This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Lainey Sevillano, MSW, is a Pilipinx mother and first-generation doctoral student striving to make education more equitable and inclusive.
Three sisters were walking by the river when they noticed babies floating down stream. The first sister quickly jumped into the river and began to scoop babies out. The second sister also jumped in and began to teach the babies how to swim. The third sister did not jump in but instead began to walk upstream to investigate the cause of this phenomenon. This parable is often taught to highlight the various ways any of us can choose to intervene and interrupt social problems. However, I argue that this parable can also warn us about how the lack of these sisters can lead to an ecology of inequality (Carter 2018).
Brief Statement on Theoretical Frameworks
This parable is loosely based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) Ecological Systems Theory which aims to provide a holistic theoretical approach to understanding human development. Briefly, the theory posits that an “individual’s development occurs through complex interactions between an individual and the people, objects, and symbols in that person’s surrounding environment” (Longe 2016). The four interrelated types of environmental systems are: microsystem (settings in which individuals directly interact); mesosystem (processes that occur between multiple microsystems); exosystem (includes microsystems that involve but do not directly interact with an individual); and macrosystem (overarching beliefs, values, and norms of society). These four systems interact and influence one another, producing dynamic, complex, and ever-changing lived experiences.
I am an immigrant from the Philippines, a cisgender woman of color, and a first-generation college student from a lower socioeconomic status (SES). At the start of my doctorate program, I added mother to my collection of social identities. I recognize that my educational experiences have been shaped by my intersecting non-dominant social identities. Building on Bronfenbrenner’s theory, intersectionality (Collins 2015; Crenshaw 1991) allows me to focus on the “interactive, mutually constitutive relationship among these categories” (Hancock 2007, 67) and how these relationships intersect with actors at the micro, meso, and macro levels. Carter (2018, 2) describes the three levels as the following: 1) the micro level consists of “the interactions among people in schools and communities and the ideas to which we subscribe and adhere,” 2) the meso level encompasses the “categorization tools” used by our communities, including schools and families that “reinforce exclusion, segregation, and discrimination,” and 3) the macro level constitutes the “sociohistorical and sociopolitical phenomena” that have “accumulated material consequences.”
I apply this theory to my own educational journey to highlight the ways in which these systems interlock to create an ecology of inequality. Although, there are innumerable ways of modeling the interactive flow of these social systems based on my most salient aforementioned social identities, this essay focuses primarily on my experiences as a Pilipinx American student (PAS) within the American public education system.
The innermost level, the microsystem, denotes my interactions with faculty and staff. It is within these direct interactions that I was socialized as a PAS. The mesosystem consists of the tools that my schools used to reinforced inequality (e.g., tracking). Finally, the outermost level is the macrosystem which is broadly defined as the large overarching beliefs, values, norms of society, and laws that maintain inequality. As a PAS, I have chosen to highlight white supremacy. Figure 1 depicts a graphic representation of the conceptual framework guiding this essay.
Figure 1: A graphic representation of the conceptual framework guiding this essay.
Part one of this reflection focuses on how challenges within each of these systems intersect to impede my education. Part two offers a framework for disrupting these interlocking systems of oppression. By critically reflecting on my own educational journey, I aim to identify opportunities to intervene at each ecological level, limiting the systemic inequality facing students with multiple burdened social identities.
Part I: Where are the Three Sisters? Surviving an Ecology of Inequality
I immigrated to Los Angeles from the Philippines when I was three years old. I grew up right outside of Downtown Los Angeles and attended K-12 public schools in a predominantly immigrant, BIPOC district. When I was in the first grade, my mom came home from a parent teacher conference and told me that my teacher wanted to hold me back a grade because she didn’t believe that I had mastered the English language enough to warrant passage to the second grade. My teacher claimed that my lack of participation in class discussions and engagement with peers justified her suggestion. This was the first time I remembered being “Othered” by a teacher—and it hurt. I endured similar interactions with faculty throughout my educational journey. Unbeknownst to me, each of these interactions socialized me to internalize racial oppression (e.g., perpetual foreigner stereotype [Ng, Lee, and Pak 2007]). This internalization hit its peak during an undergraduate course in education where a professor explained that the disparities in educational outcomes were correlated with certain identities. Initially, I was ashamed to learn that I fit the characteristics of a student who was not college-bound (immigrant, low SES, first generation). Then I began to believe the data and became a self-fulfilling prophecy (Steele and Aronson 1995) with internal dialogues such as, “since I attended a high school with low academic performance rankings, I am ill-prepared for the rigor of college academia, thus explaining my low grades.” Where was the sister to scoop me up?
As a first-generation college student, I lacked the social capital (Bourdieu 1986) to navigate the college admissions process. This challenge was further exacerbated by the school using “categorization tools” (Carter 2018), such as tracking, to further segregate those who the system of higher education believed are college bound and those who are not. As an immigrant, first-generation PAS, I was tracked into the latter without me knowing. I wished someone had told me that my access to resources such as gifted and talented testing, more highly trained instructors, and advanced placement (AP) courses depended on the reading group I was assigned to back in the first grade. For example, at the time, I could not quite understand why the AP English language and composition teacher refused to admit me in her class, claiming that the course was specifically designed for students in the Academy of Performing Arts. I believe having a mentor to teach me the necessary tools to advocate for myself would have mitigated some of the inequity that I faced throughout my educational journey. Where was the sister to teach me how to swim?
