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Global Visionaries: Dr. Anu Taranath

The Office of Global Affairs is excited to celebrate Dr. Anu Taranath for our September 2022 edition of the Global Visionaries series. The Global Visionaries series is a new initiative to highlight the University of Washington’s global impact by featuring innovative, globally-engaged faculty, staff, and students.

Dr. Anu Taranath sitting on colorful steps

Dr. Anu Taranath, teaching professor with a joint appointment in UW’s Departments of English and the Comparative History of Ideas, shares her experience advancing conversations on diversity, racial equity, social justice, and global consciousness.

Over the past 25 years, Dr. Anu Taranath has taught more than 6,000 students, consulted with over 300 clients, and facilitated 1,000+ workshops across private, nonprofit, education, and public sectors.

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Tell us why undergraduate teaching matters to you.

When I first came to the UW back in 2000, I floundered. I wasn’t sure how I could be myself in the classroom. I didn’t see many BIPOC faculty, and didn’t quite know how to invite myself in fully. A few years down the line, I began to craft classes, programs, and experiences based upon my own curiosities. This approach of teaching what I wanted to learn resulted in a more engaged pedagogy and curriculum for both my students and I that felt fresh and relevant. Over the years students have shared how they’ve appreciated me openly wonder and grapple with topics alongside them. Modeling wonder and curiosity feels really different than how I had been educated. I am eternally grateful that my first few years at UW taught me to explore new pathways toward warmth and wonder, to reimagine what it means to belong, and to be collegial and create community with my students.

How did you get involved in study abroad?

Back in 2003, I stopped by the Comparative History of Ideas Department on a whim and said, “I’m curious about leading study abroad programs. Can you tell me more?” I wanted to explore international education opportunities in the Global South to further my post-colonial feminist scholarship, and introduce students to change-makers from communities and countries they might never meet. I’ve found that being a program director isn’t, of course, just about balancing budgets or planning logistics. This work, actually, is all about cultivating relationships, building trust, sharing stories, and being accountable to one another across identities and vast global power differentials. How do I, as a woman of color faculty member from a powerful US institution, create reciprocal relationships with my global partners that move from transactional and extractive to collaborative and reciprocal? My relationships with partners in India, Mexico, Ghana, and several other countries are some of the richest and most belonging-worthy spaces that I have experienced in my career.

Tell us about your book, Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World.

My book grew out of my own experiences and conversations I had been having with students for years. Students who I knew and students who I did not know would line up during office hours to talk with me about their global experiences. They were eager to talk about race, power, identity, how to think through their privileges traveling abroad and what they should do when they come back home. I started wondering why is it that those deeper but fundamental conversations feel really absent from the mainstream conversation on study abroad, travel, and the politics of connecting across difference? I took to heart Toni Morrison’s quote, “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Navigating an unequal world both close to home and far away can feel confusing when we consider issues of justice, power, identity, who we are and who we are not. We can easily fall into social and ethical quagmires without always knowing how to extricate ourselves. My book supports readers through these moments.

I’ve also written this book in an accessible and story-centered way to invite people in and keep them in the conversation. That’s how we develop our stamina, resilience, and empathy toward ourselves and others. As I worked on this book, I learned that accessible writing requires some seriously sophisticated thinking! While I’ve appreciated my previous academic training in theory and specialized jargon, I’ve also appreciated the challenge to write about complex topics in more simple language and move from abstract concepts to relatable stories. Many of us, of course, feel nervous to talk to people unlike us. We may feel scared, hurt or misunderstood. Sharing stories is key to inviting people to a table and helping them stay there. It takes invitations, connections, and trust-building in small and meaningful ways.

I’ve heard from readers that if they had read this book 6 months, 2 years or 30 years ago– when they were first grappling with topics of identity, race, difference and justice– they wouldn’t have felt as lost or confused. With more tools and space to share their feelings, they wouldn’t have displaced that confusion onto those they were traveling with or on to local people in the communities they were visiting. I’d rather we learn how to navigate our complex feelings so we can have more honest and healing interactions with one another.

What can we do to deepen our comfort with uncomfortable topics?
“Let’s be more real with one another and step into our vulnerability with strength.”

