UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Vivian Yenika-Agbaw has spent her life studying and analyzing hierarchical systems of oppression and race relations. Through her writing and teaching, she encourages compassion, empathy, inclusivity and social change.
As a professor of literature and literacy in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, a mentor to many Penn State students, and an advocate for marginalized peoples, her research focuses on representing historically marginalized groups, including those marginalized by race, ethnicity, gender, class and disability.
“It aims to identify those who are marginalized and work to include their voices through literature,” she said.
Motivated to act by experience
The course of her research was shaped by her own youth and education. Originally from Cameroon, as a young student she witnessed a disparity of resources among students from various social classes, even within her own classrooms. Though only some had access to basic materials such as textbooks and pencils, all of her classmates were expected to compete and succeed.
“This disparity and inequality were something that people all saw, but didn’t want to say anything about,” she said.
This experience motivated her to act. She went on to earn a bachelor of arts in English language and literature from the University of Yaounde, Cameroon; a master of arts from the University of Connecticut in English education; and a doctorate from Penn State in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in language and literacy education, and expertise in children’s and adolescent literature.
Carrying inclusivity and empathy forward
When she became a Penn State professor in 2008, she began to teach her students about hierarchal systems of oppression and race relations, how these manifest through the stories we privilege in the classroom and other curricular materials. She also deliberately cultivates an environment and atmosphere of inclusivity and empathy regularly through her instructional practices, with the hope that her students carry these practices forward into their futures.
Yenika-Agbaw’s articles and research focus on what exclusion from these conversations can mean for children of color across the United States and the African diaspora.
Through her published scholarly works, she seeks to alleviate the challenges faced by these groups by heightening awareness among key stakeholders and the public at large — her goal to improve a U.S. public school curriculum that is frequently oblivious to the social, home and real life experiences of underprivileged children.
“Think about fairy tales,” she said. “You have young children in elementary school thinking about dolls and ‘Happily Ever After.’ The stories tell us that we are all princes and princesses, but by and large, the books do not capture the experiences of children of color.”
Her articles and research focus on what exclusion from these conversations can mean for children of color across the United States and the African diaspora.
One of her most widely read articles, “Taking Children’s Literature Seriously: Reading for Pleasure and Social Change,” examines the shortcomings of focusing solely on pleasurable readings of literature, and advocates for a critical multicultural reading of texts that confronts issues of power and social injustice.
Another article examined the impact of the lack of representation in literature of African-American and African children. The issues she raises in “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereotypes with New Ones?” — are about how stereotypes in children’s books might impact children of color’s perceptions of themselves. The article reminds readers of these children’s omission in books, and the implications of frequently rendering them invisible in children’s books, a topic that is now part of a larger national dialogue with the emergence of the WeNeedDiverseBooks movement.
“People on the margins all feel pain, but it doesn’t mean we are victims. There are many different ways of fighting for social justice; my tools are my research and my writing for the next generation.”
Mainstream literature’s failure to encompass a wide variety of cultures may cause an academic conflict for children whose reality differs from ideas they encounter and learn in the classroom, explained Yenika-Agbaw. Aside from lack of representation, misrepresentation is also an issue.
Her recent books — co-edited with a colleague from another university and two of her doctoral advisees —address these concerns: “Does Nonfiction Equate Truth: Rethinking Disciplinary Boundaries through Critical Literacy” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), with Ruth McKoy Lowery and Laura Anne Hudock; and “Using Nonfiction for Civic Engagement in Classrooms: Critical Approaches” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), with Ruth McKoy Lowery and Paul H. Ricks.
Creating agency – and possibilities – for children
Her research has motivated Yenika-Agbaw to create her own stories, stories with which children of color can identify.
For instance, her Easy Reader book, “A Day with Papa,” set in Cameroon, encourages young boys to respect parents who earn an honest living regardless of how menial the job might be. In this case, human dignity is privileged over the stigma of lower class based on what one does for a living, she said.
“I like to give children agency,” said Yenika-Agbaw, “and in my research I’m hoping that I’m creating possibilities for all children.”
She donated 150 copies of the book to children who live in the region of Cameroon where the story is set, and helped launch the first-ever public library in that community in March 2016.
Education for the next generation
She continues in her efforts to build the undergraduate and graduate programs in children’s and adolescent literature offered by the College of Education at Penn State, as well as the Literacies and English Language Arts graduate program.
“Our master’s in education degree program in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in children’s literature is one of the best in the nation,” said Yenika-Agbaw. “I’m proud to have contributed to this program’s success.”
Through her work, she aims to raise awareness about misrepresentations and inaccuracies of the experiences of minority populations in children’s and adolescent literature, among the Penn State community and the world at large, and to instill empathy and encourage others to be kind and work to understand each other. What she’s learned in her research has led her to dedicate a large portion of her life to issues of social justice, engaging educators in constructive dialogues about literature and literacies, and the ultimate goal of developing a curriculum of possibilities that is expansive and inclusive in its approach and, as such, acknowledges our rich diversity.
“People on the margins all feel pain, but it doesn’t mean we are victims,” she said. “There are many different ways of fighting for social justice; my tools are my research and my writing for the next generation.”
Through her work, Yenika-Agbaw aims to raise awareness about misrepresentations and inaccuracies of the experiences of minority populations in children’s and adolescent literature, among the Penn State community and the world at large, and to instill empathy and encourage others to be kind and work to understand each other.
The author or co-editor of several books and a leading U.S. scholar of critical content analysis of children’s and young adult literature, Yenika-Agbaw currently serves on the editorial board of the National Council of Teachers of English book publication, and on the editorial boards of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, the Journal of Negro Education, the Journal of Children’s Literature, Language Arts, and The Dragon Lode. She is the first Black person to be elected to the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) board (serving 2017-2019) since the formation of the organization in 1969. In this capacity, she recently traveled to Chile for a board meeting to discuss the possibility of Chile hosting the 25th biennial congress in 2021. It would be the first time IRSCL congress would be convening in South America. She said she is very pleased to be part of this initiative that is already impacting the field drawing attention to nonwestern children’s and adolescent literature.
About the Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion
In partnership with the Office of Strategic Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State produces the Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion, an ongoing series. Profiles will be distributed periodically on Penn State News and will explore the teaching and research accomplishments of featured individuals. The series will cast a specific light on the ways each individual’s background informs his or her work as a faculty member and more broadly as a member of the University community.