Changing the Face of Social Justice Education: WIHE Interviews Jamie Piperato
Dec 5, 2016 • by Amma Marfo
Jamie Piperato is changing the face of social justice education with her company, JPHigherEd. The innovative and collaborative organization seeks to center the voices of the marginalized students, faculty and practitioners. We talked to her about the decision to pursue this goal, how it differs from the work she did in a “previous life” on campus and the impact she hopes to make. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You left campus-based higher education for speaking and consulting nationwide. What lessons did you take with you from the work you did?
Passion—the kind of passion that drives people to do this work—to go to grad school, to jump into a full-time position, and to work with students and to make as big of an impact as possible on their lives. What ties me to this field—and what keeps me connected to this field—is that very basic but sometimes difficult concept of passion, and compassion, and striving to make something beautiful of an experience.
[Leaving] my full-time job was one of the hardest things that I did. There was definitely [an] adjustment period—going from being surrounded by students all the time, by colleagues, [by] different types of dialogues and conversations, and activities and events—and then going into almost like solitude, where you're not necessarily seeing or communicating to those people every day.
I also held on and reached out to people like me: people who left higher education and/or who were working in higher education in nontraditional ways. Figuring out who they were, how did they make this work, what were the difficulties, what were the strengths, what was the beauty that they were seeing and why they stayed connected.
JPHigherEd is markedly different from several other consultancies out there in that it offers “high-quality professional development opportunities that utilize a social justice lens to drive the conversation.” How did you decide on this as a focus?
I have a simple response, one that might sound really cheesy: it's the only option. If we want to change the disparities that we see, change the cultures, change the violence and the harm that we see through the practices and the work that we're doing, if we want to liberate—to put it simply, this is the only option.
We have to utilize a social justice lens in every ounce of the work that we do. If we're not willing to look at what's not working, then we can't change. If we can't envision what it [the world] should look like, then we can't change it. Centering the voices of those who are most marginalized in every conversation is the only option I see possible out there.
As a company, we strive not to have a tab that's labeled “Diversity” and have folks go there if they're looking for diversity conversations, but really incorporating that throughout every conversation we have. As an example, we have a facilitator that'll be doing a conversation about Title IX. That conversation on campuses is [usually] heteronormative and cisnormative, and that's very limiting.
By centering the voices of those who are most marginalized in regard to sexual violence—that's what it's all about. That's how we see change. That's where we see resources being provided to those who need them, spaces created where folks can have those open dialogues and develop trust.
Can you briefly talk about some of the services and charitable projects that JPHigherEd engages in?
We have a bunch of programs and services available. Some are free services, some are paid, recognizing that we want to be able to provide access to folks. We host a podcast called the JPSpeaks: Social Justice and Inclusion Podcast for higher education professionals. We have professionals come on and talk about their expertise, if it's possible to be an expert in anything. We also provide on-campus trainings underneath our service JPCampus.
The biggest thing we're focusing on right now [is] JP Webinars. JP Webinars are online, identity-conscious professional development programs for higher education professionals, or really anyone: folks who need this information, want this information and can learn from it are all welcome. Right now we have 13 facilitators who are compensated for the work they do. [Author's Note: I, as well as fellowWIHE writer Karen Costa, serve as facilitators for JP Webinar offerings.]
We infuse that identity-conscious, social justice lens throughout all of our webinars. We have programs that focus on residence life, gender, sexuality, Title IX, multiculturalism, orientation, accessibility and counseling. We are utilizing, and centering, those who are marginalized in those conversations.
JP Scholarships is the backbone of our company. JP Scholarships is a way to take some of that money that folks are using for professional development and spend it back on students who are benefiting in higher education.
We also have JPCourses, our online self-driven courses. We provide the opportunity for folks to sign up for this course. It's a five-week program, and throughout the week we provide them with some activities to do, content to review, challenges, and reflections. It's a self-driven course, so there's no one on your screen talking to you and holding you accountable. It's a good practice for multiple reasons: refining those accountability skills, as well as refining skills that can help in this realm of social justice.
What practices, policies or mindsets do you find most challenge the work that you and other JPHigherEd facilitators face?
The biggest hurdle that prevents people from clicking through and signing up for that webinar, or looking for those webinars to start with, is this mentality in higher education that we don't need to have these conversations. Or, because I work in this field, I know what I need to know and my education has stopped. I've reached the finish line, I have passed it, and now I am eating my oranges at the end of the marathon and have my blanket on me.
It's that mentality that we don't need to have these conversations, and not understanding how inherently harmful that mindset is in the work that we do. We're working with folks who, wherever they go, because of their identities, are being targeted, harmed, cast out, isolated [and] violated, in multiple ways from multiple people who have different positions in relation to them. That's not just in regard to JPHigherEd and higher education; I think that's a world problem, at least in the United States. We have this mentality, that “colorblind” mentality we hear all the time, that's so harmful to the conversation and to the movement.
There's this other aspect, [that of] compensation. I think there's this idea within higher education that content should be free. We have a hard time putting money [toward] a thing we think should be free. This is a problem, and we have a hard time talking about it. We see doing things for free as giving back to our profession. It's uncomfortable, and I don't think that's a reality for some people.
We're a fairly new company, and we're trying to build something that's transparent and authentic, so we want to ensure that our facilitators are compensated. That poses a problem for offering free webinars, in particular. At this time, we don't have the sponsors to come in and provide scholarships and to host free webinars. At some point, we hope we can do that, but we will never host a free webinar that does not compensate the facilitator as well.
What traits or qualities should we focus on developing in students and professionals alike to sharpen their view through the social justice lens, as it were?
Critical consciousness: about the world around us, about the action that needs to be done, about what they experience themselves, how to resist oppressive structures and acts and mindsets. Oftentimes, when we have these conversations, we're trying to educate others [on what] to do in their lives. It's really easy to tell people what to do and not do it for yourself! That transparency, authenticity, integrity—walking the walk and talking the talk.
Whether you're sitting quietly or whether you're speaking quietly, or you're screaming at the top of your lungs, people are going to feel a certain way about what you're saying. We need to get over that.
We need to be able to say what we need to say, in the manner that we need to say, with all the emotion that we need, because we're feeling it and because we're experiencing it, and we need others to understand and recognize and acknowledge what we go through. Whether I say something nicely or scream it out loud, folks are going to feel a certain way about a lot of different things. They're going to feel it, so you should say it either way.