This is the second episode is a mini-series by Heinemann Fellow Minjung Pai. To hear the first episode, click here.
This week on the Heinemann Podcast we’re learning about affective learning and personal identity work in education. To understand this work better, and its impact on teachers, we’re handing this week’s podcast over to Heinemann Fellow, Minjung Pai.
Min teaches fifth and sixth grade in Los Angeles, California. She is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. Min believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. Min is currently in her first year as a Heinemann Fellow. Here’s Min with more on her project...
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Min: In order for teachers to build a truly inclusive and equitable classroom, we must start with ourselves. We must do our internal work so that our classrooms are places of liberation and community where every student feels whole, safe, and valued. As I go further into my research, I'm realizing the importance of affective learning and how it often goes devalued and ignored, which is a focus on this podcast.
Shakil Choudhury is an award-winning educator and consultant with more than 20 years experience in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion. He has trained senior leaders across sectors and developed measurement tools for organizations, helping improve their diversity outcomes. He's also the author of Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us Versus Them. Last November, I attended his workshop titled "Fighting the Monster without Becoming One" at the People of Color Conference. I had just begun working on my action research plan when I attended his workshop, and it impacted me deeply. I reached out to Shakil, and I was lucky enough that he agreed to record this podcast with me.
Min: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this podcast with me, I really appreciate it. I was hoping that I could start off by asking you, what does personal identity work mean to you and how has it impacted you and your work?
Shakil: Well, personal identity work is the core of my work. I mean it's affected everything I do, in fact, it was, from the work around identity is what sort of woke me up to my own reality back when I was doing my master's degree. It woke me up to understanding the internalized racism I had been struggling with for most of my life and up until that point, and how to unlearn from that. Personal identity work has been central and continues to be central to the work that I do around equity, inclusion and diversity.
Min: I kind of wanted to go and dig into the workshop that I attended at the People of Color Conference in Nashville this past winter, it was titled Fighting the Monster without Becoming the Monster. I remembered before going to PoCC, I was reflecting on the upcoming experience and what I wanted out of it. I was kind of talking to myself then thinking I wanted to be disrupted, because I had been going to a lot of DEI workshops and I felt myself getting comfortable.
I had this one goal going into PoCC and then I walked into your workshop and it happened. It was a complete moment of disruption, I completely agreed with you and completely disagreed with you at the same time. I was wondering if you could kind of go over the content of that workshop a little bit.
Shakil: That's a lot, and this is also part of a three-part article that I've written that your listeners could check out at deepdiversity.org and just look under the articles. The core of my message is this, is that how do we fight oppression without being oppressive ourselves? I think that is a central question we have to constantly be asking ourselves as change makers because if we don't, if we don't keep asking that question, then the risk is we become like those that we oppose without our awareness. I see this happening all the time and I've been seeing this happening for quite some time.
I've been involved in racial justice work and anti-racism, anti-oppression work for 20, 25 years now. I saw this in my early days as a community organizer, as an activist, but I didn't know how to name it. I've been thinking about it for a very long time and finding ways to understand what's happening and why it's happening. Now after only two plus decades in the field, I'm getting closer to trying to name what I think is a big problem, and we are especially susceptible to this.
Those of us that are on the side of justice, on the side of... are self-described progressives because just as the authoritarian, extreme right leaders can exploit a crisis to jam through their anti-democratic and pro-corporate kinds of policies... just as they can do that, the crisis itself can exploit us on the left. The crisis itself can actually make us panic, lose our principles and do whatever it takes to fight those that we oppose, or to rectify, try to rectify the situation.
Ultimately, what history shows us is that the revolutionaries, pretty much, if they get into power, very quickly become like those that they oppose just wearing different outfits and different hats but doing similar things which is a stifling descent and becoming autocratic. There's ways in which we have to be careful. That's a big sort of macro level picture.
I wanted to bring it down to a real micro thing in the context of the conference and say, "Look, we, especially in this time of extreme polarization, we have to wake up for those of us who are progressives because we're not even aware that we've becoming like those that we oppose." The way that we can do it, and this was my argument, is by integrating what I call psychological literacy into our existing frameworks around justice and oppression.
Min: I want to go back to psychological literacy but I want to dig in a little bit too to something that you presented at the workshop that rang true for me, was that you are saying that a lot of this, the social justice work, the racial justice work needs teachers, right? You use this metaphor, a teacher saying, "When you're a teacher in the classroom, do you blame the student for not learning the content?", and that we have to meet the students where they are not where we want them to be.
