Skip to content

Interview with Susan Wilcox, Ed.D. from SEW Consulting and FireBeads Media on Organizational Consulting, Arts Education, Social Justice Curriculum, and International Equity Work

About Susan E. Wilcox, Ed.D.: Susan E. Wilcox is an educational and organizational consultant, writer, and artist whose work focuses on advancing equity for young people and women from the African and Black Diaspora. Dr. Wilcox is founder of SEW Consulting, an independent consulting business that works with youth, artists, art organizations, scholars, educators, and fundraisers to advance their equity and social justice missions through curriculum development, learning assessment, professional development programming, and ethnographic research.

Dr. Wilcox has conducted extensive international, community-based work in Africa. She is co-founder of FireBeads Media, which aims to provide a forum for public, creative expression for young filmmakers and artists through events such as the Bɛnpaali Young Filmmakers Festival. Dr. Wilcox is also a three-time Fulbright recipient with her most recent award being the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad initiative Teachers Becoming Learners of Cultural & Linguistic Diversity in Ghana, for which she served as Co-Director. Previously, Dr. Wilcox taught and conducted research as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Dr. Wilcox has published widely on her applied equity work and experiences, most recently in the journals Equity & Excellence in Education, Journal of Experiential Education, and New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, as well as in collected volumes such as Black Schoolgirls in Space and Global Citizenship for Adult Education: Advancing Critical Literacies for Equity and Social Justice. She formerly held Adjunct Lecturer positions in the Department of Special Education & Leadership at The City College of New York, Eugene Lang College’s Education Program, and Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Dr. Wilcox received her Ed.D. in Curriculum & Teaching from Columbia University’s Teachers College, her Ed.M. from Harvard Graduate School of Education in Technology in Education, and her B.F.A. from Parsons School of Design/The New School in Communication Design & Photography.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your personal, professional, and academic background? How did you become invested in working to advance social justice and educational equity in the United States and globally, with a focus on young people and women from the African Diaspora?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] In some ways, I came by it naturally. I grew up in a family where both my mother and father were organizers and worked in education. My father was committed to parental involvement in schools. I grew up in the 1960s in New York City, when the question over whether school control should be centralized or decentralized was an important battleground, and there was a push for greater representation of Black and Brown teachers and improved educational opportunities for Black and Brown students.

I remember being in elementary school when my father and some of his colleagues started a Freedom School during the teachers’ strike. I went to school there during the day, and then in the afternoon we joined the picket line. This organizing was a part of my household experience. My living room was a gathering space for meetings. As children, my siblings and I were in the midst of movement-building. While I cannot say I knew exactly what was going on at eight and nine years old, it was a part of the energy in my household. I really came by education and activism quite naturally then.

I think the experiences that I have had since then have been very iterative. I am an artist. I focused on art in high school and was an art major as an undergraduate. I also was really interested in education. I wanted to blend the two together as I moved forward in life. In between, I got involved in doing some international work. I went on a development project to Kenya with an organization called Operation Crossroads Africa, which was started in the late 1950s by Rev. James H. Robinson, a Black minister in Harlem, and still exists today. Exchange programs with Africa did not exist at the time, and it became a forerunner of the Peace Corps.

Crossroads was a two-month trip where we did development work then traveled around the host country. It drew folks from all over the United States, mostly college students. As is often the case with these programs, it was mostly white students who were familiar with the program and had the means to participate in it. That early experience raised questions for me. What is development? Who determines when something is developed, and what is the measuring stick of how developed a country is? Are we looking at it from a capitalistic standpoint? What about the human dynamic of development? That early encounter of being in Africa changed my thinking. I knew that I could not just go there to help people. I had to really think about the exchange that was happening and what I was offering if anything.

My interest in art, my roots growing up with educators and activists for parents, and my experience going to Africa began to coalesce as I started working with young people. I remembered being in high school, and a particular experience I had in a health education class where I wanted to have an honest conversation about sex education that the teacher did not want to have. I began to understand that they prefer to see us as disembodied people. They wanted to give us a list of rules about safe sex but did not want to discuss what it meant to have a relationship with another person.

From there, I understood that young people need to have Elders — older people who are not their parents or aunties who will really sit with them, listen to them, and witness their experiences. This is what I have tried to build through art and education over the years.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your scholarship and practice? In particular, how do your commitments to Black womanist thought and praxis and your experiences as an educator in international contexts work together to inform your perceptions of equity in education and education as a tool for promoting social justice?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] I had many visceral reactions to inequity in my life. As a young person, I had experiences with ageism, though I did not have that language yet. I had an understanding of homophobia, even in my household. Once I brought home a friend, who was not actually gay, but I understood my friend was not necessarily being welcomed. This would not happen now but then I came to an early understanding of the ways in which we are othered and constructed as fitting in or not fitting in.

