Top Columbia University Professor Premilla Nadasen Joins PuLSE Institute

Premilla Nadasen, a noted professor of history at Columbia University and at Barnard College, and the president of the National Women Studies Association, is joining The PuLSE Institute as a senior fellow at the Academy of Fellows.

At The PuLSE Institute, Nadasen, who was a 2018-2019 Fulbright Visiting Professor at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, will focus on the areas of welfare and social policy, public assistance, protest and organizing, gender, race, single parenthood and labor rights. She is the first Ivy League professor to join Detroit’s leading independent anti-poverty think tank, which is driving the debate on the need to challenge inequality in America’s largest black city.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was involved in the anti-apartheid and anti-racist student movement in the 1980s, Nadasen, has been researching and writing about social policy and women of color feminism for over 20 years. 

Nadasen is an award-winning author.  Her most recent book, Household Worker Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement examines how African American domestic workers in the U.S. strategically used storytelling to form a political identity and through their organizing reshaped the landscape of labor organizing.  Her first book, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge 2005), outlines the ways in which African American women on welfare forged a feminism of their own out of the political and cultural circumstances of the late 1960s and 1970s. She is currently writing a biography of South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba.

“I am very happy to be able to join The Pulse Institute as a senior fellow. The Pulse Institute is an important voice addressing the critical issues of poverty and economic inequality in Detroit,” Nadasen said. “This moment of crisis, brought on by both the pandemic and the horrific violence directed at black people, has created the conditions of possibility where new ideas are gaining traction. There is a realization that we can and have to defund the police and reinvest in communities, that we must create systems of economic support, that we need to ensure that everyone has adequate health care. An economic system that benefits a few at top at the expense of the many on the bottom cannot sustain itself.”

She added, “As a historian, I have looked to history to glean lessons for the present. One thing I have found is that those people who are on the front lines of poverty, who are the most marginalized, often have the most insightful analyses and the most radical alternatives.  Welfare rights activists in the 1960s put the conversation of a universal basic income on the national political agenda.  In the 1970s, African American domestic workers fought for and won basic labor protections from which they had been excluded since the New Deal. Today, the grassroots organizers, community activists, and people marching in the street are going to take the lead to reimagine a socially and economically just society. What we have to do is uplift their voices.”

Over the years, Nadasen has written for numerous scholarly and popular on-line and print outlets and given public talks about immigration, labor history, African-American history, welfare policy, and community organizing. She co-directs with Celia Naylor a working group on Transnational Black Feminisms. She has consulted for the New York Historical Society, the Tenement Museum in New York, the Museum of the City of New York, and Hull House in Chicago and wrote a personal narrative for a Guggenheim walking tour of Jackson Heights, Queens. She has been engaged with community and campus activism for many years, including anti-racist, feminist, and anti-apartheid organizing.  She has an abiding interest in democratization, political empowerment of the poor, and movements for social justice, with a particular focus on women of color.

Nadasen is also a member of Scholars for Social Justice and has bridged academic and activist work by making her scholarly work accessible to people outside of the university. She served as expert witness before the New York State Assembly Committee on Labor as well as the federal Department of Labor and wrote a policy brief titled “Valuing Domestic Work” for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). She has collaborated with the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, and the NDWA’s “We Dream in Black” project to mobilize black domestic workers.   

Attorney Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native who serves as The PuLSE Institute’s president and director of research welcomed Nadasen to the Institute.

The PuLSE Institute welcomes Premilla Nadasen to the Academy of Fellows. Her notable scholarship and advocacy on the rights of low income populations are directly aligned with the Institute’s mission against the pervasive poverty and inequality that plague our communities,” Patterson said. “Premilla’s body of work is a testament to her vision of an inclusive society that implements equitable policies to uplift those trapped under the weight of current repressive systems. We look forward to working with her in this endeavor.”

The founding of The PuLSE Institute was inspired by the writings of nationally renowned Detroit journalist and author Bankole Thompson, whose illuminating and influential work on economic and racial justice issues has elevated the discourse around poverty and inequality in the city. Thompson, a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, serves as the editor-in-chief of the Institute and the dean of the Academy of Fellows.

“Premilla is a first-rate academic who lives and breathes beyond the confines of the American ivory tower. In my conversations with her, it’s apparent that her commitment and drive for genuine social transformation and placing poverty at the center of our sociopolitical engagement is unwavering,” Thompson said. “She defies the traditional role of the ivory tower academic in her real world engagement with the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. Rather than safely reside within the walls of the academy, Premilla, disrupts the notion that scholarship should remain for the exclusive access of the privileged educational class.”

Thompson added, “Her work demonstrates that rather than studying poverty for the sole benefit of academic achievement, scholarship is best utilized in exposing and solving the problems of inequality to benefit the victims of economic disenfranchisement. The PuLSE Institute remains committed in serving as the purveyor of anti-poverty policies and ideas from a mosaic of diverse voices across industries devoted to removing the curse of poverty. ”

Last year, Washington Post nationally syndicated columnist Esther Cepeda, profiled the work of The PuLSE Institute in a column describing it as a national model for cities working to tackle poverty. Lawrence Technological University in Southfield also announced last year that it will inculcate the work of the Institute in its MBA program for students to identify business solutions to poverty.

Leading members of The PuLSE Institute include the National Advisory Panel consisting of Dr. Arun Gandhi, global justice advocate and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi; Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a top aide of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and National Coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign; Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK and a leading Catholic anti-poverty crusader; Robert Weiner, former White House spokesman; Herb Boyd, historian, journalist and author of consequential books on James Baldwin and Malcolm X; Luba Lukova, an internationally visual artist for social justice; Rev. Lawrence T. Foster, Harvard-trained theologian and mentee of Martin Luther King Sr.; and Janis F. Kearney, first presidential diarist under former President Bill Clinton.

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