Megan Bang

Megan Bang

SESP Professor, Alumna (PhD09), and Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago

As told to Colleen McNamara

My family is Ojibwe and comes from what is now Ontario, Canada. I am the mother and auntie of Navajo children and a relative of many others. My grandfather grew up in Canada and was one of many Native children who were forcibly and coercively removed from their families to attend boarding schools. The trauma and loss he survived has shaped my family, but we have also been working toward healing and thriving.

I’ve spent my career focused on education and equity. That is partly because of my family history, but it is also because I’ve spent so much time raising children. I have three biological children, as well as many nieces and nephews that I have helped raise since I was in my 20s. In our cultures, they’re all my children.

Growing up, I was the daughter of a single mom. We didn’t always have enough food or heat, but we did have a big and loving extended family who taught me to value community and to love the natural world. My mom was always growing things when I was a kid. She and her sisters were also always making beautiful things that they gave to people as gifts.

In school, I struggled academically. But just before I entered third grade, a teacher spent the summer helping me read. That summer changed everything. I went from struggling in school to excelling.

That teacher changed the trajectory of my life. And she wasn’t the only powerful mentor who supported me; there were others—a coach and a chemistry teacher, especially. They made me feel loved, capable. And they helped me imagine different futures.

My brother, on the other hand, didn’t have the same experiences or lessons. He has darker skin than I do, and I remember being a young child and thinking, “People are better to me than they are to him.” He struggled in school until he dropped out in ninth grade. He’s now in prison, and his young daughter is trying to make sense of what has happened.

There were a lot of factors that sent my brother and me down different paths, and a good deal of them have to do with colonialism, race, and gender. As a kid, I didn’t understand why, but I knew things weren’t right.

I attended Williams College in Massachusetts, then earned my PhD in learning sciences at SESP in ’09, working at the American Indian Center of Chicago at the same time. My dad had taught me about work life and managing multiple endeavors. I became deeply interested in how education, instead of being a source of trauma, had the potential to heal Native communities—and all communities, really. For me, this is always tied to relations with land and water, and I believe the 21st century is the time when all human communities need to learn sustainable and just ways of living.

After working as a full-time faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle, I returned to Chicago last year for an opportunity to split my time between two positions: senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds educational research and training, and full professor of learning sciences back home at SESP.

My scholarship focuses on culture, families, and STEM education and the design of transformative learning environments. I want to know: How do we create systems of education that can cultivate just, sustainable, and thriving communities?