From The Kaleidoscope of Gender to Feminist Ryan Gosling, Assistant Professor Janelle Silva’s bookshelf has everything you need to put women’s lives in context. The books are neatly arranged and divided into sections, with Critical Education/Schooling and Critical Studies/Urban Studies up top and Feminist Theory down below.
“I tell my students, ‘Come to my office, look at my books. Maybe you’ll want to talk to me about something,’” Silva said.
Complementing this library of girl power are articles of Californian and Mexican pride: a “CA grown” license plate, wood carvings, serapes spread out over file cabinets. The multicultural kicker? A Dave Matthews Band calendar.
In just her second year at UWB, she has already become a favorite of students thanks to her conversational teaching style and enthusiasm for the material.
Is it alright if we go a little past five o’clock? Do you have to catch a bus or anything?
No, I’m from California—I drive.
So California was always home? You got your bachelor’s and your Ph.D. at UC-Santa Cruz.
California was always home. I was born and raised in southern California, in a small town called Moorpark. It’s in Ventura County, which is right outside of Los Angeles. It’s not in the Valley, which is what everyone says—that you’re a “Valley girl.” Moorpark is very much one of those throwback towns where people don’t lock their doors, their cars. You could keep a bike out in front of your yard for a week and your neighbor will knock and say, “You know your bike’s out there?”
When I grew up in southern California, my entire family was in a hundred mile radius of each other. My sister went to UCLA, and that was always my dream: to be like my bigger sister.
How much older?
She’s four years older. I went to visit her one time, and we got there when class change period happened. It’s not like at Bothell—at Bothell you don’t really get the effect of when class changes. We were in Ackerman Student Union, and the classes changed and there was just a mob of people. I looked at my parents in fear and was like, “I am not coming here. There are far too many people.”
My dad’s deal was that you could apply to any public school in California and he would foot the bill. I applied to all these different UC’s, and I of course picked the farthest one I could at the time, which was Santa Cruz. It was a small college with small classes. It allowed me to get out of southern California, but I was still able to have the beach, and then I had the redwoods and could meet different people. It was a way for me to leave my safety net for ten years.
So was your affinity for small colleges with small classes what appealed to you about UW Bothell?
Definitely. At Santa Cruz it was really easy. My first year as an undergrad I became a research assistant in a social psychology lab, which is unheard of at bigger schools. At bigger schools you don’t know your faculty. Even in a class of 150 at Santa Cruz, you could still get to know who the faculty member was. Being at Bothell, I like the fact that students want to engage with faculty. They want to know what you’re doing. There’s a uniqueness in classes being taught, which I absolutely love. I like the idea of it being in a smaller town, but the big city is really close, so students can engage.
I know better than to ask a woman her age, but it’s clear that you’re pretty young for an Assistant Professor. Was teaching something you always had in mind? If so, do you feel like you’re moving along at a pretty good pace right now?
When I got into my graduate program that is the one thing everyone said to me: “You want to be a professor.” No one says, “You want to go be applied.” Being a first-generation student, I didn’t know what a professor was. I knew I really liked school and I was good at it. Around my fourth year of graduate school, we were allowed to teach a class in the summer. I remember right before I walked into my class—and they were three-hour classes—thinking, “I better like this, or else I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” After I left, it was the biggest high I’d ever had. Instantly I knew I loved to teach.
No one ever feels prepared. Every year you’re always nervous. I walk in nervous every single quarter. You’re always wondering, “Did they get that? Was this engaging? Was this class really boring today? Should I switch it up for next time?” I love it. I think being young I’m able to connect with the students in a different way. It also disadvantages me, because they read me as young. But I don’t think it’s necessarily hurt. I definitely feel like I have so much more to learn, but I feel like my classes are going well and the students are great.
I will say that your RateMyProfessors.com scores are off the charts.
That is the one thing faculty never look at [laughs].
Okay, I was gonna ask you if you were aware of this. [Reading scores] We have 4.7, 4.6, 4.8—all out of 5. I’ve never seen numbers like this before.
There’s a terror when you come at the beginning of every quarter and they’re like, “Your evaluations are now in your mailbox!” You start to read them and it makes you feel good. It makes me know that, even when you all just decided not to talk that one day and I knew none of you read, you still enjoyed my class. And you still want me to be a professor. I think that’s nice to know.
Your classes are conversational. Surely every once in a while you think, “What a dumb comment.” How as an instructor do you deal with someone who’s totally off the mark, or just flat out wrong?
When I hear those comments, I usually tell them, “This is what I’m hearing you say. How might we think about it in another way? What might Earl Babbi say about this? What might the Communist Manifesto say about this?” A lot of the comments will happen particularly around feminism ideas. I’ll come back with, “That’s your experience, but how might you think that a third-wave feminist might view this issue now?” The last thing you want to do is call a student out. The whole class will turn on you, even if they don’t like that one student.
