Dara Walker named postdoctoral fellow by the National Academy of Education

Susan Burlingame
July 06, 2021

Dara Walker, assistant professor of African American studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and history in the College of the Liberal Arts.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Dara Walker

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Dara Walker, assistant professor of African American studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and history in the College of the Liberal Arts, has been named a postdoctoral fellow for 2021 by the National Academy of Education (NAEd), an honorary educational society whose mission is to improve education policy and practice by advancing high-quality research. Walker is one of 25 scholars selected from a competitive pool of 249 applicants. The fellowship cohort includes two other Penn State faculty members, Ericka Weathers, assistant professor of education (educational theory and policy), and Matthew Gardner Kelly, assistant professor of education (educational leadership), both in Penn State’s College of Education. Penn State is the only institution that received more than one of the 25 fellowships this year.

Funded by a grant from the Spencer Foundation, the fellowship program supports early career scholars working in critical areas of education research. During the nonresidential fellowship, Walker will work on her upcoming monograph, “High School Rebels: Black Power, Education, and Youth Politics in the Motor City, 1966-1973.”

According to Walker, the project was grounded in her own experience as a student activist and has been evolving since she was an undergraduate honors student at Eastern Michigan University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in African American studies. It continued during graduate school, first at Syracuse University, where she earned a master’s degree in Pan-African Studies. It then became part of her dissertation at Rutgers University, where she earned her doctorate in history in 2018. 

“With each degree, I would try to get better at telling this story,” she said.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Walker attended a highly ranked public magnet school just a few blocks from the White House. She recalled having to wear “puffy” winter coats inside the school due to an inadequate heating system.

“I didn’t have the language at the time, but I knew that something was off — that there was some contradiction in the fact that this school, which was so close to the seat of power in the United States, did not have adequate resources.”

To try to right the wrong, Walker connected with other young people throughout the city who were organizing to demand more funding for public education. The experience shaped Walker’s life, sparked her interest in African American studies and history, and ultimately led her to wonder why the vast majority of research on activism centered only on clergy and other adults.

“Because activism was part of my own personal experience — I was organizing at 16 and 17 years old — I began to wonder if there were young people doing similar things and asking similar questions in the 1960s and 70s,” she said. “I think part of the reason why there is so little research on high school activism is that we see young people as being easily indoctrinated because of their age, so what I am trying to wrestle with is, ‘What has counted as political maturity historically?’ and ‘How do we think about the ways we have constructed adolescents as being politically immature?’”

Detroit, the focal point of the Black Power movement as well as a swell of youth activism in the 1960s and 1970s related to the auto industry, provided the perfect backdrop for asking these types of questions. Archival research as well as interviews with former Detroit public school student activists who had led walkouts and built takeovers while attending board of education meetings are some of the tools Walker uses to, in her words, “bridge Black Power studies and the history of education to reveal the central role of formal and informal education in the development of Black youth politics and political maturity as well as the Black Power movement.”

“Dr. Walker joined Penn State just two years ago, and she has quickly shown herself to be an important scholar and a valued faculty member,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “I am not at all surprised that the National Academy of Education saw fit to honor Dr. Walker in this way, and I look forward to learning more about the young organizers who made a difference decades ago – and to contemplating how that knowledge informs our understanding of today’s youth activists.”

Describing herself as “absolutely over the moon” to have been awarded the NAEd/Spencer fellowship, Walker said she is particularly thrilled to work with a cohort of scholars who examine education through different lenses such as psychology, history, and other fields.

“Conversations with the other members of the cohort have already encouraged me to broaden the tools I use as a historian to sharpen my analysis.”

“I think about the young people who are organizing now and the representation of high school student activists that we see in the media around recent movements like Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and others,” Walker concluded. “To have the time to think about this history in our contemporary context is going to make a world of difference for the book. But my hope is that it also makes a world of difference for how the broader public thinks about the young people we see on our screens who are organizing and making demands. How do we take the work they do seriously? How do we view them not as indoctrinated youth but as young people who are building on and bringing to the table their own set of experiences with structures of power?”

Walker joined the College of the Liberal Arts faculty in 2019. Her one-year postdoctoral fellowship began on July 1.

Last Updated July 06, 2021