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‘The right time and the right place’: Meet Dawna Jones, new director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

<p>For Dawna Jones, being director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture will allow her to focus on celebration rather than crisis.</p>

For Dawna Jones, being director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture will allow her to focus on celebration rather than crisis.

For Dawna Jones, being director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture will allow her to focus on celebration rather than crisis.

Jones began her new position on Aug. 11 after leaving her position as assistant dean of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She succeeds interim director Quinton Smith, who took the helm following former director Chandra Guinn’s departure in February.

“I’m excited. This is my first time working at a private institution, and right now it seemed like Duke was doing the work that I am very interested in doing,” Jones said.

Jones said that her career thus far has been “based mainly in crisis,” such as supporting students through mental health, family and financial troubles. At UNC, she was also chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, a role in which she advocated for Black faculty and staff in the wake of news regarding Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure. 

“I was looking for an opportunity to move more into cultural celebration and thinking about how I could support Black people specifically at this crazy time,” Jones said. Hearing about the University’s priorities during the research and interview processes made it seem like “the right time and the right place.”

Jones is no stranger to elevating Black culture—as chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she worked with both towns to plan the first Juneteenth festival earlier this year. 

Apart from planning a Juneteenth event at Duke and a center-wide Spades tournament, her primary goal is ensuring that the Mary Lou feels like “Granny’s living room” for students and Durhamites alike.

“My big goal is meeting people and understanding what Duke students are looking for out of the Mary Lou Center, and also building relationships with the community,” Jones said. “My understanding is that we have an abundance of joy and Black excellence here on campus and that hasn’t necessarily filtered into how we relate to the surrounding community here in Durham.”

Making the Mary Lou feel like home for everyone means “lifting people up so folks know they can be themselves and that they won’t be ostracized,” Jones said. Mental health and wellness will also be a major focus given the events of the past two years, in addition to celebrating heritage, history and legacies.

Jones’ goal of providing a space where Black students can bring their authentic selves is influenced by her own intersecting identities, including being a woman and a first-generation doctoral student.

“I’m excited to support first-generation and low-income students here. I’m really excited to support our queer community here at Duke, especially the Black queer community. And I’m looking forward to getting involved in all kinds of things that involve Black feminism and Black economic development,” Jones said.

Jones was selected by a search committee including junior Kelyce Allen; junior Cody Perry; senior Noah McKee; Ariel Powell, Fuqua ‘21; John Brown, vice provost of the arts; university archivist Valerie Gillispie; Joyce Gordon, director of Jewish Life at Duke; Jordan Hale, dean of New Student Programs; Professor of Biology Gustavo Silva; and Tasha Curry-Corcoran, associate director of Collaborative Learning and Communications. The search commenced at the end of spring 2021.

The Mary Lou will begin interviews for an assistant director soon, according to an Aug. 4 email from the Center to Black students.


Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 117.

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