Here’s how an English professor’s work in Iraq and South Africa shapes her approach to social justice

Professor of English Kimberly Segall sees stories as an important route to intercultural understanding, for herself and for her students.

Hometown: Born in Michigan but claims Seattle as her “hometown,” as she has been in the city for 20 years

Education: BA, Calvin College, 1993; PhD, Northwestern University, 2001

Title: Professor of English and Cultural Studies; co-director of the Social Justice and Cultural Studies major

How would you describe your career and your work abroad?

In terms of career and work abroad, I’ve always been a mix of the academic and the practitioner, so that’s a bit of a challenge sometimes. Even when I went to do my Ph.D., I received a fellowship to go to South Africa, thinking I would follow the standard for a dissertation to write about five novels in five chapters, and be done. But instead, when I was there, I realized that there was a whole generation who had protested against the racism of apartheid. They had burned their books and protested at school, and now they were using theater for protest. I re-wrote my dissertation to look at protest and change and their views on democracy. My study of theater turned into some practice of drama therapy when I worked with a South African psychologist.

“Would you be willing to do a performance with people who want to tell their stories?” the psychologist asked me. At first, I felt overwhelmed, given the level of trauma in the stories. But I have a performance studies background as well, and I worked with experts to let people tell the stories they wanted to tell in a performance form. I’ve continued to do that work — scholarship on literature combined with practical application. I used to live in Iraq, and when I came back, I worked with Iraqi refugees, women who wanted to tell stories about what their experiences had been and build awareness of their refugee crisis.

How did that trip to Iraq change your perceptions of the culture?

My first time in Iraq was in my twenties, more than 20 years ago. After we drove in a taxi through empty land, I met many people and heard their stories of exile. Having grown up in Idaho, I had very little idea about the Middle East. Learning how people coped through their rituals of dance, through music, through a heritage of stories really impressed me. Connecting with Iraqis — Muslim, Christian, and Jewish — I learned about our Abrahamic connection. Making friends with women and learning that they had great authority in their families, worked with NGOs, and are now politicians in Baghdad, challenged my naïve perceptions of women in the Middle East. Living with an extended family sort of shattered my gender misconceptions.

professor kim segall having coffee with students

What would you say to students who have anxieties about studying abroad?

When you move out of your comfort zone, there’s going to be anxiety. But there’s also a place of strength, courage, and excitement when you cross that border. You’ll come out stronger than when you left.

I recommend SPU study abroad trips because you have a mentor from the University with you during and after the trip. So if you go your sophomore year, you can have three years of mentoring with a person who watches you grow and helps you on that journey.

I also believe in orientation — learning the history and the culture before. I don’t believe in just dropping students off and showing up.

Stories are the most important thing in the world. They’re the building blocks of everything, so there’s no field without stories.

What is the significance of stories?

Stories are the most important thing in the world. They’re the building blocks of everything, so there’s no field without stories. Even in medicine, when your diagnosis is explained, they tell a story about how cancer is at battle with itself. You’re telling a narrative, there’s a certain viewpoint and perspective that’s coming out of it.

Stories are the basic building unit of politics, of power, of justice in the world. A politician tells you a story, and the best story wins. There’s also something intense, and personal, and sacred about the space of the story and the exchange. As the director of the social justice and cultural studies major, I see stories as the basis for transformation. With faith-based social justice, God has come down in human form, giving us grace and mercy, so the second part of Christian faith is to love your neighbor as yourself. What that means for me is that I need to understand people’s stories and not just be narcissistic in my own identity.

professor segall sits in a group circle with her students

What is your favorite book to teach?

I teach a book called Nervous Conditions, written by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga. It talks about the anxieties that occur after unequal structures of power, like colonization. Afterwards, there’s a different sense of identity, so the book grapples with what it means to decolonize the mind. Many people can relate to this idea of “nervous conditions.” It’s when you feel torn after systems of oppression, in between two things, ambivalent, and must try to figure out what’s ethical, what’s just, and what to do next. This book models how to think about racial identities. Every student feels changed by that single book.

How does the social justice major prepare students for life after graduation?

From day one, when freshmen come in for advising, I say, “What track do you envision?” That track is a possible vocational vision. You can change it, but we’re always pushing students to think through what skills they need and what their future job will be. We also push students towards internships, and there’s a mentoring program, where you get to have lunch with someone who does your dream job, network with them, and learn from them, and then we also have field experience with study abroad.

Faith without works is dead, so I see social justice as the action of Christianity.

What is the interaction between social justice and Christianity?

For me, social justice is the Bible. God’s love is so transformative that God takes on flesh for us and dies so that we can have grace, and we’re asked in response to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we do that, that means you have to understand the marginalization and oppression that other people have faced before. You can work with them and enter that space of reciprocity — of service — that’s an equal exchange, respecting others, learning as we serve. That’s the cross, that’s the Bible, that’s the message. It’s the whole thing. It’s not separate.

The piety movement is important for growing our personal faith with prayer and devotion but unless we act, our faith is dead. Faith without works is dead, so I see social justice as the action of Christianity.

professor segall walking with her students

Photography by Alex Garland.

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