A UCLA professor tackles tough political, sociological, and human topics with her students, with an emphasis on service and hope during difficult times.
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Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies and African American Studies, UCLA
PhD in American Studies, BA Sociology and Ethnic Studies, minor in Spanish
Gaye Theresa Johnson: I believe in the radical imaginaries of a people seeking freedom. But how do I teach about freedom when there are children in cages on our borders? The earth and our climate, they’re suffering. Right now there are forces bent on the destruction of our communities. So how do we create spaces of learning in the face of that? What pedagogies do we deploy in the service of resistance and restoration? Despite a history of oppression in this country, I know our students can be the architects of a just future, but do we know how powerful we are?
At UCLA, I’m known for teaching Introduction to Chicana and Chicano Studies. In these courses, I teach about social movements, I teach about the political economy, the studies of the nation. We address issues that are sometimes painful, that are politically controversial, like the history of housing struggles, the history of systemic racism. We talked about dispossession, banishment. So they had to learn, how does that happen? They have to understand how this plays out in reality, in people’s lives.
Joseph Tapiro: A lot of the times, if people are going into a black studies or Chicana and Chicano Studies class, they don’t really know what to expect. It’s a fusion of a lot of different disciplines: sociology, race relations, philosophy—and then the main theme of those would be connectivity as people.
Kaelyn Rodriguez: We’re in Los Angeles. This is home of so, so many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. So by having Chicano Studies classes, I think that really signals something to a lot of our students, and we are going to spend a lot of time thinking about these histories and these communities.
Gaye Theresa Johnson: We all can understand that this is a text that tries to elevate the stories that are not meant to be told; it tries to unsilence the voices that people try to silence all the time.
Joseph Tapiro: Every course that I took with her, we had a lesson where we would go out into the field—either if it was related to music, like a concert, or if it was social justice–organization based—like going out in the field and helping with those causes. She always would place that real-class, real-life fusion into her courses because taking that academic thought process, breaking it down and making it accessible, not only for students between each other but also with individuals who might not have the opportunity to be on a college campus.
Gaye Theresa Johnson: In the class, to give examples of these things, I tell these stories about cilantro workers, or I tell them about the Farmworkers Bill of Rights. I tell students about some of the other things that I witness in the community work that I’ve done over many years. I can’t get those stories unless I’m there. I’m talking about everyday people who may never make the news but who do extraordinary things, things that are as simple as putting food on the table, because they have to work so hard just to do that.
And there’s so much judgment about people who live in poverty, about the choices they make that brought them into that place. If you don’t want to live in a dangerous neighborhood, why don’t you move? As if that’s actually a choice that people can make. The choices that people often have to make are much more painful. Dinner or breakfast for my child.
Kaelyn Rodriguez: There’s been plenty of times where Gaye will give anecdotes. [They] could be based on her research or even something as personal as talking about what it means to be a working mother.
Gaye Theresa Johnson: [Speaking at home to her child] Where are your slippers? Did you take them to…. Oh, there. Here they are. Are those your slippers or your roller skates? I think you got to cook in your slippers.
Kaelyn Rodriguez: If we’re talking about equity, if we’re talking about divisions of labor, if we’re talking about gender, if we’re talking about race and class in United States, those are very relevant conversations to have in the scope of the course material. That’s a point of connection that is not a distraction from the course material. It’s the heart of the material.
Gaye Theresa Johnson: The thing about me, and just like about a lot of people who are tenure track professors who engage in service and research and teaching: We don’t have a lot of time, because if you have 900 students, you can’t see them all every week. So with big classes, office hours are an opportunity for me to personalize the experience with one-on-one engagement with students.
Student: Hello, Professor Johnson.
Gaye Theresa Johnson: Hi, come on in.
Student: How are you?
Gaye Theresa Johnson: I’m good. Thank you. [Speaking again to the camera:] If 10 minutes is all I have with you, I’m going to make that 10 minutes count, and we’re going to connect somehow, or I’m going to be helpful in some casual way. But I’m there and I try to be present.
Joseph Tapiro: Just going through some pretty deep stuff over a couple of years after I had been a student and working with her and I just remember got to a point where I really needed support. So for some reason, I would always find myself in her office hours. I just remember breaking down, crying with her before, and she’d just be standing there and helping me and giving me a hug. And she’d be like, “I’m here for you. I care about you. This is real. No matter what you’re telling yourself in your mind, this is real. I am here for you and you can do this.” I wouldn’t have been able to make it through school or make it through life without her.
I know that there were so many students that would really go to her when they were living out of their cars, when they didn’t have anything, they couldn’t afford books and she would buy them. She would, and she would never say anything about it. That’s the type of person she is. I saw it and that’s truly life-changing.
Gaye Theresa Johnson: Well, my parents, they raised me to value service, and so that was kind of like our practice, was that we would be of service to people. And honestly, this is where a lot of my stories also come from. They come from a witness of pain and struggle, but also for a deep compassion my parents taught me about. My father’s sister—her name was Gaye and I was named after her—she died young. He wrote this poem for her; at her funeral he read it and in it he was talking about the pain of her being gone. He said, “But it’s the love that makes you bend.” I just thought, wow! It’s the love that makes you bend. That’s true, right? I mean, you could be going through something so hard and you’re fine, right? You’re just zipped up and somebody comes to give you a hug. That’s when you lose it, right? You lose it because of the love that makes you bend.
So I feel like that’s the answer. That’s got to be the answer. The answer is more love, more music, more art. Let’s have it out there. Because I do believe from the things that I’ve witnessed, that this world is such a joyful, brilliant, brilliant place, and we need more of that in order to counter some of the other stuff that feels equally as powerful but that I don’t think it’s going to win. I really believe that love will win.