Dr. Dana Lawless-Andric Focuses Career on Bringing Equity in Education to Akron

by Zinga Hart, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

To bring in the summer, Dr. Dana Lawless-Andric wears her sunniest shirt. Her office windows at Kent State University’s main campus open to the afternoon sun. It’s cold, a feeling we both share across our Zoom interview, but a recent and much-needed staycation leaves her cheerful.

Dr. Dana has worked at Kent State University for over 15 years. Her career’s focus has been diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. She serves as the associate vice president for the University’s Outreach and Engagement program. Although her professional position is in Kent, her roots are burrowed deep in Akron. 

“I was born and raised in this area my entire life. I grew up right off South Main Street,” she says. 

Her early career focused on college access and policy work for the state, region and nation. It was when she pursued her Ph.D. that she realized how much there was to contribute in her own backyard. It helped that she was part of Class 35 of Leadership Akron’s signature program. The program and her experience centers her in Akron’s equity and inclusion transformation.

Her spark for diversity, equity, and inclusion work began during her master’s program.  First, she completed an internship for the Summit Education Initiative. Here, she worked under Barbara A. Greene who played an inspirational role.  Then she worked with the Upward Bound Program in Buchtel. 

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These formative experiences connected her to Summit County and Akron Public Schools.  Her work at Buchtel High School is where she fell in love with creating educational access pipelines. 

The Upward Bound program, where she got her start as a graduate assistant, is a federally funded program developed out of the Civil Rights era. The program’s work is to cultivate educational access and opportunities for low-income students. 

“[It] sung to my soul in a way nothing else has ever done to this day,” she says. “I walked beside families seeking to better themselves through education. For some students, I am still a part of their stories even into their 30s.”

During her time in this program, her eyes opened to the different adversities that students had to face on their way to attaining higher education. All along the way, she encountered Akronites doing whatever it takes to engage within their educational journeys. 

These experiences folded into her doctoral study, where she focused on what affected a student’s persistence to degree attainment. She soon realized societal, systemic and economic barriers lead to disparate educational outcomes.

It was a structure that needed to change. Facilitating structural change has become a part of her work in Akron. Her point of pride is her work with East Akron Neighborhood Development Center (EANDC). She notes Executive Director Cheryl Stevens is “one of the region’s best-kept secrets.” There, she works to make housing affordable and create pride in homeownership. She serves on the economic inclusion committee alongside Vice President for Opportunity and Inclusion Robert DeJournett at the Greater Akron Chamber.  The committee works to launch “robust resources” to diverse businesses in Akron. Recently, the committee held a diversity professionals roundtable. They discussed initiatives tied to Elevate Akron and the richness in overlooked Akron areas. At its core, this equity work aims to dismantle barriers withholding Black and brown communities from participating in and leading local and economic policies. For instance, her work at EANDC revealed the linkage between income, access and opportunities for marginalized communities.

What was needed to implement the solution? A shift in perspective from needs-based services to asset-based development. She emphasized that the work is asset-centered and  “that we look at the work we do from a place of value…we’re not coming in and saving the day.” Investing in communities through an equity-driven approach emphasizes working residents toward achieving goals.

To Dr. Lawless-Andric, the core of this work is education. It makes sense. Much of her work involves engaging and developing the K-12 to higher-education pipeline work, such as the LeBron James Family Foundation and the Akron Public Schools Career & College Academies partnerships. Results of the programs include the iPromise school partnership where Kent State welcomed 193 eligible juniors to attend as freshmen with free tuition and one year of free room and board. Her vision is to see “every one of our students have a choice and to be prepared for college whether they want to or not. Every point of data shows that educational attainment feeds into healthcare, voting participation, etc.,” she says. 

Her own personal experience fuels her. In her dissertation, she observes the differences in life paths of students who had the opportunity to attain higher education and those who didn’t.

“I write about my brilliant cousin…he is a mechanical genius who could engineer an entire car and put it back together. He had a life path that went into drugs and criminality,” she says. 

This experience made her weigh on why her life turned out so different from a family member she adored. 

“I am the first person in my family to go to college and it helped me understand that you are one degree away from a different life but that doesn’t mean you don’t have value. I lost my cousin from Kenmore to the heroin epidemic and I think the work is looking at how we come to the table and uplift and invest in all people and in all of our communities.”

When working from the DEI lens, the work becomes even more complex. When she began her work at Buchtel High School she was often met with skepticism. 

“Most of my career, I worked with mostly Black and Latinx families, and some years later the students would remember their first impression is ‘who is this white girl?’” she says. “And there is something important about understanding your role as a white person being an ally [and advocate] in communities of color.” To Dr. Lawless-Andric, The key point of understanding is being sure to honor and embrace their center of experience in economic development and that not all spaces are accessible to her. 

Doing DEI work in Akron is a long-term journey that requires many levels of participation, education, and investment of all Akron citizens while balancing historical trends of inequity. This work is neither simple nor easy, but Dr. Dana believes leaders should rise to the occasion if it is their calling. 

“While my work is not about me, it is core to me,” she says. “It is a commitment to allies to change. It is political but it doesn’t have to be partisan. Why wouldn’t we all want safety and education and healthcare for our communities? The thread that helps us have a desire for public good doesn’t have to be for some but not for others.” 

Inclusion for all is an Akron worth envisioning.

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Zinga Hart fell in love with the artist spirit that vibrates in Akron. She is called to writing about economic development at a personal and community level.

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