The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Ankita Deka: Lifelong Learnings in Social Work

August 07, 2019

Ankita Deka: My goal is to create these critical pedagogical experiences for the students where they master these concepts and learn to develop skills, but more importantly, where there is also some critical consciousness raising, where they're able to question how normative values around institutions of hegemony, how they have framed these knowledge bases.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the President of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg Podcast, and today I'm speaking with Ankita Deka, associate professor of social work at Augsburg University, and we're going to explore a little bit of her historical roots in her work in social work here today. Welcome, Ankita.

Ankita Deka: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Catherine Day: It would be wonderful to hear a little bit of the path you took to find your way to your field of interest, as well as your place here at Augsburg, and that's kind of a long journey, but maybe we can take it in a couple of parts. Where did you grow up?

Ankita Deka: It certainly is a very long journey, and I think it all started where I was growing up, but more importantly, I think even when I was born. I was born in 1979, in a small state called Assam in the northeastern part of India, and Assam, for those that are geographically unfamiliar, we border Bangladesh. We are very close to Myanmar, and we're also in general very close to Southeast Asia. I was born in the year when the Assam Movement, which was basically a student led movement that were fighting against immigrants in Assam, which included people from other parts of India as well as mostly from Bangladesh. Well, it resonates with our times right now for sure. This was at its peak, and so in some way I think from my initial years, my primary years were formative in the way that the civic unrest informed who I was going to be or who I was becoming.

My parents were relatively financially secure. We were middle class. Of course, the notion of middle class has its own cultural context. In my case, I come from a three generation of educators. My great grandfather was a primary school, what we would call elementary school here teacher. My grandfather gave up his law career to be a headmaster or principal. He set up the first high school in post-independent India in the village that he grew up in. And then I am the third generation educator in my family.

So we had a lot of social class, social class that did not necessarily resonate the same way as it does here in the US. We had social class that came from education, not necessarily from money, and to a lot of degree, that shielded me from some of the precariousness that my generation of folks otherwise felt in that generation where there was a lot of civic unrest. The state was sort of falling apart, multiple secessionist movements both from India and both sort of again from the state of Assam. So to some degree, I think it's fair to characterize that all of that were pretty formidable in ways that they shaped me as an individual.

Catherine Day: When did you begin to transition to a different place that you were going to grow up and learn?

Ankita Deka: I think that is where I perhaps have to underscore the fact that even as I feel that each of us that arrived here in the United States, we have a unique story to tell, we have an immigrant story, and yet we are not a monolithic imagination. We also carry, besides the fact that we're all immigrants, we have other intersectional identities such as nation of origin, race, class, gender. All of that frames sort of our contemporary experiences here in the US, and I say that only because sometimes this whole idea of resiliency around certain groups of immigrants is overplayed in the public narrative to pit us against each other.

That framing allows me to answer that question a little bit better, because despite sort of all of these complexities and really volatile times that I was growing up in, I had the comfort of family. I had the comfort of steadiness in socioeconomic class, and I was one of the fortunate ones that actually had an opportunity to leave, because I eventually did when I was 17. The state was almost at the crossroads, and my generation in particular, we felt a sense of dejection and hopelessness and there weren't very many opportunities left in the state of Assam, which is when I turned 17, my parents sent me to New Delhi to pursue my university degree or as is often known in India, to study college.

I went to Delhi University and I earned my undergraduate degree in English literature, and beyond that I went to one of India's top schools of social work, in fact, social science. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. I got my master's degree from there with a specialization in urban and rural development. I had really never thought about becoming a social worker because I think one of the urgency that you have when you grew up under those circumstances is that there's a certain sense of complacency that builds around you. You feel the dejection, you feel the hopelessness, but you do not feel the urgency to be engaged in that change. And I was perhaps one among that in the generation where I was taught that the only way you can help the circumstance is not being another liability. And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to find opportunities where I could better my personal self, personal professional self, and where I could do something with my life, simply put.

So when I went to Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I quite didn't understand in all honesty what social work really meant. I perhaps went there seeking better opportunities for myself, because it was just such a well reputed place, and I felt fortunate that I was able to get a place there. I arrived in Mumbai naive, and much of my naivety, again, wasn't just framed by ignorance, but it was also framed I believe by my own set of privileges. And in this case, most importantly my caste, which is not the exact proxy for race, but in this case let's just kind of make that the equivalent, and my social class.

But while being at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, not just pedagogically, but the up close and center interactions that I had with issues such as poverty, homelessness, child welfare, mental health, I think really went on to have pretty significant life changing impact on me, and cliched as it seems, there was that moment of reckoning where I of course had to deal with my own sense of guilt, which isn't a very helpful place to be, because guilt doesn't further it, but it started there. It started with this sense of guilt that I see, I saw this every day and yet hadn't approached it quite in the same way.

And so really my unlearning of my own experiences and my worldview and my lens, that shaped the way I experienced my world. I tried taking those pillars off, and those two years that I spent at my master's at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and doing rural and urban placements, I worked in some of the biggest slums in South Asia, including Dharavi. That really began to change me as an individual, and I was fairly young then. I was only about 21 years old at that time.

Catherine Day: When you did that searching and after you got your degree, what was the path to getting here to Augsburg?

Ankita Deka: I met my husband in a very Bollywood style. Again, very cliched, but I had known my husband approximately or had met him in person probably for three days, and on the fourth day we were married on paper, followed by a big fat Indian wedding. And then a month later I was here in the United States. My husband at that time was a student, and he was at Indiana University, and although I was equipped with a master's degree from one of the best institutes in South Asia, if not in the world, I was incapable of working here because of the visa restrictions. And it was hard to live, frankly, on the $1,300 that my husband was making off his scholarship. So then the rational question to ask was, besides the fact that I didn't want to just sit in that cold apartment in Bloomington by myself, what was I going to do? I knew that at some point I wanted to pursue beyond a master's degree, but it wasn't sort of in my immediate plan and yet it quickly became one after I arrived in the United States, and so I picked up my GRE book, I wrote an exam, and within two months I had secured a place for a fully funded PhD Program at the Indiana University School of Social Work.

Catherine Day: My goodness.

Ankita Deka: That was my foray into sort of the professional world of social work, but I could certainly build on that. Again, I think in the scheme of life, Augsburg sort of just worked out. I was about to finish my dissertation but hadn't quite wrapped up, and we were wrestling with the idea of spending the rest of our life here in Minnesota because my husband had moved here for a job, and I found this job at Augsburg and I applied, and long story short, I eventually was offered the job, but here's what had happened in the intervening years that I of course have to contextualize to build on this narrative. I went to a school of social work in India that was very radical in nature, and I may have said this while they interviewed me here at Augsburg, was that I went to become a social worker to raise hell.

I wasn't going to be a conformist, and my PhD years and experience, although I got a lot out of the program in itself, I learned how to do research, which was very important, but the process also left me very disappointed because the year was 2004, and this was again a seminal moment, I think, in social work history in the US. At that decade, social work was really trying to gain legitimacy as a profession with some of the other helping professions, and we were at the peak of, or quickly to be peaking moment of the evidence based movement. So the way I approached the world, the way I saw structures as being problematic, the way I approach social work as being part of this gamut of the status quo wasn't really an accepted viewpoint at that time, and so I was quite disillusioned by what we were teaching our students to do. Mostly trying to conform without really questioning the very structures that sustain and nurture the many inequities that our service users find themselves in.

I was actually wrestling with the idea of whether or not social work was even the right fit for me when Augsburg happened. And then here I am here at Augsburg, and I was really happily surprised to see that this was an entirely different universe, that the faculty here in the Social Work Department had long embraced a social justice pedagogy that tried to address social inequities in a very intentional way, and in a very globally informed way. And there was that moment, I was like, "What? How did this just happen?" We were also the pioneers. My colleagues of course were the pioneers of the intergroup dialogue in social work, which really was avant garde and perhaps still is now for many social work programs in the country.

In the end, I was really surprised that after being dejected for almost five, six years about the state of social work and what we were doing in the profession, here I am at Augsburg, really at the front end of trying to teach, or teach to social justice pedagogy, so that's how I landed up here.

Catherine Day: You're teaching at the master's level.

Ankita Deka: Mostly.

