Dr. Adunni Slackman Anderson '73 has spent her career as a leader in education. For over 20 years, she served as Principal for the Montclair Public Schools, and for 10 years as the Lower School Head/Primary School Director for Kent Place School, a private, independent school for girls. We spoke to Slackman Anderson about how Simmons shaped her career, and her advice for future leaders.
"Growing up, going to a women's college was synonymous with going to college," recalls Adunni Slackman Anderson, who recently attended her 50th Reunion at Simmons. "My father was big on Wellesley, my mother was big on Smith. I was pretty set on a women's college."
Slackman Anderson loves New England, having spent summers on Martha's Vineyard, and she adores Boston. "It came down to two deciding factors," she says, recalling a visit to campus before freshman year. "I met a group of women in the dorm and had a wonderful weekend. Then we walked down to Kenmore Square and I was introduced to Brigham's mocha almond chip ice cream. At that moment, I decided I was going to Simmons."
Ice cream aside, Slackman Anderson faced other decisions. She wasn't interested in the two typical female-directed careers of the day. "I thought I would never be a teacher or a nurse," she recalls, "but I was interested in sociology and psychology. I thought I would be a psychiatric social worker, if I had to name a career."
Her parents had impressed upon her the value of volunteering in support of social justice issues. Once a Simmons student, Slackman Anderson connected with other Black students on campus as a member of the Black Student Organization and took on the leadership position of Sister of Culture. "Being surrounded by what seemed like a sizable number of Black women and Black students from other colleges was affirming and empowering." At the time, there were few Black instructors at Simmons, but Dean Elizabeth (Betty) Rawlins '67MSEd, '03HD taught in the Education Department. "I said to myself, before I leave this institution, I'm going to be taught by a Black professor."
Rawlins' education courses rounded out Slackman Anderson's eventual career direction. "The education piece solidified my interest in human development, the psychology of the classroom and the dynamics between teaching/learning and teacher/learner." Having completed her coursework as an accelerated student, Slackman Anderson was invited to use her fourth year at Simmons to complete a Master's in Teaching and Urban Education. She finished her BA, "with distinction", with a concentration in Sociology and Psychology and a focus in Education, and attended Harvard Graduate School of Education that fall in Learning Environments.
"Leaders are not just defined by titles and positions, they are defined by what they do and how they influence people," she says. "Had Betty Rawlins been a professor of astrophysics, I would be an astrophysicist today."
After Harvard, Slackman Anderson worked at various positions in Boston, New Orleans, and Kansas for nonprofit organizations, federally-funded programs and higher education, most notably Tulane University, Southern University, St. Mary College, and later, back in New Jersey, she taught graduate courses at Kean University, thinking her career would be in higher education.
She was raising two young children in South Orange as a stay at home mom, when she ran into her former fifth-grade teacher and principal, Mr. Burn, who later called and asked her to substitute teach. "This gave me an opportunity to not only re-enter the work-force but to put theory into practice," she recalls, "and it was compatible with being a mother with young children."
Slackman Anderson taught second grade for three years, and later returned to higher education but missed the interfacing of students, teachers, parents, curriculum and instruction. With a principal certification in hand, she joined the Montclair Public Schools, serving for two years as the Vice Principal of the Gifted & Talented Middle School and the next 20 as the Principal of Edgemont Elementary School, the only public Montessori school in New Jersey. Nationally, she would be named Magnet School Principal of the Year. She continued her career as an educational leader for the next ten years in the private, independent school sector.
"I loved being a principal," she says. "For me it was an opportunity to bring my best self to work every day and to help others be their best selves — parents, teachers, and students." It also provided the perfect opportunity to explore her interest in human development, by creating the right curriculum and environment to support students and teachers, along with providing professional development and mentorship for her staff. "I believe that everyone can achieve excellence. I would have been a dynamic superintendent, but that's office work. I'm boots on the ground. The principalship was my 'ministry' and the school environment became the test-tube through which to promote human development at its best."
Now semi-retired, Slackman Anderson has continued to learn and grow. She took online courses in positive psychology during the pandemic and, more recently, has worked as an educational consultant for NOMMO Productions, which creates documentaries based on the Black experience. In May of this year, she delivered ten pearls of wisdom as the keynote speaker of Simmons' Black Alumnae/i Symposium, which was renamed the Elizabeth Rawlins Black Symposium in honor of Professor Betty Rawlins.
"You're never done," Slackman Anderson says, "I don't ever want to be done. I've always liked to write, and now I'm collaborating and doing creative work, learning about the workings of filmmaking, new technologies, and writing grants. It's been fun. And of course, I continue to be a cheerleader for the arts, social justice, DEI work, and philanthropic volunteerism"
Check out NOMMO Productions upcoming release The August Wilson Center: Building on a Legacy.
Article by Alisa M. Libby