Supporting individuals and communities to achieve social change

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Fri Dec 15 2023

Author: Guest contributor

Jason Laker, series editor of Palgrave Studies in Global Citizenship Education and Democracy, shines a spotlight on the importance of ending sexual coercion and gender-based violence within higher education settings and beyond, and discusses his work supporting individuals and communities to overcome social problems.

Please tell us about the nature of your work?

I’m an inter/multidisciplinary Social and Educational Scientist who weaves scholarly, pedagogical, and practitioner perspectives and tools into a synthesized approach to addressing social problems. I have engaged citizenship and democratic education issues in my scholarly work, including co-editing two texts with colleagues in Croatia and Spain focused on theoretical, policy, and practical issues surrounding civic life. Those books launched Palgrave Studies in Global Citizenship Education and Democracy, for which I serve as the Inaugural International Series Editor. While I remain engaged in various international endeavors and serve as one of the 20 inducted Associate Members of the UNESCO-based International Association of Universities, my primary research over the past decade or so has focused on ending sexual coercion and gender-based violence within higher education settings and beyond. My view is that this is a linchpin issue, implicating social identities (e.g., gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc.) and impacting students’ psychosocial development, academic success, and their future careers and personal lives. Sexual harassment and violence undermine individual and community flourishing and interfere with knowledge production when graduate students and colleagues are subjected to offenses in the course of their studies and work. In short, I see connections between supporting individuals and communities—especially those who face structural and personal discrimination—and resolving most social problems. 

Does your work intend to directly address ways in which we can work towards equality in education, either locally or globally?

It has always had that intention, expressed in various ways as my career unfolded through a variety of roles, institutional types, and geographic context. The first 20 years of my career involved service in progressively larger administrative and executive roles within postsecondary settings, during which I conceived of my work as building capacity among students to become engaged democratic citizens. Universities provide a particularly fertile community laboratory within and yet apart from the places where they are situated, enabling relatively lower-risk opportunities to learn about and practice the knowledge, skills, and dispositions critical for facilitating social change. When colleges and universities are at their best in this work, students are provided mentorship and opportunities to test ideas and pilot efforts while developing the ethical and critical lenses to avoid such indulgences as gentrification, reifying colonial inclinations, and developing counter-hegemonic and anti-oppressive methods for countering social ills. In my current role, I serve as Chair of a large graduate program that prepares our 200 multicultural students to serve as future school and college counselors. As such, I feel gratified to be involved in placing wide awake educators in schools and colleges where they can then provide similar capacity-building supports to their own future students. There is a lot of generativity to this arrangement and I appreciate this opportunity to be implicated in the efforts of so many talented and ethical practitioners out in the community doing their worthy work. 

What are the short and long-term goals of your work?

The short and long-term goals of my work center around achieving social justice.  I try to be efficient by working upstream to find and change the strands that form unjust situations and identify potential interventions to undo them. For example, my work on men’s development and masculine role socialization is intended to help boys and men to embrace the wholeness of human experience such as by being able to be vulnerable and express the full range of emotion, which in turn reduces likelihood of enacting violence of all types, bigotry, and self-harm. In that example, my approach to supporting boys and men also supports girls and women along with people across the diversity of genders, sexualities, races, abilities, among other identity categories; and research demonstrates that views and behaviors of sexism, racism, homophobia, and the like are reduced by advancing boys’ and men’s psychosocial development.  I have also found that my own civic engagement has provided opportunities to offer expertise and instrumental support to address issues in the broader community. For example, I have served on or chaired non-profit boards, ethics committees in other professions, and even the audit committee of a large credit union where my organizational development and culture experiences were just as helpful as other members’ accounting expertise.  By getting involved in a variety of community activities as a citizen who happens to be a professional academic, I am able to avoid the myopic views stereotyped among academics and be directly engaged in the issues and civil society locations that students come from and return to after they complete their studies.  In short, this helps me to be a better teacher, researcher, and community servant.

What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policy makers? What has your experience been with policy engagement?

I made a passing remark in my previous answer regarding stereotypes about academics, most especially the notion that we are situated within a distant ivory tower and disconnected from the community. Sometimes such a stereotype is invoked as a rhetorical strategy to dismiss our expert opinions, but it does often happen that researchers use high theory jargon and make ourselves seem out of touch. As a first-generation student who came from an immigrant family, I grew up shadowing my parents and grandparents in their respective sales calls and shops, which provided a very down-to-earth worldview and practical knowledge about how to be persuasive and get things done with other people. I cannot overstate the credibility that comes from being present and active in the communities served by said policymakers. My involvements in such activities as the Rotary Club, serving on advisory committees for the local school district, and having lunch or coffee with policymakers has been more productive and received more apparent responses than when I’ve submitted reports or comments via a lawmaker’s website.  This is not to suggest that larger scale efforts such as white papers or amicus briefs aren’t also important, but the human conversation can animate the content written in such instruments in ways that resonate on a deeper level with whomever we hope to persuade.

What does public engagement look like in your field and how important do you think it is for researchers to make a societal impact with their work? 

While I conceive of myself as being engaged in multiple fields, I find the common thread in the scholarship of engagement. This concept refers to forms of service for which one must hold specific expertise to do said service. Whereas academics are expected to do service such as advising and committee membership, I am referring to instances when we hold specialized knowledge about the issue being addressed. For instance, a medical ethicist might serve on an ad hoc committee working with a legislative body to enact policy reforms related to patient care. In that example, they are bringing key knowledge to the deliberations.  As a researcher focused on gender-violence prevention and response, I have been able to provide consultations and training to K-12 educators, complaint investigators, and policy makers on social service and education oversight committees. The truth is that none of those people will ever read my journal articles, which are aimed at fellow researchers.  I see value in the disciplinary and professional discourses in our fields, but I feel more drawn to “dissemination” on the ground within practical and policy efforts.  I am not prepared to suggest that researchers who work in more isolated venues aren’t making meaningful contributions to society. Rather, I think it is essential to determine where you are most relatable. For me, that’s out in the community and I’m happy to share about something that a colleague who mainly stays in a laboratory or out doing fieldwork has created or found… we are all in this work together even when not physically so.

What progress would you like to see next towards equitable and inclusive education worldwide (or locally)?

I think it is important to draw attention to the fact that we have been enduring collective and intersectional traumas associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the ugliest political tensions in a generation, spates of bigotry and violence, and several major military conflicts that are terrorizing people around the world. My most immediate answer is to prioritize attending to our own and each other’s pain and the disruptions to our education and careers. As a current counselor educator, I strongly believe we can’t help others if we are unwell ourselves, and the ways in which competition, rankings, “productivity” and other careerist interests have remained core in higher education despite these global scourges with local imprints is only interfering with advancing the equitable and inclusive education being asked about here.  So, in short, the progress I would like to see next is for as many of us as possible to slow down and be present with each other, asking sincerely how we are each doing, being patient, resting, eating together, and other ways of building or rebuilding trust and connection so that we can become restored and work on these many issues together at a reasonable and sustainable pace. There is a saying in the counseling field that you “can’t take someone somewhere you ain’t going.”  We must model the sensibilities and commitments we presume to teach and write about.

What role does adult education/higher education have in facilitating a more just civil society and strong democracies around the world?

Preparing educated and holistically healthy adults generates their greatest capabilities and strongest inclinations to advance justice, develop and maintain durable democratic commitments, and productive individual and collective civil society structures.

Explore Springer Nature’s SDG4 Quality Education Hub for more content focused on global citizenship education.

About the Author:

Jason Laker is Professor in the Department of Counselor Education at San Jose State University, USA. He serves as International Series Editor for Palgrave Studies in Global Citizenship Education and Democracy, and has authored several books including Citizenship, Democracy and Higher Education in Europe, Canada and the USA and Civic Pedagogies in Higher Education (both Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


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