You teach a class called Women’s Lives in Context. If I sign up for that class, what can I expect?
The one thing you can expect from the beginning is that you will probably be one of five men, in a class of 45. I never want that class to be all women—I love when men are in there. Men are very honest, more so than women will be sometimes.
What we’re really talking about is what it means to be a woman in today’s society. A woman of color. A woman living in poverty. A woman who is a first-generation college student. A woman who is transgender and is experiencing that. A woman who is in prison and has a child and is trying to mother.
What are the psychological effects of all of these processes? We spend a lot of time talking about objectification of women. How do magazines and mainstream media make it that women think they have to look a particular way? How does that make women in turn feel about their body? What are women doing in order to empower themselves?
I spend a lot of time showing images of super thin models, or women’s bodies completely chopped off in different ways to sexualize them. Then showing these campaigns of young women on Tumblr who are taking pictures of themselves in bathing suits and saying, “This is what I look like. I’m 19 and I’m 170 pounds and I have stretch marks, but I think I’m beautiful.” And then those things going viral. I try to always leave it so they feel like there is a sense of hope.
The class is usually divided into thirds. One-third are hardcore feminists. Another third hate that word, think it’s disgusting, want nothing to do with it. The middle don’t know what they’re doing. Whenever I tell them, “Think about your own experiences,” it allows them to see: “Wow, my mother really is a feminist,” or, “I’m with a really sexist partner right now and I don’t like it.” Education to me isn’t about learning something new for the test and then throwing it out, it’s “How does this relate to your life or what you want your life to look like?” That to me is powerful.
I take it you consider yourself a feminist.
What does that mean?
What it means to me is that rights are something that all people should have, and all women should have. Women should have the ability to move through spaces where they don’t feel there are bars set in front of them. But when they are aware of these bars, that they should move to help other women who are below them, or with them. They should also think about their role as women in teaching other women what it means to be a woman.
Feminism is not a bad word. It’s not “the f-word.” When I first taught this class here last year, I had a student ask me, “Is this like a bra-burning class?” I said, “Absolutely not.” When I asked the class to tell me what a feminist looks like, it was the stereotypical “doesn’t shave,” “hates men,” “is a lesbian,” “is really outspoken,” “hates anything that has to do with misogyny.” There’s a lot of women who don’t fit that bill, but they’re still feminist. So I want them to rethink what it means to be a feminist.
Men can be feminists. Children can be feminists. From the littlest thing such as gender-neutral language. I have a soon-to-be eight-year-old cousin who always used to say “guys.”
Like, “You guys”?
Yes. One of the first readings my students do is an article from Bitch magazine about not using the word “guys.” I always tell them, “We’re not all guys, we’re ladies.” I correct my parents all the time. My dad always says, “What do you guys want for dinner?” I’m like, “You have two daughters and a wife, we’re ladies.”
Then, bigger things like being aware of the anti-abortion campaigns going on. Even if you are pro-life, what does that mean for other women who, when they are raped, can’t get an abortion in certain states? For me, feminism covers everything. It’s thinking about the world in terms of needing to have equality. Equality that you may benefit from, and when you do benefit from it you need to also think about the people who don’t.
Last night on CNN, Erin Burnett was talking about Taylor Swift accusing Tina Fey of being sexist, because Fey joked about Swift being obsessed with all the guys she wrote songs about. When Erin Burnett was wrapping up the show she said something to the effect of, “Women should stop helping women just because they’re women, because that in itself is pretty sexist.” I’m guessing you don’t agree with that.
I don’t. Women should help other women. I see it as my mission to help other women succeed. I see it as my mission to also help first-generation students succeed. I see it as my mission to also help Latino students succeed. I didn’t get to this place just by luck or just by chance. I’m not an anomaly, which is what I hate for people to think. There were so many women and men and family members and communities along the way that helped me get here, and I have to do the same. You have to pay it forward. When we don’t support each other, that’s when it becomes a problem. Because then why would men support us?
Your research focuses on the role of media and school in constructing social identity. You say that much of your teaching is about “understanding how power and social structures shape a person’s lived experiences.” How much control do we really have over our own destiny in this country?
That’s a question that I get all of the time in my research. The thing I learned as a social psychologist is that you need to know where you came from. One of my first assignments in almost every class is to write a social history. “Tell me who you are. What was your family like? What’s your neighborhood like? Why did you come here? What are you majoring in? What do you want to get out of it?”
