Transcript of Josh Tolbert's Interview (Safe Zone and LGBTQS+ Alliance)
Beth: Today’s date is September 19th, 2019. My name is Beth South and to begin, can you tell me your full name, your date of birth, and your current job title.
Josh: When you say full name, like full legal name …?
B: Yeah, or you can just say Josh Tolbert.
J: I’ll go with Josh Tolbert, I actually have two middle names, my parents were pretty indecisive so it’s pretty long. I’m Josh Tolbert. I was born March 23, 1978. I’m currently the assistant professor of special education at IU East.
B: Where were you born tell me a little bit about your family background.
J: Yeah, I was born in Parkersburg, West Virgina. I lived there for about 3 years. My dad was in the military and tended to change civilian jobs once he got out so, by the time I was 10 we had lived in West Virginia, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, and then kind of settled in Michigan. I lived in Michigan for most of my life. Now I’m just finding my way back to the Ohio river. It’s been kind of a weird journey. I’m an adopted Michigander and native west Virginian.
B: Great, where did you receive your education?
J: I did my undergrad bachelor’s degree at Western Michigan University. Double majored in art education and Spanish. I was the only person in the state of Michigan with those two teaching endorsements and then I did my masters and EDD both at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan.
B: So, what led you to your subject area?
J: I… in particular, at least as far as working in special education, it makes a lot of sense, but took a really non-linear path. I started off teaching in my art certification then, you know, electives always get cut, so I was able to bump over and do something [with] Spanish and then did a combination of the two but the big part of it was that a lot of what I was teaching was Spanish. The state of Michigan put in a graduation requirement that every student needed 2 years equivalent, 2 credit hours, of a world language and, because students with mild disabilities are included, which is like 95% of the special ED population are included on the diploma track, that applied to these students with IUPs. Which is a game changer in a lot of ways, but I found that the general attitude of a lot of people, including some of my colleagues, was very negative. Rather than saying, you know, this is great were going to have more people learning Spanish, French, German, whatever, it was like, “oh god, what are we going to do now?” In a lot of ways, that was the catalyst for me to want to find a way. That’s what my dissertation ultimately ended up being, was at least kind of set towards finding a way for world languages to be more inclusive for students who have learning disabilities. That was kind of specifically got me into special ed. It makes no sense to anyone but me, you’d need a flow chart.
B: When did you come to IU and why?
J: 2015. Yeah. Like a lot of people, I’d been interested in working in higher education and … I worked in K12 for almost 15 years and got to do a lot of different things obviously, because my career never followed a straight line or made a bit of sense, but I think a natural extension of getting more immersed [into the ] research, and more interested in policy and the teaching preparation elements of K12 education, that was kind of part of what motivated me to want to do this and here I am. Doing it.
B: What are some of the benefits of teaching at IU or the challenges?
J: I mean I would say as far as benefits go its, … I mean this in I promise this will be positive but just for the sake of context, the high school that I attended at the time was technically 2 high schools put on one campus there are now 3 high schools there. When I was on campus, there were only like 5000 students and there are like now upwards of 6,000, so in terms of especially my sense of proportion the IU campus, feels size wise like my high school did. So, it is undoubtedly a regional campus and smaller than a lot of residential universities and I think it’s really nice in a lot of ways, especially being a first academic job, I mean it’s really… it has that sense of connectedness. It’s really easy for you to get involved on campus and we work very closely to students, probably more than some of them realize, which I find really enjoyable.
I think there are students … I’ve heard the chancellor taught the first-year seminar class and I’ve heard students just go into her office like regular office hours and be like, “yeah, what’s the homework this week?” And that’s really great in a lot of ways. There’s that kind of accessibility, that connection; it can also create some challenges just because you know, at least from the standpoint working in teacher education, … I think it’s still largely beneficial. It’s sometimes hard not to get caught up in every individual students’ success. I don’t think that’s fundamentally a bad thing, but I think there are some cases where we get a little too fixated trying to attend every single person’s individual needs or like we have a lot of licensure exams that people have to take, I think… to the School of Educations credit, we have people who work with them directly and try to help students who struggle with those … we do a lot to really offer support, which I’m glad we do. I think we should, but I think that can also become really challenging because we do have such a high touch approach that it can… get really intense and sometimes, I’m honestly not sure if we shouldn’t just be saying, “why don’t you try this test again in a couple of years” or something. It can be kind of hard to get some of that distance, sometimes, that might be healthy, then again, I wouldn’t really do it any differently.
