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That Dancing, Coding Queen

Welcome to December 2020! I’m so excited to introduce to you Ayana. Ayana is Assistant Professor at Drexel (yay Philly!), who has had her work in Education published AND who, with some amazing colleagues, has gone above and beyond to create an organization called Black Girls STEAMing through Dance.  BGSD literally teaches little girls how to code through dance!  The idea itself is beyond imaginative. I am so beyond impressed by this woman I had to share her story with you.  I hope you’ll take a read and #beinspired.

You are an Assistant Professor of Urban Education with a PhD in Education Curriculum & Instruction with a Specialization in Urban Education, so let me just humbly take a back seat to your intelligence here.  Tell me why you went into this particular field of study and what made you want to pursue the academic route with your profession?

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to have a career that was focused on serving others and particularly serving children. Both of my parents are now retired social workers and so I learned from them how one could integrate their professional career with living a life of service.  I love the quote by Ghandi that says: The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. In college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I double majored in Management & Society and Spanish and had a desire to go to law school, but decided to take a chance and become a teacher through Teach for America. At the time, I envisioned that I would teach for my 2-year commitment, and then go off to law school. However, teaching changed my life, and it became my purpose so to speak.  I was a first-grade teacher for six years,  an elementary literacy specialist and gifted and talented coordinator for a year, and a counselor for 4 years. While teaching, I pursued both my MEd and Ph.D. and shortly after completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at The Urban Education Collaborative at UNC Charlotte.  Now I am in my 6th year of being a professor and 2 years ago I became the Founding Director of The Justice-Oriented Youth Education Lab (The JoY Ed. Lab) which is one of the most important and rewarding endeavors I’ve ever pursued. Education is my life…although I’m not going to lie I have considered going to Law school…LOL! I guess it’s the relentless life-long learner in me.


You’ve accomplished such a great deal.  You’re published nationally and internationally.  Now you have decided to begin Black Girls STEAMING Through Dance.  Where did your inspiration for beginning this program come from?  Why did you decide to start this program?

This fall we began our fourth year of Black Girls STEAMing through Dance (BGSD). I actually can’t even believe that it has been so long.  I grew up dancing in Philly at Philadanco (The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts) since I was four years old up until I left for North Carolina for college, and even in college I danced on our team’s Dance Team and a Modern Dance Company.  So, dance has been a very important part of my life and something I love to do even now.  One of our research centers at Drexel University called the ExCITE Center  had a grant competition for innovations in learning/education.  I began to brainstorm with my friend and colleague Val about what we could create that would fit the scope of the grant.  During our brainstorming, we decided to reach out to Raja and Michelle to see if together, all four of us could create something amazing.  Together through our common desire to create an impactful program specifically for Black girls, BGSD was born.  We’re thankful to have the support of US Department of Education West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood Grant.


You’re partnered up with 4 other professors.  How did you come together and what steps did you take to get started?

The amazing thing about BGSD is that it is led by 4 Black women professors, and our BGSD team consists of a Black woman Program Director, Black women graduate and undergraduate students, and we serve 7-13 year old Black girls.  BGSD is unapologetically a “counter-space” by and for Black women and girls.  My research partners Val (Dance), Raja (Product Design), Michelle (Computing & Informatics), and I (Urban Education),  and our Program Director Destiny, our students Moe (AR & VR), Tejante & Alicia (Dance), and Kalilah (Design) blend our individual experiences and discipline expertise which makes for a truly dynamic transdisciplinary collaboration. We are all like sisters and truly love and care for each other like family!


Tell us what Black Girls STEAMING Through Dance is about.  I’m legit inspired!

Wow! There is so much I could say about BGSD, it’s definitely my happy place!  First, I’ll put in a little plug to definitely visit our website: !  Now let me see what I can tell you to give you a snapshot, but also leave you wanting to learn more! BGSD is an after-school and co-curricular program for 7-13 year old Black girls which is designed to support the development of STEAM identities, STEAM literacies, and positive self-concept.  Our program blends dance, design, and coding coupled with augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to get young girls excited about the possibilities of pursuing STEAM careers in the future.  We utilize culturally congruent curriculum design and activities that are engaging and exciting for the girls. Who doesn’t love to dance to fun music while learning to design costumes that “light-up”…costumes which the girls learn to control the lights on through coding, and choreographing dancing avatars in their own designed virtual environments.


What kind of changes have you seen in your girls from the time they began this program until now?

Oh tremendous changes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also share how this program has truly impacted me as a professor, researcher, and woman for the absolute best.  As for the girls, we get to see them blossom over time.  In the beginning they aren’t quite sure what it is all about and so sometimes they are shy during dance, or become a little frustrated while sewing, designing, and also while learning how to code. They often see each lesson as separate from the other, but as time progresses, it’s like they realize how it’s all connecting.  We have seen their confidence and their relationships with the team leaders and each other truly grow. I can give an example of one of our girls who has been with the program since the beginning.  A science program came to visit her school and during a Q&A session, she answered a really hard question about engineering concepts and won an amazing prize for answering the question correctly.  When they asked her how she even knew this, she told them she learned it in BGSD and wants to be an engineer one day! So inspiring…my heart melts thinking about her and this moment!

What was one of the hardest mountains you had to climb, personally, while you were trying to achieve your dreams and how did you deal with it?

If I could sum up the hardest mountain, it would be loss. I have lost such close family members along the way like we all have at some point in our lives or another.  I’m incredibly blessed and grateful to have had each and everyone of them in my life, but I would say missing them and wishing they were still here for my journey has been hard.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone who is trying to pave his or her own way, what would it be?

Wow, just 1 piece of advice huh?  I guess I’d say:  let love be your driving force and stay hopeful, for hope anchors the soul.  A quote I heard recently which has quickly become a favorite of mine states, “The Dream is free, but the hussle is sold separately” motivates me daily!


Chicken or egg? 


If you had a superpower, what would it be?

To be invisible would be amazing…I would love to be “present” but not having to actually be “present”.

Who has had the biggest influence in your life?

The amazing women in my family… My 3 great-grandmas Granny Lizzie, Granny Carrie, and Nanny who all lived well into their 90s and Granny Lizzie lived to be 102 years old.

My grandma Elizabeth (who lived to be 90) was my everything! She was my biggest cheerleader in life and would always tell me I could do anything and everything I put my mind to. She would tell me “You came out the womb that way”…never letting anyone outshine you.”  I guess there’s definitely some truth to what she would tell me.

My Aunt Myrtle was like a mom to me.  She was pure love, joy, and fun and I am compelled to enjoy life because that’s exactly what she did with hers.

My Mom Michelle is my greatest support.  She always tells me to “Fly…fly my Black butterfly”…her love anchors me.

What are you most proud of?

Being a Mom to my amazing son Aiden

Do ghosts exist?


What kind of music do you like?

Old School Motown, R&B, Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, Gospel

Say reincarnation exists…if you had the chance to do life all over again, would you?  And no, you can’t start with the lessons you’ve learned this go around. 

In that case (not being able to start with lessons learned), that would be a no! If I were to ever return to this side of Heaven after departing this Earthly shell, I think I’d like to return as a Black butterfly (see Mom reference above)…or a beautiful flower (because that’s what my name, Ayana means) 😊


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