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Tyson Marsh and Colette Taylor are associate professors in the College of Education’s leadership programs for master’s and doctoral degree students. In the K-12 Leadership master’s program, the focus is on developing school leaders, like principals and program directors, while the Educational Leadership doctoral program targets professionals who aspire to or who currently lead organizations, be they CEOs of major hospital networks, school superintendents, chancellors of universities, or government-elected officials.

What they hold in common is the goal of training people in power to influence the communities they operate in—with an eye toward social justice. Their programs have a natural synergy that the two professors are striving to further develop, both by encouraging master’s students to continue on to the Ed.D. level, and with their shared goals under the doctoral program’s recent Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) certification, one of 100 doctoral programs in the nation that’s geared toward practice-based learning and social justice.

How does social justice apply to your program? 

Taylor: Social justice is interwoven in every aspect of our doctoral program, from admissions to course work to the dissertation process. In the first year, we talk about leadership through the lens of self. What biases are you bringing from your own life to your leadership experience? In the second year, we examine organizational structures and how they work. How do we practice social justice within these structures? By the third year, we’re looking at the global society. How do we now become leaders of social justice for the world? 

Marsh: It’s the core of our K-12 Leadership program (also known as educational administration). We really try to recognize the historic role schools and school leaders have played in maintaining the legacy of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. We want students to name those structures, and commit to using their agency to dismantle them. 

How do your students translate academic theory to solution-oriented real-life work?

Marsh: In addition to completing a portfolio documenting how they have met the required state standards for certification, our core courses focus on translating critical theory into justice-oriented practice. Through these courses, we push students to reflect on their identity, privilege, and position in relation to inequitable educational structures and their practical work within (and outside of) these structures. This is done in part, through dialogue with communities whose voices are often silenced in K-12 schooling as a result of the intersectionality of racism, class-based oppression, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. Engaging in this work, our students develop action research projects that address specific injustices in their respective educational institutions, while working with their community to develop and implement action plans to disrupt them.

Taylor: Our thematic dissertations are group-based, action-oriented, and done in collaboration with a community partner. This sets us apart from other universities’ programs. That’s because, as I like to say, “wicked social justice problems can’t be solved in silos.” A group of students from all different professional backgrounds within the program (whether it be business, education, nonprofit, or legislative) look at a particular social justice problem in a company or institution and collaborate with the organization to research the root cause and develop possible solutions. For instance, we have students working right now with Pierce College to find ways to help underserved students to better access community college—first-generation and students of color. We ask what is the organizational structure that is preventing the college’s success in getting all of these groups into their school?

What led each of you to this field?

Marsh: My journey to this work is informed by my personal educational experiences, and the ongoing struggles of the local, state, national, and international communities I have worked with and learned from. I am the first in my family to graduate from college and pursue a graduate degree, and I am one of very few faculty of color in the state of Washington, and the region, directly engaged in the preparation of K-12 leaders. This has translated to the historical and ongoing underrepresentation of school leaders from minoritized communities across Washington state. Leaders should reflect the needs, struggles, values, and experiences of the youth and communities they serve, as opposed to silencing and excluding them.

Taylor: While studying at the University of Florida, I was going to become a child psychologist. But when I became a resident advisor, my mentor said I was really good at helping students figure out their potential…. Because I’d always been told that it’s our job to help all people raise the community, my mentor’s words got me interested in higher education. I started as a student affairs administrator and worked at four different institutions for 14 years while I was teaching college students to be advocates for social justice. In these roles, I had the opportunity to work closely with many types of leaders attempting to improve the lives of marginalized people and communities. I eventually realized that my other love was leadership, looking at organizations, and understanding how to do those same things at the organizational level was also vital to explore. When I became a faculty member at Texas Tech University in Texas, I focused on how to amplify underserved voices in organizations, focusing on the experiences of people of color, women, and individuals with disabilities. That aligned perfectly with my transition to Seattle University—another CPED-affiliated school; with SU’s focus on social justice, it was a natural fit.

What kind of students do you look for?

Marsh: The students we are trying to attract in K-12 Leadership are folks who might not typically see themselves as leaders in the formal sense of the word but have committed themselves to justice work in their respective communities.

Taylor: The doctorate program in Educational Leadership recruits students who are dedicated to becoming transformative leaders who demonstrate integrity, embrace diversity, and advance social justice. Designed for the working professional, we admit cohort members with various backgrounds, including pre-K-12 administration, private business, health care, higher education, and the nonprofit sector.

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