I am a Teacher and Learner

I typically begin every course I teach by asking participants to say their name, where they are from and to recite the words, “I am a teacher and a learner in this class.”  At first, people are quite reluctant to say these words and even somewhat embarrassed.  As we continue around the circle, some students appear to be more comfortable, while others rush through the words as if to put a period at the end of their sentence.  Others still sometimes forget to say the words, at which time I remind them to say the words with a smile.  As we get to the end of the circle, it is clear some find the exercise to be a bit corny, while others appear to have a lightbulb brighten above the heads as they ponder the implications of these words.  Once we have completed the circle, we debrief.

There are several reasons I ask participants to say these words.  First, these words are inspired by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian activist and educator involved in the critical pedagogy and popular education movements.  It presupposes that all participants offer something very valuable to the class and that we are more than passive learners.  It promotes a sense of egalitarianism and mutual respect for one another.  It also exemplifies the notion that none of us in the class hold the absolute truth and that through dialogue with one another, new knowledge will be created.  I, myself, recite these words as well, signifying that as the authoritative figure in the class, I too am open to learning and committed to democratizing and decolonizing the class.

I recall my first year in teaching, where I was so terrified that students might view me as incompetent and fraudulent as an instructor that I controlled every second in the class.  I lectured for 3 hours straight to avoid any questioning of the content and to demonstrate that I was the expert in the room.  I justified this by saying to myself that students needed this content to be successful social workers or that at the very least, they should get their moneys worth.  In fact, what I was really doing was promoting the hegemonic values of our western educational system. My students did not find the process very helpful and neither did I.

It wasn’t until I released the demons of academia that made me conform to its hierarchy and made me feel like I was not smart enough that I saw transformation within the classroom.  Student transformation occurred in the form of questioning, inquiry, and critical consciousness.  Rather than de-possessing students of their voice and reinforcing themes of passivity and ignorance through my own domination of the class, the process empowered participants to examine the social and political contradictions in our everyday thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

However, the greatest transformation in the classroom occurred within me.  By releasing the demons, I too became not just a teacher, but a learner.  This learning is most intense when I am confronted or questioned about the content, the classroom environment, or the structural inequalities that we support within our program.  It is not always pleasant and often quite uncomfortable, but my ability to sit through the discomfort, at my learning edge, is when I am most open to new learning and growth.  Step outside of your comfort zone and give it a try.

I am a teacher and a learner.

Spotlight: Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian Best of 2016

I’d like to take the time to spotlight a blog by a friend who is very special and extremely talented.  The blog is called Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian and the author is Relando Thompkins-Jones.  I met Relando when he was a student at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where he worked with our team facilitating intergroup dialogue with high school youth in Ann Arbor.  Since then, he has never ceased to amaze me with his grace, thoughtfulness, and skills.  He is an outstanding dialogue facilitator and diversity educator.  When I become Associate Dean of the School of Social Work, I hired Relando to teach the course I created on Intergroup Dialogue because of the trust I had that he would deliver the best course possible for our students.  And, he delivered many times over!  Click on the link below to sample some of his most popular blogs of 2016.  I encourage you to follow and return often to learn more about his journey.

Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian Best of 2016

Microaggressions: What can I do about them?

This is a preview to two special issues of the Journal of Cultural and Ethnic Minority Social Work of which I am the guest editor.  The first of two is set to appear in January 2017.  The first issue will be a double issue and will focus on theory and research.   The second issue which will appear later in the year will focus on social work education.  These special issues will then appear in a new book published by Taylor and Francis in late 2017.

What is a microaggression?  The concept, first coined by Chester Pierce in the 1970s and brought to the forefront by Derald Wing Sue in the 2000s, refers to those everyday slights and insults, conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, that demean or degrade individuals from disenfranchised groups.  Personally, while the definition of microaggressions has been conceptualized much more broadly, I view it as something that is often perpetrated by good, often liberal-minded people whose words can carry more weight than the less common hateful bigot.

When we hear blatant and intentional racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist comments, whether it be on the streets or on the media, we can typically brush them off.  Why?  Because in my everyday life I don’t interact with people like this and most times know how to avoid them if I need to.  But when they come from people who I trust, people I care about, people who I believe share my vision of a just society, it hurts and the pain tends to linger.  Why?  Because these comments don’t come out of individual ignorance or lack of tolerance.  But rather, they come from social learning that originates from the deeply ingrained inequalities that exist within our structures and environment.