That's something that completely rang true for me and my pedagogy and how I am in the classroom, and at the same time it was really disruptive because when I work with adults in this work, when I work with colleagues in this work, I've learned so much now to really focus on the impact not on the intention, and to ask folks to focus on the impact and not on the intention so that it doesn't go back to, "Well I wasn't being racist, why are you taking it racist?", or, "You're being too sensitive. And why do you have to make everything about race?"
To really move away from that mentality, and then at the same time when you were talking about this philosophy and outlook and framework, a part of you is thinking, "Isn't that centering the intent again? Isn't that centering white fragility again?" I was wondering how would I be able to balance de-centering whiteness, and at the same time use the philosophy of teaching that I do believe in.
Shakil: Right. To back up a little bit, just to be clear on what I was saying. The central issue in society where the biggest chasm is, is in understanding the difference between overt forms of discrimination and systemic forms of discrimination. I've been doing this work for 25 years, that's what the problem was when I first started, it's still a problem today. That gap is huge.
People understand overt. That's perfect, that's fantastic, and that is a legacy of what the civil rights era gave us. People have now taken that so that's bad, it's on the margins of society even though it was trying to make a comeback. Nonetheless, most good people are like, "Yeah, like that's wrong, that's bad." When situations like hate crimes, things that happen, most people are shocked and appalled and rightfully so.
The idea of systemic discrimination is super difficult. It's super difficult because first of all, systemic discrimination only becomes visible when we do something inherently abstract, which is collect data and look at the experience of thousands and thousands of people. That's when we start being able to ask the important questions around why are women earning less than men, why are racial minorities and indigenous peoples being systematically undertreated in the healthcare system, and why is it that suspension expulsion rates in school have something disproportionately to do with the identity of the student rather than their actual behavior.
That's a numbers game, and that's highly abstract for most people. Now, it's not abstract of course, if we experience it. It's not abstract if our people in our community experience it and it's like well-known. Here is the thing, we can't know unless we are directly affected by it, it is hard to know. We've not been systematically taught what systemic oppression is, and yet I understand the rage, and the frustration, and all of that for those of us that are holding this and going, "Hello people, white people, wake up. Hello men, wake up to sexism. Hello straight people, wake up to heterosexism and homophobia and transphobia."
Of course it's frustrating as hell, and it's not like people were taught that for 13 years and they chose to now ignore that lesson. We've never been taught that, it's not been taught throughout schools, and so the expectation that people will know that stuff, well it's just frankly not reality. One of the things that I am is I'm a pragmatist and I'm a realist. I'm like, "There's a problem. There's a big wall there. We got to dismantle that wall."
Part of the problem is that the folks over there like in racism, most white folks don't even see that there is a wall, so us screaming to them about, "Hey, there's a wall, you got to help take it down", isn't like, okay, but they can't see it. I'm not going to stand on this side yelling at them to start seeing it... some of us will. I'm like, "Let's just take down the damn wall." That's the work.
In your comment that you wrote to me I think it was really important to kind of like, "Well, whose work is this? And why it has to be our work?" It's such an important question too, and my response is, "Well, where does change come from? Change always comes from the margins, it never comes from the center." It's always on the back of marginalized people, it always has been and it always will be. We just have to keep doing the damn work because it's important for us to do, and because it has to be done, because someone has to do it. I'm like, "If you can see the problem, do something about it."
That's where I came from the point of the educator, I'm like, "If you are a justice-based educator, you got to educate. You got to take the stance of the educator which says I have to take problems that are like very complex and emotional because identity issues are nothing but emotional. And I've got to break it down for people to understand because that's my job. Now, in order to do that job, I got to do a shitload of work on myself because it's just damn hard to have to stand there and deal with people's ignorance, and deal with their stuff that they don't know. But if I'm a teacher, that's my job. That's what I do."
Everyone's not a teacher and that's not everybody's role. Some people are researchers, and some academics create new knowledge and they go out there and they speak truth to power, and they hold the edge on things. There's people out there that are doing direct action, and then there's people that are like tending the home fires, and there's people who are just trying to make something a little bit better in their organization. There's like a million and a half, billion and a half, zillion and a half jobs that have to be done to make this system shift.
I'm saying, if you're an educator, educate. If that's your calling, then that's what you do. I contrast that to, for example. I'm like two plus decades into the work, so I'm not doing front lines organizing anymore, I'm not on the barricades, but there are people who are, and God bless them, but that's not my role, that's not my job. I'm grateful they're doing it, but that's a different kind of labor, that's a different kind of emotional labor, not one that I can do and that's not my skillset. This is my skillset.