B: Tell me about your research or creative activity here at IU East.
J: Yeah, that’s been… look I kind of touched on it earlier, I started off doing work with this odd intersection of Spanish vocabulary and specific learning disabilities, I would really love to keep doing it, but it’s such a tiny niche and I really needed to branch out and it’s been, I mean especially as a newish faculty member, it’s been really nice to try to explore some different avenues, which probably makes perfect sense with the whole nonlinear thing, but I’ve been working recently with kind of a lot more of the teacher education perspective, just because that crosses over so much with what I do every day. I guess we get really invested in it. Like I was saying so, … for a couple of years I’ve had a survey project going, which is like a multicultural competency preservice teacher, that’s been really interesting. I’m currently working to update that questionnaire and see if I can get some more institutions to participate because we have some bugs worked out of it.
I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Mosaic Faculty Fellowship, so I was doing some work with a panoramic camera in my classroom, the one face to face class I have, to see if I could get a handle on seeing how to students were aligning content standards with the goals and assessments, and I’ve working more recently with kind of trying to improve the role of parent and family partnerships in our special ed courses. So, I’ve got something just getting started on that… that’s probably a benefit I should mention you get to do a lot of things at IU East. There is a lot of freedom to, you know, pursue any number of different teaching, research, service, activities, so I’ve definitely been trying to embrace that with research and creative activity.
B: Can you tell me, kind of to segway a little bit, is that kind of the reason and how you possibly got involved as a faculty advisor for the IU East Alliance? How did that happen?
J: Literally how that happened was, I don’t remember the exact timeline of this, but when I came to interview at IU East, it was right around the time there was a lot of news of the “we won’t make you a wedding cake,” incident was pretty recent, so you know, I mean coming from a larger, right outside of Detroit, kind of larger metropolitan to central Indiana, and the reputation Indiana had, I wasn’t 100% sure of what I was looking at in the social-cultural context.
So, when I first got to campus, its Back with the Pack, one of the, you know, when all the student groups kind of gather around the quad, so I just out of curiosity walked around because you know I was new and wanted to see what we had to offer students and discovered we had an Alliance [at IU East], which I was really excited about. [I] took it as a really good sign considering the reputation Indiana had at that point and just given that there’s a fair amount of research [that] shows, particularly in k12 students, that having a GSA [Gender and Sexuality Alliance] can have some really positive effects in terms of social climates. It turned out one of the people who were involved with the Alliance was a student …in [my] face to face class I was teaching that semester. Somewhere around the beginning of the semester, I don’t know for sure if their advisor left then or had been gone for a while, basically the student came to me … on a Thursday night and was like, “we need a new advisor and could you tell me right now because we need to fill the paper work out today,” so I was like sure. So, I mean I was pretty happy to agree to that and that’s how I officially got involved as the advisor, … it was pure dumb luck. I happened to have a student who was involved with [Alliance at IU East] and apparently, I made a good enough impression on them to be trustworthy enough to be asked to be the advisor.
B: How long were you the advisor for the club?
J: I believe two years, or somewhere there about. Student organizations have the tendency to kind of wax and wane in terms of their leadership and membership, as I discovered first hand, so we had a fairly active core group of students when I first started working with them, then a lot of those people graduated or moved on and [I] spent a good chunk of time trying to work to rebuild the group.
Around that time, we had a few other faculty members come in who were enthused about being involved with the Alliance and had more background research interest in LGBTQ+ topics, so there were … discussions, if one of them, I mean, it would be selfish of me to hog something like advising the Alliance if we had other people who were a good fit for it. It was … an interesting experience and I was delighted to do it and would gladly do it again. I … kind of just took over on this “we need someone today” basis and I had probably had 6 months… we didn’t have a student who was president and then I had 2 people come in in fall of 2017 who said, “I want to be president,” and I said can we even this out over one at a time? Then I ended up talking them into a co-presidency to avoid any weird power struggle and I think at that point the group was able to become solvent again and offer programming, like the drag show, and we technically still got in a drag show every year which is a big deal around here. It was usually in the spring or the very end of fall, I think in ‘17, but we still technically had one in ‘16, ‘17, and ‘18. So, if nothing else I think I get to be relieved that I didn’t go down as the guy who, you know, made us miss the drag show. That’s a bigger deal than I realize.
B: Do the students do all the work involved in planning something like the drag show or do you assist at all?
