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Scholar, Advocate and Documentary Filmmaker Joins the Sanford Faculty

August 24, 2018

By Collin Ellis

The Sanford School welcomes Sally Nuamah to the faculty as an assistant professor. Nuamah is not only an academic, but a documentary filmmaker, writer and staunch advocate for girls’ education, the subject of the majority of her studies.

Nuamah [Nya - ma] comes to Sanford after a series of competitive research fellowships with The University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Harvard. She holds a PhD in political science from Northwestern University. She’s won several awards for her achievements, including the "35 under 35" Leaders Making an Impact from Chicago Scholars, Global Emerging Leader Award from the Global Strategist Association and the Advocate Award from the African Festival of the Arts.

Nuamah’s current work focuses on educational access for girls and the widespread closing of public schools, particularly the effects of closures on the political beliefs of the affected citizens. These subjects are the topics of her forthcoming books How Girls Achieve and When Schools Close, the former scheduled for publication by Harvard University Press in 2019.

Her passion for her work as a professor and activist is deeply rooted in her background. Nuamah was born and raised in inner-city Chicago by her immigrant mother from Kumasi, Ghana. She says her upbringing in the States, traveling abroad to her parents’ homeland and speaking to other women seeking higher education in Accra helped her realize the importance of education. Her experiences became the topic of her TEDx Talk at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“There is no other mechanism [besides education] more probable for improving lives and enabling people to have a future that’s different from their past or where they come from,” she said.

“The reality (was) that whether I was in urban Chicago or urban Accra what would help young people who are marginalized -- especially girls -- get an advantage, was education. It became clear to me that that’s what I was going to focus on.”

Some of the women she spoke to during her five-year study on Ghanaian woman became the subject of her documentary, HerStory: Educate a Woman, Educate a NationNuamah began the work on the film during her second year of college.

The documentary was initially meant to be a small project, a requirement for a grant she was applying to for the Institute for International Education. But she found herself engrossed in the lives of the women she spoke to, and how at odds they were with images she had often seen of Africa.

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  • Sally Nuamah and girls who made it to college with TWII Foundation support

    A Focus on Girls

    Sally Nuamah (center) with four girls who attended and graduated college with the support of the TWII Foundation. They are at the World Bank office in Ghana in 2016, to discuss job opportunities with the bank. Photo credit: Insideye Images

“The way they talked about their experiences and articulated what they were going through was something I just wanted other people to see. It felt important to me because you don’t get those kinds of images of people of color, and black girls specifically, on the continent of Africa.

“I saw regular girls who were striving for what they wanted every day, girls who reminded me of myself, people I grew up with, my sisters and just everyday people. I wanted to portray that.”

“HerStory” is distributed by Discovery Channel Education, and has screened at several film festivals.

Her work on the film inspired her to establish The HerStory Girls in Ghana Scholarship and The HerStory Emergency Fund, two aspects of the TWII Foundation that are used to help Ghanaian women complete college. Since its inception, the organization has funded nearly 30 first generation girls to and/or through college.

Nuamah says she’s excited to be at the Sanford School and to see what subjects the students and faculty are interested in. One of the things that most intrigued her about Sanford, she said, was the latitude to take more creative avenues in her research. She’s also eager to incorporate the use of digital media into her everyday work.

Nuamah is sure she’s found a great place to continue to be an educator and an activist.

“I knew that these were colleagues that want to do work that matters to them, that want to do work that’s important. They care about the community that they’re directly involved in. That’s the kind of community I want to be in,” she says.

Learn more about Sally Nuamah on her website.