Sharing our paths to and through the course: Why are we here?  What are we learning? 

For professional reasons related to the population she works with, we use Pazee’s first name in this interview.

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Pazee is a professional social worker. In her many years of clinical experience, Pazee has served a range of different communities and age groups. Her current clinical workplaces are at the intersection of the mental health and justice systems. She works in forensic mental health, providing mental health treatment in an inpatient setting.   

It is in this work setting that Pazee has become strikingly aware that her education so far has failed to provide her with a most pressingly relevant understanding of US history. What she is learning in Black History for a New Day addresses that deep gap in her knowledge.

Pazee’s Background: Another Perspective

Pazee offers yet another perspective on who we are and why we are here as participants in the Black History course. Pazee’s parents came here as refugees in the early 80s. She is the first in her family born in the US.  In a very short span of time, Pazee’s family survived wrenching change, moving first to camps in Thailand and, ultimately, resettling in the Upper Midwest.  Recounting her family story, Pazee acknowledges, “I could speak on that forever.”

“My family actually lived in Laos as a minority tribal group. Our people were recruited through the CIA. So after the US pulled out from that area, my family fled the country due to the retaliations from the Laos ruling government. We are Hmong.” 

The Hmong people and traditions are ancient, spanning at least an 8,000-year historical record. Yet the Hmong people are stateless. Indeed, there are Hmong veterans of the US war in Indochina who still struggle for full recognition of their veteran status.

“They were definitely veterans but they have not been recognized in that manner.”

Raised in Madison,  Pazee’s own heritage, Hmong history, and culture were not included in her school curriculum. Sometimes teachers would invite Pazee’s parents to teach Hmong refugee history to the class. Black history was only sometimes added, perhaps during Black History Month. But in Pazee’s experience, it was only because of teachers’ individual initiative that content moved beyond the perspective of White America. This bias was still evident as Pazee spent seven years as a school social worker in Madison schools.

Finding Black History for a New Tomorrow

“Last year, I attended a racial injustice conference offered through the UW-Madison School of Social Work. Our guest speaker spoke to this topic and her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. I was left with a sense of guilt and privilege. I felt guilty and helpless knowing that other people of color experience much worse racism than I do as an Asian American. This was a privilege that I wanted to address but wasn’t sure how to do it. I believe this is what drew me to this course. I wanted to know much and just simply have a better understanding of the history behind it. The history I was taught in school was biased and limited. I never learned of the central role of slavery in the development of the country.”

Pazee has been looking for opportunities to begin to address the gap in her knowledge.

“I’ve faced a lot of challenges in my professional career, dealing with day-to-day racism and micro-aggressions.  I always felt at a loss as to how to speak against it. I knew that it existed but I didn’t have the foundation or the content to support why certain things happen – I just knew it was racism I was seeing and experiencing. I didn’t have a way to verbalize it in a way that could help people understand.”

This year Pazee’s employer offered individuals from the social work classification the opportunity to take Black History for a New Day, 

“I was looking for more. When I read the informational flyer that I got from work about this class, initially I wasn’t sure if it was right for me. I wondered if it was meant for my demographic because it kind of indicated that they were looking for white allies, or at least this stuck out for me. So I spoke with a colleague who participated in the course last year, also a person of color, and he highly recommended it. “

Pazee did contemplate the course quite seriously. Knowing it would be valuable to her, she needed to weigh how she could manage the course given her on-going commitments.

“I’m working full time. I have a family. I’m also taking coursework for the Addiction Studies certificate at Madison College and am pursuing AODA Substance Abuse Counseling certification. So 7 to 9 PM on a school night just seemed like a really difficult time to cram into my schedule too.  But I knew that it was worth it.”

Participating in the course was indeed the right path. 

“I’ve already learned so much information that’s never been made available to me before.  It makes so much sense and it’s also heart-wrenching. Before this course, I wouldn’t have known where to begin with my questions. Above all, it speaks to the institutionalized racism that exists in our society, our infrastructure, everything! I did know that there was institutionalized racism, but now I know the causes and origins. Now I have a knowledge base to work from to support my statements.”

“I particularly love how Dr. Gee has incorporated his own family history, weaving that throughout the course. It creates an even greater impact in the way that it’s personalized.”

This article was authored and edited by Cecilia Ford with interview participation by Pazee.