Catherine Day: Mostly, and so what's the age range of your students?

Ankita Deka: I think it quite varies, which is really a wonderful problem. When I first came to Augsburg, 2008, I do have to ... And this is, again, not statistically based, although this is purely sort of anecdotal, but my experience was then there were a lot of students who were coming back to school to get an advanced degree, perhaps because that was something they wanted to do after years of practice, or because that was going to help them get a step up in their job. But I think the scenario changed after the recession. Now we do see a lot of students that are coming through the pipeline straight after undergraduate degree, but I also have students who are grandmothers and they are getting this degree because this was on their plan. So we have a range of students and that makes the classroom, I think, very dynamic.

Catherine Day: What kinds of issues do your students come and ask you to help them navigate?

Ankita Deka: My whole approach to teaching is really about creating pedagogical experiences where students are able to have complex understanding of concepts, theoretical or otherwise, and then apply them into tangible skills as they engage to do this work, because we are a skill space profession. It would be wonderful if our students could just study social problems, but meanwhile they have to do something with it. So while they're learning, they're also questioning. They're questioning the theories. Who created them and why? Who were these research studies done on and to serve what interest? So that critical inquiry is really important. That's how I define both sort of the pedagogy as well as the curriculum that ski to my teaching.

One of the things that I strive to do in my classroom, not always extremely successfully, which is maybe, again, not a bad problem, because that keeps me on my feet, is to really dissenter what we assume to be knowledge and to incorporate marginal voices. So an example of that would be, it could be the same theory that we're studying, but maybe from the lens of the other. Maybe lens of a woman, or a woman of color, and not just another white male theorist, which they also have to learn about, but then it's always really wonderful when they can criticize the same theory, taking another theoretical lens. So that's the work that I most love to do, and I think Augsburg has allowed me the space to continuously do that, which is the charm of being here in this place.

Catherine Day: What do you learn from your students?

Ankita Deka: I learn so much from my students. I actually learn more from them than perhaps they learn from me, because our students are diverse, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of, as you had earlier alluded to, generational identity, urban versus rural. Their practice experiences, where they have worked, and how that has informed the work that they do or the work that they aspire to do. But the one common thread I think that our program distinguishes itself in is the draw of the students, who chooses to come to Augsburg, and I think students self select themselves because of the wonderful reputation that we have, not just as a program of exceptional academic standards, but more importantly also because of the diversity and inclusion work, which our department has been at the forefront of.

Really sort of combining that, and I think the magic really happens both within the classroom, but actually more after they have left, so a few years after they have graduated. And because I also teach field courses where my current students are placed, I go back and I find our alums who are doing wonderful things on the field, really changing the world. Students that have gone on to become state legislators. Students that are community activists in policy think tanks, and leading psychotherapy institutes and whatnot, so a range of interests and range of work that they're really successful at, but that back and forth about how they inform me and have allowed me to sort of be more adaptive in my teaching, I think has been really wonderful.

Catherine Day: Where else might we typically have the opportunity to really connect with the work of a social worker, and what kinds of things might it do for us to improve our connectivity maybe, or some of the issues we're facing?

Ankita Deka: I think the role of a social worker has become extremely dynamic. As I said, it is perhaps not accidental that Augsburg certainly was probably at the front end of this game of trying to approach shift social work. I have to, of course, go back a little bit and frame this perhaps differently, that the roots of the profession are very radical. We, as a profession, we started in the mid-20th century, and one of the reasons that we organized as a profession was to fight back against the inequity, both the structural systemic inequity, but over a period of time it seemed, and in other books, I'm not the first one to claim that there's enough work that has happened in the intervening time that somehow social work discarded their radical roots and started conforming more with some of the other allied clinical professions. But then that reclaiming is happening back again, because we're not able to address all of the worst problems just by doing therapy. Because the roots of many of our social issues are very, very structural.

And so the place of social workers, I think, are universal. We are seeing that increasingly social workers doing a lot of work now in healthcare settings, and addressing health disparities, not just being clinical social workers that provides counseling or grief counseling, but being at the front end of, "How do we create systems that are not disparate?" And we handle equity in the healthcare system. We see social workers in education, not just your traditional social workers placed in school settings, but policy advocates for that matter, advocating for equitable public policy around education, around public education. So really again that space is very dynamic.

