Bio - Dr. Vajra Watson

Dr. Vajra M. Watson is the Director of Research and Policy for Equity at UC Davis. In this position, she seeks innovative ways to align people and systems that advance social justice. At the crux of her praxis is a commitment to narrow the achievement gap, to close the gap between research and practice, and to actually heed the call to leave no child behind. Much of her research focuses on holistic reform efforts for chronically under-performing schools in rural, suburban, and urban communities. In these settings, she specializes in supporting the success of so-called at-risk and high-risk youth alongside transformative culturally relevant professional development for teachers and leadership training for administrators. Watson has found that larger system changes must be teacher-driven, but that learning must always be student-centered, especially for students who have disengaged from school. She is the founder of Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS), a literacy program that pairs poet-mentor educators and teachers together to develop grassroots pedagogies, forming a critical bridge between the classroom and the community. 

As a scholar-activist, Dr. Watson is intrigued by the ways academic studies can support systemic improvements. Since finishing high school can mean the difference between a college dorm room or a prison cell, her research examines both the perils and promises of education and the potential of innovative community school partnerships to promote student success. She grapples with these models while the blood of inequity continues to flow through the streets and the world bears witness to explicit acts of white supremacy. With respect to African American males, the nation witnessed the murder of Oscar Grant (Oakland, CA in 2009), Tyrone Smith (Sacramento, CA in 2011), Trayvon Martin (Miami Gardens, FL in 2012), Tamir Rice (Clevland, OH in 2014), Eric Garner (Staten Island, NY in 2014), Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD in 2015), and many others. These moments of personal, communal, and inter/national trauma shape and inform the research questions that Dr. Watson asks, her research epistemology, and the methodological principles she relies upon to communicate findings that are accessible to broad and diverse audiences as an explicit act of intervention and organizing. 

Watson is the author of Learning to Liberate: Community-Based Solutions to the Crisis in Urban Education (2012) available at Amazon, Censoring Freedom: Community-Based Professional Development and the Politics of Profanity (2013), The Black Sonrise: Oakland Unified School District’s Commitment to Address and Eliminate Institutionalized Racism (2014), and Literacy is a Civil Write: The Art, Science, and Soul of Transformative Classrooms (2015), among others. In addition, Watson serves on a number of Board of Directors, including as Board President for United Playaz in San Francisco and as a Board Member for Fathers and Families of San Joaquin in Stockton, CA.

Watson received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, and holds two Master’s degrees and her Doctorate from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.