Fight the power: Meet social justice activist Wayne Au

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Wayne Au was lucky enough to come of age during hip-hop’s golden era.

Listening to the stylistic innovations in the late 1980s and early 90s of pioneers like Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Queen Latifah, Run-D.M.C. and Nas, he was electrified by music bursting with lyrics of protest and Black pride, lyrics demanding solutions to urban poverty and gang violence—lyrics demanding social justice.

At the same time, as a student at Garfield High School—in Seattle’s once-predominantly Black Central District—Wayne enrolled in Mr. Davis’ “secret” Black studies courses, learning about Black identity, segregation, and the politicization of race in America.

A mixed-race kid himself (white mom, Chinese American dad), Wayne could relate to the powerful assertion of one’s right to self-determination that permeated the music.

At the confluence of the music and the secret classes was Wayne’s budding sense of alienation from the traditional white American narrative. As early as his freshman year in high school, he knew he wanted to effect positive change for those over whom the traditional narrative glossed or ignored altogether.

He wanted to be a teacher.

“I didn’t want a desk job,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference in the world.”

Three decades later, that nascent commitment to social justice has become the fundamental facet of Wayne’s identity. A professor of Education and interim dean of the School of Educational Studies at UW Bothell (UWB), he is recognized nationally as a scholar of educational equity and as an outspoken advocate for actively anti-racist teaching.

And he still loves golden-era hip-hop.

Can I Kick It? (A Tribe Called Quest)

Inspired by his mentor at Garfield, science teacher Craig MacGowan, Wayne left Seattle after high school to attend UC Santa Cruz, majoring in marine biology. He had traveled to Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands with Mr. MacGowan, and the experience was transformative.

The classes at Santa Cruz were interesting, but Wayne didn’t love the huge lecture-hall format. Or the impersonal multiple-choice tests intended to assess his understanding of the content.

And although he loved being a member of the men’s volleyball team as a walk-on player (he still plays, if a tiny bit less energetically these days), Santa Cruz just wasn’t the right fit.

Wayne transferred after his freshman year to The Evergreen State College, in Olympia.

Evergreen has a reputation for being nontraditional, as many Washingtonians can attest. But while the bongs and bongos of lore can certainly be found there—as at any college campus—Evergreen offers an affirming environment where students like Wayne can pursue their passions with the guidance of faculty mentors.

Bring the Noise (Public Enemy)

Wayne focused his studies on political economy and history, spent his time with the radical students of color, and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. He then continued at Evergreen for his master’s in teaching, earning credentials in secondary Social Studies, Economics, and Language Arts.

At Evergreen, Wayne secured his own hip-hop show on the public college radio station, KAOS. Naturally, golden age artists were in heavy rotation.

He also began his stint as an occasional DJ, at an Olympia club called Thekla, as well as guest spots at Foundation nightclub in Seattle. The vintage turntable and large vinyl collection in his home office suggest he still dabbles.

It was the nontraditional grading system at Evergreen, in which faculty write narrative evaluations rather than numerical grades, that set the stage for Wayne’s deep professional engagement with the intersection of high stakes testing and educational equity.

Indeed, he would eventually go on to write his doctoral dissertation on the topic and later publish an influential book about his research, Unequal By Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, with a second edition out earlier this year.

It was at Evergreen, too, that Wayne met his longtime partner Mira Shimabukuro, a teaching professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UWB, whose work focuses on writing and social justice.

From Washington to California to Wisconsin and back, the pair have become increasingly influential educators and writers in both academic and community contexts. Their seventh-grade son, Mako, is still looking to increase his own influence on YouTube beyond his current earnings of 18 cents.

Me, Myself & I (De La Soul)

While not obsessive about researching his genealogy—he’s never swabbed his cheek or sent off strands of his hair for a mail-order DNA kit—as a mixed race Asian American, Wayne is interested in exploring the roots of his identity, particularly as it relates to how he fits in the larger Asian diaspora.

His research has revealed, for instance, that his father’s family had settled in Hawaii from before it was a U.S. territory, and his mother’s family has roots on the East coast of the U.S. going back generations.

“Not quite to the Mayflower,” Wayne laughed. “But not too far off.”

Earlier this year, he published a paper examining Asian American racialization in education, reframing the idea of the ‘Model Minority’ as inadequate because the concept fails to consider the global capitalistic system in which they are part of a larger community of ‘alien labor’.

Such critical inquiry naturally informs his professional work, making him an obvious choice for leading and evaluating community building initiatives around equity and inclusion.

Already a long-standing member of the campus diversity council, Wayne served as the interim dean of diversity and equity for UWB from 2018-2020, bringing his experience as an activist and organizer to bear advancing university diversity initiatives.

A staunch ally to undocumented, underrepresented, and nontraditional students, in this capacity he emphasized faculty and staff training opportunities around racial micro- and macroaggressions and implicit bias, as well as bystander training for people who witness incidents of hate.

Wayne in his office at UW Bothell / Courtesy Evergreen State College

In his current leadership role with the School of Educational Studies (SES), Wayne intends to continue leveraging his social justice expertise, with a focus on strengthening the pipeline for future educators of color through inclusive community partnerships.