Catherine Day: Who has inspired and mentored you in your teaching?

Ankita Deka: I was very lucky or fortunate that when I first arrived here at Augsburg, there were resources and supports that allowed new faculty, particularly for someone like me who had just come out of the pipeline straight from school into teaching, and there were a lot of formal supports at that time where I could get that necessary sort of in way into teaching in the classroom. Dr. Frankie Shackelford, who was here on campus, she's now retired, was very helpful.

Catherine Day: She's legendary, isn't she?

Ankita Deka: She's legendary. She's truly an Augsburg legend, and we spent so many hours just chatting and talking about teaching, and the art of teaching, and the love of teaching. I also did have very many departmental mentors. Dr. Annette Garten, who has now since passed. Colleague of mine in the social work department, mentored me quite a bit. And of course there were other informal supports that I could lean on.

I think this is the wonderful thing about being here at Augsburg. It is this humanness space where people come together to lift each other when they can, because ultimately we're all committed to one thing, the wellbeing of our students. I think that's what brings us together, which we haven't even talked about Augsburg. It is indeed a really luminous space. I'm perhaps repeating myself, but I was again surprised, in terms of sort of this symbiotic relationship or the visionary symbiosis between social work's vision and Augsburg's vision, and while it might seem very intuitive in this place at Augsburg, it's just like that, "Isn't that the way to be?" It really isn't. There are a lot of other places where that disconnect can be huge. In our program in particular, the social work program, everything we do is very intentional because we're social justice focused, but it certainly helps that the institution in itself, Augsburg, has been for a long time like the settlement house or is aspiring to be a settlement house, as President Pribbenow often characterizes it.

We have been at the forefront of doing this work very intentionally, because it is the right thing to do. We've been at the beginning of sort of the lane when we embarked on this vision of making this place diverse and inclusive. When I came here in 2008, the undergraduate student body, and again, my statistics could be a little off here and there, but I believe for the undergraduate student body, the diversity was sitting roughly around 13%, and this year's incoming class is closer to 57%, if I understand, and that didn't happen by accident. It happened by intentionality. That doesn't mean we're perfect. We have our failings, and I think that's what makes us better, because we haven't arrived. We have work to do and we're cognizant about it, but this is truly a place that allows you to do your work with meaning.

When I first heard the word "vocation," I was actually very apprehensive about it because there are some theological connotations attested to that word, and as someone that hasn't for the longest time identified with any specific organized religion, I had my own qualms around it. I had my qualms about coming to a Lutheran institution with a cross sticking out of a church, because I had spent the first 16 years of my life going to a Catholic school, and if anything, at the end of the experience, which I got a wonderful education, but I knew that this was the closest I would ever be to an organized religion. My parents raised me Hindu, but not very much of a practicing Hindu. So for me, I was actually worried without really understanding, because for me, again, naively speaking, I associated Christianity as one monolithic whole.

So when I came to Augsburg, I still struggled with that idea that in not knowing very much about what shaped Augsburg and how the Lutheran values sort of interfaced in this place, to some degree I was sort of, I think, very cautious. But then quickly I found out that this place is all about meaning building. This is a place where each of us, I think, live out the mission in very intentional ways. If they were to do such a study, I'm sure they would find the kind of identification with mission. I don't know of another place that would perhaps put the centrality of the mission with such prime focus, and so that just allows you to do the work that you want to do. In my case, doing social justice work, and diversity and inclusion. It just seems like a natural here at Augsburg. Again, as I said, we're not perfect, but we aspire to be, and most importantly to meet the needs of all of our learners.

Catherine Day: What are your dreams for this next phase of your teaching and research?

Ankita Deka: That is a good question. I haven't so much thought of it as a dream, as much as a plan. I am really optimistic. I am an eternal pragmatist, and I have to be that, considering the many life experiences that I have had. I had to have a plan, I'll tell you that ,or I wouldn't be here today. I feel very pragmatic that Augsburg, if we continue to engage in this work thoughtfully, that we will really be at the front end of delivering an education that is truly equitable in teaching the next generation of leaders. People who will not just get degrees, but who will meanwhile also go and do active work to engage in their community and change the world, and engage with all the pressing problems, from climate change to poverty to displacement, all of the issues that we wrestle with today.

