Engaged Faculty Profile: Dr. Crystal Chen Lee

Crystal Chen Lee photoDr. Crystal Chen Lee

Assistant Professor, English Language Arts & Literacy  

College/Department: Teacher Education and Learning Sciences, College of Education 

Research interests: My research interests lie at the nexus of literacy, teacher education, community engagement, and marginalized youth. 

The driving force of my scholarship and research has been my passion for educational equity. Within this passion, my research agenda focuses on two strands: literacy and teacher education, with an intersection of community engagement and marginalized populations in each strand. The first strand focuses on how literacy, especially critical literacy, can lead to increased literacy improvement and community engagement particularly for marginalized students. Specifically, this strand examines how literacy is not separate from youth advocacy and leadership but is rather intertwined. The second strand focuses on how teacher education can be improved and developed through a social justice framework that values communities and marginalized populations.

In recognizing the literacy practices of community organizations, I am passionate about publishing student voices.  I am the founding director and PI of the Literacy and Community Initiative (LCI) that investigates and promotes the power of voice among marginalized students through a model of Write, Engage, and Lead. Together, with Dr. Jose Picart as co-director, LCI’s mission is to build university and community-based partnerships by amplifying student voices through student publication, advocacy, and leadership.

Who are your community partners?

LCI partners with four community-based organizations. For LCI, our team partners with community organizations to teach a 14-session curriculum that engages students to become leaders in their community. LCI publishes a student-authored book in each organization per year. 

We partner with four wonderful youth-serving organizations: 

Triangle Literacy Council’s Bull City YouthBuild is a non-profit, nine-month education and leadership program in Durham for low-income youth who are not currently enrolled in school and unemployed. Through the program, youth gain academic and leadership skills through receiving their high school equivalency and building a house through Habitat for Humanity to give back to their community. 

Juntos NC works to help Latinx students achieve high school graduation and attend higher education. 

CORRAL Riding Academy is a non-profit organization that pairs rescued horses with adolescent girls in high-risk situations to provide healing and transformational life change through tutoring, mentoring and horse therapy. 

Refugee Hope Partners works with refugee youth and families in a holistic program that enhances local community partnerships through academic learning, mentoring, socio-emotional support and medical services. 

We see our community-based organizations as strong community partners and we work together to develop a curriculum that meets the needs of students in their communities. In total, our team has put in over 200 hours of direct instruction in community-based organizations, served 60+ students and published seven books. We seek to learn from the diverse perspectives of our students.

How did you get involved in community work?

When I first arrived at NC State, I connected with Dr. Jose Picart, deputy director of the Friday Institute of Educational Innovation and professor, and he connected me with many community organizations in the area. I started to pilot student publication work in Bull City Youthbuild and Juntos NC, and realized the potential of amplifying student voices. Later on, Dr. Picart and I launched LCI and continue to work together with many wonderful graduate students today. 

What motivates you to engage in community?

As a child of immigrant parents from Taiwan, I benefitted from community organizations and churches that helped foster my growth and belonging. I saw the importance of community organizations’ role in supporting marginalized populations. After college, I also interned at International Justice Mission, a global non-profit organization partnering with local justice systems to end violence against people living in poverty. Such experiences at IJM motivated me to connect community engagement with formal education. As a high school teacher, I often engaged my students in community work beyond the classroom walls. Later on, as a graduate student, I was motivated to study the power and potential of critical literacy among African immigrant girls at a community-based organization in NYC. Such trajectories motivated me to continue to work with youth and community engagement. 

What is your favorite NC town to visit?

My favorite NC town to visit is Asheville! I love the mountains, culture, food, and the art!