J: Yes, on both counts I would say. I mean a lot of the what I found, at least in my experience with the group, probably the most effective way to go, typically our student membership was a lot more adapted at finding performers. We had one person, who I think…I can’t remember if it was their spouse or partner specifically, who was in a relationship with a performer and had a lot of connections, a lot of those more personal networks had been really helpful. We’d get some local people, who I learned from the advising group, were some really well-known drag performers. It’s a whole new world basically and being that that’s the case, there’s a lot of those aspects that I learned pretty quickly just to be the smile and nod adult, like that sounds great, let me know who we can book, who’s willing to do this, we can probably offer them a gas card, or something. The drag show has always been a charitable endeavor, all the proceeds have gone to either Aspire Indiana or a comparable nonprofit group [Muncie OUTreach], so I mean that’s something I would want to make sure I don’t forget to mention.
Some years we’ve had like 8 people performing who all were donating their time and talents to a good cause and it’s a wonderful thing, but a lot of those details, yeah, I was happier or I think better off making sure the students had kind of the lead. I got to handle a lot of the boring and grown up details; making sure we had the room booked. One year I got to operate a spotlight which is a first for me. I’ve never done that before, I spent a lot of time very nervously accidentally blinding drag performers because you know it’s just, if you’ve ever operated one before its fairly intuitive but then again I know I need to shine this right on this person, but does it need to be like right on them?, and people move too, so it’s crazy. I have a whole new appreciation on what it takes to organize even a campus-based drag show. But as it should be, most of the actual important details were the responsibility of the students, I made sure I did my part.
B: How did you get involved with Safe Zone then, who do you work with?
J: That was really…. in a lot of way both Safe Zone and, actually, for several years now I’ve been one of a select number of faculty on the Title 9 Sexual Assault Awareness Committee, all of which was an extension of me getting involved with the Alliance [at IU East]. I guess that was, as it probably should be, I think, a signal [to] people on campus that I was engaged with certain issues, or at least was looking to kind of serve in that kind of capacity. I had something similar to Safe Zone training years and years ago as an undergrad and I think it was a similar training process.
B: Can I ask what Safe Zone is?
J: Yeah, thank you. I probably should give some background on that. Safe Zone really is… fundamentally it’s ally training. We do particularly entry level training. It’s [for] people coming at this from all different levels of interest and experience, so we are really pretty conscious trying to cover some of the vocabulary, trying to dispel some myths, usually … there’s an activity that I really like that focuses on heterosexual privilege, which not unlike things like white privilege, you know, are often controversial things that people don’t necessarily think about. There’s usually a coming out narrative and an opportunity for people to hopefully get some key aspects of ally training while also, I think, being very honest about the fact that there’s a lot under the umbrella of the LGBTQAI+, like the expanding acronym and the initials and I mean all of the richness and all of the history, like there’s way more that we can ever give justice to in a 2 hour training session, but it gives people I think some common ground.
I mean, really in a lot of ways the big deal is kind of having the door sticker too. … I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but I’m genially fascinated by how excited people are by having that sticker on their door and I don’t mean that in any condescending or critical way. It just kind of took me back. The first time I helped facilitate a training, I think within a day I had emails from
people saying, “when do I get my door sticker.” People were really fired up about that, which I think is a really great thing because, at least to me, that signals that people really want to have that visible outward signifier that they are, you know, committed to being allies in whatever space there allowed to occupy as a safe one. So yeah, I had some kind of comparable training, probably years and years and years ago, but nothing formal by the time I entered higher eds and particularly since I got involved with advising the Alliance 10 minutes after I entered campus, that seemed like a natural kind of priority to make sure I had Safe Zone training completed.
Frances Yates was facilitating that at the time and… Frances is very enthusiastic and, I believe, reached out to me directly and was really good about telling me, “Hey, were doing a training you should probably come and I said yes, I’ll be there, which was interesting as well because after doing that it pretty quickly became “now that your trained, you’re going to help facilitate these, right?” Because you know that seems like a natural fit for you, which was great. I was really happy that she was interested in sharing some of that responsibility because that kind of shared… responsibility not even the right word, …There’s a thing that can happen, I mean especially with LGTQAI+, LGBTQ+, really any group that has always been marginalized or hasn’t always been visible here, [there] can be this kind of tendency to have, like certain people, who get associated with that, and I understand why that happens, but it can also be….really concerning. It’s kind of what probably happened with the Alliance and their initial advisor, once you have a person where that’s their designated [position], that’s what they do, and if they leave and you’ve got this vacuum. It really has to be… this ultimately is a more connected, communal, that kind of thing. I caught on to that relatively quickly. That was something that I’m more involved facilitating Safe Zone training myself, I was trying to make sure I brought in other people like Deb Miller (assistant professor of psychology) and Travis Rountree (assistant professor of English), that kind of had similar perspectives or similar interests in this, and making sure we had, you know. I mean it kind of was that way at one point, but I mean essentially for a little while, I was advising the Alliance, I guess the defacto lead facilitator of Safe Zone, add the Title 9 Committee, so there was a lot of overlap there that came down to it being, like, “that’s Josh Tolbert’s thing.” I’m very happy to be doing work and serving in that capacity, but I was very conscious early on and was like, we really need to make sure were kind of sharing this because it just kind of gets weird and ineffective [if it] becomes “this is my thing that I do; I do all of this.”
