An Interview with Joanna Thompson
By Daviona Moore
To continue our Can’t Touch This! series, I searched for Black leaders in the field of education to share their professional experiences. Our educational system continues to have unequal outcomes for students of color, but there are always exceptions that prove the rule. Dr. Joanna Thompson is one such success story, and today she is focused on leveraging her position to alleviate the systemic challenges and barriers for the next generation of students.
I met with Joanna via Zoom for an in-depth discussion on racial equity, the intersection of identities, and how folks can take small actions in their everyday lives to combat these hegemonic topics. Joanna has a background in criminology and community organizing within the BIPOC and queer communities.
Daviona Moore: My very first question for you, what are your pronouns?
Joanna Thompson: My pronouns are She/Her/Hers or They/Them/Theirs.
Daviona Moore: Thank you. I’ve heard a lot about you and I’m very happy to be speaking with you. How would you describe the work that you do at Santa Clara University?
Joanna Thompson: The work that I do as the director of the Office for Multicultural Learning, which also includes the Rainbow Resource Center, is rooted in the student affairs side. We are part of the Office of Student Life, which is a part of the greater division of student life. So all of the programs, events, everything we offer is really rooted in uplifting students outside of the work that they're doing in the classroom and really meant to supplement the conversations and the curriculum that they're learning in the classroom.
The key difference between the two is that the Office of Multicultural learning looks at identity development as it relates to issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage,
whereas the Rainbow Resource Center also supports identity development, but focuses more on the LGBTQ+ Community-- so talking about issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. We also really focus on uplifting our alumni l as they pursue their life’s work and journey while also recognizing the work of our allies as well because we do have a strong ally population.
Daviona Moore: Thank you so much for clarifying that for me. You also use the term identity development. May I ask why you all use that specific phrasing?
Joanna Thompson: So my background is actually in criminology, and everything that I do around social justice, racial justice, and racial equity come from that space. The language and concepts are rooted in Critical Race Theory and other sociological psychological theories and can be more simply described that identity really is a lifelong journey. My own research and experience bear this out as my own identity has truly developed, and continues to develop. We like to use the term “identity development” because when we get our students for the four or five years that we get them, we see the shift. You can see it as they walk through the levels of college, as they become confident in who they really are. It often happens they change how they self-identify, and that, again, is all rooted in experiences.
Daviona Moore: Did you naturally gravitate toward student affairs, or was it triggered by certain experiences?
Joanna Thompson: It's really interesting because my trajectory into this work is actually not the traditional trajectory of a lot of folks within higher education. I actually got started teaching first. I went to grad school in the city of Chicago, where I was at the University of Illinois at Chicago getting my master's and Ph.D. During my time in that program, I was able to be a teaching assistant and an instructor of my own class. I was able to teach for a couple of years within the sphere of criminology.
Criminology is unlike criminal justice. Criminal justice is very much rooted in law enforcement, policing--that's not really my jam. Criminology is actually if sociology and psychology had a baby. It’s so much more rooted in examining why people do certain things that they do. How are interpersonal relationships at play when we're talking about crime, violence, victimization? And also, the systemic change that all of those relationships are really trying to create within things like the criminal justice system, and criminal justice reform. It's allowed me to bring a unique perspective,, particularly in the work that I do at Santa Clara University, having this bridge between life on campus and the real-world issues that are affecting our students, staff, faculty.
So, long story short, there is no real answer to it-- I just ended up here. I love learning. I love teaching. I love creating knowledge and sharing knowledge and I ended up doing this here.
Daviona Moore: No, that makes perfect sense. I love hearing everyone's story of how they fell into their position.
Joanna Thompson: There is no traditional way to do this work. We're seeing that play out a lot more with younger generations and higher education continues to shift and evolve. [Higher Education] was never really created for people who look like you and me, and so, how can we change that? There is a shift happening that we do see more people of color, women of color, queer people of color, who are able to add their experience to be able to create new pedagogies, new frameworks that the next generation of students can study and learn from. So, I think that also helps to be able to bridge the personal identities that I have and always bring them into the work that I'm doing. Not to say that it makes it any easier, but at least it allows for a sense of authenticity and genuineness because this work is all about human experiences.
