Telling the story of slavery through the eyes of enslaved men and women, bringing culturally responsive teaching strategies to local schools and making research experiences real for undergraduates. Do we have your attention? Meet three of the College of Humanities and Sciences' rising stars: Michael Dickinson, Ph.D., Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D., and Dewey Taylor, Ph.D.
History in the Making
Michael Dickinson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, History
“We are living in an eventful, and in many ways, an impressive time,” says Dickinson. “It appears that more people are willing to listen to the truths surrounding the racialized history around Confederate monuments and the realities of systemic racism in the past and the present. What we see in Richmond at the monuments is a mixture of people from different places, different backgrounds, different races and ethnicities, all in this place where if we looked a year ago were predominately white spaces. As a show of the present moment, it’s extraordinarily meaningful. Hopefully, we can take this as a sign of progress toward racial equity.”It’s an interesting time to be a historian in Richmond. In just the past few months, thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality, many Confederate monuments have come down, and Richmond is finally beginning to reckon with its past as the heart of the Confederacy. For Michael Dickinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of History, who specializes in African American history and early American slavery, he feels fortunate to have a front row seat to it all.
Dickinson first became interested in African American history as an undergrad at the University of Delaware. “The more I learned about history, the more I realized how little I knew about the people who looked like me in history. The more I realized that we as a society don’t discuss the history of African American folks. Not a lot of people were talking about Black history, and as a Black man I wanted to change that,” he explains. He also benefited from the mentorship of one particular African American professor that put him on the path to graduate school. “She taught courses on slavery and really took a special interest in me. One day, she pulled me aside one day after class and asked the question, ‘what if you do what I do for a living?’ explained Dickinson. “It was meaningful to have someone who was also Black in a role that I didn’t initially see myself in. The more I took classes in African American history and the more I spoke with her, the more I realized that she was right. This was something that I wanted to do.” Dickinson received his Ph.D. in 2017 and joined the faculty at VCU that same year.
“The more I learned about history, the more I realized how little I knew about the people who looked like me in history.”
Next year, Dickinson’s first book will be released by the University of Georgia Press. “Almost Dead: Slavery and Social Rebirth in the Black Urban Atlantic, 1680-1807” tells the story of slavery through the eyes of enslaved men and women. The narrative begins in West Africa, moves across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, and eventually settles in cities in present day United States. For his research, Dickinson traveled to Barbados, Great Britain, Jamaica and Philadelphia.
“I’m most proud of the epilogue. I was able to interview descendants of one of the slaves whose narrative I examine in the book—Jeffrey Brace. When I spoke with them, the most prevalent themes were ideas of reclaiming history and grappling with slavery’s legacy, two themes I believe speak to the current racial climate,” said Dickinson. “Like many people of African descent, the Brace's longed for connections to their history, for their past to be represented, a tension partially alleviated when they became familiar with Jeffrey Brace’s narrative. This longing is common among African Americans and speaks to the present call to acknowledge black voices.”
Ultimately, Dickinson hopes that his book will shift readers’ perspectives. “We are at a moment when there is greater support to reconcile with the legacy of slavery: a need long recognized by descendants of slaves but often ignored. I want readers to leave with both a better understanding of slavery through captives’ eyes, but also a greater appreciation for their humanity and resiliency.”
Taking Up the Shield
Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Psychology
When Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D., in the Department of Psychology, learned earlier this year that she had received a substantial grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, she was elated. The $400,000, two-year grant would support the professional development of local secondary teachers’ ability to implement culturally responsive teaching strategies in their classrooms, a key focus of Lozada’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Lab at VCU. “We are ultimately helping teachers understand the ways that they can provide promotive cultural experiences and conversations around culture, race and ethnicity in the classroom that are impactful and important for student outcomes,” Lozada explained.
Wasting no time, Lozada and her collaborators at the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium, Hillary Parkhouse, Ph.D., and Jesse Senechal, Ph.D., quickly got to work with 32 teachers across four schools in the Chesterfield and Henrico County Public School districts. “This training is the culmination of the ways in which I think about my research having impact. It’s allowing me to do high impact, rigorous, time intensive research on cultural and race-related experiences of youth, but doing it in a way that is having a direct impact on youth right now—the teachers are able to analyze their interactions throughout the year and modify their behaviors in real time—and this is happening before the publications happen, before we write up the report.”
“We are ultimately helping teachers understand the ways that they can provide promotive cultural experiences and conversations around culture, race and ethnicity in the classroom that are impactful and important for student outcomes.”