If to teach justice work is your skillset, then embrace it, step into it and lean into it recognizing that all that resistance you are facing is not a hindrance to the work, it is the work. The emotional volatility that's coming up isn't a hindrance to the work, it is the work. It's not just teaching an idea, it's managing all the stuff that comes with it. That's what it means in my worldview to be a justice educator that is going to allow transformation to happen because someone's got to hold the container within which the transformation is going to occur. Someone's going to create that container. It's a crucible. It gets hot in there, and that's not everybody's job, nor should it be.
If it's a calling to do education that's transformational, then I think we need to rethink what that means. I think we have underestimated the problem we're trying to fix, and we've also underestimated how we have to teach it. I'm a professional teacher by training and I'm a social justice activist by heart, and those pieces have to come together in a way that makes sense to help create the shift to create the revolution that we are hoping in which there is equity, opportunity and quality of outcomes, and all these kinds of things that we are hoping for, but it requires all of us to do our jobs.
My question to people is like, "What's your job?" My job is an educator, that means I got to hold the heat.
Min: I remember right after I left your workshop and then I was able to read all three parts of the article you publish. I sat down with a colleague of mine and she never talking about this, and I kind of just realized as I was talking, I believe in what he's saying and I don't have the capacity for it yet. It comes at too high of a cost for me to meet folks, and specifically adults where they are in this work, especially if where they are dehumanizing others.
So then I went on this journey of like, how do I build my capacity? When you were talking about psychological literacy, I'm not sure if you're familiar with Dr. Valerie Batts but she has these dimensions of change. There are three dimensions, and in order for true lasting change to happen, she argues that change must happen at all three levels, the affective behavioral and the cognitive.
I really connected your psychological literacy with the affective level because I realized that I hadn't really done my work in this area. When I'm talking about DEI work, I did a bunch cognitive work, I've done a lot of behavioral work in terms of changing my pedagogy and my practices in the classroom, and then I realized I didn't do my affective learning. I was wondering if we could go into what you mean by psychological literacy and if we can go into detail there.
Shakil: Absolutely. First of all, Min, just want to say that the thing that you did, that you articulated and said, I don't think I can, at this stage, work with adults to meet them where they're at is extremely wise. Because one of the critical things about leadership in any area is knowing your limits, knowing where your strengths are, knowing where your weaknesses are. If you're like, "I can't go there", good, don't go there, someone else can go there because there are so many jobs to be done.
That doesn't mean you have to stay in one area the whole time, but to know that for this moment, for right now, I can't go there. I got the cognitive, but I need the emotional. That's critical. I just want to say, yes, I wish everybody could do that. I think that's part of the problem, is that people end up in situations they don't want to be in, and then they get resentful. I'm like, "Go find something else that will help you, that where you can be helpful but not burn yourself out."
Every place is not suited for us, at least in this moment. It's like find the ones that are suited for you. I just want to say, "Yay, good." We all need to do that. Well, somehow we feel bad if we don't. It's like we're supposed to somehow just like throw yourself in at everything. I was like, "No, no." Throw yourself into the stuff that you can be really good at. Of course, every once in a while we have to throw ourselves into things that aren't our strength, but if we stay in those places all the time, that's when we burn out. We are overriding our system too much, and our system has certain limits, so that's important.
Now, I love that you're talking about the affect of domain, the emotional content. My background is anti-racism, anti-oppression, so that comes all from the cognitive terrain. Ninety five percent of the stuff that gets taught in the justice frame is all cognitive, it's all theory. It's like Marxism, and feminism, and anti-racism, and critical this. It's all intellectual mostly, which is helpful, but not that helpful, because from my experience, 1/10 of the problem is understanding and cognition and ideas, 9/10 of the problem is emotional, 9/10 of the problem is unconscious, is reactivity.
That's where the psychological comes in, because first of all, between our thinking, our conscious selves and our unconscious selves, hands down, there is no competition. The feeling, unconscious, emotional part of ourselves that is way bigger, the unconscious is way bigger than the conscious mind and cognition exists at the conscious level and that's what all the neuroscience research is. So what I've been struggling with is that our work is hyper cognitive. It needs to be grounded in the context of understanding our psychology. Why humans do what we do, Why we react to the things that we react to. To me, when I'm talking about psychological literacy, it's all of that terrain. It's understanding the neuro biological impulses that we have. It's understanding how the brain works and especially so many parts of the unconscious.
All these tendencies and elements that are going on all the time. It's understanding our emotions, but it's not understanding all this stuff from just a cognitive place. It's actually doing the emotional work ourselves. This is where our own healing has to come in. This is where our wounds and all the hurt places we carry. That's also part of our work that we have to do and to be an educator in this and hold all the heat that's happening in the room, all the misunderstandings that are happening in the room, all the miscommunication, the anger, the shame, the guilt, all these things. We can't hold other people's emotions and all of that volatility if we can't hold her own.
