train well-meaning but inexperienced student helpers.
Celebrate their contributions as a class
At the end of the quarter, each student group selects one or two presenters to explain their experience to the class for two to three minutes. In a classroom that holds 440 students, this takes the entire two hours, with each group getting just a few minutes to present. She asks their classmates to encourage them as they present. Every quarter, Johnson feels “blown away” by the “amazing contributions” that the students have made.
One group that focused on houselessness in Los Angeles created information cards for members of the Skid Row community. The students reported that they had first visited Skid Row and talked to intended recipients of the cards. A significant outcome of these conversations was their decision to use large print for the final product, since many people on the street had vision issues and could not afford glasses. Students also made the cards small enough that they would be easy to carry, and the cards were waterproof, so they would withstand the elements. Finally, each card listed all of the social services available within a one-block square radius, which the recipients would be able to access easily on foot.
This further illustrates the point that speaking to the stakeholders is one of the most vital parts of the process: Had the students not spoken directly with the people on Skid Row, they would never have known these details could be so crucial.
Every quarter, Johnson’s class gets filled to capacity—the largest course to date held 890 students—which speaks to the course’s overwhelming popularity. The course has been so sought after that the department plans to offer nearly 1,000 seats in Fall 2020.
On the whole, Johnson says each class achieves the objective she sets out for them, which is to finish the semester with a deeper appreciation and understanding of community issues and their relationship to the communities that surround them.
Interestingly, the benefits have also extended to some of the students in another way: by validating the experiences of those who are the most marginalized. “I have a lot of undocumented students, single moms, people who are not supposed to ‘be there,’ really,” says Johnson, “and I get to say, ‘Hey, this class is shifting the center of what we think is valuable or privileged knowledge.’”
When she teaches about shifting the historical lens onto women and people of color, “I see faces light up,” she says. “That’s the best part, when people who feel they don’t belong in these spaces see themselves reflected in a space they mutually create. It inspires me as much as it inspires them. After all, I was once where they are now.”
There are two points of contention that Johnson sometimes runs into with her students. The first is that the community engagement project constitutes such a large portion of the grade. “I’ve had people complain that this is not a good measure of how good of a student [they are and that they] need to be tested,” she says, “which is sad for me—that you have to be constantly stressed out about your score, and you feel that’s the only way to measure the value of what you learn.”
The second issue is that not all students are initially receptive to the messages surrounding systemic racism. “I get a lot of pushback from students who are privileged and feeling defensive, and don’t know what to do or how to be in [my class],” she says. “They’ve grown up unconscious of the fact that many things they assume have improved—like school segregation or wealth inequality—are worse now than they were four decades ago. There is an overrepresentation of wealth and access among marginalized people in mainstream popular representation. Many students think that what they see and hear—whether on reality TV or in the music industry—is representative of the societies they live in. The reality is that they go to segregated schools and often live adjacent to deeply impoverished communities and never notice.”
Johnson considers this defensiveness a good thing, because it creates a teachable moment about disagreement and how it factors into the democratic process.
“When people give me that kind of pushback, it’s usually because they don’t feel heard, so I listen to discover the fine point of their sense of entitlement,” she says. “I find I get the most out of students when I say, ‘I hear what you’re saying. Tell me about why you believe that. Where did you learn that from?’ I’ll repeat what they say back to them, then ask them what it is that makes them feel that way.” She then reminds them of their personal stake in these larger societal issues. “I respond with, ‘This feeling you have: Do you feel like it strengthens a sense of yourself as part of a larger context? One in which all human beings deserve and receive the same thing you do? Who deserves a voice in this scenario? Who is silenced?’”
While students may not all agree with everything they hear or read in her class, Johnson’s goal is to ultimately have everyone agree on two main points: one, that everyone deserves to be seen and to experience a just society; and two, that we can do better—because they love their communities enough to ask hard questions.
“If we can all agree on those things, then we have won the game for the quarter, and hopefully for many years to come,” Johnson says.