Scholars at Work

Public Scholar Profile: Theresa Ronquillo

Theresa Ronquillo


I became a social worker because I wanted to work with others to take action and transform social structures. Social injustice is not theoretical, nor does it impact only marginalized sections of the population; social injustice is real, lived, embodied, and impacts everyone.

Theresa Ronquillo is an Instructional Consultant at the University of Washington’s Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL). She is also the Co-Director of the Interactive Theater as Pedagogy Project, a collaboration of the CTL and Memory War Theater. She holds affiliate faculty positions in the UW School of Social Work and the UW Southeast Asia Center and as Participating Faculty with the UW Center for Performance Studies. While in the Social Work doctoral program, Ronquillo participated in the Simpson Center’s Institute in the Public Humanities in 2006. She currently serves on the steering committee for the Certificate in Public Scholarship.

On behalf of the Simpson Center, Amanda Swain recently talked with Ronquillo about her work with interactive theater and how she has continued to practice public scholarship since completing her degree.

AS: How did you become interested in public scholarship?

TR: I have been a social work professional and learner-educator for the last fifteen years. I became a social worker because I wanted to work with others to take action and transform social structures. Social injustice is not theoretical, nor does it impact only marginalized sections of the population; social injustice is real, lived, embodied, and impacts everyone. 

While it’s not my intention to conflate social work and public scholarship, I do see a lot of fundamental overlaps, including valuing: cultural diversity, social justice, dialogue, participation, reflection, partnerships and collaboration, reciprocation and mutual benefit, critical thinking and analysis. In my experience, while these ethics and values are central to social work and public scholarship, they are not easily attained. It’s a difficult, lifelong process. And so, while I’ve been doing work for a long time, there will always be new questions and challenges to engage in.

Why did you decide to participate in the Institute in the Public Humanities while in a PhD program?

The first year of my PhD program in Social Welfare transformed me. I started flexing my theoretical, critical analysis, and creative muscles as I became familiar with scholars whom I call my “postcolonial, anti-colonial, post-structural BFFs”—Said, Fanon, Derrida, Foucault, Freire. Using my newfound critical tools, I was getting more into diaspora studies and deconstructing traditional identity theories often studied in Social Work and Psychology. Some of my Social Work peers apply similar critical, theoretical lenses in their scholarship and practice. Nonetheless, I was definitely interested in meeting more people outside of my discipline—especially those that live and breathe this critical work.

At the time, I don’t think there had been any Public Humanities Fellows from the professional schools, which is why I felt like I was going out on a limb applying for the Institute. But I’m thankful I did. It was a great opportunity to meet and learn with graduate students from a variety of disciplines. I learned a lot from my peers. I also learned that my education and professional training in social work is truly aligned with public humanities and public scholarship. It’s exhilarating to think about the possibilities, yet it’s also confounding to realize that there still are few deep institutional partnerships between social work and the public humanities beyond individual students and faculty reaching out. So many bridges yet to build and cross!

How do you define or understand the term “public scholarship”?

It’s still a very academic term, isn’t it? 

It’s perhaps easier for me define public scholarship through what I do and the values I hold that shape what I do and how I practice. In fact, to take it even further, “public scholarship” isn’t simply what I do—it’s my core. I have always told my students and peers that Social Work isn’t something I just do – it is my anchor, fundamental belief and value system, not simply a career. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I do this work because it’s who I am.

So what is my core? As I said, social justice is my core. Currently, I’m focusing on enacting social change and co-creating knowledge and scholarship with communities through interactive theater and other arts-based methodologies. This work draws from critical pedagogies and critical scholarship that focus on collaborating with diverse people and organizations and promotes transferable, practical skills.

In your opinion, why does public scholarship matter to graduate education?

My involvement in public scholarship as a graduate student was an integral part of my education. It helped push my own intellectual and disciplinary boundaries and revealed the importance of fostering interdisciplinary partnerships. I don’t think I would be the learner-educator I am today if I hadn’t ventured outside of my department as a student and actively engaged in different opportunities across campus. In fact, I believe that all graduate students may benefit from these types of experiences. Project- and portfolio-based learning, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and engagement with publics are integral to the success of graduate students. If graduate education aims to prepare graduate students for a range of careers, then these skills must be cultivated. We should no longer think of careers as either inside or outside of academia, but rather how careers can straddle both seamlessly. Out of necessity and accountability to communities and publics, graduate students and scholars should be able to walk through these worlds simultaneously.

