Geneva Gay: A legacy of elevating multicultural education to prominence

July 7, 2020

When Professor Geneva Gay began her career as a high school social studies teacher more than four decades ago, the concept of multicultural education was still in its infancy. No university had even started offering a doctoral program in the field.

This July, Gay will retire following a 29-year career at the University of Washington College of Education in which her internationally-recognized scholarship has advanced the field in profound ways — while making clear the essential role of multicultural education in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

Growing up in rural Georgia, Gay experienced what it was like to grow up with little in the way of educational opportunity. Her own family was poor and lacked much formal education.

“It was hard work and as a kid I thought there must be a better way to live,” Gay said. “In high school, a couple peers were thinking about going to college and becoming teachers, and so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do that too’.”

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Gay took a teaching position in a residentially segregated school system in Akron, Ohio.

“When I first started teaching, I was in a position with my own identity of trying to overcompensate for the notions that society had imposed on African-Americans,” Gay said. “My students and I connected and bonded. We were able to achieve a strong sense of identity.”

Yet Gay also felt tension in relationships with her Black students, noting that when she stepped into a “professional” role to give the school district line, students would push back. When Gay was recruited to the University of Texas to enter its PhD program, the opportunity came to make better sense of those relationships.

“At some level of consciousness, I was starting to process the feedback that students were giving me,” she said. “The Geneva Gay my students were seeing was not the Geneva Gay I was trying to be. It turned out I went to Texas not to get a degree but to find out who I was.”

As Gay’s doctoral studies progressed, she dug deeper into why she had been more successful in bonding with her Black students than other, more experienced teachers — even though it wasn’t an intentional strategy on her part.

“That ultimately led to what I do these days,” Gay said. “I stumbled into what would eventually become multicultural education [and] culturally responsive teaching.”

In 1987, Gay edited “Expressively Black: The Cultural Basis of Ethnic Identity,” a collection of essays exploring different aspects of the Black cultural experience, including chapters on Black style, kinship and family ties, communication, leadership, art, religion, physical expressiveness and cultural continuation.

Gay’s first experience at the UW College of Education came in the summer of 1989, thanks to a visiting professorship arranged by Professor Emeritus James A. Banks. Two years later, Gay, then a full professor at Purdue University, was successfully recruited to join the College’s faculty.

Following her arrival at the UW, Gay would go on to write or edit several foundational works in multicultural education and coin the term “culturally responsive teaching” to define an approach that emphasizes using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.

“At the Essence of Learning: Multicultural Education,” published in 1994, explores the premise that good teaching and multicultural teaching are indistinguishable. In her book, Gay notes the child is the meaning-maker and that the teacher's responsibility is to build structures and create strategies that help all children gather meaning from their surroundings.

In “Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice,” recipient of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s 2001 Outstanding Writing Award, Gay demonstrates that all students will perform better on multiple measures of achievement when teaching is filtered through their own cultural experiences. The bestselling text, now in its third edition, includes examples of culturally diverse curriculum content, programs and techniques that exemplify culturally responsive teaching, and an emphasis on positive, action-driven possibilities in student-teacher relationships.

As editor of the 2003 book “Becoming Multicultural Educators: Personal Journey Toward Professional Agency,” Gay offers 14 compelling stories of teachers learning how to work with students from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. Through their stories, readers share the struggles as these educators come to understand diversity among ethnic groups and cultures, resolve conflicts between curricular and multicultural goals, and find authentic models and mentors for their students.

Gay describes herself as a teacher-scholar, with an emphasis on her role as teacher in helping numerous graduate students enter the field and make their own unique contributions.

“The greatest contribution from my viewpoint is the number of graduate students I’ve been able to mentor at the College,” Gay said. “I try to model and translate my theoretical notions into my own teaching. That means being accessible to students, standing toe-to-toe with them in the learning process.

“I tell them ‘You don’t need to mimic me, you need to be the best person at what you are going to do’,” Gay said. “I want my mentees to be prepared to do the work they need to do to make an impact.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications