Sam Steen, Ph.D.
George Mason University

By Yolanda Olavarria for ASGW 

On behalf of ASGW and its members, welcome, Dr.Steen and thank you for joining us! We’re honored to have you be our first participant of the ASGW membership spotlight series. And we’re kicking off in the month of February which happens to be Black History Month. While there’s so much work to be done, the collective societal awareness of our deeply rooted problems is expanding and we couldn’t be more excited to have you onboard to kick off this series. We’re very proud of the amazing work you’re doing as a scholar and a fellow groupie.

Good Morning and thanks for the invitation. I got the email from you on behalf of ASGW which is a professional organization that is like home to me. It was one of the first organizations that I was a member of and I felt that I was groomed in that environment. It was literally related to those individuals in the organization that kinda brought me on and they were friendly, responsive, and encouraging in research.

Research or [group] services, it didn’t matter, it was the human element, I think. I benefited tremendously, so thanks. When it came up, I was like Ok, this is great, and [then] I saw Black History Month and I was like oh my gosh, how many African American or Black members do we have in ASGW. Interestingly enough, I am one of those on the list and I just finished co-authoring a book. It’s my first book that I wrote with two other scholars, Gargi, and Key. (Roysicar, G., Steen, S., & Cole (in press) Anti-black racism in contemporary America. Cognella.) We were invited to write the book and it’s called, “Anti-Black Racism in Contemporary America.” Primarily, my focus was on Black children in public schools.

So ASGW, I love. Black History Month in the context of me reading all this research on Black children navigating public schools in America, why do we have just one month and that’s what came up. Then this small voice came in the back of my head, my father, he passed away 3 years ago, saying, “Sam, you have to do it. If they’re asking you, there’s a reason why they’re asking you.” And I am, of course. I need to do this. So again, thanks for the invitation.

Initially, there was some resistance and I am like you know, why Black History Month? How can we reframe our society so that it’s not Black or White? That being said, earlier when you and I were talking and you were referring to celebrating Black folks, I said, yeah, I can do that. I then decided to take this opportunity to celebrate what I am doing and my intentionality of trying to uplift our collective perspectives around Black people.

Thank you for expressing yourself with such a combination of vulnerability and strength, I am sure our readers will appreciate reading this tremendously. Although we want to hear about your book, first, please tell us about DRAC.

So the question about DRAC which stands for Diversity and Research and Action Consortium was a gift to me. I have been in George Mason University for two years. Prior to coming here, there were some senior faculty members well known around ASGW, who were very instrumental in my professional counselor education identity.

Fred Bemak was the director and I was a Ph.D. student and his GRA many years ago. While I am the director of the consortium, it isn’t something I’ve cultivated just yet. But if you were to ask, how do you anticipate using the consortium, we can begin with that. One of the first things I might consider is renaming it. The Research and Action piece I don’t want to get rid of, but the terminology, diversity doesn’t work for me. Diversity means a mixture of different people. For me, this is like reacting to the norm. And this is different so we’re going to focus on the different people.

Counseling the culturally different people, you may remember that from the Sue & Sue textbooks. (Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (1999). Counseling the culturally different: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons Inc.) It implies to me that the therapist is white and the clients are people of color. And I don’t see it in this way. With the emerging intersectionality framework, or with the idea of critical race theory, in being a Black person who is intentional about identifying as Black instead of African American, even though I was born in the US, it’s like I don’t want to constantly compare myself to what we call a white norm or white standard.

I am not sure what it would be but I would work on a name based on my emerging understanding of intersecting identities so that it would clearly reflect more of the work that I’d be doing or leading.

Rightfully so, the folks before me were ahead of their time, but things do change rapidly and under different leaderships it’s ok to think through how things might look like.

How would the future DRAC space look like?

I would create a space in capacity to collectively target issues that people shy away from and that is the one of race. Like even till this day, if I am teaching about culture in the classroom we can wrap our heads around that, but you bring up race and we get tense automatically because of the connotation attached to race.

Intentionally or unintentionally, referring to students as Black encompasses a wider variety of Black Americans apart from being born in the United States because we have immigrants that are coming over, we have folks coming from a variety of different countries that identify as Black such as those who come from the Caribbean.

Tell us how your book and your work will help Blacks across diaspora to bridge health and career readiness gaps.

The gaps are being bridged across the diaspora, but the struggles the youngsters are having in the school settings, the barriers that they’re having to overcome, are structural, ideological, and systemic.

In my book, I talk about how students don’t always have the words to express what it is that they’re encountering, but clearly, some of the data that informs the research, that how we fight the good fight for our youngsters is by bringing them together and having conversations about their experiences.

You can look at the achievement data and the disproportionality and discipline data, the lack of Black and Brown students being identified as gifted. Instead of making the assumption that our Black and Brown children have the potential for brilliance, we’ve maintained this deficit approach. As opposed to seeing their strengths, potential, and capacity, we are looking at their problems.

It’s similar with heath and readiness gaps, let’s try to study Black and Brown children across the diaspora within the context to find out within these group differences versus comparing with white students and so we begin to flip the paradigm so its not looking at what they can’t do but what they are doing.

I believe we level the playing field by infusing the culture of our kids into the conversation. Where math is taught in a variety of ways and not just one way. Where there’s a system that is responsible for being flexible enough to teach kids in a way that they need to be taught instead of the way we’ve been doing which has perpetuated white institutional spaces over time. White students don’t have to worry about that.

It’s reshaping, reimagining, dismantling, disrupting the current research paradigm that is used for Black children in this country in particular.

It is as if the students are responsible for it right now. Like we’ve placed the burden [on them]. It’s like if you’re a child and you’re sitting in a classroom and you’re comparing yourself with others and the teacher is maybe having some sort of expectation or not, stereotype going on, you’re trying to balance your emotional and existential experience while you’re trying to learn algebra at the same time.

I would argue, and I can’t take credit for this, that it would take multiple intelligences to be able to navigate emotionally and to accomplish intellectually or to do well in school. And Black students are still doing that. That to me, means you’re actually smarter to be able to do both.

I am not suggesting that White kids aren’t smart. No, rather than seeing us from a deficit perspective, sort through the strengths that are needed to do all of that and access the curriculum. The consortium is like a vision right now, but the actual specific work that I am working on now is getting funding to help kids here locally access Algebra I by the eighth grade and then in 5-10 years we can look back and see all the Black and Brown Kids that we’ve helped.

It’s a fundamental Civil Rights issue, if you look at the trends for math scores over the years. If we can get them into math and the teachers are receiving and supporting them, and they feel good about this. It has the potential to reap big rewards. The mathematical identity will then inform other aspects of their education experience.

Thank you, Yolie, for letting me be me. It’s been fun! I felt you were able to hear me in the midst of the brainstorm and as a result, it makes me feel more committed to ASGW to be validated by a member who said, “Hey, let’s find someone who can meet the criteria for a spotlight.”

Sam, on behalf of ASGW, thank you so much for taking time off your very busy schedule to meet with me and allow us to spotlight you. Your work and initiatives are inspiring, we couldn’t be more prouder of you as a scholar, a fellow groupie, and for your sense of humanity. Congratulations on your new book! Until we meet again.