Pursuing justice, equity

Jenn Tran

Interest in cultural study sparks Dr. Yelena Bailey’s fight against social, racial, socioeconomic barriers

When she isn’t teaching Writing 1000, American Ethnic Literature, or U.S. Latinx Literature, Dr. Yelena Bailey, assistant professor of english at SPU, spends her days separating the work between her scholar pursuits and her courses, as well as working on her research in social issues, including the way black feminist writers engage with nationalist and internationalist movements

Her interest began when she was an undergraduate, in Cuba on a field research trip, and her love of traveling has stayed with her.

As an avid traveler, Bailey hopes to take a research trip to the east coast this upcoming spring, to Hawaii within the next few years and, at the top of her list, Johannesburg, South Africa sometime in the future. However, her next destination will be going home to her family in Minnesota, where she finds the most joy.

“What makes me happiest are in the small things, I love spending time with friends and family. I like community, that’s where I get the most joy,” she said.

“Not so much things or practices, but being in those spaces where you feel understood and loved and affirmed, which is an important balance when you spend most of your time thinking about horrible things going on in the world.”
When asked about the positive student reactions to her courses, and the way she influences students through her teaching, Bailey was both flattered and pleasantly surprised.

“I’m glad that students are enjoying the classes, that they’re not put off by the subject matter. I love all my students and enjoy teaching these topics and am always encouraged by the way you all dig into the subject matter,” she said. “I’m the one that’s typically impressed with you all.”

Now in her eighth year of teaching at the college level, Bailey says that it has been encouraging to know the positive attitudes of the students, and how receptive they have been.

When it comes to SPU’s progression forward, she would like to see the institution be as inclusive and affirming as possible.
She believes that dignity and the right for people to be affirmed for who they are is a fundamental part of being a Christian institution.

She wants students to know that their identities aren’t in competition with their faith.

“I think that’s something I would like to see SPU be clearer about. I’d like for it to be a space where students can come, be challenged, [where] they can learn, without any sense of who they are will be attacked or demeaned.” she said.
Bailey, as an enthusiast for cultural studies, is very excited that her passion has reached and influenced many of her students.

“I really love the field; I think that it’s not a field that’s well understood by people or not a lot of people know about it, especially in undergrad,” she explained.

“When I look at a lot of the issues we’re having, we could easily fix this if people had basic training in cultural studies. I’m excited that students are catching onto this and are interested in it.”

To her, there are answers to the harder questions in life, she continued, but people often get caught up in the idea that there are no answers. Explaining why people act in the ways they do can be summed up easily, and thinking about how to change those behaviors is a logical next step, but acting on those solutions is something different, Bailey says.

“To me it’s exciting hearing that students are interested in this because there are explanations, there are answers, and there are ways of doing this kind of work in a meaningful way, people just have to know what that is,” she said.

Bailey completed her bachelor’s in physics and Spanish and Latin American literature from Bethel University; her master’s in Spanish and Latin American literature from New York University at their campus in Spain; and her doctorate in literature and cultural studies at the University of California San Diego before coming to SPU.

During her time at Bethel, Bailey was focusing on a physics degree. As a relatively small school, she was surprised the university “had a physics program that was in the top 20 in the nation.”

It was a unique experience, she described, and tough in many ways.

“As much as SPU is still growing, in ways it’s leaps and bounds ahead of my experience there as a woman of color,” she explained. “I think that got me into cultural studies. Just by context and experience, we have some issues to work on. I would like to make that part of my life.”

Although she began her education in a science field with the intent of becoming an engineer, after realizing it wasn’t what she wanted to continue pursuing, she switched to studying Spanish and Latin American topics, U.S. cultural studies and African diaspora.

Bailey wants to emphasize that although she has a background in literature, it was not until she began her doctoral program that she switched to doing literature in English. She is a reminder that although you can have a set idea of what path you would like to go in, you may come out of it having done something entirely different.

As a graduate student, Bailey was under the tutelage of Dr. Susan VanZanten, her mentor. She credits VanZanten with helping bring her to SPU.

“Honestly if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have thought about SPU because I honestly didn’t think I’d go into the English department. I wasn’t sure I’d end up at a Christian college. When I came here to do my interview and got to know the students, I felt like this was the right place.”

Bailey also decided to come to SPU over the University of Pittsburgh because of her own undergraduate experience; she saw similarities between SPU and Bethel University.

“I knew what it was like to have not have many faculty of colour, or women I could look up to. Part of my presence is to hopefully be what I didn’t have while I was in undergrad,” she explained. “Just to be able to offer up my story. As far as my teaching goes, I really do think that a lot of the issues we’re having are just because people don’t have a grasp on certain realities.”

Certain events in history are not up for debate, she emphasizes. To be able to understand their impact on the way people understand and engage with each other, Bailey believes, can “radically change our world for the better.”

Her hope as a professor is to teach her students that they will go out into the world as changed people, different from the current social norms circulating the world.

As a woman of color, Bailey has noted she has spent her life “actively fighting racial, gender, and socioeconomic barriers.”

She is grateful to have ended up in higher education, but is saddened that her experience is considered an exception, not a standard. This fact reflects on the idea that there is still a great amount of work to be done.

As said in her biography, Bailey is committed to providing her students with the knowledge, histories and methodologies necessary to engage in cultural studies in a meaningful way.

In relation, she says, “I believe that such work is both necessary and important to the pursuit of a more just and equitable world.”