I think there are times when people are dealt a particular location in life, but I don’t necessarily feel it’s their destiny. I think that you have to understand how social structures work in order to even play in this game that is society. You have to understand that there are hierarchies, that you are going to be low on the totem pole for whatever reason it is: because of your gender, your sexuality, your race—every single ism that there is. But you have to learn how those structures work if you’re going to make any sort of access to it. Figure it out, and be savvy.
That’s what I try to tell my students: Be savvy. Learn it. The worst thing you can do is think, “I can change the world!” Someone one day is going to tell you, “No, you can’t, and here’s why.” And it’s a rude awakening, especially when you’re 16 and you learn that. Or when you’re 18 and you go to college and you start to realize, “I’m really different from everyone else.” Everyone else is pulling up in a BMW and you’re taking public transportation. You have to be aware of what’s going on if you’re going to make any sort of change.
One thing students tell me is that class can be a little depressing. I tell them, “Yeah, it’s hard, but it should be making you angry.” It should make you angry to learn about these structures, and to learn about power and privilege, and that because of how or where you grew up, or what decade you were born, you are not granted certain things. The thing that I hate most is being passive, just letting it happen to you and saying, “I can’t make a change.” I’ve had students say that to me, and I’m like, “If you’re in college and you’re a woman, if you’re a student of color, if you’re working class, if you’re middle class, someone made a change for you to get here. Someone did something to get you into this position.”
Why do we need multicultural education in schools?
Little kids need to know we’re not all the same. The thing that I always find interesting is that little kids are always like, “I’m American.” They don’t really know what that means except that there’s an American flag, and on Fourth of July there’s fireworks. I have a little cousin. We told him we were going to take him to a Mexican Independence Day celebration. He said, “Why am I going? I’m American.” We said, “No, you’re not!” We asked, “Who are the Mexicans in your family?” He listed off anyone who didn’t have pale skin, which was me, my sister and my father. I had this whole conversation with him about what it means to be Mexican-American. I said “You’re Chicano!” He said, “What’s a Chicano?” We had a whole discussion.
We think that if you’re going to have pride in your ethnicity, that means you’re going to discriminate against each other. I don’t necessarily feel that. I feel that being proud of who you are and where you came from is just understanding that you have roots. Know who you are. Whenever my students come into my office, they’re like, “There’s two things we notice about you: You’re Mexican and you’re from California.” It’s who I am, it’s important for people to know that.
To me, you need to know who you are, where you came from, and that not everyone is the same, so you don’t have those moments where you get to school and you’re like, “Why do we have Black History Month?” It’s important for people to know about diversity because you don’t want it to just be, “This is the only time we talk about black people. This is the only time we talk about women. This is the only time we talk about Latinos.” You also don’t want it to be, “Okay, we’re going to bus you in, that should solve the problem.” It never does. And then expect you to come out and work in an environment together, and vote on laws that have huge effects on people. As a psychologist, we know that it’s not going to work.
Even when we bus for diversity, you’re still going to have groups of kids that say, “I’m just going to hang out at this table,” and “I’m going to join these groups,” and “I know based on my race that I belong in this sport.” It seldom resolves any dialogue. The worst thing we do is not talk to each other. And then you all come to college—for the special few who get in—and we say, “Okay, now learn how to work together.” Then we blow your minds away when we tell you that the world isn’t the same for everyone. Little kids need to learn, and I think little kids want to learn. When you’re six or seven, you already are prejudiced. You discriminate. You already know your gender, your race and ethnicity—you can identify all these things.
It seems there are two simple observations. First, a lot of people in America grow up not really knowing or going to school with people of other races or ethnicities. Second, we know that so much prejudice is developed at a young age. If those two things are true, then without multicultural education, will the institutional racism that this prejudice inspires and supports ever end?
It will never end. It just continues, and the sad thing is we all start to play into it and we don’t realize that we’re players. Little kids can learn it, and they can be inspired and want change. You tell them this and they think it’s a new concept, and you’re like, “This has been happening for a long time.” When they hear that, they’re not upset and angry, but they’re just like, “We should figure out a way to fix it.” As simplistic as their ideas are, like “We should make friendship bands for everyone.”
When I worked with first graders, one of their solutions for reducing prejudice and discrimination was that, once a week, a family should invite all the other families over. Which meant 25 first graders at someone’s house. We know feasibly that wouldn’t work [laughs]. But a lot of them say, “We should learn from each other or else won’t get along.”
What is your current research about?
Because I like to work with people and groups of people, it takes a long time to develop. I’m still working with my dissertation, which looked at how young kids can learn about issues of diversity and prejudice and discrimination to feel empowered and to become engaged citizens. Right now I’m working with the Office of Community-Based Learning and Research on developing community partnerships. They’re doing great work looking at how older students—junior high and high school students—who are coming up with issues in the community that they want to change. How can we bring that to elementary school students? How can we engage them in community change? So that they feel it’s not just the school saying, “We’re going to have a food drive. Everyone bring in canned food.” But they’re coming up with ideas for how they can be involved with community change.
One of the ideas I told them was from an elementary school that I worked with. After learning about the painter Henri Rousseau, the kids were reading poetry by Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet who wrote about deforestation in Chile and the effects on the natives. The art project of the week was to draw and write a poem. The kids said, “No, we don’t want to do that.” The teacher said, “What do you want to do?” “We want to paint a mural outside.” The teacher let them go and paint a mural, she didn’t even ask for permission. They wanted to paint about what was going on in their environment and their neighborhoods with the migrant farm workers. They wrote poems about the plight of the migrant farm workers, who were their parents, and their friends, and their aunts and uncles.
That to me was proof that little kids can produce change. I don’t want to say they’re an “untapped resource,” but they are voices we seldom here from, because we like to talk for them rather than let them talk for themselves.
I’m a white male. I could say, “I’m doing alright. What incentive do I have to fight this system when I’m benefiting from it so much?” How do you motivate me to help out?
With that, it’s understanding that it may not affect you, but it may affect your friend.
If that person is your friend, though.
Yeah, maybe they’re not socializing.
Or for example I grew up in southern Indiana. There were only white people in my school. That person never could’ve been my friend.
Even in schools that are all-white, where kids grow up in all-white environments, there has to be a space where they allow them to understand that the world is not the same everywhere. Even if they’re like, “Well, it doesn’t affect me”—which is the easiest way to not engage in social change, even as an adult. When the election happened, I had a lot of students say, “I don’t care, it doesn’t affect me. I know my vote doesn’t count for anything.” That was so fascinating to hear. I remember when my father became an American citizen, and that was such a huge thing. The idea of not voting is baffling to me.
With little kids, even if they don’t experience that, we have to think of ways that they can learn about it in a non-stereotyped environment. That’s something that is still evolving. It can’t just be a week or an assembly. What a lot of schools like to do is “International Week.” Each group gets a day and it culminates in a big food fest. It doesn’t work. We need to come up with more creative ways. I think the way you do that is by talking to little kids, and listening to them. When six-year-old you says, “I don’t care, I’m fine,” I’d say, “Why? Well, what about this?” If you ask enough questions, they’re going to keep giving you answers, because children love questions. Figure out where they’re at.
I do have to admit, I didn’t vote. Though I was very engaged in the election, read about it every day.
Everyone’s going to have that moment when they forget to vote. It’s another thing that kills me when students don’t even register.
Yeah, I didn’t register.
It’s such a right! My father couldn’t vote. He was in the Vietnam War. The idea that if you fought in a war for a country that isn’t your own you got automatic citizenship didn’t happen back then. So the fact that he had to apply, I’m just like, “How could you not vote?” I’m still upset that I don’t get the little sticker, because we vote by mail.
The day of the inauguration I was home sick, so I got to watch it. My little cousin was texting me. She’s in second grade. She said, “What’re you doing? We’re watching Twilight.” I’m like, “Why don’t you watch the inauguration?” “What’s the inauguration?” I’m the annoying cousin: “You need to understand, the president! What this means for our country!” I’m sure she was like, “Okay, Janelle. That’s great. I’m gonna go eat a burger.”
Well, in my defense, I moved so I had to re-register to vote. She has no excuse.
She has no excuse! You know, I am that annoying cousin. My little cousins were playing with those magnetic alphabets that parents get for their kids to spell words on the fridge. They were playing with them and one of them said, “I’m not going to spell with the pink ones.” I’m like, “Why aren’t going to spell with the pink ones?” Everyone’s looking at me like, “Don’t! Just let them do what they do!” But I’m like, “I have to ask!”
He said, “Because those are for girls.” I’m like, “Why are they for girls?” “Because they’re pink.” “What else is for girls?” “Cats are for girls.” I had a boy cat at the time, and I was like, “Why are all cats girls?” He said, “Because they are.” “What are dogs?” “Dogs are all boys.” “Well, why? What’s wrong with pink? Pink’s a nice color.” “No, that’s girly.” His little brother took one of them and he’s like, “I’m a boy, and I like pink.” And he proceeded to write all his words with pink. If I could just have those moments, I’m happy.
Janelle Silva is an Assistant Professor in IAS. She has a B.A. in Psychology and History of Art & Visual Culture, and a PhD. in Social Psychology and Feminist Studies, both from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research examines how to facilitate children’s interest in social justice and social change with attention to issues of diversity, equity and injustice.
Interview & visuals by Quinn Russell Brown, Editor-in-Chief.