The ability to name something as uncomfortable is an important action step that we can take. Let’s also understand why we experience discomfort and how that might affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. That’s how we begin to create new patterns for ourselves. Try though we may, we simply cannot sidestep the hard stuff. We have to figure out how to move through uncomfortable conversations with more grace, compassion and elasticity so that we can rebuild ourselves along the way and continue on our journeys. Instead of pretending not to feel our difficult feelings, why not say out loud that we all feel them? Let’s relieve ourselves of the pressure of holding it all in. Let’s be more real with one another and step into our vulnerability with strength. How else are we going to come together to actually make life more livable not only for the most marginalized, but for you or I who may enjoy more privileges as well?

I have found over the years that we have to grapple with some of these seemingly more personal and hard to pin down topics before we jump into conversations about policy and procedures. We need to understand how we came to be who we are, how inequity and opportunity lands on us differently, and what that means for all of us as we live our lives. These discussions have everything to do with creating policy, promoting justice, and cultivating a more inclusive, democratic and vibrant space. Acknowledging the fear, hurt and discomfort that we all experience because of our different lived experiences is a huge part of the process.

How do you approach conversations about power and privilege?
“I use welcoming and non-shaming language, make space for big emotions, and if possible, create gatherings over snacks and a good cup of chai.”

As an educator and facilitator, I strive to approach conversations about power and privilege with humility. I use welcoming and non-shaming language, make space for big emotions, and if possible, create gatherings over snacks and a good cup of chai. These to me are the key ingredients we need to talk and act better together. All of us deserve to feel a deep sense of belonging and worthiness. My work helps us talk, share, and hold space together to connect more authentically and create more equitable changes in society.

How can we cultivate our interest and curiosity in other people’s stories?

These days, sharing our stories across different kinds of differences may feel risky. We may feel as if we’ve given too much of ourselves away, or that our story hasn’t been respected or held with care. No wonder we tend to retreat into circles that feel more familiar and that we think of as safe.

There’s definitely something gratifying about not having to explain ourselves to others, especially due to the harm and hate of the last several years. That’s why “safe spaces” matter. An important thing to note, however, is that communities that are like us are not always safe, and that crossing boundaries and connecting with others from different communities is not always unsafe. We live in complex times. So many of us crave more honest and productive conversations about all these complicated issues.

What if we had more incentive to talk with each other openly, vulnerably, with curiosity and wonder? How might we incentivize that? What might that look and feel like? I have seen and experienced how beautiful it can be to share parts of ourself and receive someone else’s sharing. Those small, lovely moments in our lives stay with us. When we stitch such moments together, I think we create a more meaningful life.

Tell us about your partnerships with global philanthropy and global health organizations, the travel industry, and international education programs.

My book, Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, has opened up new and exciting associations with people in multiple sectors. People who are looking to deepen their analysis and activism around diversity, equity, and inclusion, racial equity, anti-racism, intersectionality and difference within the U.S. often find me and my book. Since I also focus on how colonial dynamics in the Global North and Global South impact the politics of international help and aid, I am working more with people in global health, international NGOs, the development industry, and the travel industry. My career feels incredibly rich because I have been able to interact with people across sectors. It’s made me stretch in new and surprising ways.

Though these partnerships, I’ve come to realize how crucial it is to pause, consider, and step away from the day-to-day busyness to reflect with colleagues and ourselves. These are the moments where we grow and learn. Much of the consultancy work that I do with groups and organizations is to give them permission to learn in new ways. I affirm how important it is to carve out structured time to pause, reflect, reconsider, and come back together. In our urgent, competitive, product-oriented professional culture, being able to slow down to value the process of collective story-sharing and collaborative learning is nothing less than revolutionary.

What are you most proud of and what are you looking forward to about your career?

That’s an easy question: I am most proud of my collaborations and I am most looking forward to new collaborations! My understanding of collaboration is quite expansive. I mean the undergraduate students with whom I have learned alongside, the people in the community whose grief and joy I have been able to stand beside and hold in different moments, the collaborators in different parts of the world where we have built trust and connection, and the partnerships across various industries. All this synergy feels magical to me, and has enlivened my life and work immeasurably. My career is certainly my story, but my story is also connected to many other people’s stories. People who have come before me, people who have enriched my life, and people I hope I am able to continue collaborating with in small and big ways.