Doctoral Candidate Wears Many Hats

High-achieving GW student works on multiple fronts to bring greater equity to life.

September 7, 2022

Adjoa B. Asamoah

Adjoa B. Asamoah is the policy architect behind the CROWN Act. (photo by Maya Darasaw)

By Greg Varner

Adjoa B. Asamoah wears many hats. The George Washington University doctoral candidate is an activist who conceptualized the CROWN Act, a law prohibiting racial discrimination in the form of hair discrimination. She is also the first person in the nearly 57-year history of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to be appointed as senior advisor for racial equity to the secretary. She will soon add another hat to her collection when she earns her Ed.D. in the education administration and policy studies program at GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

“I’m a policy architect, an applied behavior analyst by training, a licensed clinician and an educator,” she said. “I’m a political operative, strategist, activist and a senior adviser to local, state and federal officials. Dare I say I wear many crowns?”

In addition to her work developing the legislative strategy for the CROWN Act, Asamoah previously served the Biden presidential campaign as national advisor for Black engagement. She also chaired the African American Leadership Council for the Democratic Party for five years and served as the Black Engagement Director for the 59th Presidential Inaugural Committee.

The CROWN Act stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”; it was first introduced by former Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2021. To become a federal law, it must pass the U.S. Senate, where it has been introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.). To date, Asamoah has successfully guided the bill through legislative bodies in 18 states and 46 jurisdictions.

“The CROWN Act movement is about making it illegal to discriminate based on one’s hair when worn in its natural state, and/or in a protective style, which we identify as braids, locs, twists, Bantu knots, etc.,” Asamoah said. “The CROWN Act explicitly categorizes hair as a racial characteristic.”

News reports are often published about people denied opportunities in education, employment and other settings based on their hair—the wrestler forced to have his hair cut before being allowed to compete in a match, for instance, or the student told to change her hairstyle in order to attend class or participate in graduation ceremonies.

Issues of race-based hair discrimination are relevant to Asamoah’s doctoral dissertation, which examines ways in which school discipline is both racialized and gendered. Her dissertation chair, Associate Professor Susan Swayze, has been “an inspiration and guiding star,” she added.

“We have at least 50 years of research showing that student discipline, such as suspension, disproportionately affects Black boys,” Asamoah said. “Black girls are also overrepresented, so the disproportionality is there across race. My work looks specifically at infractions related to grooming codes and dressing codes. So, I’m tying in the work that I’m doing as a practitioner and as a policy architect into my work as a scholar.”

Black girls in particular are often punished for reasons that are more subjective, such as the perception that they have a bad attitude when, for example, they ask legitimate questions displaying critical thinking skills.

“Far too many children have had interactions with law enforcement as a result of issues within the school environment,” Asamoah said. “Schools are supposed to be places where students are comfortable, where they are nurtured to be their very best selves. But we’re asking children to thrive in hostile environments where they’re perceived as behaving badly. How do you perform when you walk in and everything about you is wrong, including your hair? We are challenging these codes of conduct that are supposed to be race-neutral, but they’re really not.”

As the daughter of a father born under colonization in what would become the Republic of Ghana and a mother from the Jim Crow South, Asamoah realized at a young age that anti-Blackness is a global issue. She was already an activist when, as a work-study student at the prestigious Hopkins School in New Haven, she led a campaign to change the term for the school’s chief administrator, who was called a headmaster.

“That word means something very different to my people,” Asamoah said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t like the school’s leader; I worked in his office! It was the idea that language matters. Now they call that individual the head of school. I am proud to have been the person who said I didn’t like that language, and it needed to change.”

Though she spoke with GW Today in her personal capacity as a student and not as a federal government employee, Asamoah briefly described her job at HUD. In her work with the agency, she advises Secretary Marcia Fudge on embedding racial equity in its day-to-day governance, implementing the plan to advance racial equity outlined in an executive order signed by President Joe Biden soon after he took office.

“I get to work with very smart people who are committed to ensuring that we are making housing more equitable for all Americans,” Asamoah said. “And because the government has played a role in creating racial inequity, the government should also play a role in fixing it.”

After she completes work on her doctorate, she intends to once again put on the adjunct professor hat teaching African American psychology. Despite her love of learning and sharing knowledge, she added, she may not move into teaching on a full-time basis.

“My first and forever love is education,” Asamoah said, “but you can wear more than one hat a time. My entire career has been about changing things to make them better and more equitable for people who look like me and for other people who have been systemically marginalized.”