It is more than political correctness that I am talking about.  It’s about hurting people, people we care about, even if we have the best of intentions.  When a person talks about how they prefer to visit the outer islands rather than Honolulu when they travel annually to Hawaii, it is a simple comment.  A comment that conveys a preference for a quieter vacation where they can connect with natural beauty.  For me, however, it reminds me that people don’t want to see the realities of my homeland, how we work, how we live, and what’s good and what’s bad.  They don’t want to be confronted with the homeless, interact with locals, or be made aware of the colonizing forces that we all contribute to.  I don’t want to have to reflect on their comments in this manner, but I do.  And sometimes, it hurts.

When I tell people that I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Hawaii, sometimes I am told, “I didn’t see any poor people when I went to Hawaii.”  Rather than inquire further, they choose to invalidate my experience.  Of course, they did not mean to, but it still happened.  The sheer lack of awareness that the people who served them, while they were enjoying mai tais, don’t live in Waikiki with views of the ocean and likely make near minimum wage while living in a place with one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. does not occur to them in that moment.  Clearly, they never made it to homeless villages near the Salvation Army in Palama or the west side beaches.  This becomes even more evident when they tell me, “And all I ever saw were ABC stores!”

Now I must share that I myself am not free from perpetrating my own microaggressions.   In fact, I probably have no awareness of number of microaggressions I commit on a daily basis, because they don’t affect me personally.  Admittedly, it is difficult for me to even keep track of the conscious bigotry that has been taught to me and that is ingrained in me by society.  And that is why I continue to research these issues; not only to make these issues aware to others who envision a just society, but as an ongoing reminder to myself.

See the full link below for my Guest Editorial to be published in January 2017.


Photo borrowed from campusanswers.com

Insider–Outsider reflections from a Native Hawaiian researcher and the use of community-based participatory approaches

This article was the result of a keynote address given in the indigenous community of Yarrabah at the Creating Futures 2015 conference.  Creating Futures is a gathering of scholars, practitioners, and community members in which the populations of interest are Indigenous peoples from Australia, New Zealand and beyond, the residents of Australia’s neighbouring island nations, and people living with and recovering from mental and/or physical illness or disability in remote and tropical areas.

At this conference, I shared my perspectives on conducting community-based, participatory research (CBPR) specifically within the context of being a Native Hawaiian who has not lived in Hawaii for many years working with the Native Hawaiian community. The article speaks to the insider-outsider issues that many of us struggle with when we use community-based participatory approaches.  It also addresses the intersectionality of our multiple identities and encourages self-reflection as central to the process of CBPR.

Spencer, M.S., (2015). Insider-Outsider reflections from a Native Hawaiian researcher and the use of community-based participatory approaches. 23(6 Suppl), Australiasian Psychiatry, 45-47.

Click on the link below to view the full article.


Introducing Just Living 808

Mahalo nui loa or thank you very much for reading Just Living 808.  There are several reasons I chose to write this blog.  First, I have been a social justice educator and researcher for over 25 years now and have published primarily in academic journals.  While I have had success in publishing close to 100 manuscripts, my reach has primarily been others in the academy.  I hope to change that by having my writing and thoughts accessible to a larger community of socially just minded people and perhaps even non-socially just minded folks as well.

My second reason for creating Just Living 808 is to find a platform where others can share their thoughts, not only with regard to my work but also contribute their ideas in collaboration.  I hold only a partial truth through my life experience and understand that I need to hear about the partial truths of others as part of the journey toward seeking a higher truth.  Your contributions will not only enhance my work, but in a small way, I hope that together, we can create new visions and solutions toward a just society.

In Just Living 808, I will include some of my previous work, but also contribute new and original work from my experiences in education and research.  I will also highlight some of the outstanding work that is happening in communities around the world that can serve as possible models for just living, but my work will focus primarily on my two homes, Detroit, Michigan and Honolulu, Hawaii.  Just Living 808 will also focus on indigenous ways of knowing, including Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander cultures.

Finally, a note on why I call this blog Just Living 808.  For me, it is a reflection of the socially just life that I am pursuing, my own personal revolution.  But it is also not a life that I hope to fabricate, but organically live.  I hope my vision of social justice will be just living.  808, for those in Hawaii who know, is the area code of my homeland.

Thank you again for reading Just Living 808.  I hope you return and find many new and interesting ideas and thoughts that might be beneficial to you and your communities.  A hui hou!