Jill Delston '01
Jill Delston ’01 on philosophy, advocacy, and microinequities
“If you ask people their professional origin stories, so many will answer that a teacher told them they had skill or talent and that tiny little interaction changed their entire trajectory,” said Dr. Jill Delston, professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL), author of Medical Sexism: Contraception Access, Reproductive Medicine, and Health Care and co-editor of the textbook Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach.
Jill’s own origin story has its roots at GDS through a close read of Dealing with Dragons, an introduction to philosophy, a community of caring educators, and a collection of well-placed microaffirmations. Her GDS story continues to inform the teacher, researcher, and advocate she is today.
Dealing with Dragons & A Love of Philosophy
A young female protagonist stands out from a predominantly male cast—she studies ancient languages, elucidates the nature of our most deeply entrenched systems, breaks down barriers, and learns to be of service to those in need—and, but for the wizards and dragons, her story reflects much of Jill’s current-day story. Instead, it’s a description of Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, assigned by Jill’s 5th-grade teacher, Warren Miskell. The book captivated Jill, exposed her to feminism, and sparked her love of philosophy, academic study in ancient texts, and advocacy. It's a sort of keystone memory around which at least some of her Lower/Middle School experience is framed.
“That book had a really big impact on me, and Warren did, too,” Jill said. “He was such a charismatic teacher and created an incredible community in our class.”
Jill remembers loving the exchange of ideas, opportunities for thoughtful persuasion, and the mix of contemporary and historical texts at GDS. She recalls her 7th-grade teacher, Kali (Douglas) Diallo ’88, hosting legal mock court cases, where students worked collaboratively then clashed as lawyers and jurors over legal matters. “It made the material come alive for me,” she said. “In philosophy, we argue for a living so that, too, had a big impact on me.”
From Sue Ikenberry in High School history, Jill learned not only about U.S. government and politics, but also how to be an interested scholar of history. “I continue to use the skills that I learned in her class all the time,” Jill explained.
“Jill’s work and interests are so GDS—feminism, abortion rights, environmental ethics, and the subject of her recent book, Medical Sexism [about systemic gender inequalities in health]—and they are also such great, important topics,” Sue said. “I like to think that [GDS teachers] pique students’ interest in important issues that they then use within their chosen field.”
Jill was fascinated by her 4th-grade study of Greek mythology—now 4th graders study ancient civilizations in Mali, China, India, and Greece—and later went on to learn ancient Greek in college and graduate school. Her study ultimately influenced her PhD dissertation. “I like that GDS teachers introduced me to it and I could continue learning at every level,” Jill said. “Even now, when I teach it, I’m returning to some of the same material.”
In junior year English, Jill read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for the first time. Now she teaches it every year to her college students and features a discussion of the letter in her textbook.
“I’ve always loved philosophy, starting at GDS,” she said. “When you’re interested in philosophy, you end up being a teacher because. . . there isn’t a philosophy factory to go into,” she finished jokingly, referring to a well-known meme. “A love of philosophy often leads to becoming a college professor.”
These days, her list of courses runs the gamut from graduate level to honors college classes and introductory lectures to independent studies. Jill teaches Present World Problems (a course in applied ethics that uses her own textbook); Medicine, Values, and Society (bioethics); Environmental Ethics; and courses on feminism and gender.
As Jill noted, the field of philosophy skews toward professorship; and yet, she added, “There is always an applied component of my field.” Part of that, she explained, is making philosophy more accessible to a wider audience.
Community and Advocacy
Jill runs three philosophy groups at UMSL, two of which are intentionally focused on stewarding underrepresented groups into the field and supporting them once they are part of the community.
“Women in Philosophy is part social, part mentorship, and part outreach to people in this male-dominated field who may not feel otherwise comfortable in a male-dominated class,” she explained. Although she is a White woman, she also runs Minorities in Philosophy with similar goals, in the absence of other more suitable leaders from her department. Additionally, she runs Engaged Philosophy, which typically hosts activists and advocacy-centric speakers who show the ways in which philosophy can be used in our everyday lives to make a difference.
In her Environmental Ethics class, she’s asked the students to use the course materials to help them identify a real-world problem, design a solution, and measure their impact. In many ways, the undergraduate project is not unlike the GDS Middle School Community Engagement program or the High School Policy Institute, where students work with experts and community partners around environmental justice issues (or one of the other key issues) to design an action plan. In past semesters, Jill’s students have designed apps, written letters to political representatives, started community gardens, and gone vegan or trash-free. According to Jill, learning about ethical violations and then taking action “allows us to incorporate that learning into our lives in ways that lead beyond the classroom, beyond the semester, and much longer—hopefully to a lifelong love of learning and a love of philosophy.”
Beyond the classroom and the academic community, Jill promotes feminism in her personal life, whether volunteering for Planned Parenthood, attending protests, or participating in community issues. “I view these as extensions of my role as a philosophy and ethics professor,” she said.
