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College of Social & Behavioral Sciences

Teaching and Advocacy

Over my years of teaching and learning at multiple universities, I have come to see my role as less of a teacher and more of an advocate. While advocate may sound hopelessly partial, what I really mean is that I advocate on behalf of voices that find it difficult to be heard. In my courses, I provide authors from varying backgrounds, perspectives, and regions of the world to introduce students to ideas and worldviews different from their own. As an example, my Indigeneity and Environment course uses indigenous authors to bring life to the diverse experiences of indigenous peoples around the world. Lectures and discussions attempt to echo the authors’ views and indigenous perspectives I have encountered in my travels. While an echo is not a perfect replication of the original, I attempt to carry the resonance to ears beyond the reach of the initial voice.
Paul Prew

Paul Prew

A portion of advocacy is also a passive activity. A significant component of advocacy is simply being present. By attending events, listening thoughtfully to people’s concerns, and being with people, advocacy is the acknowledgment of people’s unique experience. By being present, you make yourself available for advocacy of the more active sort, such as participating in discussion panels, lecturing to the campus community, and serving as a node to network groups with similar goals. My students learn, not only from me, but also from those people and organizations with whom I have developed relationships. Advocacy involves learning from others in the process of teaching. While I may echo voices, I always feel my students learn best when they are exposed directly to these diverse voices. By being present, I develop the relationships necessary to connect my students to people directly engaged in the struggles for equality.

To be sure, I also never shy away from direct advocacy. Hidden deep in a google search, you can find a picture of me “rallying the troops” during a particularly difficult contract negotiations at the University of Oregon. In addition to involvement in broader movements such as labor unions and smelling the tear gas in Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests, I engage in direct personal advocacy. I left a graduate program in solidarity with my mentor who encountered appalling racism both in our department and in the broader university community. While a graduate student, I led a Quixotic defense of a fellow graduate student who was not allowed to finish her degree because of a change in graduate student rules. I also currently serve on the board of two local organizations.

The world we face is one of great uncertainty. Global climate change portends great upheaval in the next century if not addressed immediately. Racism has transitioned from explicit laws of segregation and Jim Crow to covert microaggressions, dog whistles, and entrenched stereotypes. Although it is the 21st century, women still earn approximately 75% of males. Reactionary discrimination both inside and outside of legal codes prevents equality of sexuality. Formal colonialism has given way to semi-colonialism while retaining the international division of labor ensuring the economic and cultural dominance of the former colonial powers. All of this inequality generates antagonism and instability that will plague future generations.

For me, teaching is advocacy for understanding the causes of these societal challenges, as well as others. Sidestepping these critical issues both in the classroom and in personal life is the abdication of the role of a teacher and the mission of education. Shrinking from the responsibility of advocacy is only marginally better than open hostility to equality, because inaction is tacit support for the structures of inequality and the social problems they cause. As Howard Zinn stated in his book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,
“This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the crucial issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in that order, not to question that order.”
But, question that order, we must. As Marx stated,
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
So why this focus on advocacy? My commitment to social justice originated before I was born. I walk this earth today only because of the actions of a callous business owner. My brother and sister were both killed in a house fire when a business owner refused to repair a defective heater my parents recently purchased. My father was at work, and my mother was hanging laundry outside when the heater exploded. My mother desperately tried to reach my sister and brother, but was dragged by the pantleg out of the house by her German Shepard as the flames consumed the house. After their deaths, my mother decided to have another child.
Geraldine and Scotty
Over the course of my lifetime, I would directly experience the darker side of the profit motive and inequality. I grew up in a working class household living in trailers, one of which nearly burned down over the holidays when cheaply installed wiring overheated and began a fire inside the wall. In the depth of winter, sometimes my blankets would freeze to the wall. The experiences in a working class household and all the struggles that it entails shaped my worldview.

The struggles faced by my immediate family are directly related to inequality and a focus on profit maximization. My brother was nearly killed in an industrial accident recently. My grandfather died of cancer, most likely caused by the fertilizer plant where he worked. My mother was denied cancer treatments when the hospital learned she could not pay for her treatment. By the time she was able to get health insurance, she was getting phone calls from debt collectors threatening her with the loss of her home.

This corporate callousness was not limited to the medical field. Once, my mother’s bank did not transfer funds into her account when she made a deposit. She brought the deposit slip to the bank, and the bank official asked to make a copy of the receipt. The bank official left to make the copy, returned, and asked what she could do for my mother. When my mother asked her to deposit the money that was due her on the deposit slip, the bank official replied, “what deposit slip?” Very clearly and very deliberately, the bank stole that money from my mother who lived check to check. She was robbed just as blatantly as someone reaching into her purse and walking off with it. Had we walked into the bank and demanded $200, we would face criminal charges, but corporations can fleece working people with impunity.

Advocacy is paramount to my approach because growing up working class means that you have to advocate for yourself and those around you. My mother taught me the value of intervention on behalf of others. She rushed to aid neighbors who had been badly burned by an explosion in their conversion van, despite her own tragic history of loss through fire. She rushed to help a woman who had fallen on an escalator while onlookers stood slack-jawed and immobile. I intervene on behalf of others because my life is truly not my own. I am only alive because my sister and brother died, and I have an obligation to honor their legacy. My commitment to advocacy is an attempt to intervene, like my mother, in the aid of others in their own struggles. If I stand at the margins, slack-jawed and impotent, I would be letting down my sister and brother, my mother, and the rest of my family and friends who fight so hard on a daily basis just for basic dignity and human rights.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked in his “Mountaintop” speech,
“That's the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job.’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That's the question.”