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Sally Nuamah: The Education Disruptor

September 8, 2019

Education wasn’t a sure thing for Sally Nuamah. Raised by a single mother in a low-income Chicago neighborhood, Nuamah was the child of immigrants, black and female.

“I fit most of the statistical categorizations of disadvantage,” Nuamah wrote in the preface of her book How Girls Achieve.

But school became a refuge for Nuamah, one of the newest faculty members at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. Inspired by her Ghanaian-born mother, who also used school as an escape – but never had the financial means to attend college – Nuamah earned her doctorate in political science at Northwestern and returns as assistant professor of human development and social policy.

Her work examines the intersection of race, gender, education policy, and political behavior. But she also has a host of projects on her plate and a diverse set of experiences – including producing a film and launching a non-profit -- that complement her scholarly activities.

“Education is the best mechanism for improving the life chances of the disadvantaged,” Nuamah said. “Schools are a main vehicle for accessing economic, social, and political equity.”

Before coming to SESP, Nuamah earned appointments as an assistant professor at Duke, a research associate at Princeton, and a fellow at Harvard. The first-generation Ghanaian-American also founded an organization that provides funding to help low-income girls become the first in their family to attend college. 

Her experiences became the topic of her TEDx Talk "Clapping With One Hand, which she gave at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Most recently, Nuamah won an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, which awards a grant of up to $200,000 to help scholars devote more time to research, writing, and publishing in the humanities and social sciences. Nuamah’s Carnegie project involves researching how the punishment of black women and girls affects democracy.

She is also working on a book about the politics of public-school closures based on her dissertation, which examined the political consequences of school closure for racial equality and democratic politics. Nuamah has published related work on this topic in academic venues including the Journal of Urban Affairs and Urban Affairs Review, as well as public venues such as the Washington Post.

Creating “Feminist Schools”

Her new book, How Girls Achieve, looks across race and gender to shed light on the unequal costs—school closure, sexual harassment, punishment—facing poor black girls striving to succeed and explores what schools can do to overcome those obstacles.

She argues for “feminist schools” or schools that act as safe spaces that redistribute power, actively teach girls how and when to challenge society’s norms, and allow them to carve out their own paths to success. How Girls Achieve combines political science theory, lessons from educational practice, and application to public policy.

Born and raised in Chicago, Nuamah’s research interests have been influenced by her upbringing in the States, traveling abroad to her parents’ homeland and researching the educational experiences and aspirations of girls in South Africa, the United States, and Ghana. 

Some of the women she spoke to during her five-year study on Ghanaian woman became the subject of her award-winning documentary, HerStory: Educate a Woman, Educate a Nation. Nuamah began the work on the film during her second year of college.

“I saw regular girls who were striving for what they wanted every day, girls who reminded me of myself, people I grew up with, my sisters and just everyday people,” she said. “I wanted to portray that.”

The film, which focuses on disadvantaged Ghanaian girls completing their last year at the West African Secondary School, inspired her to establish the TWII Foundation to help Ghanaian women complete college. Since its inception, the organization has funded nearly 30 first-generation girls to and/or through college. The girls she has supported have gone on to attend programs at Harvard University and/or take on lucrative careers in finance, tech, and non-profit industries.

“Girls’ education enables global development,” Nuamah said. “By sharing these girls' stories about how they are succeeding in school and trying to break the cycle of poverty -- in addition to actually providing a way to help them overcome obstacles through scholarships -- we are continuing the conversation and empowering women to positively change the world.”