I'm not talking about like emotionally managing ourselves all the time. I'm talking about knowing how to dance with our emotions and dance with other people's emotions so that we can understand and honor the rage and we can understand and hold the pain and the shame and the guilt and we don't do that very well in justice work. I mean we kind of got a couple tricks up our sleeve. We talk about if you in a dominant group position, sit with your guilt and shame and if you are in a non-dominant position, feel free to touch your rage.
That's not that useful. If those are the two things that are happening in the room, one group raging and the other people guilt and shame, that doesn't work so well in any context and certainly does not work for learning. When big emotions are happening, our nervous system is overwhelmed. Our cognitive part of ourselves turned off. So as the educator, you got to be able to tie trade in the information, understanding how people's nervous systems work, understanding that every time you put a concept out there, it'll activate people. And if you put ideas out there about people who are marginalized and what their experiences might be is can activate them. When you put information out for dominant group members about the fact that their group's been part of the oppression, it's going to activate people.
So what we're doing is constantly activating emotions through the ideas we're sharing. But we're not managing the emotions because that's what we got to manage if you want learning to happen, if you want people to be able to touch their heart emotions and learn from because that's ultimately what it is. Guilt and shame isn't bad, rage isn't bad, anger isn't bad, but they become useless if we can't learn from them. And we have very little knowledge that has been developed and skills that have been developed in the justice field to work with people's emotions. We've come up with lots of rules. I don't know how well rules are working for you, but I just don't see them working super well telling people they've got to act this way or do this. That's not how it change, it works. That's not how people really buy into the work.
So when I'm talking about psychological literacy, I'm saying we need to understand our emotions, we need to understand how the brain works, we need to understand that there's a lot of stuff going on that's biological, there's in group dynamics and out group dynamics, there's the tendencies of dehumanize that everyone walks around with. There was unconscious biases that are happening and all of these things are coupled with aspects of socialization. So biology and sociology are constantly interacting inside our brains and we've got to learn how to untangle that and help people understand it. I find it in the trainings and the works we've been equipping people with psychological literacy and the political literacy. All those kinds of things, but we're also teaching about triggers and we're teaching them about how to be in relationship. And all of this work for me boils down to, when you start understanding that there's a psychological, emotional component that will almost always override the thinking, then the answer to that is relationship.
So our work has to be re grounded in relationships and it's not, our work in many ways is adversarial and we're not building the relationships we need to across difference. The Left in North America didn't create the problems of oppression necessarily, but we sure the hell are contributing to the polarization and the death of democracies according to researchers who studied the subject comes when people start seeing each other as enemies. No longer as opponents or people who we disagree with, everything becomes about life and death. When they get in power, their leaders get in power, we are in crisis because we didn't just lose, we are about to die. And conversely the other side does that and when it gets that polarized well then, the relationships are broken and at that point always who steps into the breach are corrupt self serving leaders who then take the country generational long destructive patterns.
So I'm like, "Hey, we have to center this on relationships." You know, at the end of 50 years of a civil war in Colombia, it's still boiled down as it always does to people sitting around a table and talking. My question is that, we are on the brink of that stuff right now. So how high of a body count do we want before we actually learn how to talk to each other? That's not to put equal blame or any of that kind of stuff, but it doesn't really matter because when it's this polarized, everyone in my opinion needs to pick up a bucket of water and start helping cool things down, which means building the relationships across those differences because that's more dangerous than almost anything else because we cannot fix oppression in a context where there's no democracy.
Democracy is our only hope in which to create an equitable society. So I see all of this stuff as a relational and that's why relationships and compassion are central to the deep diversity framework that I've created and that we work with in our organization. Because we're just like, "Look, we have to be doing this stuff differently." At this time, this moment with global warming, with the divide between the haves and have-nots, all these things happening, we need each other. We have to fix these problems and it has to be connected. It has to be relational. That's the only way we're going to get there.
Min: I know that for some folks just because of the climate that you just described, we're kind of all feeling it, right? So I know that a lot of folks in recent years have become activated. Whether it's just knowing something's wrong or feeling that they have to do something and I know that folks can get overwhelmed by all of this. The feelings, the emotions of shame and guilt or anger can be overwhelming or the fear of change can be overwhelming where it can go back to just being compliant and being in denial about the individual being connected to larger society, especially for individual teachers where sometimes the teaching culture can be teach the standards, I'm going to close the door and then kids are going to take my test and who passes passes, who don't all give them extra work. And it really stays on that cognitive level for a lot of individual teachers.
