Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Shirin Vossoughi, Northwestern University

by Alexa Barger

For Dr. Shirin Vossoughi, Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, education and social change have always been closely connected. Vossoughi was raised in Santa Ana, California and Seattle, Washington. Both of her parents taught in Iran, and organized community-based education in the United States. In Seattle, Vossoughi recalls how her father provided essential support to the city’s growing Iranian community; he assisted in establishing Farsi schools and organizing cultural events for children. Above all, she remembers that “struggling against injustice, whether in Iran and or the United States, was treated as the norm” in her family.

Dr. Shirin Vossoughi

At the same time, Vossoughi saw a stark contrast between the intellectual and communal engagement she witnessed in her family and the political silence and assimilation she encountered within school. She hoped to counteract these constrained dialogues in her own career. Ultimately, Vossoughi attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she developed key connections with fellow Iranian-American peers (many from similarly politically- and culturally-engaged families). She especially credits scholars like Victor Wolfenstein, Jayne Spencer, Kris Gutiérrez, Carlos Tejeda and Manuel Espinoza, who taught her “to question the separation of intellectual activity and community work.”

During her undergraduate education, Vossoughi had the opportunity to put her academic training into practice. While finishing her BA in History and International Development, she began teaching with UCLA’s Migrant Student Leadership Institute (MSLI). The summer program was geared towards high school-aged students who were raised by (and/or were employed as) migratory workers, with a curriculum that combined political education, literacy, and the arts. “The experience was incredibly expansive,” says Vossoughi. Her experiences with the MSLI led her to pursue an EdM and a PhD in Education from UCLA.

Dr. Vossoughi at Teatro workshop with teachers at the Chicago Public Library (photo credit: Shirin Vossoughi).

Vossoughi also notes how her training at UCLA inspired her to pursue her own definition of educational justice. She combines her teaching experience with her knowledge of “the complexities of the Iranian revolution and its internal repressions,” which have led her to turn away from what she describes as “rigid or instrumentalist forms of political education.” Instead, she has been drawn “to pedagogies that cultivate an ethic of relationality, privilege play and creativity, and hold space for dissent.” Vossoughi’s teaching and research combines macropolitical concerns – racial inequality, transnational immigration, neoliberalism – with various modes of engagement and creative resistance. Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed acts as a central inspiration for her work. Through performance and dialogue – and through other integrations of artistic response – she hopes to create generative learning experiences with and for  students struggling against various forms of marginalization. “My approach to educational justice has involved working to imagine, create and document the ‘smallest cells of social life’ that carry within them other possible worlds and educational arrangements,” says Vossoughi.

In her research and fieldwork, Vossoughi prioritizes the voices of students and families alike – particularly in some of her most recent engagements with Iranian-American communities. From 2016-17, Vossoughi worked with the University of Washington Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC). Through the FLDC, she held a series of intergenerational dialogues on race, parenting, and identity with members of the Iranian community in a Midwestern city. As she became familiar with the group’s struggles and stories, Vossoughi noted the importance of consciously carrying out research with rather than on families—a core FLDC value. This communal framework not only resists the confines of traditional ethnography and educational scholarship, but allows for the development of an open, communal dialogue. By prioritizing the voices of Iranian-American parents and community elders, Vossoughi says she “noticed how different kinds of stories and questions were shared over time through the building of collective trust, narratives that may not have emerged through an individual, one-time interview.”

This close relationship would become especially important in the wake of the election of Donald Trump – and the xenophobia that became even more prevalent after his inauguration. While examining how Iranian families discussed race and identity with their children, Vossoughi found herself “recognizing the complex forms of personhood and processes of identity formation at play among Iranian parents who were collectively wrestling with how to help their children navigate an increasingly precarious political context.” Defining and understanding race and identity is difficult for parents and children alike – particularly for those facing various forms of discrimination. At the same time, she bore witness to the “potentials of inter-generational learning for engaging with these complexities and working towards community well-being.” For Vossoughi, it is only by creating an open and critical dialogue – between students, families, and teachers – that it will become possible to work towards educational justice.

Dr. Vossoughi will be presenting “Educational Self-Determination in the Iranian Diaspora: Tracing Intergenerational Dialogues on Race, Parenting, and Identity” on March 29th as part of the “Forty Years and More” conference hosted by the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. To learn more about the conference and the program, go to: https://ids.sfsu.edu/conference.

To learn more about Dr. Vossoughi’s research, go to: https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/profile/?p=22753

*Featured photo credit: Notes regarding decisions to participate in Iranian schools, Shirin Vossoughi

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