Yellow Springs, Ohio, is a small college community with a rich history of social justice. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad and, much later, home to Antioch College, where civil rights activist Coretta Scott King went to school.
Dana Patterson, who completed her doctorate in higher education administration at Washington State University last spring, was seeking a career that would lead her into social justice and human rights activism, when she applied to be first director of the new Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch. Looking at the job description, she realized, “It’s a perfect fit for me in light of what I want to do and what I have done.”
In the early 1990s, Patterson worked as a parenting specialist at a substance abuse treatment facility for women in Lexington, Kentucky. Later, she was director of the Multicultural Resource Center at Emporia State University in Kansas, a good preparation for her time directing the Talmadge Anderson Heritage House at WSU. She has been a foster parent and has furthered her education, all the while working on issues of equality, diversity, and intellectual freedom.
As a graduate student, she drew from all those things to determine the focus of her studies.
Tying together issues of family, gender, and race that for many black women in higher education have been obstacles, she had her topic: “Divorcing the doctor: Black women and their intimate relationships during the doctoral process.” The work allowed her to look at her own experience and those of seven other African-American women in higher ed. She explored how they saw themselves, how they related with their families and communities, how they maintained relationships within the academy, and how they nurtured their own intellectual development. She wove her own life, her interests, and her work into her studies. “I give this advice to people all the time: Every paper, every project, every opportunity that comes your way, use it to build on your dissertation.”
When Patterson finished her degree, she and her family moved to Chicago, where she settled in to spend time with her daughters and look for work. In late September, the phone rang. Antioch, five hours away in Ohio, was ready.
While the job is a good fit, it’s not necessarily a comfortable one, admits Patterson. There is a lot of challenging work to be done. As director she will guide students and the Yellow Springs community to seek out injustice and to push for social change. One of her first efforts this past winter was to speak with the local human relations commission about the shrinking availability of affordable housing which was affecting people of diverse backgrounds. That sort of thing is just the beginning of what the center can do locally and nationwide, says Patterson.
For Patterson, Coretta Scott King is a source of inspiration, a guidepost. “I’m from where she’s from,” says Patterson, who spent her childhood in King’s home state of Alabama. “I have four children, she had four children. And now here I am getting to carry on the legacy she left in this space.”