At the same time I know that there are teachers out there who are still there in their pedagogy and still have this feeling now of I think something has to change and I don't know where to start because a lot of the time with teacher training programs, at least, traditional teacher training programs, it's been taught to, you have to be the teacher. It's not about being their friend. It shouldn't be emotional. So all these fallacies can be taught within institutions with teachers coming into the culture and then they come into the reality and they're waking up to society and the climate right now and they're thinking, "Wait, maybe something does need a change." And then it can be overwhelming because the call out culture does exist and they might not be reaching out to the right people because they don't have that relationship that you were talking about.
Where can that individual person start in terms of building the psychological literacy? Making room for their own emotional learning because it's so crucial when we're the ones in contact with the young people. We're influencing how they're going to think and how they're going to live in the world.
Shakil: Right. I mean, again, you've raised such huge issues. I'm a public school teacher formerly. I worked in the Toronto District School Board in the area for about 10 years. So I really, really understand the incredible ridiculousness that happens in education, which is basically all of the things that society isn't being responsible for. Basically it's dumped at the feet of teachers in schools and says, "Will you fix our kids? You teach them this, you're not teaching them this, this, this." And it's Kind of like, that's great except that all those demands never come with resources to support any of that work. It just like, I totally appreciate where teachers are at and it can be a thankless job and it can be completely overwhelming and there's a good reason why people just want to shut the door and do their own thing. And in one way that's not a terrible thing because when the world is overwhelming, the one thing we can do is what's our sphere of influence?
Well, if it's my classroom than I work to create the most inclusive, the most welcoming classroom where kids of all different backgrounds and learning abilities and disabilities and identities and all these different things can actually feel like this is one little island for them in they're in a life they can come to. And that's all I do as a teacher. That's significant. That's important because you're a way station for kids that might be struggling and not have something. So do it as best you can there. There's like a plethora of resources around emotional intelligence work or emotional literacy work, the multiple intelligences, all of these different kinds of things. There's this incredible work that's emerging around mindfulness and how you integrate that into your students. Things like restorative circles. Those are all really simple but critical tools that can be used in the classroom context, but also develops the teacher's own ability to do that.
Teachers also, just like any adults, we also need other support. We need to have our psychological health as all these other elements, which is our physical health, our emotional health, all of these things. Who do I go to? Where's my community? Am I getting enough downtime? Like, am I connected to others? How am I being fed? All of these are part of psychological health. Having a therapist, if that's available to you and within your resources. Being part of community helps us psychologically, puts us to something bigger. And our psychological health isn't separate from our spiritual health, right? So What are the things that help me make meaning in the world? For some people that comes through organized religion. For some people that comes through their own secular practice. For some people that come through being an atheist or agnostic, but it ultimately boils down to the idea of how do make meaning? Can we see the beauty in the world and still see the brutality and pull these tensions.
All of those things are part of what I think about as psychological literacy. And then of course there's research and go out there, read the work, see what's happening, and see what's working in classrooms and integrate that. And there is the other part too, is that don't just use the white frame and all the psychological stuff. This is where the equity frames need to be integrated because otherwise you just end up perpetuating the white western individualistic model of psychology. That's not what I'm coming from. We need to integrate the psychological with the political, the equity with the emotional, like bringing all these pieces together.
And that's what I tried to do in my book, Deep Diversity to bring those pieces together. To say, right, there's all these things happening, and so much of it is below the radar of our awareness hidden from ourselves. It's unconscious. So how do we bring those things to the surface? Because what's hidden has more power. What we can't see inside ourselves actually has more influence. But we can identify it, we can name it, you can also tame it. So the idea of there's so many different ways we can develop that. There's so many resources out there, but I just invite people to pick one thing and just grow little things that can become a habit and then add to it, add something new, don't try to do everything at once. There's many different ways. I guess that's how I would start and try to answer your question.
Min: Right. I would kind of just add on, I think one of the reasons why I valued your workshop and your articles so much was because it made me realize how much devalued my affective learning and that because I did that, how much I was holding myself back from true change and growth. I would also ask the teachers to allow yourself space to feel and to not feel helpless in that emotion. When to really understand, like you were saying before, what message is that emotion trying to let you know? Because that can be really ... I know for me that it was powerful and it's just beginning and it's been ongoing and I've already feel my understanding grow a little bit and it's constant reminder because I find myself going back to the cognitive and behavioral only. And then I always think back to how I felt when I was in your workshop and thinking I have to put back value in my affective or else I'm never going to really truly evolve.
