Series Note: This year, three Rutgers graduate students have been awarded the prestigious Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for 2016-2017. Read on to learn more about Dara Walker’s research, commitment to diversity, and her thoughts on working with GradFund.
As a native of Washington, D.C., I attended a public high school just five blocks away from the White House. Despite its proximity to this symbol of power and its high ranking, the school’s facilities lacked a solid physical infrastructure. In the winter, my peers and I wore coats indoors due to lack of heat and we dodged bricks that sometimes fell from the face of the deteriorating building. But we knew that we deserved better. So we organized. We organized our peers from other schools to demand better funding for schools, quality curricula, and a voice in matters that related to our daily lives as students. Outside of school, we studied the history of social movements, researched the relationship between charter schools and public schools, and investigated funding patterns for educational resources. In studying past struggles to end racial segregation in schooling, I found my passion for African American history. And through my engagement with civic institutions like the D.C. Board of Education, I learned the value of experiential knowledge. I discovered that my experiences as a student could inform policy decisions about the future of public education. My experiences, and my life as an African American woman who is the first in my family to attend college, inform my view of the academy as a means to realize a vision of diversity that treats the lives of marginalized groups as powerful sources of knowledge.
Social Justice in Research and in Teaching
Reading about social movements after school hours in high school ignited my interested in learning more about the Black Power movement as a college student. As an alumna of Africana Studies, and a current student of History, I use any and every opportunity to write and research about the movement, particularly about the experiences of high school student activists. In my dissertation, “They Dared to Fight: Black High School Student Activism in Detroit during the Black Power Movement, 1966-1972,” I examine how black adolescent activists conceptualized power, politics, and citizenship in the era of Black Power. I argue that black adolescents’ intellectual development and their experiences with segregated schooling, the carceral state, and the welfare state reveal the failure of the youth-centered racial liberalism that had informed the successes of the Civil Rights movement. My work suggests that focusing on young people’s intellectual development, and not just the heady moments of their activism, illuminates the ideas and experiences that shaped their political commitments.
Taking a page from own life, which has taught me to value the experiences of marginalized communities as legitimate sources of knowledge, I use oral history interviews and archival research to craft this narrative history. In addition to mining the archives for rich sources, I have interviewed adults who were once teenagers on the front lines of school desegregation battles. What can their stories tell us about the significance of black educational activism to the Black Power movement? What might their experiences and analysis reveal about black youths’ visions for a better future? Instead of simply keeping these stories buried in my dissertation, I also include them in my teaching. I tell the history of 20th century social movements through the experiences of the young people who lived them and I use the interviews to give a face to big concepts like deindustrialization, the state, race, and democracy. This pedagogical approach allows me to demonstrate, in creative and exciting ways, that the voices on the periphery are indeed meaningful sources of knowledge worthy of study.
As the first person to attend college in my family, I envision using my research and teaching to extend this lesson about experiential knowledge to the broader world of academia. As a tenure-track professor, I will publish the oral interviews and student newspapers into an edited book and digital history project that other scholars and communities can use to understand the world as it was decades ago. These efforts, I believe, will help make the academy more accessible and accountable to marginalized communities.
Working with GradFund
The road to winning the Ford Foundation’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship was a long one, paved with honorable mentions and unsuccessful applications. But with the assistance and encouragement of GradFund’s fellowship advisors, and my intellectual community, the process became a bit easier each time. I used my application review meetings to develop a submission timeline and to learn how to move from storytelling (an historians’ love) to making my case in more concise terms. But more importantly, I learned how to research the funder and the funders’ goals. As a first generation student, I really appreciated the fact that GradFund democratized the funding application process and demystified what grantsmanship looks like. Working with generous peer advisors, I also had the opportunity to develop my ideas more fully, which allowed me to produce a successful application and improve my analysis for the larger dissertation project. Advisors talked through my ideas with me, and gave me the tools to help others. Finally, I learned to envision my life beyond graduate school as a professor who uses research and teaching to help students expand their own ideas about their world of possibilities.