Felicia Ishino brings history to life

May 11, 2023

Felicia Ishino brings history to life

by Shannon Hong

Portrait of Felicia Ishino

Felicia Ishino (she/her), Executive Director of Sankofa Impact, has begun her 1-year Curriculum and Community Innovation Honors Fellowship, an award that supports interdisciplinary course development and community building beyond the classroom. With her passions for history, immersive learning and social justice, Ishino hopes to empower her students to think critically about the history of racism and explore ways to take part in everyday activism. During a recent conversation with Ishino, I had the pleasure of learning more about her and her work.

How would you describe your academic journey?

I entered the UW and majored in Creative Writing, which I loved. I was not a traditional student—I took some time off to start a family and work, so it took me a while to finish my undergraduate education. But I eventually went back to UW to pursue my Master’s in Education, specializing in Higher Education Leadership and Policy. 

I wanted to focus on working with young people, so I started my employment journey by working at a school called T.T. Minor Elementary, which was a part of Seattle Public Schools. Then, I moved into the high school system and eventually higher education. I was the Director of Academic Services in the UW Department of Communication for a number of years, and now I’ve moved into the nonprofit sector with Sankofa Impact.

What sparked your interest in higher education and nonprofits?

I’ve always believed that access and an equitable education were our priorities and just really important to me. I have a love of history and believe that we all learn from similar texts. The best parts of my educational experience were typically immersive—they were relevant to my identities, to the things that I believe in, and to the stories that connect my family to either cultural aspects of either this country or our origins. That’s all connected in a way to combine my relationship with higher education to this work that I do in the nonprofit arena.

How did that lead you to Sankofa Impact?

We’re a nonprofit in Seattle and our mission is to confront our shared history of racism and resistance by bringing people together for place-based learning experiences. Sankofa is a Ghanaian term and concept that loosely translates into “to go back and get it”. For us, it means to go back and retrieve history as a way of knowing where we’ve been so we can look to where we’re headed and where we would like to be going

We bring people together to form immersive place-based learning. We follow a model referred to as popular education, so we believe that everyone has something to offer the community and that we’re building that community together. We also bring groups together to travel through the American South to key sites of the Black American Freedom Struggle. It started very specifically around the Civil Rights Movement, but we’ve expanded it over the last five years to involve other movements as well as contemporary activism.

What’s the story behind your Honors class?

The Locating Racism in Resistance course, offered jointly with Honors and American Ethnic Studies, comes directly from Sankofa Impact’s mission so I hope that we can highlight some of those narratives that we just aren’t aware of. 

The class leans in really acutely into not being afraid to talk about tough subjects including racism, white supremacy, the foundations of this country and how a lot of that is built on enslavement. So we begin there and we go through the timeline of history, focusing on racism and how it’s shown up in different periods of time. But at the same time, we’re also focusing on how people have resisted racism and how that shows up in everyday activism. 

How is it working with Interdisciplinary Honors students?

Honors students are such deep thinkers. Naturally and without really any provocation, they are continuously connecting history to their identities and to what they believe strongly in. They also have a real readiness for this type of unique place-based learning. I think that’s probably what really appealed to a lot of Honors students—the idea that it’s immersive in the sense that while we’re in class, I’m trying to bring these narratives to the students in a very tangible way and asking them to place themselves in those narratives like where would you work? What do you believe in? How would you respond to this type of injustice or resistance? 

We’re also immersing ourselves by doing a field trip. We’re going to the Japanese Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island, so we’re physically taking the group to other places and out of a typical classroom setting. We’re also going to do the Indigenous walking tour of the UW. So a lot of it really is about place-based learning, not just learning from a textbook or sitting in a classroom. I’ve modeled the class in the exact opposite of that approach and these Honors students are very open to that type of learning, which is really great.

What is something that you’ve been working on lately?

My organization is building a Pacific Northwest version of pilgrimages. The idea behind a pilgrimage is that you travel but it’s more than just a trip. You go somewhere, you come back and you’re changed. You evolve your activism in really tangible ways whether it’s at your places of work or with your families, raising children or grandchildren. Anyone you come into contact with, it’s really hard to unlearn what you see, especially in a place of immersive learning environment. So we are working on a Pacific Northwest journey and I would love to deepen the relationship with Honors and build something similar to that, where it takes the class that we’re doing right now and involves more travel. 

What is something you wish more young people would know today?

I wish that more young people would know about the names and the narratives of people who’ve come before—like Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Zellner, Carolyn McKinstry, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Justin Pearson and Bryan Stevenson—and that they’re more aware of movements like the Stonewall Uprising and the work of community organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative. I wish that they’re inspired to do their own work in those arenas and that can connect in any way to their ultimate goals. I think that it’s really important to connect those narratives to their own beliefs and incorporate them into everything that they do. My class is embracing that notion, and I already see it happening in conversations with Honors students.