“It’s critically important to do this coalition-building work,” he said, adding, “[SES] has a small but fantastic group of current faculty members right now. We’re the most diverse faculty unit on the UWB campus.”

And UWB (in Wayne’s words, “if UW Seattle and Evergreen had a baby”) is exactly the kind of institution where Wayne sees the potential for real change occurring.

Less encumbered by administrative scaffolding than the Seattle campus and comprised of a diverse, tight-knit community of learners, educators and staff, the campus is making enormous strides in promoting equity and positive social change.

Protect Ya Neck (Wu-Tang Clan)

In 2018, Wayne co-edited the award-winning Teaching for Black Lives, a collection of essays, poems, art and activities intended to inspire educators’ teaching of Black history, culture and identity within a social justice framework.

More than 800 copies of the book were furnished to all social studies and language arts teachers in Seattle Public Schools that autumn, courtesy of some high-profile checkbooks: Seattle’s Macklemore and former Seahawk Michael Bennett.

The book creates space for conversations about teaching for social justice and calls on educators, in the introduction, to “make their classrooms and schools sites of resistance to white supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as sites for knowing the hope and beauty in Blackness.”

Predictably, the hate mail began rolling in.

Since publication, Wayne and his co-authors have received emails and social media messages filled with vitriol and expletives, generally from right-wing sympathizers concerned that he and his ilk are indoctrinating future educators—and by extension, their future students—with dangerous ideas about equity and justice.

As an outspoken public intellectual, and particularly given his focus on public education, hate mail and harassment are not new to Wayne. He considers dealing with trolls part of the job.

“I have the privilege of being Dr. Au, and I need to use that authority to drive positive social change,” he said.

In fact, he is sardonically proud of his addition to the Professor Watch List, a far-right organization “exposing college professors who… advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

And there’s his semi-autographical 2019 book A Marxist education: Learning to change the world, detailing his journey to becoming an applied Marxist educator and critiquing ‘neoliberal educational reforms’ like high-stakes testing and charter schools.

The title of the book alone, much less the content, undoubtedly got the reactionaries riled.

Luckily, Wayne has no plans to stop promoting racial equity and social justice in the classroom, or to stop calling out discrimination, prejudice, racism and misogyny when he sees it: “It’s part of who I am,” he said. “It drives the work.”

Rebel without a Pause (Public Enemy)

After earning his teaching credentials, Wayne taught history and English in Seattle Public Schools for five years: four at Middle College High School serving dropouts and one at his alma mater, Garfield.

He then moved back to the Bay Area, where he taught for two years at Berkeley High School. Berkeley was a diverse and dynamic community, where he enjoyed abundant activism opportunities.

Wayne liked teaching high school, and particularly appreciated teaching juniors: having largely moved away from the egocentrism of childhood, students at that age “are starting to think about big things, becoming passionate about their interests.”

But he was getting burnt out. He’d had a master’s in education student from the University of Wisconsin collecting data on his teaching as part of their thesis, which had gotten Wayne to thinking about graduate school. He was aware that graduate students at Wisconsin were unionized, had excellent health insurance and were paid a living wage for their work.

Then the California legislature cut public school funding—agonizingly, in lieu of cutting prison funding—and Wayne was laid off. It was a sign, and off to Madison he and Mira went.

But not for long: Wayne completed his PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in four years (Mira did hers in Composition & Rhetoric) and, heeding the siren call of the West coast, returned to California, where he was an assistant professor at Cal State Fullerton for three years before joining the faculty at UWB in 2010.

“It was always our goal to get back to the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

Slow Down (Brand Nubian)

Wayne wrote recently of how he’d tell his younger self not to worry so much about “making it” on the academic tenure track, a position seemingly in keeping with his emphasis on nontraditional measurements of success.

Some of that hindsight may be the result of age: Wayne turned 50 this year, and there are many things he’d like to convey to his younger self. Wear sunscreen, for one. His mom is a freckled redhead and Wayne burns easily.

He’d also challenge his younger self to slow down.

Of course, with a dozen book publications, scores of peer-reviewed journal articles and numerous teaching awards, it may seem easy to say this now. But he argues that it’s almost instinctive, both within academia and without, for adults of his generation—and the younger generation as well—to always want to work harder, work faster.

“There are vital things that need our attention, outside of work,” he said. “We need to pay attention to our mental health, the health of our planet. We need to live our lives.”

As was the case for many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Wayne to dial things back and take inventory. Being at home more the last couple of years, he’s been working on projects around the house: building elevated stands for rain barrels to water the garden, knocking out a handrail in his split-level stairwell to build a bookshelf.

He’s in charge of the front-yard tomatoes, too. They’re doing pretty well.

An avid all-weather Mariners fan (since the Kingdome days), he loves sports radio, and he spends a lot of time exercising: weightlifting, practicing the martial art Wushu, and playing volleyball.

And though he’s frequently recruited by other institutions, Wayne has no plans to leave his home in South Seattle or his position at UWB. He loves the mountains and the waters of the Northwest, values the diversity of the area, and is deeply invested in the activist community to which he has contributed so much.

And who knows, maybe someone reading this is looking for a local DJ who specializes in golden age hip-hop.