Daviona Moore: I know that when you were pursuing your PhD in Chicago you were working with an LGBT Center. Would you mind describing the type of work that you did there, any memorable successes?.
Joanna Thompson: Sure. It's a Center called the Center on Halsted, which is actually the largest LGBTQ+ Community Center in the Midwest. I was able to do outreach and education on issues of violence within the queer community; so everything from doing workshops and trainings for local organizations to even traveling abroad and going to international conferences to talk about what does this work look like internationally.
I ended up getting promoted to being their Director of Racial Equity and Inclusion, which was a really big turning point for that nonprofit organization. It was a really big point for the Chicago area in particular, because unlike many cities, Chicago is still very segregated, pretty much divided by the Northside, the Southside and the West side by racial lines, ethnic lines. So, for an organization like Center on Halsted, which was really looking at city-wide initiatives to try and bring everyone together-- it was a really big deal. The relationships that I was able to cultivate, particularly within the queer community and doing the organizing work, was really great to be part of that and continue to cultivate a lot of those relationships, even to this day.
Daviona Moore: That's amazing. I’m putting that into perspective, that's a huge deal. There were many Black Lives Matter protests last summer and a lot of folks use the momentum behind that against police brutality to raise other issues up such as economic inequality, discrimination against Black LGBT people. Why is this intersection approach to activism so important?
Joanna Thompson: One of the things within my own personal work and the work that I do at Santa Clara University, we always talk about intersectionality because you can't address these issues in a vacuum, and none of us have just one identity. When you talk to somebody, you're talking to the entire package. You're not just talking to the female portion or the Black portion or the queer portion. You're talking to the entire human. So the rights of a Black trans woman versus the rights of an undocumented person of color, there are overlaps in that. They're fighting similar fights and it may not look exactly the same, but the crux of what equity, equality, inclusion is, is still the same. I think many people are still operating in vacuums or thinking “they have their problems and those folks over there have their problems,” but all of these issues are so multicultural. As much as we're always so rooted in how we're different when you really look at it, our similarities stand out so much more, no matter how we identify because we're all struggling in some way.
Daviona Moore: I really like the way you broke down you're never talking to the woman or like the Black individual or the queer person, it's always all three. I noticed on the Office of Multicultural Learning Center page, that you all were highlighting some of the intersections that I haven't thought of before, such as LGBTQ+ experiences and poverty. and I was thoroughly impressed. How do you all choose what issues are highlighted? Do you listen to the students and hear what they need?
Joanna Thompson: Our office is a tiny but mighty office. In addition to myself, we have an assistant director by the name of Bernell Nevil who is an amazing Black man from New Orleans, Louisiana. We also have an office manager, her name is Pauline. Luckily, we do have student assistants that we hire that help us throughout the year. The students are really the ones who help us curate the content. We really rely on our student assistance to be our boots on the ground, to be our representatives in the community, and say, hey, what do your peers want to know about? What do they want to learn about?
We as an office realize that we need to push ourselves out of the boundaries. We're used to February being Black History Month, June being Pride month, but what else are we missing? I'm appreciative that we have two student assistants to be able to help us and they themselves are intersectional beings. Some of them have been at Santa Clara for four years now, some of them have been here for only a couple of years, so it's great to have even just that breadth of experience and perspective.
Daviona Moore: How do you hold yourself accountable and ensure that the information that you are putting out is accurate and it's not exclusionary? What systems are in place?
Joanna Thompson: I would say, the first thing is just having real conversations. In our office, we are not shy with one another, whether we're talking staff-to-staff, student-to-staff, or student-to-student. When we're in person, people come into the office and we're just kiki’ng all over the place. The fact that we are able to be authentic and honest with each other shows in the work that we do. We still make mistakes, and we still hear from folks from time to time when we miss the mark.
