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5 Questions With Silvana Niazi

Meet Silvana Niazi, the inaugural Señora Guillermina Medrano de Supervía Endowed Faculty Chair for Spanish and Latin American Studies.

Silvana joined Sidwell Friends in the 2020/21 academic year, teaching the history of Latin America and American Studies in the Upper School.  A social scientist by training, Silvana brings to this role years of experience working in Latin America and expertise in public policy, research design, interdisciplinary approaches, and program management. She is also fluent in four languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and English. Silvana looks forward to inspiring and supporting students in their intellectual journeys, while also contributing to the evolution of the School’s curricula across divisions and its Equity, Justice, and Community program.

Below, Silvana shares why she is excited to step into this new position, where she hopes to grow the Spanish and Latin American Studies program, and how she will incorporate diverse perspectives from the Sidwell Friends community in order to do so. 

Tell us about your background: Before you joined Sidwell Friends in the 2020/21 academic year, how were you engaging with Spanish and Latin American studies? What aspects of Spanish and Latin American studies are you most excited to study, research, and teach?

Before joining Sidwell Friends, I was pursuing my graduate studies in Comparative Government at Georgetown University, where I focused on comparative constitutional politics in Latin America. 

Latin America is now experiencing its longest democratic moment, and my research looks at how citizens are increasingly, albeit unevenly, using legal strategies to address socioeconomic problems linked to persistently high inequality in the region. We know little about the extent to which Latin American citizens frame claims in legal terms or pursue legal actions, but we do see variations in how legal strategies are used. That’s where my graduate studies come in: I am working to reframe how we think about legal mobilization on a broad level, and then to identify how and when citizens pursue justiciable grievances—legal claims—in healthcare or education.     

Through my teaching at Sidwell Friends, I’m excited to continue exploring and studying questions in Latin American Studies—including governance, democracy, and democratization— through a comparative lens. Having a Masters in Latin American studies, I seek to use  Spanish language and literature to bring an interdisciplinary, age-appropriate, and holistic approach to studying Latin America and the Caribbean. 

What developments or new frontiers in Spanish and Latin American studies are you interested in introducing to Sidwell Friends, or augmenting in existing offerings? 

In order to introduce research tools that enable students to become critical thinkers and conduct rigorous, evidence-based research, I am interested in utilizing approaches to teaching and learning that effectively resonate with students. I believe this is essential to enabling young people to explore queries relating to their own lives and identities, in an intellectual journey that generates  possibilities for students to be fully seen and heard, in a scholarly community that nurtures inclusivity and belonging.  

I am also interested in expanding the visibility of Latin American studies in the Sidwell Friends  community through the study of the region’s history and Spanish language. Working collaboratively with faculty in the History and Spanish departments and division principals, I would like to identify possibilities for introducing new frontiers in our Latin American studies programming and ways in which we can offer “deep dives” in the field of Latin American studies. Together, we can augment existing curricula in ways that invite students to immerse themselves in the diverse works of art, literature, history, politics, and economics through the disciplines of history and language. 

One way to do this would be to expand offerings to include a course on Latin American studies conducted in Spanish—for example, as an advanced Spanish seminar.  Over time, this endeavor would include interdisciplinary courses in history and literature. This approach would empower students to simultaneously explore areas of language and identity while using research skills to more systematically examine the socioeconomic and political phenomena in Latin America and the Caribbean that resonate with them. 

As you consider the path for growth of the Spanish and Latin American studies program, what are the first steps you hope to take?

I hope to begin by listening deeply, conducting focus groups and developing spaces for conversation that invite student, parent, alumni, and faculty and staff perspectives. This will be an important way for us to genuinely comprehend and identify the priorities of the diverse stakeholders in the Sidwell Friends community. I believe this is fundamental to understanding and effectively documenting both the needs as well as existing strengths of our community.

Silvana niazi

As we examine and recognize unjust systems and structures contributing to contemporary socioeconomic problems and political forms of exclusion in the Americas, we must also look inwards to reflect and respond to practices, policies, and procedures that may be somehow echoing or perpetuating broader systems, structures, and institutions of injustice. As part of this work, I would also look to ask members of this community about ways in which they believe that we can more fully celebrate the varied Latin American contributions to our school, city, and nation.  Listening deeply to our community members is an essential part of identifying and exploring ways we can push against dominant narratives to amplify the voices of those who may be less seen or heard.     

How do you see your work as the Supervía Endowed Chair contributing to the School’s larger Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC) Action Plan?  

Based on conversations and focus groups, I will collect and assess data with the purpose of establishing benchmarks that create standards and measure growth, in line with the EJC Strategic Plan. Recognizing Sidwell Friends community’s resolve to reflect, learn, and act, I would work with different community stakeholders to align the Spanish and Latin American Studies areas of focus with key EJC areas of focus—from student learning and growth, to faculty and staff professional development, to broader community programming. These may include:

  • Evaluating curricula to identify specific, grade-appropriate ways in which we can further reflect the diversity of Latin American and Caribbean peoples, nations, histories, cultures, and languages in course design and course content; and
  • Enhancing training for faculty and staff to empower them to integrate curriculum content on Latin America and the Caribbean in ways that are responsive to students’ interests and learning passions. 

How will your work as the Supervía Endowed Chair extend the legacy that Señora Supervía began during her years at Sidwell Friends?

Señora Supervía’s legacy during her years at Sidwell Friends demonstrates the importance of finding common language to bravely introduce classroom discussions and debates that are connected to the problems and issues of our time. I hope that in my work with the EJC team and division principals, I can contribute to generating spaces for the development of language and knowledge so that we can contest dominant narratives within and across disciplines. 

As we contemplate our own roles in knowledge production as an educational community, we can begin, for example, by explicitly acknowledging the legacies of global slavery and colonialism and how they intersect with pressing contemporary problems in social justice throughout the Americas. 

In my classroom, I work to use my own expertise in interdisciplinary approaches to research and writing to guide students in developing their research design skills as they examine their queries and explore problems in social justice that they find compellings. 

Through text-based readings and discussions, I accompany my students in their intellectual journeys to unearth and contest the dominant or master narratives in history that have long undermined possibilities for sustainable change. In this manner, I seek to lead students to make meaningful connections between the past and present, intentionally making spaces in which they can explore the contradictions and tensions in our many histories. 

Working closely with each of my students both inside and outside of class, I create a warm learning community and support them in developing research topics, research questions, arguments, outlines, and well-sourced bibliographies for their analytical essays and research papers. This is how I help them develop research and writing skills that are fundamental to lifelong learning, and that are particularly essential in today’s Information Age. In this sense, I hope to continue Señora Supervía’s legacy of connecting the past to the present, as we contest hierarchical knowledge in diverse school spaces and empower students to engage in reflective learning that responds to the need for more equitable, just, and inclusive global states and societies.   

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