Conversation by: Kylie Cooper Photos by: Lillian Reitz
What initially drew you to the field of communication?
I grew up on public assistance in a rural town of 1,600 people in Northeast Oklahoma, and extra-curricular activities were pretty limited for a person who didn’t play sports or an instrument. In the 8th grade, I enrolled in a home economics class and volunteered to participate in an upcoming regional speech contest. I found the process of researching, writing, practicing, and giving a speech to be euphoric and empowering. (I still do!) It didn’t surprise anybody when I majored in speech education at a local university. I really wanted to teach high school and help other girls and economically disadvantaged kids in rural Oklahoma find speech as an outlet. To this day, I have a soft spot for middle and high school teachers; mine completely changed my trajectory because they took time to hone a raw talent.
As a professor of communication – for which you were named Communication University Educator of the Year in Texas in 2018 and in Oklahoma in 2008 – why do you think this is a field/course everyone should have experience in?
My entry into communication as a discipline came through public speaking initially, but by the time I completed my formal education with the doctorate, I specialized in group communication. I find that a lot of people, and the organizations of which they are a part, get in trouble because of lack of thoughtful communication – whether it be relationally or just having the ability to organize a group project. I use communication skills every single day and owe a great deal of my success to the ability to communicate effectively. We assume everybody can communicate well, but that’s simply not true. It is a gift, but it is also a craft that has to be practiced and corrected continuously and purposefully.
Your most recent published work, From Thought to Action: Developing a Social Justice Orientation, is now out. Can you tell me a little bit about this book?
I wanted to ensure my students took ownership of their learning and developed empathy and understanding of people who were different from them. I committed my teaching to these objectives, but it came with costs. Pretty soon I had students telling me that they were having a hard time communicating with their families, that they no longer enjoyed television shows they used to enjoy, and/or they wanted to become activists but didn’t know how. People can’t unknow what they know, and once these students became more socially conscious, life became harder for them. They looked to me for advice, but I couldn’t be with them all the time. I wanted to give them a book to guide and comfort them, but I couldn’t find one that perfectly fit. I wrote From Thought to Action for my forever students (my loving nickname for them) to give them a guide.
Why do you think it is important for people to understand social justice and in turn navigate their own social justice journey?
I define social justice as a goal for people committed to celebrating (not ignoring or belittling) diversity and difference. Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” The people who best benefit from the status quo, where people in the margins continue to be oppressed, are most likely not giving up their power without being made to do so. Granted, sometimes people in power do experience positive turning points and become effective allies to people in the margins. And sometimes people in power even come from marginalized communities and continue to embrace and never forget their struggles. But, too often, people in power have unearned privileges related to sex, sexuality, religion, age, socio-economic class, ability, etc., and unfortunately, have never really learned to empathize with the Other – people who aren’t like them. And they aren’t going to help the Other unless they’re made to do so. It has to be made inconvenient to continue the oppression.
Why do you think this topic creates discomfort for people?
I always tell folks, including my students, if you’re not uncomfortable, you are not learning. Comfort occurs while maintaining the status quo. I find that people who are uncomfortable discussing diversity and embracing difference are most often just scared. They are scared of what they do not know, of saying the wrong thing, of losing power, of losing friends, etc. They let fear control them. I suggest they face their fears and figure things out. For people who want to make a change but are unsure of where to start, they should read books and watch films about social justice activists who inspire them, perhaps someone well known and universally appreciated, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dolores Huerta. What they will find is that no one was born an activist. Activists like King and Huerta took a journey, had some turning points, committed to change, and started taking small actions. Anybody can follow that same plan.
Why should someone read this book?
I find that there are a lot of people out there who have already done the hard work of self-reflection and empathy building. They are ready to move forward with action to make the world a better place; they just don’t know where to start. From Thought to Action will help them collect their thoughts and take inventory of where they are and how they fit into the bigger picture regarding the advancement of social justice. It will help them choose a specific cause and give them actions they can take right away.
You have been and continue to be involved in numerous local organizations. Why is serving on local boards important to you?
Time is a precious commodity. Once we deduct work and sleep from our days, we are left with few precious hours, and we should all be pretty picky about where we spend them. In the Coastal Bend region, we have many nonprofits committed to social justice work. For me, work related to female empowerment and racial identity is where I like to spend time. I have chosen to achieve my personal objectives through associations with the YWCA and AAUW, but there are so many other organizations in town that I truly value. I try my best to attend their events, as well, and make financial contributions to support their work. I have my eyes on a few organizations right now where I would like to be more involved with my time. Quite simply, we need these organizations in our community because there is strength in numbers – both politically and financially.
What is your favorite part of living in the Coastal Bend?
I love living in a place where I am an ethnic/racial minority. I spent the majority of my life living in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where whiteness wasn’t always in the driver’s seat. It felt more balanced to me than what I saw happening in other places in the United States. When I looked for the job that eventually brought me to South Texas seven years ago, I knew I needed to be in a place that was racially diverse. And of course, having an ocean view didn’t hurt either. It’s become a bit cliché, but Corpus Christi really is a big small town. I enjoy the people here, especially my TAMU-CC family and our community partners. I often get job offers to go elsewhere, but, honestly, I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.