Shakil: There's so many things you said that's just so important. I mean, if we can't connect to our feelings, how do we activate empathy? And conversely for some of us it's hard to access empathy, especially for people that are different than us, those people that we perceive to be coming from identities that aren't awake enough and then it's hard to feel empathy. So I think of a story of ... I was training and towards the end of the day the trainer says a simple question, says, I you want you to have a conversation with a neighbor and here's two questions. When you first become aware of one of your social identities? Whatever that might be, and when did you become aware of your racial identity? And this young woman of color, she came to me, she was like, I get the second part is I've always been aware of my race, but I don't really understand your first question. What are you talking about? What's this social identity? What are you talking about?
I was like, "Well when did you first become aware of like for example, gender? Or when did you first become aware of like sexual orientation? And she was really struggling with this like fair bit and then we went "well, I guess it wasn't until my late twenties that or realize that bad things happen to gay people." And I was like, "Oh, okay." And then all of a sudden her eyes just kind of like opened up, all of a sudden went, "oh my God, it took me until my late twenties to realize bad things happen to gay people." Her exact words. And she goes, "And now it's suddenly making sense, I'm always furious about how my white friends can't see issues around race and suddenly the penny dropped for her because this is what happens to us.
We become really fixated on our identity or parts of our identity that are most being activated, but we can forget other parts of other people's identities. She was heterosexual and cisgender at that point, right? She did not have to think about these other parts of her identity. She only was focused on race. And so let's just a micro example of how we can get lost in her own identity struggle and lose track of other people. So how do we activate our empathy? Equally for some of us, we might be really highly empathetic. We've never been able to touch our anger. Right? So the affective is not just for your teaching, it's for ourselves. It's about being whole. And when people can be more fluid emotionally and activate these different parts of themselves, then the more comfortable with other people's different range of emotions and that's critical as a teacher, but then it actually makes the cognitive stuff more fluid.
The emotional and the psychological are always linked and developing fluidity in one allows us to usually develop more fluidity in the other, but the tougher of the two is to develop the emotional fluidity. The ability to shift from one emotion to another, to be in one place and then move into another place and do that with a certain amount of equanimity. And so that's also part of knowing ourselves like what's my defaults? This is also part of psychological literacy. What are my strengths? What are the emotions I'm most easily activate and which ones don't? And which ones are harder for me?
Also from an oppression perspective, oppression wins when our nervous system is worn out. Oppression wins when the only emotion I can activate his anger, that's when oppression wins. Because if all I can activate as anger, I'm actually wearing out my nervous system. I've got cortisol going through my system all the time. I've got all these stress hormones and that is wearing out hypertension, cardiovascular disease, all that stuff is when I can't find my way to something that allows me to feel happiness, to feel contentment. And so that's also when oppression of wins and there's good reasons why racialized folks, poor folks, oppressed folks that we can activate our anger, we can see the injustice everywhere. But if we can't find ways for ourselves to also regulate our system, find joy, find happiness, find calm, find peace, even when it's hard, then oppression wins. This is why all of this work around psychological literacy is not just for being able to work with dominant group members and people with privilege, it's actually for us. In fact, equipping ourselves with those tools helps us right now in the moment, manage ourselves and manage oppression. Because waiting for the distant future in which racism will be eliminated, in which oppression will be eliminated, in which the school to prison pipeline will be eliminated.
Waiting for that, that can actually feel hopeless. But managing ourself, figuring out and developing those tools within our community in the context of community, that can actually help us in the moment, right now, as soon as we leave the workshop, as soon as we go back to our classroom. What we're doing with that is actually practical, useful, and integrates really well with our political analysis, and actually makes our political analysis more robust. Also, helps us from becoming the monster or becoming like the monster. That's really critical to this work.
Min: Yeah, I'm reminded of how elders in justice work always say to root this work in love. I remember hearing the story, a friend of mine was in a workshop and the facilitator said, let go of your anger. He got such a reaction from the room. I understood that reaction because when I heard the story, I had the same reaction. I'm holding on to my anger, that's where I get motivation, that's where I get my energy from. In focusing on my psychological literacy, I'm realizing that I'm misinterpreting anger for power.
Min: The anger was taking up so much space that it was preventing me from finding peace and finding freedom and being able to root the work in love so that I can actually sustain the work. It again ties back to the title of your workshop, right?
Shakil: Yeah. I love what you just said, Min, and it's so powerful. It's powerful because here's the other part. Here's the other piece that I've written about, which is really important is that we become like those that we oppose. We become the monster, but we don't realize it. I don't mean that we become like that, just with dominant group members, just with white people, just with men, just with straight people. We actually become like that in most of our lives.
What I mean by that is, take a look at social justice culture, there is this constant focus on the politics of purity and perfectionism. Where you've got to have the right language, you've got to say it the right way or people can pounce on you. We're pouncing on each other. We don't even realize that the Masters tools are activated right now. Because we're constantly in this, making people feel less than context. Again, we come at it with the best of intentions, but we're also not aware of our impact because we have the moral high ground. We're on the side of justice, we have the moral high ground. That gives people frequently the license to act like jackasses.
