Social Justice Educators and their Pesky Inner Voices by Vu Tran

Those who identify as social justice educators place themselves in positions of leadership, and I believe that leadership can be broken down into two components: competence and confidence.

Competence comes from the knowledge and skills that can be acquired and developed through education and training. As a graduate student, I had the privilege of working with the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan developing and delivering social justice workshops to the entire University community. Through that experience, I participated in numerous trainings on social justice concepts and facilitation techniques. I was able to enhance my ability to develop workshops, manage groups, listen attentively, and teach others basic concepts of identity, power, privilege, and oppression.

Confidence, however, is a much trickier thing to develop and navigate. I can vividly remember my first experience facilitating a workshop – I was an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut facilitating a program on motivation at a peer leadership conference. I didn’t have the self-awareness to comprehend it at the time, but when I reflect back on how I did, I was nothing short of a hot mess. Before the program, I was a nervous wreck and had an unhealthy amount of butterflies in my stomach. During the presentation, I made it a point to remind the audience multiple times that it was my first time facilitating, essentially lowering expectations as much as I could and buying sympathy from the participants. At the end of the program, I received applause from the audience, which I perceived to be “pity applause” since I talked so much about how this was my first time facilitating. Did I really do as poorly as I thought I did? Probably not. I still discussed intrinsic and extrinsic motivation with the group, and I received some genuinely positive feedback. But the inner thoughts in my head labeled that experience as a negative one, and that created a very low starting point for my confidence as a facilitator.

So how does one go about developing confidence? One idea that I found helpful was provided in my experience with therapy – Negative Self-Talk. Negative Self-Talk is a fairly broad concept that can be applied to almost anything that we do in life, including social justice education. The idea is that there are four types of negative self-talk:

  1. The Worrier (promotes anxiety): Spending time imagining the worst-case scenario.
  2. The Critic (promotes low self-esteem): Constantly judging and evaluating own behavior.
  3. The Victim (promotes depression): Feeling helpless and hopeless.
  4. The Perfectionist (promotes chronic stress and burnout): Constant reminders that your efforts aren’t good enough.

While people may engage in all of these thoughts at one time or another, your own individual experiences may lead you to fall into one of these types more often. Personally, I lean towards the “Critic” tendencies. During that workshop on motivation, I constantly assessed all of my words and actions. In fact, I’m even noticing some of those as I’m writing this blog post. “Geez, my thoughts aren’t flowing very well. This sentence structure sucks. Can’t I think of a better word?” It’s toxic, I tell you! So what can we do about negative self-talk?

Ways of combating negative self-talk as a social justice educator:

  1. Take some time to reflect on what type of negative self-talk you engage in most often, and find someone you trust to talk to about it. It can be a good friend, colleague, mentor, romantic partner, teacher, etc. I believe that openly engaging in this discussion can be a healthy way of building self-awareness.
  2. Find a coach. Find someone who can help you keep your morale and motivation up, and help you develop a positive self-image.
  3. Learn how to pause yourself. If you can catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk (like I did while writing this blog post), acknowledge it without being hard on yourself and continue with whatever it is that you are doing.
  4. Listen to positive feedback, and BELIEVE it. If you are like me, you can hear 8 things that you did well during a presentation and spend most of your mental/emotional energy focusing on the 1 piece of constructive feedback that you received.
  5. Be patient with yourself. You may have an image of people who are masterful social justice educators, and I can tell you with 100% confidence that they didn’t become who they are overnight. It takes years and years of dedication and positive reinforcement to build the type of competence and CONFIDENCE needed to be a great social justice educator.
  6. Give yourself the credit you deserve. Even if your individual conversation or group facilitation didn’t go the way you wanted it to, you are still putting in the effort and doing your best to affect change in others. I like to remind myself that all I can do is my very best, and the rest will take care of itself.
  7. Most importantly, maintain a positive self-image, develop your self-worth, and exercise self-love.

Confidence can be a fickle thing whether you are brand new to social justice education, or whether you have been doing this for 20 years. I encourage for you to take some time to gauge your level of confidence as a social justice educator.

Have other ideas or thoughts on confidence and negative self-talk? Feel free to e-mail me at or follow me on Twitter at @VuderTran.

Vu Tran works in Residential Life at the University of the Pacific. He identifies as Asian American, Vietnamese, Man, Male, Heterosexual, Middle-Class, Currently Able-Bodied, Raised Catholic, English-Speaking, College-Educated. Vu is a proud alumnus of the Social Justice Training Institute, and was recently elected on to ACPA’s Commision for Social Justice Educators Directorate Board. Some of his foremost passions in social justice education are issues of masculinity and privilege.

Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.

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