Resilience, Oppression & Liberation: A Conversation with Anna Nelson

This week, IEN shares the latest edition of the Doctoral Corner Q & A from the AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. This week’s Q & A features Anna Nelson, LCSW. Nelson is a College Assistant Professor with New Mexico State University (NMSU) School of Social Work and a Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Leadership and Administration at NMSU. From 2010- 2016, she served as Executive Director of the New Mexico Forum for Youth in Community, a statewide network intermediary that promoted racial, health, academic and economic justice for all youth statewide. The fully formatted interview can be found on the LtC website.

LtC:  What inspired you to study educational change?

Anna Nelson: As a Critical Race Scholar and doctoral student in Educational Leadership, a licensed social worker since 2003, and a social work educator for more than a decade, my trajectory in educational change stems from my own lived experiences with education and my professional experiences as an educator and social worker. Consistently thematic in these experiences is an ever-present dichotomy. Where the potential exists for education to bolster resilience, inspire liberation and offer opportunity, the stark reality is that education is oppressive for many Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BISOC). As a cisgender, mixed Woman of Color, I experienced school as a safe space where my mind, body and spirit were nourished. In serving BISOC, however, I regularly witness educational marginalization, punitive disciplinary actions and disparate pedagogical practices waged against them. This, coupled with the understanding of my educational privilege, edifies my mission to promote deep, socially just and liberatory educational transformation.

LtC: What and/or who inspires you in the field? Why?

AN: Seminal authors who inspired me are many, including Anzaldúa (1987; 1990), Crenshaw (1989), Constance-Huggins (2012), Delgado and Stefancic (2012), Freire (1970; 1974; 2005), hooks (1994), Ladson-Billings (1998), and Solórzano and Delgado Bernal (2001). These authors deepen my critical analysis and perspectives on education transformation and provide language to contextualize BISOC’s educational experiences. However, one distinguishes herself for me as both inspirational and transformative, and she is Tara Yosso (2005).

In 2005, Yosso authored Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion on Community Cultural Wealth. This article made my heart sing because, in a revolutionary way, it challenges cultural deficit narratives in education while simultaneously uplifting vast funds of knowledge, cultural capital and community cultural wealth BISOC possess. I see my students in Yosso’s (2005) words. I see hope in resistant capital, or the ability to speak truth to power and maintain one’s values and beliefs in the face of oppression (Yosso, 2005). I routinely witness aspirational capital, or the ability to maintain ones hopes and dreams even during adversity (Yosso, 2005), permeating the lived experiences of BISOC. BISOC’s brilliant expression of navigational capital, or the ability to successfully maneuver through systems and institutions that weren’t designed for or by Communities of Color (Yosso, 2005), is profound. Finally, BISOCs’ manifestations of familial capital, or the cultural funds of knowledge grown from language, collective history, memory and intuition shared across generations (Yosso, 2005) serve as a powerful foundation to combat cultural deficit narratives in education. I see these sources of cultural capital because Yosso (2005) gave me words to name them and taught me how to identify and honor them in BISOC.

LtC: What do you believe to be the biggest challenge for educational change and what would be a first step to address this challenge?

AN: While education is widely accepted as a human right (United Nations, 1948), the sociopolitical era in which we exist underscores deep civil unrest and profound differences in educational attainment, divided by perceived street race (López, et al., 2018), gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and myriad points of identity (Crenshaw, 1989). Indeed, as Jones (2000; 2002) puts it, this reflects a lifetime of lived experiences apart from one another. To me, this is the grand challenge for education in 2021 and beyond, the need to urgently adopt antiracist, culturally humble (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998) and sustainable (Paris & Alim, 2017) curricular, pedagogical, and educational leadership practices that promote liberatory social justice and true equity in education.

Angela Davis (1983) calls us to action by stating, “It is not enough to be nonracist, we must be antiracist.” It is not sufficient to strive to be nonracist in our own actions and beliefs. As educators and educational leaders, we are compelled to radically acknowledge the disparities in academic outcomes and opportunities for BISOC and commit to taking action against policies, practices and paradigms that give rise to these disparities. This action begins within us through the consistent practice of cultural humility (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998).

“It is not sufficient to strive to be nonracist in our own actions and beliefs.”