Lozada founded the S.H.I.E.L.D. Lab (School, Home, and Internet contexts of EmotionaL Development) in 2016. The lab investigates the ways that racial-ethnic experiences across contexts are related to ethnic-racial minority youth’s emotional development. The goal of the lab is to develop culturally-relevant models of emotional development that are informed by the experiences of Black and Brown people. Past projects have focused on internet and social media influences, school experiences, family socialization, positive youth development and racial and cultural experiences.
Lozada first became interested in the intersection of race and emotional development as a first-year student at William Peace College in Raleigh, N.C. “I was taking a lot of cultural anthropology classes and psychology classes, and we were talking about race relations in the U.S. and trying to understand how we think about ourselves as a racialized people in society,” Lozada explained. “Coming to understand our experiences as members of our racial group can be an emotional experience. For instance, when we learn about what race means in terms of hierarchy and your place in that racial hierarchy, that can bring up all kinds of emotions that are difficult to manage. It was very interesting to me because it spoke to my own experiences growing up. I am biracial, Black and Puerto Rican. There were things that I learned from my parents about being Puerto Rican and African-American that made me feel emotions like pride and happiness. But there were racial experiences that I had in school that made me feel sad, angry or embarrassed, and that shaped not only how I saw myself as a person, but also how I viewed other people in regards to race. I want to help teachers create positive racial experiences in their classrooms because it will be important for how students view themselves and others in terms of race later.”
At the heart of this collaboration between the S.H.I.E.L.D. Lab, MERC and the local public schools is Lozada’s deep commitment to community partnerships. “We really care about the work that we do with the community, especially nonprofits who use our research to help their families,” said Lozada. “Community partnerships allow for something new and innovative to come out of a joint collaboration in which researchers bring their expertise and knowledge of evidence-based practices to those who are doing the everyday work and practice in the community. Bringing these two perspectives together, as partners and on equal footing, creates opportunities that make communities better.”
Do(ing) the Math
Dewey Taylor, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
In January 2004, Dewey Taylor saw an ad for her dream job—a tenure-track position in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at VCU.
Taylor had received her B.S. from VCU in 1999 and loved her time in Richmond. “I did always want to come back to VCU,” she explains. “As soon as I left for grad school at North Carolina State University, I kept watching the VCU math department for positions each year.” Now an associate professor in the department, Taylor specializes in graph theory, the study of graphs and their properties and applications. “A graph is basically a set of vertices (or nodes, dots, points, etc.) connected by edges (lines). Graph theory is a great area as it has applications to so many other fields—computer science, biology, chemistry—and is highly accessible to students,” she explains.
Over the years at VCU, Taylor has also had the opportunity to teach a wide range of classes, from college algebra to graduate graph theory and abstract algebra courses. “I love teaching and helping students. It’s definitely what I was meant to do,” she says. “I love to see students succeed and learn the mathematics that I find so interesting and useful.”
“Many students think that research is out of their reach or too hard. I want to change those thoughts and mindsets.”
She found her teaching inspiration in her former VCU math professor, Reuben Farley, Ph.D. “Dr. Farley taught me linear algebra and abstract algebra. He was just one of those professors that every student loved,” she says. “He was genuinely interested in his students and it really showed when he taught. If we were working in the hallway, he’d just sit down with us and help us there. I try to remember all these things as I teach my own students now.”
And it appears that Taylor is following in Farley's footsteps. In 2017, she was honored with the Faculty Mentor Award from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. For this award, undergrad students selected a faculty member “who has made a lasting impression through their guidance and mentorship of undergraduates conducting research and scholarship at VCU.” One of her students wrote in her nomination essay, “[Dr. Taylor] believed in me before I believed in myself and she showed me the power of combining hard work and knowledge.”
Taylor's deep commitment to her students is also evident in the types of grants for which she applies. This past year, she was awarded two grants to support undergraduate research, one of which was for a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site in graph theory and computational mathematics—the first REU in the history of VCU’s Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. The grant was funded by the National Security Agency and the six-week program originally paid for eight students to come to VCU and work on real research problems. However, when the pandemic forced in-person conferences online, she quickly pivoted, offering the experience virtually. “The REU went really well. We divided the students into two groups that worked on vaccination game theory. We offered workshops on using library resources, applying to grad school, using LaTeX and MATLAB. We also had a panel on careers in the mathematical sciences consisting of VCU mathematics alums working in local companies, schools and government agencies.” explained Dewey.
It’s these types of research-based experiences that Taylor hopes her students embrace as they continue their path in mathematics. “Many students think that research is out of their reach or too hard. I want to change those thoughts and mindsets, and do so in a supportive and fun environment.”