It’s time to take social justice into our own hands

Jennifer Kim-Anh Tran discussed her teachings, research and community work during her keynote speech March 16 at the 26th annual Social Justice Colloquium. The keynote was the last of five events California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) hosted for the colloquium. 

Tran is an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB), and her areas of expertise range from interracial relations, ethnic and gender studies, and community engagement.  

“I’m excited to be a part of something really amazing and to be surrounded by people I really admire, so thank you for that,” Tran said to the audience.

Before beginning her presentation, Tran encouraged guests to take a quick stretch and refreshment break after listening to the alumni panel who spoke before her about their experiences at CSUMB and how that led them to pursue work in the social justice field. 

She went on to explain that her talk would be centered around the themes from her upcoming textbook “Love, Knowledge, Revolution,” which she is working on with colleagues from CSUEB. Some of the themes which she touched on were decolonial love and liberation through education.

Tran was raised in an immigrant household in Oakland and explained how her parents’ journey to get to the United States and their experiences shaped the way she views social justice. 

“If our goal is toward justice, then we have to think about how to bring our communities to the table to tell their stories… my experience growing up now makes me extremely aggressive to make sure that multiple communities feel heard,” said Tran.

“Our communities have been historically designed to have our resilience tested – to really show what we’re made of… and that’s shared among so many of us. Ethnic studies is able to hold space and help us see people for who they are,” she shared. 

Tran went on to say that “the work we have to do is to help sharpen each other’s lenses… until we’re able to do that, there will be no justice.”

She opened up about her childhood spent in nail salons, local corner stores, and overcrowded housing, and how these experiences shaped her world view. She carried and valued those memories with her when she attended undergrad at UC San Diego. 

During her first two years of studying environmental policy, Tran was on academic probation. 

“I couldn’t pass a class, the workload was too much and I felt ashamed asking for help,” she  shared. 

She discussed feeling out of place and experiencing a sort of imposter syndrome, until the following year when she took an Urban Studies and Planning course that changed the trajectory of her career.

“It was my first time having language as a tool to explain the world around us. That’s when I started learning how our cities came to be. That was my absolute favorite class and it’s the class I teach now at CSUEB.

“I started to learn about historical segregation through policy and legislation that separated our communities and made it impossible for [immigrant] folks to integrate,” she explained. Tran shared about being proud that “throughout that whole experience, people were still resisting, organizing and asking questions. These are all tactics of survival within our communities.”

Tran emphasized the importance this one course had on plans for her future. “I was going to be a planner and just go and build cities… but it wasn’t until I was done with [undergrad] when I realized the importance of our voice,” she said. This is when she decided to get a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California.

“I realized it was really important for me to apply this knowledge somewhere… all of our work has to be intersectional. That means we can’t advance justice for a particular group without thinking about how it intersects with other identities,” she explained. 

Tran stated that the failure to do this ultimately leads to more violence within our communities.

She also urged the audience to think about the way in which our systems of society come together to oppress certain communities, all the while making it impossible for us to figure out who is to blame. 

“In ethnic studies, we tend to think of  ‘the system’ as singular, but it’s the systems. Education, public works, transportation, economic workforce development, land use, etc. working together to make it really difficult to navigate.” she explained. “And if it’s difficult for those of us with a formal education, how much harder is it for immigrants? Or for folks who are formerly incarcerated?” 

Tran explained that one way to bridge the gap that divides us is to speak candidly with each other about our own experiences and hardships. 

“Getting very specific about how similar those experiences are allows us to build coalitions that are absolutely necessary to build our power,” she advised.

Tran went on to express the importance of truly believing in and being passionate about whatever it is you choose to fight for; if the work is not restoring you, but is instead burning you out, it might be time to pursue something else.

She emphasized that “we have to be moved by the love of this work” in order to truly create a new sense of social justice and apply it to our communities and nation as a whole.


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