I would say the second check and balance is that we get that feedback and we use it. We have really personal relationships with not only our students, but our staff and faculty, and they feel the safeness and braveness to be able to come in and say, “Hey I'm dealing with this and I had this happen to me. I don't know where to go, and this was my first thought. I'm going to turn to this office.” Particularly because our target audience is Black, Indigenous, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and the intersections of those students. When we think about the communities that we are serving at an institution like Santa Clara, they don't have a lot of spaces, like the Office for multicultural learning. They are feeling the impact of white privilege every day, all the time. Many of our students are sometimes the only person of color in the classroom. That's a heavy burden to carry all the time for four years. We say, “If you can't be your authentic Black self over there, we want you to be your authentic Black self over here.”
Daviona Moore: I am glad that you all have those moments and it's a very lively office, it sounds like a delightful place to work. Women typically have been historically, and continue to really be like the moral and cultural anchors in their communities, which has allowed societies to really police women's behavior to limit their reproductive choices and bodily autonomy-- the list goes on-- while still arguing that this is for their protection. How have you personally, maybe in your personal work or your work with OML, how would you address this policing of women through programming or campaigns?
Joanna Thompson: You know, it's something that we as an office address head-on and we're not shy to talk about these topics head-on, because again, that's a lived experience. It's a matter of stopping the cycle right there, and how do we make sure the cycle does not continue? We really do try to in our signature programs. Even now on social media, making sure that we're promoting and highlighting strong women, women of color who are doing this work and leading these charges, and affirming those identities any way that we can.
When Difficult Dialogues was released, it stemmed from this notion that we knew troubling times were ahead. Usually pre-pandemic, we would meet in person for very intimate conversations, anywhere from as little as seven people to as many as maybe 20 people because these dialogues can get very personal and very vulnerable.
Now, in this virtual setting, we are calling them Digital Difficult Dialogues. We're actually having one tonight on the impact of LGBTQ+ homelessness in recognition of January being Poverty Awareness Month. Whether there's a pandemic or not, I think it's always going to be one of our signature programs. It really is helpful for folks to have a safe and brave space to have really difficult conversations.
Daviona Moore: I appreciate that you all focus on hearing from both sides. Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Joanna Thompson: Advice I would give to little Jo, and I think the one thing that really resonated with me, is my younger self was always afraid to just bust through the status quo. As much as I was raised to be proud of all of my identities and to never hold myself back, I think I was always still hesitant. If I just wasn't overthinking and not and not being afraid to just take the risk and take the leap and it's hard, because you know if you're going to jump off the cliff you have no idea what's on the bottom.
Daviona Moore: I definitely think the overthinking can get to you. I wanted to know if you have any contemporary activists that you want to highlight?
Joanna Thompson: In our office, we are huge Amanda Seales fans. I know that she's not necessarily an activist per se, but I feel like she's a really good example of what it means to just be socially conscious and socially aware. I think she's a good example that being an activist doesn't need to be this big thing. It simply means standing up for what you see as wrong and trying to make it right. It helps to make this notion of anti-racist work, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work so much more-- I don't want to say palatable-- but, again, this notion that it's not rocket science. ‘How not to be racist? Just don't be racist.’ Like, it's not that hard and I appreciate her candor and the way that she is just authentic. Being Afro-Caribbean, that identity is not necessarily talked about as much within an American context.
Daviona Moore: Do you have anything that you would like to plug before we conclude?
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The last thing I would say is, as we look ahead to whatever will be happening with this new administration, we all come to this type of work in terms of social justice. We all have a part to play in it, no matter the identities that we hold, no matter the experiences that we have. So if you want to be an activist, if you want to do something, just go do it. It can be something passive, just having conversations with your friends and your family. It could be active and you're out in the street protesting and doing your thing or could be somewhere in the middle, but we all have a part to play, and we can all make a difference.
Daviona Moore: Thank you so much for your time, Joanna.