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  • Rogéair D. Purnell

Dr. Etta F. Walker: An Equity Warrior

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

Ten years ago, I launched my own business—RDP Consulting—after working for both for- and non-profit organizations. Up to 2010, my professional life had focused on improving economic and social outcomes for low wealth individuals and communities by researching, evaluating, and reporting on promising practices for a number of programs including supportive housing for people living with HIV and AIDS, community-based employment and health initiatives, teen pregnancy prevention, and postsecondary education. My goal was to use my personal and professional experiences to design, manage, and support educational achievement.

As a child in a family where postsecondary education was viewed as the great equalizer—a weapon against institutional and systemic racism—part of my professional focus was to ensure more students—particularly historically underrepresented students—succeeded academically as a tool of social justice and hope.

As I reflect on my life trajectory, particularly over the past 10 years, I owe much to Dr. Etta Walker who led the Computer Science and Physics Department at Texas Southern University (TSU). A force of nature at 4-foot 9-inches tall, Dr. Walker drove a Suburban, didn’t mince words, and didn’t suffer fools. For her, equity was about ensuring that students in the predominantly Black community of Third Ward were exposed to and gained the skills and knowledge to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematic majors. One of 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, TSU was one block from my childhood home and the alma mater of my father, grandfather, and grandmother and was a beacon to the community when Black students were denied admission to other colleges and universities on the basis of race. During junior high school, I learned about a summer math and science program that Dr. Walker had organized and designed and my brother and I decided to participate. The program’s students—all youth from Third Ward—took college-level courses—Trigonometry, Algebra, Chemistry, drafting, etc.—taught by TSU professors.

Long before “STEM”, “concurrent enrollment,” and “diversity, inclusion, and equity,” she understood that her education, experience, and position offered her a platform to change lives.

She inspired us through her own story to dream big, to work hard, and to support each other. When I was accepted to Stanford University where she earned her doctorate, she made sure I was able to talk to another young woman from Third Ward who was a recent Stanford graduate so that I could ask questions to alleviate my fears about my ability to do the academic work and to fit in socially.

As the new decade begins, I look back and recognize Dr. Walker, a true mentor and equity warrior, and am inspired to do more to promote fairness and justice where there has been unfairness and injustice. As I continue my personal and professional journey, I will post monthly blog posts to share more of my story, to highlight what I am learning, and to create a place for discussion and reflection.



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