Q&A: Sarah Napoli

Former assistant head of Goodricke College, Sarah Napoli, discusses teaching social justice issues in the 21st century

What have you gained from your role at York and how has it assisted with your interest in social justice issues?

I worked in higher education in the US for over ten years before moving to the UK in 2014. The US system and the UK system are incredibly different so it was like learning a new language. I loved learning about the UK system. Once I became Assistant Head of Goodricke I was challenged further in helping develop and foster community with a much smaller team than what I would be used to in the US. The big difference here is the college system; it’s unique to UK schools. I think it’s a highly beneficial in creating community identity.

I found that I had an unusual challenge in trying to bring social justice programming to students who only study their course. In the US, students are required to take multiple electives outside their course and often take a first year course that will include some social justice themes. So although a challenge in the UK, I found it incredibly rewarding to support students in exploring these concepts in an alternative learning space. I found that I was more motivated to do the work at York, as I knew students were not getting these conversations elsewhere.

Is it difficult to educate others on social issues and what challenges have you faced when doing so?

Yes. Yes. Yes. It is incredibly difficult – even more so in these tense political times. Folks on both sides of the pond do not typically have conversations about identity and power and privilege dynamics. These are uncomfortable dialogues and sometimes folks are not willing to participate. When you get folks on each side of the conversation who have completely polarising view points, it can be heated and tempers can flare.

Everyone is coming from diverse backgrounds; they have different experiences. It’s hard, but it’s also part of why I keep doing the work. I’ve been doing this work for almost 20 years and it has gotten easier to manage. I have tips and tricks to keep folks engaged and interested, even if they are emotional about the experience. I also have changed the way I teach over the years, implementing different strategies, interactive exercises and media as it’s a topic that is always changing.

How have your degrees aided with the current work you do?

I originally attended school because I wanted to study acting. I had no desire to be academic (and didn’t even realise how academic theatre was!). I happened to take a cultural anthropology elective course and discovered how much I enjoyed learning about culture and especially how to connect theatre and culture. I still utilise theatre activities in all my workshops. My first MA was focused primarily on how to conduct social justice dialogues; it’s really where I honed my skills with my current work. I decided to do an MA because I discovered most of the work I was applying to required an MA or higher degree. Afterwards, I worked in higher ed for almost ten years before deciding I wanted to gain more skills. My first MA was very US-focused so a degree in Applied Human Rights in the UK was attractive. It was also a nice career break.

An MA in the UK was the perfect choice to expand my international frame and toolkit when talking about the same issues but in different way. I did my first dissertation in youth empowerment and my second in human rights and hip hop. I use hip hop references in all of my work and having time to focus on this discipline really allowed to me to zone in on my passions and find new ways to use the work. I’m pretty sure I am done for a long while now – although in five years or so I may just do a doctorate, because I’m a glutton for punishment.

Was it difficult moving from your home in the United States to York and how did you adjust?

Oh yes! It’s hard to leave everything familiar and move across an ocean! The first year was so busy with my degree that it was hard to ever really feel at home. The second year was easier; I really did find my community and started to get used to living in York. I made a lot of new friends and found lots of coffee shops I enjoyed hanging out in. It was important for me to find my niche in York, but being a city person I needed to get to London at least once, sometimes twice a month. Having London 2.5 hours away made it liveable for me. I think folks in the UK think this is a long way but distance is different in the US and this was like living in a suburb!

What has been your favourite memory while living in York?

I love York! Being from the US, living in a well-preserved 2000-year-old city was incredible. The city walls! The Minster – probably my favourite church in the world. I loved going there to just be quiet and admire the architecture. The Shambles! And all the amazing gatherings I had with my friends in my lovely home in the south bank. Most of all it’s the baristas at Coffee Culture on Goodramgate – they were incredibly welcoming. I wrote most of my dissertation there and many of my blogposts. On my last day in York I went in for one more lunch and they gave me my very own Coffee Culture cup and saucer!

What advice would you give to the students currently at University?

Do what you love, not what you think you should do. In the long run, this is what is most important about life. Also, seek out learning other than your course. Especially around difference and conversations on injustice. The election results show a divide; the global climate is intense. Learn all you can and gain skills in learning more about yourself and how to be a self-reflective learner as this work is never ending, it’s an investment in social change.

What are your biggest plans for the future?

I am working in higher education for the next five to ten years and I have an opportunity lined up in NYC! After this, I am hoping to branch out as a social justice training consultant. I hope to continue to work globally and use my skills as an educator to promote a more socially just world for as long as I am able.

One comment

  1. 21 Jun ’17 at 8:15 pm

    Roberta Napoli

    Sarah’s time in England was very special and fulfilling for her! I believe that she grows and learns more everyday, and on the social justice education positions she has had she shines brightly and helps everyone around her. Truly a gem, of course I may be a bit prejudiced being her Mom!!

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