From Philadelphia to Detroit to Cape Town, Dana Nickson’s passion for working with and learning from youth and families has inspired her scholarship. Now, Nickson joins the University of Washington College of Education this fall as an assistant professor in education equity and justice in leadership, policy and politics.
Nickson, who has worked as a college counselor and student advocate, received a PhD in Educational Studies with a concentration in Foundations of Education and Policy from the University of Michigan where she was a Rackham Merit Fellow. She also was a University Council for Educational Administration Barbara Jackson Scholar.
Nickson studies the relationship between Black families’ geographic movement and place-making practices and their access to education and opportunity. By researching the rich history of movement as a form of agency and resistance to racism, her goal is to promote more equitable education policy in metropolitan regions.
In the following Q&A, Nickson discusses her research agenda, what courses she’ll teach and more.
What drew you to education?
My maternal grandparents were educators in Houston, Texas. My grandfather particularly taught in Sunnyside, a historically Black community in southern Houston where he and my grandmother lived and raised their children. Growing up, we spent most holidays at my grandparents’ home and without fail a former student, now an adult, would stop by their home to wish my grandparents a happy holiday and share updates on their lives. My grandparents always graciously welcomed their students and attentively sat with them. I can remember hearing sounds of lively conversation sometimes with belly-aching laughter or frustration and tears. My grandparents were deeply embedded in their community through their profession and they showed up for their students over time. My grandparents are a formative example of the power of education when driven by community and authentic care.
After majoring in African American Studies in undergrad, I better understood the tradition my grandparents worked within and the wedded nature of racial and educational justice. This led me to work in education in various student and family support roles and now as a researcher.
Describe your research agenda. What makes this work meaningful to you?
My research focuses on the relationships between Black families’ physical movement and place-making practices to their access to schools and communities that they deem to be of quality. There is a rich tradition of movement as a means of agency and resistance in Black communities given the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in the U.S. and the place-based nature of access to opportunity. I center Black families and students’ experiences and epistemologies to produce deeper understandings of sociocultural and structural factors shaping educational access and opportunity in demographically changing U.S. metropolitan regions.
This work is meaningful to me because of the parents, caregivers, students and community members who take the time to share their stories, experiences and offer needed insights. I am always honored and at times in awe to hear the immense labor, creativity, sacrifice and strategy of folks. I firmly believe that not just including marginalized voices but centering them is necessary to imagining and creating schools that equitably serve all students.
What attracted you to UW College of Education?
UW faculty and students are doing phenomenal, justice-centered community-based work that honors diverse epistemologies and methodologies. I believe that at UW I will have rich soil to grow my research agenda with thoughtful and critical colleagues. Additionally, I was so impressed and encouraged by the transparency and kindness of the search committee led by Dr. Ann Ishimaru. Again, this affirmed that UW would be a good environment to work and collaborate with fellow faculty members and students.
Lastly, in my research, I am very interested in phenomena including gentrification and Black suburbanization. The Seattle metropolitan area is an interesting and timely place to partner with communities and develop empirical work.
What's a course you're particularly excited to teach?
I am excited to teach Equitable Collaborations in the Danforth Educational Leadership program this winter. I love to think through and dialogue about how we better listen, partner and honor students, families and communities. Given our sociopolitical climate, this learning is especially vital and pressing. I am looking forward to being in conversation with practitioners as they navigate this school year and we all press deeper towards relationships within schools and communities that reflect communal knowledges and transformative leadership.
Tell us about an education-related book or movie that has influenced you.
This is a hard one, so I am going to offer two. James Anderson’s “Education of Blacks in The South, 1860-1935” is foundational to how I think about Black educational agency and the formations of public education in the U.S. This work illuminated the importance of counter-narratives and interrogating the formations of educational institutions and practices to understand the complexities of our current educational and social systems. I also love Aimee Meredith Cox’s ethnography “Shapeshifters: Black Girls and The Choreography of Citizenship.” The humanizing and artful way in which Cox writes about Black girls experiencing homelessness in Detroit pushed me to think in a more expansive manner about the agency and resistance of youth and families as they confront narratives and systems that seek to limit their personhood.
What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?
Although this year will look very different, I am excited to get to know you all. I want to learn more about your passions, freedom dreams and the work you do. My Zoom door is open and I am grateful to be a part of our community.
Also, my family, especially the women in my family, are my cornerstone. They sustain me and they are truly hilarious. They remind me to never take myself too seriously. My 13-month-old niece, Mali, is the newest addition to my family and our sisterhood within the family. She brings me joy on the most down days. I am a very proud auntie.
Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?
I am passionate about rest. Although I have seasons that lack balance and I am certain there will be many more to come, taking care of myself through rest and reflection is a priority. I am always interested in how other people maintain their commitments to others, their work and have grace with themselves in this process.
I also love a good meal and a random outing. I am looking forward to learning Metro Seattle’s different neighborhoods and finding local restaurants, bookstores with personality and coffee shops with good music (all when it is safe).
Story by Gabriela Tedeschi, marketing and communications student aide.
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