Widely adopted by social workers and public health practitioners, cultural humility is an emerging practice in education. It requires of us a deep commitment to life-long learning and critical self-reflectivity, recognizing and challenging power imbalances between ourselves, students and communities, and holding systems and institutions accountable. We begin a sustainable practice of cultural humility when we regularly ask ourselves, “What were my perceptions of and how did I interact with students, colleagues and community members who have identities different from my own? How did I contribute to, or detract from, social justice and equity today?” and, “What can I do differently to promote social justice and equity in my work tomorrow?” We practice cultural humility when we critically analyze our curricula, pedagogy, and organizational policies for access, representation and equity. We are culturally humble allies when we interrupt and confront implicit biases and microaggressions. We humbly stand in allyship when we leverage privilege by creating pathways for power and action for our students. These actions create a foundation for culturally sustainable practices, or those that honor cultural capital, resilience and resistance among our students and promote liberatory social justice and equity as integral to education.

“We practice cultural humility when we critically analyze our curricula, pedagogy, and organizational policies for access, representation and equity.”

LtC: What are some new areas of inquiry and/or directions you think the field should be headed?

AN: Despite “unprecedented levels of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, racial and gender school diversity” (Santamaria & Santamaria, 2016, p. 1), cultural deficit narratives in academe and disparities in access and outcomes for BISOC persist in the United States. Combined with cumulative traumatic impact of racism and other oppression, these structures produce a trifecta of social injustice for BISOC in higher education. One crucial direction the field of education must consider with urgency is adopting antiracist policies and practices that uplift the cultural capital and resilience of BISOC, while systematically dismantling those that lead to academic inequities for BISOC.

With the dual purposes of igniting critical discourse within educational change and providing a framework for analyzing higher education contexts, institutional policies and practices that may either perpetuate injustice or uplift the immense cultural wealth possessed by BISOC, Critical Trauma Theory (CTT) (Nelson, 2019; 2020a; 2020b; 2020c; Nelson, Kew & Castro, 2020) is one solution to persistent educational disparities for BISOC. CTT is a microtheoretical perspective within Critical Race Theory that attends to the impact of cultural, cumulative and collective oppression-based trauma experienced by many BISOC, often in education contexts, while simultaneously uplifting vast funds of knowledge, resilience and cultural capital they possess (Nelson, 2019; 2020a; 2020b; 2020c; Nelson, et al., 2020).

Attending to the intersectional identities each of us possess, CTT offers the first unified definition of oppression-based trauma as:

Oppression-based trauma is exposure to and lived experiences of personally-mediated, institutional and structural forms of oppression (Jones, 2000) through symbolic, emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, economic and environmental manifestations, across one’s lifespan. Oppression-based trauma exposure includes but is not limited to linguicism, racism, colorism, nationalism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, colonization, political, historical and intergenerational trauma, and acts of oppression because of one’s documentation, immigration-,  refugee-, or former incarceration status.

Advised by this definition are CTT’s five key tenets. First, CTT calls educators and educational leaders to radically acknowledge that oppression-centered structural and institutional barriers to education access exist for BISOC and other decentered identities (Crenshaw, 1989; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Solórzano & Yosso, 2001; Yosso, 2005). Second, this acknowledgement must also hold to account that exposure to oppression and subsequent risk for trauma is ever-present (Goodwin, 2014; Jordan, et al., 2014; Kucharska, 2018; & Nadal, 2018), where nascent literature links trauma with restricted academic outcomes (Arnekrans, et al., 2018; Bernat, et al., 1998; Cantrell, 2016; Jolley, 2017; Jordan et al., 2014; & Walker, 2016). Third, CTT contends that oppression-based trauma is cumulative, cultural and collective, thereby requiring its own critical micro-theoretical perspective that delineates it from individual trauma to address oppression-based trauma in educational contexts. Fourth, centrality of experiential knowledge evidences the existing presence of students’ posttraumatic growth, healing, resilience and resistance in the face of oppression (Yosso, 2005). Fifth and finally, because of the prevalence of oppression-based trauma and its detrimental impact on academic success for college students, CTT is a vital socially-just micro-theoretical addition to CRT that educators and educational leaders must consider applying to their work. 

CTT is promising in its practical application, offering educational leaders and educators tools and skills necessary for transforming their educational settings into antiracist/oppressive, culturally safe environments for BISOC to thrive. Recently I had the honor of presenting a CTT-guided series for one community college in New Mexico committed to implementing CTT campus-wide. This series culminated in my presentation of the Applied Critical Trauma Theory (ACTT)-Guided Assessment Tool which measures self- reports of personal, professional and institutional adoption of CTT-guided strategies, including a campus equity walk (Nelson, 2021). Further CTT application will be discussed in an April, 2021, paper presentation entitled Riotous Research: A Critical Trauma Theory to uplift the language of those unheard- Black, Indigenous and Social Work Students of Color.