The Asian model minority myth is a prime example of white supremacy, as it is used as a racial wedge not only between Asians and other minoritized groups (Chow 2017), but also within Asian groups as well. This myth perpetuates the idea that as a PAS, I fall under the umbrella of the model minority and thus do not need support to access, persist, and achieve. Pilipinx issues, experiences, and voices in academia are limited. The Asians that you hear about with high SAT scores, lots of extra-curricular activities, and consequently high admittance rates are usually not Pilipinx. Instead, Pilipinx high school students have higher attrition rates (Okamura and Agbayani 1997; Posadas 1999) and lower rates of admission and retention than East Asians (Okamura 1998). Where is the sister to investigate these disparities?
Given the experiences I have highlighted, it is no wonder that the higher I have scaled the education ladder, the lonelier I have become. Yes, there are Asians in higher education, but when I look around the classroom, I am usually the only PAS. Fellow Pilipinx grad students identified that being the only PAS in their program was a major challenge, and that there is a lack of faculty support/mentorship because there were no Pilipinx faculty mentors at their universities (Nadal et al. 2010). There are only 113 tenured/tenure-track Pilipinx American professors in the social sciences, education, and humanities across the United States (Nadal 2016). According to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), only two percent of full-time professors at postsecondary institutions are Asian women. Consequently, the actual percentage of Pilipinx women professors is even lower.
Part II: Framework for Disrupting the Micro, Meso, and Macro Systems
I do not offer these comparisons to perpetuate the perils of identity politics (e.g., Oppression Olympics [Yuval-Davis 2012]). Instead I want to illustrate the challenges created by the intersecting systems of oppression within my micro, meso, and macro systems, and how difficult it is to persist without the intervention of the three sisters described in the parable.
Dismantling the ecologies of inequality and creating educational journeys that facilitate access, retention, and achievement of PAS and of other students who hold multiple-burdened social identities requires multi-dimensional solutions (Carter 2018). Garces and Gordon da Cruz (2017, 10) offer a strategic framework for doing this equity work, specifically by outlining how to intervene within the microsystem: “attending to the dynamic relationship among race, power, and identities”; the mesosystem: “actively naming and addressing hidden contributors to inequity”; and the macrosystem level: “generating power among marginalized communities toward transformative policies.”
Within the microsystem, Carter (2018) states that educators must learn how to engage students in difficult conversations about identities and power. An uprising sparked by the horrific killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has seen many institutions affirm their commitment to become anti-racist. Educators can no longer ignore the relevance of anti-racism in their pedagogy and scholarship. Furthermore, educators can no longer claim to be uninformed on how to become anti-racist because of the unprecedented volume of resources they now have access to (e.g., Kendi 2019). Continuing to claim ignorance will only result in these educators being left behind after the dust settles from this revolution. Within the mesosystem, we should do away with categorization tools such as tracking. If students want to take certain courses, they should be allowed to do so. Tracking has turned into opportunity hoarding (Lewis and Diamond 2015), which rewards students who already have the social capital to access higher education with even more resources while limiting the resources available for students who truly need them. On a similar note, we need to get rid of standardized testing as a requirement for admission to college. This requirement was founded on the false premise of meritocracy when, in reality, the SAT/ACT has turned into a testocracy (Guinier 2015). It is a categorization tool that perpetuates discrimination against students who cannot afford expensive SAT/ACT tutors, students whose first language is not English, and students with learning differences. Within the macrosystem, we can aid the dismantling of white supremacy by continuing to support affirmative action. Opponents of affirmative action claim that it is racist because, by allowing colleges to consider race when making admissions decisions, it disadvantages white (and East Asian) students. My simple rebuttal: inspect the practice of legacy admissions and how it disadvantages BIPOC (Park 2015).
I will become the type of educator that embodies all three sisters at once: first, jumping in to assist vulnerable populations by being willing to engage with students about power; second, teaching others how to impact change by mentoring students and helping them persist; and third, investigating social issues to inform policy and practice. This past year I have been investigating school belonging among college students who hold multiple non-dominant social identities. My hope is to develop institutional policies and practices that facilitate, cultivate, and sustain students’ sense of belonging because it has been found to be correlated with increased academic achievement, engagement, and well-being in college (NASEM 2017).
I highlight my journey not only as a way to affirm my place in academia, an institution founded on neoliberal, heteropatriarchal, misogynist, and white supremacist ideals, but also as a call to action. We need to become educators who are willing to embody all three sisters and to intervene across micro, meso, and macro systems to disrupt the ecologies of inequalities that many students find themselves locked in. I know that I am not alone in trying to grapple with the idea of becoming the very thing we lacked in our own journeys. But I hope you feel that by becoming that very thing, we are also self-healing.
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