Danielle Purifoy spent many weekends at UNC during middle and high school as part of the North Carolina Mathematics and Science Education Network, a program to introduce students to STEM fields.
This year, Purifoy returned to the University as a fellow of the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity.
“It’s good to be back on campus as an adult,” Purifoy said. “It kind of felt like a bizarre homecoming. All of this is very full circle for me in a lot of ways.”
Launched in 1983, the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity aims to prepare underrepresented scholars for faculty.
“We develop scholars for tenure track positions here at UNC and other research institutions, and I guess what makes this program different from other postdoctoral programs is the focus on hiring for faculty and providing them protected time to conduct their research,” said Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and special assistant to the vice chancellor for research.
Purifoy will spend the next two years as a postdoctoral scholar within the geography department. Her research focuses on political geography and environmental inequality.
Purifoy's first encounter with these topics occurred when she moved to North Carolina at the age of six. Her father had gotten an assignment to from the National Health Corps to work at a medical clinic in Soul City, a Black town founded by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick.
“I used to go visit him at that clinic whenever I could, it’s about an hour and a half from Durham, and I would say, in hindsight, that was my first sort of interest, it sort of sparked my first interest in Black towns,” Purifoy said. “If I had to sort of mark something that really got me attracted to ideas about race, I think Soul City was it.”
After graduating from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, with majors in English and political science in the spring of 2006, Purifoy worked for City Year in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“It really was the start of a very drastic shift in my trajectory,” Purifoy said. “I feel like I learned a lot about how power works at the local level, at the city level, so I ended up actually working for the city of New Orleans, after I finished City Year.”
Purifoy worked for the New Orleans Office of Recovery and Development Administration, which was formed after Hurricane Katrina. During this work, she found mentors who were environmental professionals and helped her understand the field.
“I had just a series of really incredible Black women mentors at that time,” Purifoy said. “I had never seen a Black environmental professional, like a Black environmental scientist, because pretty much every place that I’d been, the environment faculty were white.”
After her time in Louisiana, Purifoy went on to receive a law degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D in Environmental Politics and African American Studies at Duke University. Through her work and mentors, Purifoy developed an interest in race and political geography, and she conducted research in those fields. The postdoctoral position at UNC will allow Purifoy to continue working on those projects within the geography department.
“A lot of departments don’t like race scholars,” Purifoy said. “They’re very adverse or even hostile to hiring scholars who study race and so it was really important for me to be in a place where that was welcome, in a place where I could actually talk openly about that and feel comfortable sharing my research.”
The geography department was particularly interested in scholars who focused on the Southern region of the U.S. and particularly African-American populations.
“She does both of those things that we’ve had an interest in for a very long time,” said professor Altha Cravey. “We definitely felt a need and a gap in those areas of someone working on the South and also someone who was working on Black geographies and African-American geographies.”
Purifoy said she will focus on getting research and other projects published over these next two years as a postdoctoral scholar.
“I think she is an example of the type of scholar that we’re trying to bring to Carolina’s classroom, where she’s interdisciplinary by nature, but she’s also helping to bring a social justice research agenda into the classroom,” Anderson-Thompkins said. “I’m just excited to see what she does in the future.”
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