I am humbled by this opportunity to participate in AERA’s Educational Change Special Interest Group Doctoral Corner and hopeful CTT will be one resource among many that inspires collective transformation in education systems nationally.


Anzaldúa, G.E. (1987, 1999). Borderlands/La Frontera: The new Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.

Anzaldúa, G.E. (1990). Haciendo caras, una entrada. In G. Anzaldúa (ed.), Making face, making soul/Haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists or color. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Arnekrans, A.K., Calmes, S.A., Laux, J.M., Roseman, C.P., Piazza, N.J., Reynolds, J.L., Harmening, D., & Scott, H.L. (2018). College students’ experiences of childhood developmental traumatic stress: Resilience, first-year academic performance, and substance use. Journal of College Counseling, 21(1), 2-14. 

Bernat, J.A., Ronfeldt, H.M., Calhoun, K.S., & Arias, I. (1998). Prevalence of traumatic events and peritraumatic predictors of posttraumatic stress symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11(4), 645-664.

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Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.

Davis, A.Y. (1983). Women, race and class. Vintage. ISBN: 9780394713519

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical Race Theory: An introduction (2nd ed). New York, NY: New York University Press. ISBN: 987-93-81406-64-9

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Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters from those who dare teach. Westview Press.

Goodwin, E.I. (2014). The long-term effects of homophobia-related trauma for LGB men and women. Counselor Education Master’s Thesis.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

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Jordan, C.E., Combs, J.L., & Smith, G.T. (2014). An exploration of sexual victimization and academic performance among college women. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 15(3), 191-200. doi:

Kucharska, J. (2018). Cumulative trauma, gender discrimination and mental health in women: Mediating role of self-esteem. Journal of Mental Health, 27(5), 416-423.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998) Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24.

López, N., Vargas, E.D., Juarez, M., Cacari-Stone, L., & Bettez, S. (2018). What’s your “street race”? Leveraging multidimensional measures of race and intersectionality for examining physical and mental health status among Latinxs. Sociology, Race and Ethnicity, 4(1), 49-66. doi: 10.1177/2332649217708798

Nadal, K. L. (2018). Concise guides on trauma care series. Microaggressions and traumatic stress: Theory, research, and clinical treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

Nelson, A. (2019, December). An introduction to Critical Trauma Theory and its relationship to substance use disorders in Latinx Communities [Webinar]. National Latino Behavioral Health Association.

Nelson, A. (2020a, January). Practical tools to implement critical allyship and Radical self-care in our service delivery to Latinx communities [Webinar]. National Latino Behavioral Health Association.

Nelson, A. (2020b, September 15). Applying theory to the work: Bridging panel concepts to practice through decolonization and antiracism [Panel Presentation]. National Hispanic and Latino Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, National Latino Behavioral Health Association, and U.S. Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, The Intersection of Acculturation, Assimilation and Substance Use Disorders in the Latinx Community: A Virtual Learning Community.

Nelson, A. (2020c, October 2). Conveying Mattering in online contexts for Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BISOC) and first-generation college attendees. New Mexico State University Faculty Spotlight Series.

Nelson, A. N., Kew, K. L. & Castro, E. (2020, Apr 17 – 21). Applied Critical Trauma Theory to Enhance Resilience and Success for College Students with Oppression-Based Trauma [Roundtable Session]. AERA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA. (Conference Canceled)

Nelson, A.N. (2021a, January 29). Critical Trauma Theory Series: Applied Critical Trauma Theory (ACTT)-Guided Assessment Tool [Webinar]. San Juan Community College.

Nelson, A.N. (2021b). Riotous research: A Critical Trauma Theory to uplift the language of those unheard- Black, Indigenous and Social Work Students of Color [Paper Session]. Social Work, White Supremacy, and Racial Justice: Reckoning with our History, Interrogating the Present, and Reimagining Our Future. Compendium pending publication.

Paris, D., & Alim, H.S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press. ISBN: 978-0-8077-5833-5

Santamaría, L.J., & Santamaría, A.P. (2016). Toward culturally sustaining leadership: Innovation beyond ‘school improvement’ promoting equity in diverse contexts. Education Sciences, 6(33).

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Solórzano, D.G., & Yosso, T.J. (2001). Critical race and LatCrit theory and method: Counter-storytelling. Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(4), 471-495.

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Walker, L. (2015) Trauma, environmental stressors, and the African American college student: Research, practice and the HBCUs. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91. doi: 10.1080/1361332052000341006

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