I've seen this, because I get called in, organizing gets called in to work with social justice sector folks that are struggling, progressive organizations, collaborations and things like that they're falling apart. They're falling apart because people don't know how to be in relationship anymore. People are constantly taking this, like my club is bigger than your political club kind of approach. I'm seeing entire projects get shut down by activists that can't even see their own power. They're talking circles around everybody, everyone is silent, nothing is moving. They keep insisting that they actually have no power, even though they have shut down any movement on what's happening.
We also have a totally distorted version of what power is. Because we're hypnotized by what we define as social power. We totally underestimate our personal power. As a result, we misuse and abuse power and social justice circles and progressive organizations. Whether it's unions, whether it's human rights organization, women's shelters. It doesn't matter, people are misusing power, because their own brokenness is getting in the way. Their emotional literacy is low, their political literacy is high, and people are just attacking each other. It's making our movement work very, very weak.
Because when it's the politics of purity and perfection, well, you pretty much have only a few people that can stand on the head of that little pin. They're usually calling out everybody else. It's the same dynamic as you see in religious communities. There's always this, I'm the center of the circle, and I'm shaming people into the margins. That's the Masters tools, and that's because of the absence of psychological literacy. We become hypnotized by it, can't see the lens anymore for it being a lens, and we register as the truth.
The psychological literacy has so many different components, and that includes our effectiveness. How are we with each other? If we are a snapshot? I ask this all the time, if our philosophies, if our worldviews, if our ideologies were so good, shouldn't our relationships, you should be able to look at our relationships and go, yeah, if you think like us, you can have relationship that are this healthy.
Well, if you've been in progressive organizations and movement work for more than five minutes, you can see we got just as much dysfunction as everybody else, just as much toxicity and egos and all this kind of crap as the very corporate mainstream institutions were criticizing. In fact, the dynamics of power can actually be uglier in our work. So, we need to rethink this because we actually have got a totally distorted view of what power is and what it is not. We've not learned how to use power well, and here's the thing, power is also a feeling. Our ability to use power is not an intellectual thing. It's actually an emotional thing .
Our heroes of history that learned how to use power well, they had a different kind of fluidity. They had an emotional fluidity, they had a relational fluidity, they had an intellectual fluidity, they could move and build, and connect and do things. Whereas like, in our work, we're like, nothing seems to be good enough. The only project that is worthwhile that isn't going to criticize is something that is so micro and so small that it can't be replicated. I'm like, well, how the hell are we going to create any movement with something that's so tiny? Can't we ... But as soon as we get bigger, we start attacking each other. It's one of the failures in the left, this is also about power, is that we distrust power, because we don't know how to use it well.
So, anytime people rise in positions of power, well, the first people who are going to attack them is our people. I've had women of color say to me, I'm not going for that job up there. That higher level, I'm not going up there. You know why? Because I'm afraid of the criticism I'm going to get when I make a mistake from my own community.
The psychological pieces help us to be more rounded in so many different ways, and also prevents burnout. That's probably the last one. There's about four or five areas we need to look at, as to why the psychological helps us be more effective in so many different ways. That's why I feel this is so critical to our work.
Min: Just as you were speaking, I was thinking about accountability, and that how the definition or the framework for accountability needs to change too. Because I see so much of the call out culture and the got you culture, and I'm thinking about accountability. When I'm held accountable at school and at work, I feel empowered. Because someone cares enough about what I'm doing in the classroom to make sure that it's effective.
'm thinking like, the way we hold each other accountable too needs to be done in an empowering way rather than an exclusionary way.
Shakil: Yeah, the research shows that humans are predisposed to primordial religion. The idea that this is why belief systems are so powerful for us. We just make it up. It's kind of like we've got this slot inside of us biologically that says, must fill with belief. But that belief can be anything. This is why, if you look closely, there's a religiosity to justice work. There's center, there's the leaders who speak a particular kind of message and there's good activist, bad activist, good Christian, bad Christian, good Jew, bad Jew, good Muslim, bad Muslim. You've got these dynamics that are in every context.
I'm like, this comes with worldviews. This is why we also have to recognize that worldviews are just that they're just views, and they're useful, they're lenses on the world. They're useful lenses until they're not. Justice lenses fall within that too, they're useful until they're not. We can see within our own activist communities in which it's like, well, the Justice lens isn't that useful in building relationships with each other, because we hijack that through, I'm a better activist than you language.