When you think about the double-consciousness of race that W. E. B. Du Bois talked about, as a female-identified Black person there is at least a triple consciousness. I have to understand myself as the gender that I am and the gender that people perceive me as, alongside my experience of race versus how my race leads other people to view me. I have to understand where I am positioned as a result of that. At the core of it, my understanding of equity is that when you lift up the folks who have been the most pushed down, you are actually lifting everybody up.

It has been interesting to explore issues of gender and feminism in the African context, because I know that there are things I bring that are very much connected to American roots and which impact how I approach the question of development. When I lived in Ghana, I was doing research with girls who had been through a rite of passage experience. After completing the ritual, they would become Krobo women having status among Krobo people. At the same time, Ghana is a very Christian country, and its policies and practices are very much rooted in that belief system, whether you are Christian or not. Someone could be both Krobo and Christian, hence the rite is often a point of contention.

My experiences in Ghana returned me to the question [mentioned in the previous question] of what counts as development and “progressive” development. It pushed me to unpack where I was coming from. Not that you have to abide by the values of the country you are visiting, but I wanted to try to have a deeper, more complex understanding of how lived realities unfold and for that I needed to listen.

I think that goes back to this question around Black feminist praxis and critical lenses. Understanding people’s lived experiences as embodied — as something that we bring with us that we cannot leave behind when we are in educational spaces — is central to Black feminisms. This connects to the story I told about the health teacher who could not bring herself into that space enough to have an authentic conversation with people. She was a teacher, but we saw her as an older woman who maybe had personal insight to share. Without, of course, risking their confidentiality or privacy, educators need to enter into authentic relationships with the people they teach.

Intersectionality is very important to Black feminist praxis since identity is not just one thing. We do not have to decide between fighting for our Blackness, or fighting for our womanness, or fighting for our gender identity or sexuality. We cannot leave any of ourselves behind. I try to bring that into my educational practice with people of all ages.

[] In 2011, you founded SEW Consulting, which works to help educational, organizing, arts, and philanthropic organizations develop and apply social justice and liberation-oriented curriculum and practices. Would you tell us a bit about how you came to launch your own equity-focused educational consulting business and highlight some of the most impactful experiences you have had doing this work?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] This is one place where the artist in me comes in. I always knew I did not want to have a nine to five job with two weeks of vacation a year. I was not the person who was going to work at an organization for 30 years and walk away with a gold watch. It was really important for me to be exposed to lots of different people, projects, and opportunities. I have to be creative and am also a learner. Consulting requires me to learn a lot, listen a lot, and then figure out how I can support folks in the work they are doing.

One program that I really gave a lot of my life to is the organization called The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (BroSis). I was the first board member of The Brotherhood and founded Sister Sol when the organization expanded. One of the co-founders was a young person in another program I directed, and we have since become very close friends and colleagues. After I had been at BroSis for a while, I really felt it was time for me to move on, not only for personal reasons but also because I think it is important for leadership to change. I stepped down, and it was my opportunity to do consulting.

It was then a process of figuring out what I could offer to the world and my clients beyond conducting evaluations or designing curriculum. Over the years, I have really understood that my work is about helping organizations live out their social justice missions. Organizations often say they are invested in social justice and have some values and tenets that they want to follow, but frequently need to consider how they are actually being enacted. How are these values the substance of their work?

I have done this work in many different settings with many different groups of people, so it is hard to choose a project that has been most impactful. One truly rewarding project was the development of a Women of Color Pedagogy curriculum, Calling In & Up. I loved the way they went about curriculum-making because the organization created a fellowship program for 50 women in organizing, a training program to help them improve their practice and develop their political analysis. They wrote the curriculum as they went, then they came to me to ask how they could turn it into something that could be replicated and made publicly accessible.

I really enjoyed that project. We met once a week and I did a lot of listening. The project was not up and running at the time, so all I had were their stories, their materials, and their documents to understand their experience with the training and the curriculum they had developed. I think at first they were unsure what I was delivering but over time I was able to articulate what they were expressing. When I distilled back to them what they had shared in an organized manner, it was such a beautiful moment. They felt like I had really seen them, and from there the project quickly moved forward. It had taken me a while to understand precisely what they were doing or what the “special sauce” was that they were bringing. There are lots of curricula in the world, but theirs was having a particular impact, and I wanted to get to the essence of that. It was such a rewarding experience, and I think it speaks to the fact that we all just want to be seen in some way.

