Listening is Teaching

Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, a cultural worker in Santa Fe, N.M. , joined PRESENCE , the Red Poppy Art House Development Cohort, on July 30 to discuss authenticity and education.


Photo Credit: Ash Haywood

Long dark dreadlocks frame a face holding deep brown eyes and an open, full-lipped smile. Taking risks backpacking through Mexico with her children and accepting a nonprofit directorial position, Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz is on a never-ending quest for authenticity. She uncovered that her vulnerability and transparency with others has led her through her doctorate studies and towards a career of deep listening.

Tho-Biaz’s own research lies in the realm of cultural workers, which she defines as sovereignty leaders or “artists who work in community.” She explains that although some may make a living doing what they do, it is more than a job, it is a “way of being.” Tho-Biaz’s research with marginalized communities alongside her expertise in and love for education has taught her the significance of being supportive. The main lesson she has learned is that teaching is not about imparting all of one’s education or knowledge onto anyone else; it’s really about listening. In teaching other educators, she finds that what is most vital is checking in emotionally and honoring the difficult feelings that come up during and because of one’s job. Tho-Biaz, after educator and theorist Paulo Freire, believes in participatory teaching, in which people co-create knowledge together. That is why in her work, Tho-Biaz focuses on “facilitating, rather than teaching,” however, she advises that it is essential to keep a “positive consistent daily practice.”

Discussing her current role as interim executive director in a nonprofit organization, Tho-Biaz exposes that there is a scarcity mentality in the nonprofit sector, in which leaders are often afraid that there are not enough finances, not enough grants and not enough help out there– leading to a high burn-out rate. With the guidance of Tho-Biaz, Youth Media Project, a nonprofit organization teaching young adults how to promote social responsibility through journalism and the production of media stories, recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a mentorship program that will work to impart their young leaders with experiential skills for efficient management.

Gearing away from leading a journalistic organization, professionally delving into the world of an oral historian is Tho-Biaz’s upcoming undertaking. Tho-Biaz explains that when one is a journalist, one looks for a certain story, one’s time is limited and one must ask questions that are quick to get to the point; an oral-historian, however, is thrilled by the chance to listen to someone’s life story, maybe starting an interview with one simple question that can lead to hours worth of anecdotes and discussions where culture and tradition are explored and explained.

When Tho-Diaz spoke, her dark eyes were gentle and inviting. I briefly shared with her that I am fearful of expressing my own story because I worry that words can cause irreparable damage. With a true look of concern, she turned her palms towards me in an open gesture of vulnerability, inviting me to fearlessly continue sharing truth.

Aleksandra Bril, Red Poppy Art House Writer