Hanauer Professor LaShawnDa Pittman wants you to know and to show what you love

December 9, 2022

Hanauer Professor LaShawnDa Pittman wants you to know and to show what you love

by Shannon Hong

LaShawnDa Pittman (she/her), Associate Professor at UW in American Ethnic Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in Sociology, addresses the coping experiences of socially marginalized women, including Black women raising a second and third generation and those living with poor health outcomes. Her other research interests include social stratification and inequality; urban poverty; race and ethnicity; gender and families; research methods; public policy; and health disparities. Pittman is also the founder and director of the Black digital humanities project, Real Black Grandmothers.

Members of the UW Honors community might remember Pittman from Global Challenges events in 2015 and 2022, where she shared her perspectives on public health and displacement, respectively. Pittman was recently appointed the Joff Hanauer Honors Professorship in Western Civilization, supporting her course development and community building across disciplines over the next two years. Hanauer appointments recognize a faculty member whose research and teaching address issues pertinent to our civilization, inspiring them to deepen connections and explore complicated questions with Honors undergraduates.

As an Honors student majoring in Neuroscience, I wanted to know why Dr. Pittman is choosing to invest her wisdom and energy into me and my fellow students, most of whom are not majoring in her field of expertise. But, even more, I was curious about her own college experience and what led her to the career she has today. I invited her to an interview and I am thrilled to share what I have learned about this dynamic, caring UW professor.

Rooted in social change

During her undergraduate years at Georgia State University, Pittman juggled commuting, working and studying full-time. It was a lot. Still, as someone who has “always been social change-orientated,” Pittman also volunteered to serve her communities, especially through an organization called Hands on Atlanta and as an on-campus student leader and political activist.

For instance, in 1992, she was among a group of students who protested racialized injustice at Georgia State. Their sit-in and subsequent conversations with campus leaders led to the launch of the African American Studies department in 1994, now known as Africana Studies.

Georgia State University students stage a sit-in protest on Nov. 9, 1992. Pittman is pictured in the front row with her hand raised to her mouth. Courtesy of Marlene Karas.

Building a life of purpose

Uncertain about deciding between her passion for social justice and her love for teaching, Pittman worked at various jobs post-graduation, turning over her long-term options of law school or graduate school. She eventually asked herself a question that changed her life: if money were no issue, what would she want to do?

“It was really profound for me because it’s a big question to ask, especially for someone coming out of poverty,” Pittman said. “But it was painfully clear that I wanted to spend my life reading, writing and thinking.”

After that, Pittman decided that graduate school was for her and ended up at the University of Connecticut (UCONN), where she obtained her master’s degree in Sociology. Although she started out as a quantitative methodologist, she came across a mentor who suggested that the questions she was interested in could not be answered quantitatively. Pittman then shifted her focus to qualitative methods, which allowed her to learn about people’s experiences from their own perspectives. After leaving UCONN, she went on to get her Ph.D. in Sociology at Northwestern University.

“When I was in the field [conducting qualitative research], it was like the skies opened for me. This is why I came to grad school,” Pittman said. This realization led her to a career built on compassionate, grounded research into the lives of people who were understudied and whose stories were vital to the understanding of how structural factors (e.g., systemic racism, gender inequality, legal estrangement) drive racially-determined poor health and poverty in the U.S.

Connecting with Honors

Over the years, she continued to connect with other social science educators who were working to profoundly shift our understanding of root causes and possible solutions to these endemic problems. Pittman connected with the Honors community through her work with recently-retired Honors director Vicky Lawson, co-founder of the Relational Poverty Network.

Pittman learned about Honors’ mission to inspire and support students though rigorous, multi-lensed inquiry into the issues that “keep them up at night” as a featured speaker at the Honors Program’s first Global Challenges event in 2015, exploring the relationship between poverty and access to healthcare. She returned as a featured speaker at the 2022 Global Challenges event on the power of place and care and said she is excited to teach her first Interdisciplinary Honors seminar next quarter.

Photo of Global Challenges hosts/speakers
Global Challenges hosts and featured speakers on Nov. 7, 2022, from left to right: Stephanie Smallwood, Megan Ybarra, Martine Pierre-Louis, Shannon Hong, Brandon Wu, and Pittman.

Looking ahead

Pittman’s Hanauer appointment started this fall and will conclude at the end of the next academic year. She was selected through a joint College of Arts and Sciences and Honors committee that was impressed by her combination of community-based research and teaching, as well as her exceptionally strong student mentorship. This award will involve research, mentorship, teaching and project-based learning. Over the next two years, she will teach two courses that center on and interrogate the notion of “Western Civilization”.

Her first Hanauer-supported course, HONORS 231 C: “Western Civilization” and Global Public Policy, will take place this winter. Pittman is committed to helping her students connect with a variety of sources and perspectives, including visits with policymakers who can share how policy works (or breaks down) across many contexts, countries, and issues that matter to students, like education and healthcare.

“[I strive to be] a bridge between communities, policymakers, practitioners serving them and students who will potentially go and impact the issues [faced by historically marginalized communities],” Pittman said. “I bring that same level of engagement, involvement and bridging to teaching.”

Engaging outside the classroom with Honors students—who she describes as “a bunch of mini-me’s”—will also be at the forefront of Pittman’s Hanauer appointment. She is currently collaborating with student cohosts on a series of salon talks where students can share their college experiences and discuss issues they care about. She hopes to make the conversations inviting and accessible, ultimately encouraging people to open up and develop relationships with one another as part of the learning process.

Alexes Harris (left) and Pittman (right) welcome Black faculty from 3 UW campuses to the 2021 BFC Welcome Reception. Courtesy of Emile Pitre.

“It’s like a diverse group of really smart young people whose hearts just want to make a difference wherever and however [they] can,” Pittman said. “For me, as a professor, I live for helping people figure out their way to do that… helping Honors students channel all of that passion, brain power and care for the world into something. That’s what I love about Honors.”

At least one of the coming salon talks will draw inspiration from Pittman’s newest book Grandmothering While Black: A Twenty-First-Century Story of Love, Coercion, and Survival. She also plans to continue her work with the Black Faculty Collective, which she co-created in 2020 with Alexes Harris, a UW professor of sociology.

For Pittman, it is not enough to understand and care about issues. You have got to develop that understanding and do something to make a difference. “I put things into the world that I want to see in the world,” Pittman said. “I don’t just talk about it, I be about it.”