It’s been really good we’ve got… With Safe Zone we were really deliberate about not… which I’m kind of amazed this worked, I think it’s just because we meet and kind of fly under the radar but … we’re a team, not a formalized committee. We’re not chartered under any particular school or body.
For whatever reason, we’ve always been able to have the autonomy to be like, yeah, we’ll do a couple of trainings a year and we pop up and do our thing and people are happy because they can get their door stickers, you know, so that’s been really good and kind of deliberate to make sure we didn’t have some of the … logistical challenges that might come otherwise. We have been able to do a lot of level 1 trainings and were able to do a level 2 at one point, which was really, really good. I’m hoping I’m anticipating a question that’s coming up, with level 2 training in particular, it was lot more free form because you know with level 1, you’re trying to make sure people have a common ground, a common vocabulary, some shared understanding of things that are difficult, how I keep unknowing if I should say LBTQAI+ just LGBTQ nobody really has a clear consensus on those things, which is fine. It’s part of the whole process.
The level 2 training was really interesting because then it’s, and I think this is the way it should be, it’s just a lot more open ended. So, that particular session… it’s sort of a mixed back because I don’t really have anything concrete or tangible, but it was really affirming, I guess, in some way that we had you know we had a really good cross section. You know like the chancellor was supposed to be there but her husband passed away around that time, understandably she couldn’t make that session, other kind of people in campus leadership were there, we had deans, other faculty members, and people from key departments. It was a really good cross section. Probably the biggest takeaway for me was how encouraging it was to see that kind of dialogue that was happening from the people that needed to be, coordinating, like in academic affairs were currently doing this, like, there’s a lot of I don’t want to give the impression that there isn’t a lot of cross communication in general on our campus because there absolutely is, but at least on the topic of LGBTQ+ anything, I don’t know that there had been an explicit conversation like that before, at least not recently. That was a real highlight to see… some of the key people who kind of have that more panoramic view of campus, engaging with us, and paying attention in some a positive way that in many ways has been at least something was a good outgrowth of trying to expand the Safe Zone programing.
There are others, I mean I can’t speak as directly. I’ve kind of taken more of a supporting role to Safe Zone as I’ve taken on other responsibilities, trying to make sure we had other people involved who have, frankly, more expertise than I do to run that, but I think it was Deb and Travis did an off campus Safe Zone training last year for Girls, Inc. I want to say it was, or they worked with the high school.
B: So, they went off campus with this.
J: If I’m aware, but again, I was unfortunately was not able to work with that training but we’ve been gradually expanding the scope. I think we’re looking for something similar for It’s On Us week, where we’re offering a training and consciously trying to get people from Genesis and other groups in the community. So, I guess there’s more involvement and direct community engagement to get an expanded scope of Safe Zone. Hali Cartee asked me about this for something they were doing with RadIUs and I’m kind of embarrassed that I don’t know the answer to this, and in some way I couldn’t, because Safe Zone training had happened well before I got here too, but I don’t know an exact number percentage… the number of faculty and staff members at IU East who have completed level 1 ally training or who have the infamous door sticker. It’s high, there are a handful of people who maybe have not had the schedule work out or just didn’t have the inclination to attend a training. Safe Zone is really pretty well represented on our campus there are a lot of people…even the hallway where we’re sitting right now, you can pretty much walk down this bank of offices and see the majority of offices are designated as safe places or safe zones, which I mean that may be a small symbolic thing in some ways, but I think it matters.
B: Do you think this is something that can be expanded to students? Do students have any type of Safe Zone training, actually?
