Faculty Feature

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Janelle Silva: Community Action and Activism,
in and beyond the classroom

One of the core learning objectives for IAS is shared leadership and collaboration.  To teach it, faculty and students do a lot of project-based group work inside and outside the classroom. But Janelle Silva’s courses take the concept to a new level. 

In Winter 2015, her class on “Institutions and Social Change” required the 45 students enrolled to design and undertake a single group project to effect social change.  The issue and institution were up to them. The outcome? Students mobilized for a UWB Diversity Center, leading a walkout of over 400 students, faculty, and staff, which placed resources for students from diverse backgrounds at the forefront of the agenda for campus development.

Similarly, her 2015 class on “Community Projects” asked students to identify, analyze, and engage around issues of equity. The class formed an official campus club, “UWB Students for Gender Equity,” to advocate long-term for a women’s center, diversity spaces, and campus daycare. “A Feminist Approach to Teaching Community Psychology: The Senior Seminar Project,” a paper co-authored by Silva and the 18 IAS students in the course, will be published in Feminist Teacher later this fall.

Allied action amongst 45 students? Co-publication together with 18 students?

“Class projects let students see the skills they are developing as essential to their lives outside of class,” says Silva. “I want students to learn that they have a voice and they can make people listen. They can make change and motivate others to make change. But no change will happen unless they actually do it.” As students translate their research and analysis into concrete actions, they become powerful agents of change.  They call the campus to make good on stated commitments to diversity and access with concrete measures that will make a difference.

Student Cassidy Watt agrees: “While Dr. Silva pulled from some of history's greatest leaders to teach us about effective activism, it was her unwavering faith in us as students that made it a truly transformative experience. Her knowledge and encouragement created the space to do something great – and we did!”

This is one reason UW Bothell students honored her this past spring with the UW Bothell Faculty Leadership award at the UW Bothell/Cascadia College Women in Leadership conference.

What accounts for Silva’s unique success in facilitating this form of engaged, project-based learning? 

Like many faculty in IAS, Silva chose to teach at University of Washington Bothell because of its institutional commitment to educational access and engaged pedagogy.  Almost half of UW Bothell’s students are first in their families to attend college.   Forty-two percent of UW Bothell students, and forty-six percent of IAS students, are students of color. “Knowing what kept me in school – what retained me as an undergrad – is the motivation for my work with students in IAS,” Silva says. 

Silva came to IAS in 2012 having completed a B.A. in Psychology and History of Art & Visual Culture and a Ph.D. in Social Psychology and Feminist Studies, both at University of California, Santa Cruz. She aims to provide her students with the things that mattered most in her development as a scholar: the collective presence of students and faculty of color; classroom space to discuss and build on community histories, struggles, and contributions; and a campus environment responsive to issues of social justice and equity.

“There are so many things that first generation students of color need to succeed in college that they should not have to ask for – they should just be a given,” Silva says. Personal relationships with faculty mentors, supportive peer groups, and teaching that connects classroom inquiry with students’ passions and concerns—these practices support the learning of all students, but can be critical to the success of first-generation, non-traditional, and minority students.  These students often have to navigate the pathways to and through college with strained financial and social supports and significant responsibilities to work and family. Culturally-relevant curricula, student resources, and responsive campus leadership play important roles in realizing a more inclusive learning environment.  

In her research as in her teaching, Silva engages questions of power, privilege, equity, and social justice by engaging the experience of students and students of color in school contexts across the K-12 spectrum.  Her scholarship, often co-published, centers their voices, vision, and insights.  A common method, often referred to as participatory action research (PAR), links her classroom practices and community projects. In both, she works with a community in identifying, analyzing, and acting upon its own issues and problems, and in reflecting upon the outcomes and learning that result.  In this way, Silva’s research and organizing build the capacity to work for social change.