[] You are also Co-Founder and Director of FireBeads Media, which provides a platform for young people in Ghana to engage with their cultural heritage and the issues important to their communities through filmmaking. Would you discuss what inspired you to found FireBeads Media and some of its main ventures, like the annual Bɛnpaali Young Filmmakers Festival in Accra, Ghana, and Liberating Stories of Women, which was funded by the U.S. Embassy in Accra?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] I want to lift up my partner in that project, Dr. Rebecca Ohene-Asah. She is the co-founder of FireBeads Media, and she and I met in Ghana. We are both Fulbright alumna. I was a Fulbright Scholar at the time we met, and we have been friends ever since. She is Dean of Studies and lecturer at the University of Media, Arts and Communication (UniMAC), which was formerly called NAFTI (the National Film and Television Institute).

NAFTI was founded in 1978 after Ghana won its independence from the British led by former President Kwame Nkrumah. Its founding was an extension of the Pan-Africanist movement for political, economic and cultural solidarity among African nations and the global Black Diaspora, to which Nkrumah was central. Part of the movement is a belief that Africans need to tell their own stories. Dr. Ohene-Asah and I feel similarly, and specifically about the importance of supporting young filmmakers by providing a platform and guidance for their art. That is how the project unfolded.

To underscore the idea that the festival would be highly representative, we decided to name it Bɛnpaali, which connotes a new dawn in the Bulsa language of northern Ghana. Many people in Ghana speak Twi, which is a language from the south. It has become, in some ways, a privileged language because it is the language of the Ashanti people who had a very close relationship with the British during colonial times, which led to a cultural and linguistic hierarchy that remains today. We wanted the name of the festival to signal our ethos. A couple of people reached out to us. They were not coming to the festival, but they heard the name and wanted to thank us for choosing it.

With the Bɛnpaali Young Filmmakers Festival, we wanted to create a space where we could work with young people to help them tell the stories that they care about. Africa is a continent where the vast majority of people are under age 35. In the United States, and in the West or Global North more broadly, we have many divisions for age groups, whereas in Africa, basically you are a youth and then you are an Elder. There is a long period where youth may not be participating in the public arena in substantive ways.

Dr. Ohene-Asah and I wanted to create opportunities for young filmmakers to connect with more seasoned mentors who could help them along that way. We cared a lot about making sure that it was not just for people who had the privilege of going to school, and particularly a film school, but a platform for people who were interested in art as a way of telling their story even if they were untrained.

[] How do these projects demonstrate the educational and empowering possibilities of filmmaking and the arts for young people in Ghana and underrepresented youth more broadly?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] The answer to that question is complicated. As mentioned earlier, one project FireBeads developed is Liberating Stories of Women. There, we wanted to work with young women who were victims of, or exposed to, domestic abuse or sexual exploitation, and empower them as storytellers. Many women were in both of those situations for which there is no miracle solution. You cannot do a project, and then six weeks later, expect these women to be out of the condition that they are in. We hoped that it would give them something to think about as a next step, a way to bring themselves a little bit closer to where they want to be.

I do think that fostering dialogue is extremely important, though. With BroSis [The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, discussed in more detail above], I began to articulate a framework as being at the intersection of perspective, dialogue, and content. It is not linear at all. If I share a piece of content with you, that content, whatever the topic is, needs to offer lots of different perspectives so that you understand the complexity of it. You do not have to agree with every point of view, but you need to understand its complexity. We come to new perspectives in that way. We also develop perspective when we are dialoguing with each other because this gives us the chance to hear one another’s points-of-view.

I think it creates this kind of circular way of processing information and creating information. When you are creating dialogue, you might also create art, or other forms of content, that come out of whatever it is that you are discussing. It is the kind of engagement that I hope people are having when they are beginning to be more literate in their own analysis of media or art and in the analysis of other people as well. Yes, you can just go to a movie to enjoy it, but what do you understand about the messages that it is presenting? What are your own values in terms of the stories you want to put out in the world? Understanding these things is critically important. We live in a time when everyone can make a film. Everyone can make a TikTok. We need to understand what we want to put into the world and why.

[] In another recent publication, “An Offer of Bearing and Baring Witness as Pedagogy,” you reflect on your work with the organization The Brotherhood/Sister Sol and your realization, in the context of a “wilderness” retreat turned digital by COVID-19, that witnessing is at the heart of their pedagogy. Would you explore the concept of witnessing as pedagogy as it applies to The Brotherhood/Sister Sol’s mission of supporting the education of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ youth, and the significance of the relationship between “bearing” and “baring” witness you as you explore it in this piece?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] I think that was a moment where I really understood witnessing in a particular way, though I think you are correct that the idea is threaded through my work. It was just fascinating to be on a phone call for about six hours, which is a long time, and hear young women be insistent about telling their stories. There were times when I was thinking, “Can they say this a little more briefly? They do not have to read the whole thing that they were going to read.” But then I sat with it. I was observing the dynamic in the “room” of this virtual space we had co-created with each other, and it struck me that this was a moment of pushback from being invisibilized.