As such, I would love to see more diversity in the disciplines represented in public scholarship activities at UW. Social Work and other applied fields like Nursing, Medicine, and Public Health are aligned with the values and goals of public scholarship. How could people and units from STEM fields, who value community building, partnering with public and private sectors in industry, and innovative ways to disseminate scholarship, interact with public humanities scholarship? There’s untapped potential here and I look forward to seeing how public scholarship opportunities on this campus could make inroads into and connections among our diverse community. 

Can you tell us more about the Interactive Theater as Pedagogy Project? How did this project grow out of your public humanities work as a doctoral student?

Interactive Theater as Pedagogy Project (ITPP) is a unique collaboration between the UW Center for Teaching & Learning and Memory War Theater, a Seattle-based theater company devoted to personal and community transformation through performing arts, partnerships, and education. I co-direct ITPP with Tikka Sears, the Artistic Director of Memory War Theater.

I first met Tikka in graduate school, while I was working as the Project Coordinator for UW Difficult Dialogues: Engaging Southeast Asian American Pluralism in Seattle, a multi-year Ford Foundation-funded initiative, which was housed at the Simpson Center. This project aimed to identify and open up opportunities for curricular, pedagogical, and social transformation through student-generated dialogue events and new courses encompassing critical pedagogies such as intergroup dialogue and creative, arts-based assignments. Our collaborative work culminated in a multimedia performance event highlighting student projects from all of the new courses, drawing an audience of 150 students, Asian American community members, and university faculty, staff, and administrators. With a background in theater and performance, Tikka provided artistic consultation for several of the courses. Getting to know her and her practices, I began to understand how powerful arts, theater, and oral histories could be in facilitating community dialogues.  Students showed us how effective these modalities were in creative, multi-media projects that reinterpreted course content in the context of their own personal, familial, and community stories. It was a transformative moment for me as a learner-educator and scholar—to really see “making connections to lived experiences” in action, embodied, enacted, and performed by these students. 

That was back in 2008, and Tikka and I have been collaborating ever since.  Our focus for the last few years has been developing and expanding Interactive Theater as Pedagogy Project (ITPP) with an emphasis on Theater of the Oppressed methodologies.

In April 2013, ITPP held a public performance event, drawing nearly 100 audience members from diverse publics. ITPP group members—UW faculty, staff educators, and graduate students committed to building skills in social change theater to raise awareness and spark dialogue on issues of institutional oppression and privilege—performed three plays engaging audience members in reflection, discussion, and a rehearsal of responses to issues related to gender oppression, linguistic privilege, and whiteness. 

How has public scholarship shaped what you are doing professionally since receiving your degree at UW?

I haven’t stopped doing collaborative public scholarship projects; they fuel me and ground me. What is exciting is to explore all the different ways of practicing public scholarship. I have been developing community-based, experiential courses, teaching students as well as university colleagues, and running projects like Interactive Theater as Pedagogy Project. An important goal of my public scholarship work is to impart useful, transferable skills among my students and colleagues so that they can continue to make an impact in their own communities. 

One of my passions is developing and instructing project-based classes that enable students to build skills in oral history interviewing, facilitating intergroup dialogues, community engagement, exploring community arts and performance practices to re-tell narratives, and event planning. During the 2010-2011 academic year, I taught another yearlong experimental course based on this pedagogical and community engagement model, focusing on oral histories of mixed heritage/multiracial families. This new course, entitled “Intergenerational Roots: A Mixed Heritage Family Oral History Project,” was housed in the School of Social Work and partially funded by the Diversity Research Institute at the University of Washington. My students conducted oral history interviews with their friends and family, collaborated on producing a documentary film, which was shown at the UW School of Social Work and the Ethnic Cultural Theater, in partnership with Memory War Theater.

I currently work at the UW Center for Teaching & Learning, which is dedicated to collaborating with faculty and staff across campus to disseminate evidence-based research on teaching, learning, innovation, and mentoring. I am grateful that the CTL and my colleagues fully support ITPP as a co-sponsored program of the Center. Although the publicly engaged creative work Tikka and I have been doing has flown under the larger institutional radar for a while, I am enthusiastic and hopeful about the future. It’s validating to know that several parts of the University community are starting to take notice of our work and see us as a valuable resource for promoting critical awareness and dialogue, taking action for creating inclusive academic environments, and building community throughout the university and beyond.

Interview conducted by Amanda Swain. Amanda is a recent PhD graduate of the UW Department of History, an alum of the Institute on the Public Humanities for Doctoral Students, and a former director of the Arizona Humanities Council and Humanities Washington.


Learn more about the Simpson Center’s public scholarship initiatives.