We met with top political scientist Dr. Nadia Brown to discuss diversity, women of color in politics, passion, and much more. Enjoy!
"I would really push all students to think about what makes them happy and what gets them excited."” – Dr. Nadia Brown
Most youngsters don’t immediately think of studying politics for a career, so what IS the path to becoming a political scientist? Dr. Nadia Brown shares with Karina Macosko her experiences as a fourth grader with a passion for politics. She also offers advice to students about their studies, discusses her own studies of the underrepresented voices of women of color in politics, and encourages diversity in political speech.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, I’m Karina and I am so excited to have the opportunity to talk to Professor Brown because the last time we were here at Academic Influence, you shared your story of how you got into political science, and it was really an incredible story. I really enjoyed watching it and hearing what inspired you to go into that field. So as someone who’s applying to college soon and trying to think about what I might wanna major in, I wanted to ask you, How did you feel when you got into Howard University and did you know, going into college, just straight off the bat that you wanted to major in political science?
Nadia Brown: Yeah, so this is a great question, and I’m so happy to be with you, Karina. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. It really makes my heart happy to talk to young girls like that. This is all the things for me. So I’m probably an outlier. I’m 100% sure I’m an outlier when I talk to... I’m not the odd ball out. So I knew I wanted to be a political scientist or major in politics. Maybe that to me... I know I wanted to major in politics when I was in the fourth grade. I went to college and I knew this is what I wanted to do. Now, juxtapose this to my brother, I mentioned earlier that we’re 11 months apart, we both went to Howard and he changed his major four times. So even though we’re from the same family, just completely, completely different.
So I always knew that I had an interest and a passion about politics and I thought that political science was the only way to express that in a formal discipline, which is why I majored in it. In hindsight, right now, as a college professor, there are so many other majors and interdisciplinary minors that feed into politics or the study of politics, or to prepare people for political careers or community development jobs, or non-profits, all the things that I was interested in that I thought only politics can do. But yeah, I knew from super early, I like politics. [chuckle]
Karina: Wow, incredible. I think you mentioned last time that you watched the inauguration of the first Black mayor of New York with your grandfather. Would you say that this is really when you knew that you wanted to go into political science?
Nadia: Oh yeah, completely. Who else nerds out as an elementary school kid watching a political inauguration? So that was really the moment where I was like, “I enjoy this and this is probably something that’s atypical but it’s something that is really speaking to my soul.” I remember actually asking my mom for a subscription to the New York Times as a sixth grader [chuckle] and writing a letter to our local newspaper to critique the policies of Christine Todd Whitman who was the first woman governor of the State of New Jersey. So yeah, all of this is probably the set up of, “This kid is gonna go into politics.”
Karina: And you said you went into college thinking you were gonna be a politician but when do you think it changed to realizing you wanted to go into the research part of political science rather than the political part?
Nadia: So I really love reading studies of how we know what we know about politics and I wanted to create studies of people that I didn’t see in the books that I was assigned at Howard. It turned out that they just didn’t exist, so a dig against my professors at Howard. There were not studies of Black women as elected officials as mass public in the same way that there were these other groups and I thought that was a big, big oversight. And when I learned that that’s actually what professors do, is that they create knowledge, I wanted to do that.
So that’s the sanitized version. The real version [chuckle] is I took a comm law class ’cause I thought that you had to go into law school to be a politician, and that was awful, that comm law class. I said, “I am not here to memorize case law.” That was not exciting. So it was probably a push and pull. So I kind of knew law school, not for me and I really like the study of politics.
Karina: Oh, well, okay. And so you knew, going into this, you wanted to be a political scientist but what advice would you give to somebody who has no idea what they want to do or is maybe considering political science but isn’t quite sure what they wanna do?
Nadia: Sure. So this is probably a controversial-esque thing to say in the middle of a pandemic and a global recession [chuckle] but I would really push all students to think about what makes them happy and what gets them excited. And so for me, when I look back on this now, there is really this linear path where, again, what kid watches David Dinkins ′ inauguration and ask for The New York Times, and wants to listen to NPR? That is probably... It took me a while to back into this but that’s what I always was and that’s who I am, and I am fortunate enough to have my parents who supported that.
Whereas my brother, as an educator, he’s a teacher and he always had a passion for teaching people something, and my parents, particularly my dad, didn’t think that education was a career for guys. He just thought that men should be doing other things, and so he was pushed out of it. And that’s why he had four different majors at Howard because he took him a long time to come to grips with who he was and what he wanted to do, because it wasn’t being supported in those same ways.
"So I think it's important to recognize what excites you and then find those support networks if you don't have them internally within your own family. But maybe it's good groups of friends or teachers, or mentors in other places who recognize that there is something in you that you're passionate about that lines up with a major in college and a career."” – Dr. Nadia Brown
So I think it’s important to recognize what excites you and then find those support networks if you don’t have them internally within your own family. But maybe it’s good groups of friends or teachers, or mentors in other places who recognize that there is something in you that you’re passionate about that lines up with a major in college and a career.
So I think it’s all these interconnected things that sometimes it’s hard for people to recognize when it’s you, when you’re living it, so really talking to trusted friends and mentors, and hopefully, parents and guidance counselors, and teachers are ways to help you get on that path.
Karina: Yeah, and I think this is kind of similar to something you said last time, which was, “Find what drives you and find what really motivates you.” So what would you say really drives you in political science?
Nadia: So I am still driven by things that I don’t see [chuckle] and I wanna create a world, I wanna create a discipline that I don’t currently see. So that means making a bigger tent for all people to study political science, to see themselves and their communities reflected in the leadership of our discipline and the kind of scholarship that we write and the awards that are given, and the kinds of experiences that are validated and are seen on the trajectory of being successful or a person to watch in political science.
"And until we become much more inclusive and diverse, I think I'll always have a job, a personal mission to fulfill because I wanna see the discipline reflect the myriad of people and experiences in American politics, global politics, because I think it's so important to have every voice at the table to understand what's happening in the world."” – Dr. Nadia Brown
So we’re not there. Political science, I think is still very archaic in how we prioritize certain kinds of scholarship and the bodies that get to inhabit political science spaces. And until we become much more inclusive and diverse, I think I’ll always have a job, a personal mission to fulfill because I wanna see the discipline reflect the myriad of people and experiences in American politics, global politics, because I think it’s so important to have every voice at the table to understand what’s happening in the world.
Karina: Wow, yeah. And so you study mostly women of color or women in politics. Have you noticed... Since you started doing this research, has there been more research from other people in this area?
Nadia: Yes, yes. So that is something that I’m super excited about and really, really thrilled. Yeah, there’s much more... I mean, there’s so many books now on women of color in politics. Even traditional books on gender in politics now include queer people, include people of color, include disabled folks, things that we just didn’t see before, and there are new edited volumes coming out. I happened to be a Section Chair for the Southern Political Science Association and there is a whole division on people of color and women of color that never... When I was a graduate student, I never would have saw that happen, so it is heartening. I do think that the discipline is making slow and steady steps to seeing the fullness of people’s experiences and how it impacts politics and policy.
Karina: Wow. Well, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you. I really enjoyed just hearing what you had to say and it was really inspiring. I hope that a lot of people out there are inspired to go into political science. I know that I will definitely give it a shot now because...
Nadia: Oh great, Karina.
Karina: It just sounds so incredible. But yeah, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking it with you.
Nadia: Likewise, thank you.
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