I'm like, how useful is that? That's where the justice frame falls down. Because I'm convinced that there is no world view that we can truly fully embody, because we're imperfect. Having the psychological literacy actually helps us with that. That's why on the religious context, the big religions always have a mystical end of them. They're these mystical traditions, and all the mystical traditions focus on self-awareness as the foundation.
None of our worldviews can be fully embodied, we can't walk the walk until we've got this other underpinning that says, right, how do we stop pointing fingers all the time? How do we build relationships? How do we forgive? How do we find joy and happiness? All that has to be woven into our justice work? If it's not, we're stilted, and we're brittle. Whereas like the metaphor that I think about is that, the Justice framework is like iron. But iron, we don't build bridges out of iron because iron's brittle, but the alloy of iron is where you mix iron with other things, it creates an alloy and steel is way more stronger. It is composed of iron, but it's not iron entirely.
This is what I think about is that, you take the justice frame and combine it with a psychological frame, well, then you've got steel, you got something that's way more resilient, way more adaptable and actually stronger than the original element. That's why we need these pieces in order to embody what we truly want to believe. Like, Gandhi said it, be the change you want to see in the world, the single hardest thing to do. To me, to be the change in the world is to create an environment where like, everyone wants to join us. [inaudible 00:48:18] because it feels good, it feels positive, we're making change, and we're hopeful.
But usually, we're on the justice end of things, we're despairing. We want the world to be hopeful, but we're talking about it's only ugly. Which means we've also lost sight. So it's like, if all we see is the ugliness, then how do you make it through the day? Which is why burnout happens so much. It's not just the work that burns us out, it's how we view the work.
I feel the rage. I feel the despair. I just want to go back to bed each day. But what helps me get out is I've got to be able to find meaning, I've got to be able to find joy. I use my kids as a meditation. I just look at them and watch them and love them, and they fill my heart. If I can't find ways to fill my heart, whether it's through my kids, or watching the beauty of the leaves in the wind, or whatever it might be, the small things and the relational things. If I can't do that, I'm not going to get out of bed every morning. It's going to be harder and harder.
I know this, because I'm burnt out. It's part of the reason my work has evolved so much. I should have said this at the beginning, but a significant part of my story is the fact that after half a dozen years or so of activism, I burnt out. That's what it took me on this path of trying to understand myself and have to heal and deal with these things, and trying to therefore merge the political and the emotional. Because as I was doing the healing, the world started looking differently. I didn't feel as despairing. I didn't feel as worn out and I could hold my boundaries, and I could be in relationship. I didn't do that very well before.
I guess, this also coming from a place of hard won lessons and saying, we need this, we need this. Not just, I need, but I see the impact and also research. Go find the research. There's a lot of research that indicates we're better, more effective. We don't have as much research in the justice frame that says, If you follow our ideology, you will actually do better as an organization. In fact, you will be more diverse and you'll be more inclusive, you're more equitable. We have a lot of beliefs with very little research that backs up our statements. We have very little research.
Not our statement that there's a problem, we have very little research about what solutions actually work. That's a big failing also in our end. That's a whole nother conversation, but just to also name that, whereas there's more work in the social psychology field, there's actually practices that help us understand what works and what doesn't work. We got to apply it to the justice frame. I think we'll get much further ahead.
Min: Thank you so much for this amazing conversation. I felt like I've already learned so much in your workshop and in this conversation, I feel like I was able to deepen my learning. So, I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Shakil: Oh, you're so welcome, Min. For folks who are interested in this work, we have a summer institute that we do in the third week of August up here in Toronto. We always have a pretty packed house. If you or folks that are listening to the podcasts are interested, please check out animaleadership.com, at A-N-I-M-Aleadership.com and you can find work on our Deep Diversity Summer Institute. We'd love to share more of the practices and thoughts and processes. Because we just need more people out there that can help do the work differently, be more effective, build organizations and movements in ways that are effective and bring us closer together as communities.
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Minjung Pai is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. She believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. She is a member of the UCLA Writing Project Leadership Team where she helps serve writing teachers in the greater Los Angeles area. She presented multiple workshops at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and served on the local planning committee in 2017. Currently, Minjung is the Group 6 Head Teacher (5th and 6th grades) at Westland School in Los Angeles, CA where she also serves on the Board of Trustees, the Diversity Leadership Team, and the Social Justice Anti-bias Curriculum Task Force.
Follow Minjung on Twitter @minfucious
Shakil Choudhury is an award-winning educator and consultant with more than 20 years experience in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion. He has trained senior leaders across sectors and developed measurement tools for organizations, helping improve their diversity outcomes. Internationally, Shakil has designed and led peace-building projects for communities in conflict, specifically in Europe and South America.
You can learn more about his work at animaleadership.com
To can read the article referenced in this episode, click here.