September 24, 2019

LaWanda Simpkins: Courageous Conversations

LaWanda Simpkins signs her emails with a quote by the late Civil Rights icon and former UMW professor James L. Farmer: “Courage, after all, is not being unafraid, but doing what needs to be done in spite of fear.”

LaWanda Simpkins, James L. Farmer Jr. Post-Doctoral Fellow in Civil Rights and Social Justice

It’s particularly meaningful, given that it was Farmer whose legacy brought Simpkins to Mary Washington three years ago on a post-doctoral fellowship that bears his name.

It’s also fitting because Simpkins is the first in a new series called “Courageous Conversations” that features UMW faculty exploring topics of diversity and inclusion. In her video, Simpkins says that approaching others with openness and honesty and being intentional with communications can help break down social barriers.

Simpkins, who holds a Ph.D. in cultural studies and a graduate certificate in women and gender studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is no stranger to these provocative and powerful discussions. She has them every day with her students in courses about women of color feminists, social justice and intersectionality.

“We have robust conversations about how this field came about,” said Simpkins, whose students often come to class with little background in the subject area. “It is exciting to see their confidence build and their perspectives become shaped. People bring their own different identities – race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. – and experiences to class, and it helps them connect more closely to the material.”

 

 

Q: What led you to this field of study?
A: One of the glaring things I noticed during my graduate and doctoral studies was that there were not many students who looked like me. The curriculum didn’t align with who I was as a Black woman. That is what caused me to study feminism in the way that I did and understand that there are gaps in the field. I’m intentional about saying I identify as a Black feminist. In fact, in my Women of Color Feminism class, the whole course is geared toward students figuring out who they are as a feminist.

Q: Are there any lessons or projects that you particularly enjoy teaching?
A: My students create vision boards by choosing and researching five women of color feminists who speak to who they are. They’ve made everything from homemade comic strips to puzzles to paintings – things that would blow your mind at the level of creativity. I cannot wait to get those projects. I’m like a kid in a candy store because it’s limitless.

Q: Who are the feminists that speak to you?
A: Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Angela Davis and Michelle Obama.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
A: Busy! I wake up before my kids to get myself together so that I can give them my full attention before I leave for work. This includes making bottles, washing dishes and making lunches. After office hours and teaching classes, I go home and straight into mommy mode.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your profession?
A: Seeing students having their “aha” moments and knowing that I could potentially have an impact on their thought trajectory for the rest of their lives.

Q: What is the most challenging?
A: The politics of academia.

Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: My students who are living in their absolute truths.

Q: What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
A: I watch reality television and probably know most music on the radio. I actually love hip-hop  ̶  the good kind of course!

Q: Are there any mottos that you live by?
A: “I am what I am not yet.” ~Maxine Greene