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Sally Nuamah on how punishment against black girls impacts our democracy

As an undergraduate student at George Washington University, Sally Nuamah studied abroad in Ghana and observed the numerous barriers to achievement girls faced as they attended schools designed without them in mind. 

This experience sparked her interest in researching black women and girls’ education and led her to create a documentary on the lives of girls in Ghana. Nuamah founded an organization, the TWII Foundation, that has supported around 30 girls with the resources they need to achieve. In fact, the screenings from her documentary raised money to send the three girls in the film to college.

Her scholarship centers on black women and girls and education, and she has received national attention for it. During her one year as an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Nuamah was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 in education, a Chron15 pioneer and a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Now, she’ll be pursuing her studies as an assistant professor at the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy.

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program supports academics in the social sciences and the humanities by funding a research project with up to $200,000. One of the 32 selected from nearly 300 nominations, Nuamah will use the award to pursue her research for a study on “How the Punishment of Black Women and Girls Affects Our Democracy.”

She hopes her work will culminate into a book project.

“There are so many people doing incredible projects,” Nuamah said. “But to be selected for an investment such as this, it is not just an indication of interest in the project but also it is faith in my ability to do it and carry it out.”

Her research focuses on the effects of punishment on the political participation of black women and girls.

Black women participate in the political process at rates higher than all other groups, Nuamah explained. From 30% to 40% of all Americans vote in an election, while black women vote 50% to 70%, especially in the past decade.

“They have voted more than any American group at 70%, so they are superlative political participants,” Nuamah said.

However, there are various ways black girls are punished more often in school. Black girls are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended from preschool, and as middle schoolers, they are seven to 10 times more likely to be suspended from middle school compared to white girls and boys, she said.

Additionally, according to a 2014 issue brief  from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black girls are suspended at a 12% rate, more frequently than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys as well. 

Women with higher levels of education are more likely to secure better economic opportunities for themselves and their children and communities.

Nuamah cautions this may be a signal that participation rates amongst black women “might be depressed in the future if what we know about black men and how the criminal justice system affects their participation carries out in the same way.”

“My hope is to examine that trajectory more carefully to really codify all the forms of punishment that young people, especially black girls, are experiencing and trying to understand those perceptions that are influencing those practices,” Nuamah said. “For example, is there ever a reason for a preschooler to be suspended from school?”

Early experiences of punishment can affect how individuals view themselves as citizens, Nuamah elaborated. Her project will investigate institutions like the criminal justice system and the education system to discover how everyone can participate in democracy.

This past April, Nuamah published her first book, “How Girls Achieve,” which emphasizes the necessity of early investment in girls. She advocates for the creation of “quality schools through a gender lens,” which she also refers to as “feminist schools.”

The schools she studied didn’t have resources in place for girls, such as access to menstrual care, and allowed informal practices that benefited boys, like a boy always being selected to give a speech at a school’s annual ceremony. As difficult as it was for girls to achieve in these schools, even when they were accepted to college, they were not able to attend because they didn’t have the money to do so.

“My book is interested in talking about the importance of providing access to those resources to those people in need,” Nuamah said. “Not only scholarship through the foundation, but also through the curriculum—social, physical, emotional support that young people need so that they can equitably succeed as anyone else in their classroom.”  

Her book was just published earlier this year, yet it has already started to have an impact.

One of the featured schools created a “whistleblowing policy,” as Nuamah called it, for victims of sexual violence to have a mechanism to report their experience and not be reprimanded for doing so.

“Those are the types of things that we look out for, the practices of an institution,” Nuamah said. “We can do so by asking ourselves: is it providing a burden on one group more than another, and if so how can we correct that?”

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