With two young children, she hasn’t been out in the community as much during the pandemic. Instead, she has reconnected with some of her “lifelong friends from GDS,” including Dr. Ayesha Delany-Brumsey ’01, who oversees the Behavioral Health Division at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which seeks to break the cycle of incarceration, advance health equity, and use data to improve justice systems. “[Ayesha and I] have been talking about the ways in which our scholarship overlaps and how we need to coauthor something, but we are both busy and that paper hasn’t gotten written yet,” Jill said. “It’s funny to think that we met when we were so young and ended up working in such similar fields now in adulthood.”
Nearly two years into this pandemic, the health inequities have grown painfully apparent, if not profoundly exacerbated. Jill said, “Ethics is such a big component of how we are going to get through this pandemic. We need this approach to eliminating sexism and eliminating racism to get through it. We need bioethics to get through it.”
“Ethics is such a big component of how we are going to get through this pandemic."
The Dynamics of Microinequities
“I remember a day in High School English when Chris Thompson noticed that all the students were looking out the window,” Jill recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s all face the window.’ So we turned our chairs from the U-shape toward the window, and we listened to him as we watched the trees blowing in the wind. I loved that he was responsive to the students in that way and really thought about their autonomy, not just what he wanted to accomplish in the classroom. That’s so hard to do. It’s so hard to let go of control to follow the lead of silly teenagers. Instead he thought about how to use that.”
As a professor, Jill strives to replicate a classroom experience that is respectful of student autonomy, is attentive to the ways in which they are affirmed, and honors their development. Those efforts have led her to unpack more systematically her interactions with students. For example, despite her efforts to teach to the whole room—including walking around and cycling students through the front row—she felt she was having more interaction with those seated in front and found that a disproportionate number of those front-row students were choosing philosophy as their major.
Because she was already interested in studying microaggressions—a term coined by psychiatrist and educator Chester Pierce and defined by social scientist Dr. Derald Wing Sue as “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in a marginalized group” (2007)—Jill began to think more about “the flip side” of microaggressions. Through her study of microinequities and her own classroom teaching, Jill understood intuitively that comprehensive mattering and thriving required more than the absence of negative, discriminatory experiences. Students, for example, need to experience authentic, positive interactions, feedback, and opportunities, including the presence of affirming environmental signals, in order to do more than just survive school—microaffirmations.
Some of these microaffirmations are described by Dr. Mary Rowe as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening” (2008). In March 2021, Philosophy of Management published Jill’s article “The Ethics and Politics of Microaffirmations,” in which she elaborated upon Rowe’s description in order to capture the hierarchy noted in Sue’s microaggressions work and differentiate microaffirmations from mere compliments. She defined microaffirmations as “signals that a recipient belongs to some valued status or class.” These, she explained, “lead individuals to gain a sense of confidence, belonging, and merit” through explicit or implied association with a favored group.
Interestingly, Jill’s work illuminates some of the counterintuitive harms microaffirmations can cause through connection to an assumed elevated status, by specific acts or omissions, especially as they relate to personal well-being or group inclusion/exclusion. Letters of recommendation for men, for example, include statistically higher numbers of positive “standout adjectives” than for women, leading men to an inflated status—and access to better career opportunities. Declarations of “You’re so skinny!” may confirm an association to a desired status for someone with an eating disorder and be an obstacle to good health.
“I think [microaffirmations] often do have a positive impact on people, and GDS does a really good job of that," Jill said. "I’m really interested in the unjust distribution of microaffirmations,” which is the subject of one of her current research projects. “Even if we could eliminate microaggressions—get rid of them entirely so that they never existed—we still wouldn’t solve this problem; microinequalities would endure,” Jill said.
The Tools to Succeed
Jill and her older sister, Dr. Rachel Delston ’98, attended GDS together. Jill loved that teachers would know her as Rachel’s younger sister and that Rachel included her in school activities whenever she was able.
“We were both in Middle School and High School at the same time—my freshman year was her senior year—and later got our PhDs from the same school at the same time,” Jill said. “Going to school with her had a huge impact on my experience at GDS. Her respect for her education as a serious student rubbed off on me. Learning for learning’s sake is really important to me. GDS really prepared us for college and gave us the tools to succeed.”
Today, Rachel, who Jill described as a true hero, is working to cure cancer as associate director at the immuno-oncology research group Arch Oncology, where she studies anti-CD47 antibodies as a novel treatment. Jill said, “Rachel has this incredible moral compass and shows leadership in whatever she does through that lens. I admire the way she lives the ethical life that I’m just studying. She does that in the ways she has devoted her life to curing cancer, through mentorship in the male-dominated sciences, as a parent, community leader, and scientist. Now, she lives about a mile away from me and we are raising our kids together. We’re just so grateful for that.”
Origin stories begin with a vague sense of prologue—an indeterminate feeling of being or belonging—followed by an emphatic “And then!” GDS graduates regularly recount small moments of lasting significance: a single exchange with a teacher, a learning experience, a realization, or a success that marked the start of something new. In sharing her origin story and the journey since, Jill, and others, infuse into the School’s collective memory a deeper understanding of what matters most in a GDS education. And as origin stories go, we’ll take one with dragons any day.
Purchase Jill's book Medical Sexism: Contraception Access, Reproductive Medicine, and Health Care from your favorite bookseller or from Rowman & Littlefield with coupon code "21JOYSALE."
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