Demonstrating that everyone’s voice is valued

May 3, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Monik JimenezDr. Monik Jimenez, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, uses different pedagogical approaches to elevate diverse voices and styles of learning. In her Mass Incarceration & Health in the U.S. course, she balances speaking time between a traditional scholar and an impacted community member, and emphasizes to the latter (and to students) that they are an expert. Dr. Jimenez also provides a variety of ways for students to participate and ask questions that include different cultural and neurodivergent learning styles. “It’s important to think about decolonizing the classroom in a layered way,” she reflects. “What are the multiple ways in which systems of power and white supremacy have impacted what we consider to be an ‘optimal’ student through the metrics we’ve been taught?”

The benefits: “Creating a space that demonstrates everyone’s voice is valued allows students to engage with one another in ways that are far more authentic and that last.” Students open themselves to learning, engaging more deeply with the material, and practice challenging stigmas in a carefully cultivated space. Emphasizing that voices outside the traditional scholar have deep value, permits students to feel comfortable thinking of themselves as experts. Dr. Jimenez notes that her students are often more interested in what impacted community members have to say.

“We’re challenging who you can be in this space and that your presence – your whole presence, everything that brought you to this point – is valued, not just where you went to school, but all your lived experience and distance travelled.”

The challenges: When bringing community members into the classroom, relationships must be cultivated over time before someone is simply invited to speak. On top of that, “the person has to be in the right place in their life” to talk about sensitive topics. This takes effort, time, and reflection. “It can’t be an accessory; it has to be intentionally built in.” In addition, any academic speaker paired with an impacted community member should honor the community speaker’s expertise to facilitate a collaborative space.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Start with your vulnerability. Challenge who is classified as an “expert.” Instead of touting the hegemonic construction that she should be listened to simply because she is a doctor and in a position of power as a professor, Dr. Jimenez notes, “I start by introducing myself as a person and with positionality. Why am I teaching this class? Why should I be talking with you about this particular subject?” This introduction begins to underscore to students that their full, authentic selves are valued and welcomed in her classroom.
  • Challenge what it means to be a “good” student. “There are many innovative ways to think about engagement that allow a full spectrum of expression and people to demonstrate their understanding of the knowledge being imparted.” This includes using breakout rooms so students feel less intimidated speaking directly to the professor or, as one guest speaker did, giving students time to write a reflection in class to gather their thoughts.
  • Solicit feedback and act on it. “What are the practices that you might be requiring in your course that might be creating an environment that is rooted in power structures? Sometimes it’s hard to see them because we’ve been trained in that way.” Dr. Jimenez actively invites student feedback, including through a mid-term evaluation. “We perpetuate the things that don’t work because we don’t know any better. We have to be willing to get that feedback and move based on it.”

Bottom line: Dr. Jimenez underscores the importance of reciprocity and patience. For one, “if there’s an interest in including community voices in the course, that takes time, and it needs to be financially supported. I feel really strongly that we shouldn’t be inviting community members without compensating them for their time.” Dr. Jimenez herself, for example, paid all her community speakers out of her discretionary fund and wrote them letters of appreciation with direct quotes from the students. In addition, classroom measures have to be incorporated with intentionality, reflection, and student feedback to constantly continue to grow the space. “We have to be intentional when we’re talking about equity and decolonized spaces; it doesn’t happen by happenstance.”