The idea of “bearing” and “baring” witness is meant to capture, on the one hand, a sense of release. To bare witness you must surrender something of yourself. You need to be comfortable meandering in your storytelling without worrying that someone is going to hurry you along, or say they are uninterested. Bearing witness means creating space where people are genuinely receiving what others are saying. This is important because sometimes we do not want to be in that space. It is very vulnerable.

The other part of bearing witness means to be able to hold what somebody is putting out there with grace and gentleness. This does not mean being silent; there might be moments when I am going to push back a little bit on what you are saying, because I see something in you that maybe you do not see in yourself. I have been witnessing you.

It is important to note that BroSis was not only about what we were facilitating with young people. Facilitators were participating in the act of baring and bearing witness, and learning from it too. This connects to the idea that you do social justice with people not for people. You must be a part of it as well. Are you being just? Are you practicing education in ways that nurture democratic consensus building, conversations, and decision-making? That was a moment where I had a chance to just sit back and ask, “What is happening here in this space of baring/bearing witness? How could that be applied in other spaces, and how is it already informing the work that I am doing and the work of people I’ve observed?”

[] Your educational work in Ghana has been supported by two Fulbright fellowships, most recently for the project “Teachers Becoming Learners of Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Ghana.” Would you introduce us to this study abroad initiative for educators and some of its key lessons for thinking about equity in education, as you have written about them in the coauthored publications “Endarkening, Engendering, and Embodying: Theorizing Intersectional Racial Literacy,” and, “This Moment is the Curriculum: Equity, Inclusion, and Collectivist Critical Curriculum Mapping for Study Abroad Programs in the COVID-19 Era”?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] I think both the pieces and the experiences they describe are dynamic illustrations of the way in which my colleagues and I have been trying to work with each other around the Black womanist thought, education, pedagogy, and curriculum. It was so important for us to just provide space where people felt brave and comfortable with each other.

For this project, we got the grant but were initially not able to go to Ghana because of the pandemic. Still, we continued to build a relationship with the group and have the group members build relationships with each other. That is not something that usually happens in Fulbright-Hays. It is not designed as a multi-year engagement. But with the overseas component delayed due to the pandemic, our approach was to utilize the gift of extra time to get to know each other — to understand each other as human beings, as educators, as students, as Black women, as Afro-Caribbean women, with respect to all the different identities that we carry with us. In doing that we wanted to identify the overlaps. How do we collectively understand ourselves as a group of Black women? We wanted to look at the individual and the collective at the same time.

In terms of key lessons, I would say that the work we did before we arrived in Ghana was essential. That does not mean there were not going to be challenges when we got on the ground. It is one thing to be on a Zoom call with each other. It is another thing to actually be with each other in person and living together. We anticipated there would be challenges, though we did know what they would be. Some emerged because folks were in a country they had never been to or were experiencing being away from home for a month for the first time or were experiencing being seen as American. There are many different ways that, when you travel overseas, all of a sudden you realize you know yourself in new ways.

Another key lesson is that you just have to keep doing the work. People will talk about being “woke” as if it is an end goal — “I am woke, I got there.” In reality, it is a journey, and you have to continually do the work. That is, I think, the essence of what it takes to achieve equity. In some ways it is always a journey. We do not have a roadmap to build a society where we treat everyone with equal compassion and with equal desire to have them be well. We do not treat people in a way that reflects what some of my colleagues call “being love,” where we treat love as a verb. How do we enact those things? We do not have a roadmap for that.

[] Do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or practitioners seeking to promote educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Susan E. Wilcox] If you are talking about scholars within a university or outside of university, it is a little bit different. Advice is dependent on where a person is at in their personal and professional life. I do think it is so important, in general, to examine your internal practice alongside whatever institutional or organizational mission in which you are situated. See where there is connection and dissonance. Ask how you are living out your commitments for equity in that context.

As I mentioned in the previous question, being “woke” is not a permanent or static state. It is, at best, temporary, and we have to continually nudge ourselves awake. I have been thinking a lot about this with regard to teaching. I would love to return to teach at university. At the same time, the university is inherently one of the most inequitable systems that we have in this country. I am not judging anyone because I have benefitted from academia, but I think we need to continue to think about the way we get doctorates, push through to receive tenure, and then become part of a system that is exploiting other folks, like adjunct lecturers and graduate students.

I think there needs to be an examination of that. You have folks whose work is about justice but who are participating in a system that is actually exploiting so many people. That is just one example. We have to think about consistency. As human beings, we are a bundle of contradictions, but we should consider where we are consistent and inconsistent and how we can be more consistent in ways that matter to social justice. I do not want to put myself on anybody’s pedestal. I am still on my journey too.

Thank you, Dr. Wilcox, for sharing your insight on social justice consulting and pedagogy development, empowering youth artists, your international equity work in Ghana, and more!