J: My recollection has been… that’s been kind of sporadic. We’ve had a few serious discussions in trying to do student only training. I think there’s been some really worthwhile dialogue to where it’s kind of it could work either way in my opinion, but I mean there can be benefits in doing student only ally training. There can be a lot of upside in having a mix of faculty, staff and students, which we’ve had just a little bit by happenstance, like one of our past Alliance presidents went through level 1 training probably a year or two ago, which I mean makes all kinds of sense. In some cases, we’ve tried to deliberately bring in people or we’ve had I think cases where people were technically students, like police cadets, who took part in the training because the entire campus police did at one point, which by the way is awesome. So, it’s been, it’s kind of tough to really encapsulate that I guess because… we’ve been selectively involving students, but we want to do that more systematically. Which it comes down to we will hopefully see more of that in the coming years, where it’s either student only or student-centered training for safe zone. That’s definitely an area where I see us expanding and we’ve been meaning to do it for years. I don’t know exactly why it hasn’t taken more shape, honestly, but um yeah, I think that’s definitely coming, especially [with] the number of faculty and staff who have already completed the training. If nothing else we’ve probably had enough practice as facilitators and won’t embarrass ourselves in front of students. That’s always a plus.
B: That’s great, well Josh is there anything else you’d like to add?
J: Oh my gosh. I feel like I ought to, although I’ve already said a lot. I’m really… I guess you know just trying to be kind of thoughtful, especially with this being archived and recorded. Maybe just for the sake of context, the time that were having this conversation, I’m really encouraged just from my vantage point over the past few years. I think we’ve seen some really positive developments. By far one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve had in my early career at IU East, I mean a lot of them have had to do with the Alliance and Safe Zone… the Safe Zone level 2 training or the drag show we have or the first drag show I was at, and I’m really embarrassed to admit this because I like to believe that I’m very metropolitan and worldly and everything, but somehow I had never gotten around to seeing a drag show prior to the students sponsored one in 2016 at IU East and I’m kind of glad that was the first one I had ever saw. Especially being in the kind of more rural part of the Midwest, with all the stereotypes I had unconsciously picked up about Indiana, it was so beautiful to see this auditorium full of people, fully engaged with this, and enjoying and being just really supportive. I wish everyone could see that or experience whatever…that feeling was, even though in a lot of ways it’s probably a drop in the buckets.
It’s really encouraging that were see this gradual progressing of more people being able to participate in Safe Zone training, the archive project, even the [written] piece for RadIUs, our alumni publication, those, when you take them all together, I think, those add up to you know some indication that our campus, our community is maybe putting some more direct focus on a group or groups of people (it’s not a real clear thing to define, that’s part of the important detail there), but I think there is something really positive that I can’t… I legitimately can’t tell you what shape it’s taking or will take, but there are some really good signs that the wheels are turning and there’s this movement that we’re maybe and, I don’t know if IU Eat will be known as the campus who’s LGBTQ+ friendly. There’s a lot of evidence that we are, maybe even I kind of like to bring this up as an ending… it’s a good place to close.
I teach a lot of things online. There are some great things about both teaching and learning online. It has its challenges too; you know how that goes. I had a student call me some time in 2016, well into my time advising the Alliance, by which point I was on the website as the faculty advisor… but I had a student call me out of the blue from out of state, who is a completely online student, doing the complete online program, but it was really interesting because they were… it was somebody who was transitioning, and they were really concerned, especially with [being] Indiana and the bad [press] that we get or had gotten along LGBTQ+ lines, [they said] “I know its online but I’m kind of worried and I don’t know if people are going to accept me.” …From my perspective, I’m looking at it thinking well yeah, we’ve got a Safe Zone trainings, we have the Alliance [at IU East], we have all these great [things] and you know, very supportive people on our campus, especially online, you know, that’s kind of our thing, ([IU East] was an early adopter), it was such an important reminder for me [that] even with all those things in place, there’s still a completely understandable concern people have about acceptance, about perception.
There’s still a long way we have to go to really walk the walk of being a truly safe place for everybody or really being accepting of everyone. I kind of take that in the context that there really is a lot of reasons to be hopeful, in a lot of sense that were taking the right steps, and making the right moves, but just like with anything else, especially with my background in special ED, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 50 years, but you can’t spend all of your time thinking look at all the progress we’ve made and forget the game is still going. This is just kind of a positive look around for the next play, not like we’ve won, and this is the super bowl kind of thing. I think it’s a good reminder of that balance, like it’s worth celebrating some of the victories we’ve had, but not forgetting that the clock is still running, you know.
B: Alright. Thank you, Josh.
J: Thank you very much