In terms of my own teaching, I think it's a lifelong learning. I don't want to feel settled. I never have. I like to learn about new teaching methodologies. Of course, our learners are very diverse and dynamic in the ways they learn, so there's constant engagement with, "How do I teach them better?" Or, "How do I create the space where students take charge of their learning and use it meaningfully?" It should also be self directed to some to some degree. And so that's the continuous work that I will have to do, and I aspire to do as long as I remain an educator.

In terms of my research interest, I am a health disparity researcher, and I have studied sort of how institutional discrimination impacts health outcomes in African American communities. I have studied it within the context of South Asian communities, but more recently my research has also been beginning to focus on South Asian immigrants, particularly because South Asians are a significant number when it comes to immigrant groups here in Minnesota, and really understanding some of the embedded issues, both within the context of domestic violence, mental health, and some of the other issues. So my research informs my teaching and vice versa, and so that's sort of the plan that I have, not so much a dream.

Catherine Day: Are there some students who you particularly find challenging you to think in new ways right now? That have brought issues to the table that maybe surprised you?

Ankita Deka: I am continuously challenged by my students. First off, I think I do a little bit of self disclosure to my students that here I am, trying to teach our curriculum to help prepare students to build skills so that they can practice, and yet I am disconnected from practice because I'm not a practicing social worker. So while I approach the things very theoretically, I do have a missing element in this, which is practice. And that's where my students, I think, really inform me, because they're the ones at the front line doing the work.

They also challenge me, I think, in ways that I had mentioned before. Students with diverse social identities. Our graduate classrooms are perhaps not as diverse as the undergraduate classrooms are, but their life experiences, the life experiences students bring, the multiple roles that they have, which I didn't as a master student, my education was all paid for by the state.

Catherine Day: When you say "multiple roles," you mean like they're parenting-

Ankita Deka: They're parenting.

Catherine Day: ... they're working.

Ankita Deka: They're working. We have a exclusively weekend-based master's program. Most of our students, if not all of our students work full or part time, and then they wear multiple hats and more importantly, they have educational debts, right? So they are navigating all of these complex systems and their experiences really shape the way I approach the material and the way I approach teaching.

Catherine Day: Well, if there were one thing you would like to leave us with as you think about your trajectory, what's important here at Augsburg, what might it be?

Ankita Deka: I think, as I had alluded to earlier, I want us to engage with this complexity of the times that we're in and not rush to finding easy answers or short fixes, because the work that we're trying to do, I think, is pivotal in higher ed, in trying to truly make education inclusive and equitable and accessible in all its dynamic forms. And here, I'm not just alluding to students who bring in life experiences because of their race and ethnicity, but students who have disability, both overt and covert, visible and invisible. Students who are first generation, who have no orientation to higher ed or college experiences. Students who are first generation immigrants. Students who are, they are recovering while in college. So really dynamic group of learners, right? In order to serve them well and to best meet their needs, but more importantly to prepare them for what we don't know what it's going to be like. We don't know the kind of jobs that we are preparing our students to interface given sort of this sea shift in technology. No one knows the jobs that we have today, "Well, what forms of it will exist?"

So how do we prepare them while also sort of upholding the basics of what keeps us going as a society? How do we teach simultaneously teach kindness? How do we teach stewardship? How do we teach our students to be leaders? Not just in the context of the work they do, but in their communities and all of that? So both engaging in that kind of work to develop pedagogical practices and curriculum, all of this requires hard work and engagement, and also requires diverse representative voices, which I think Augsburg is reckoning with, because we have a diverse student body, but we do not have a diverse faculty. We do not have diverse staff. So we have a systemic problem here. We are in that moment where we have to creatively engage with, "How do we do this despite all of the challenges? Not just find the easy shortcuts out, but find the answers that are sustainable?"

Catherine Day: Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. I've been speaking with Ankita Deka, associate professor of social work. This is Catherine Reid Day, and this has been the Augsburg Podcast.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg Podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit