When Jamaican educator Dr Karren Dunkley first came to the United States from Jamaica, little did she know that her initial challenges would ultimately lead her to the US Department of Justice where she serves as one of two Black consultants who oversee the implementation of a program to end racial discrimination and harassment in Utah’s Davis County school district.
Not the Best Beginning
Internationally acclaimed and award-winning educator, Dr Karren Dunkley, overcame a rough introduction to the United States when she moved from Jamaica on a student visa, including near homelessness, juggling three jobs to pay school tuition, and depending on an elderly cousin and even strangers for help meeting her basic needs. “Life was so hard,” she remembers, “it was nothing like I had envisioned.”
Early Life, Disappointments, Achievements
Dr Dunkley’s journey began in Ensom City, St Catherine, Jamaica, where she attended Dunrobin Primary School and St Catherine High School. She did sixth form at Wolmer’s High School for Girls. After high school, she worked at several jobs in Jamaica – front desk clerk at a hotel, a Spanish interpreter – before traveling to the US on a student visa in 1992. Among her early disappointments was not being able to afford the tuition and boarding costs at Howard University where she had applied. Subsequently, she applied to St John’s University Queens, New York, and completed her BA in government and politics there. She went on to earn an MA in International Law, then obtained a second MA in Education, and a PhD in Organization and Leadership at Columbia University. She received national recognition in 2011 when she addressed a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on the Family Engagement in Education Act. Dunkley also became a member of the education transition team for New York City Mayor Eric Adams after his election.
Current Duties and Responsibilities
Her current responsibilities as a US Department of Justice consultant are focused in four areas: professional learning centered on training in Utah’s Davis County School District; engaging with families, students, staff, and the community; altering school culture by ending the environment of racial harassment; and fighting discrimination. Her efforts in these areas have included conducting countywide focus groups with children, parents, and community stakeholders. While her reports have been completed and submitted to the DOJ, her work in Utah continues until racial harassment and discrimination in the state have lessened. Dr Dunkley shared that, on her first visit to Utah, she was an “object of curiosity,” even among Black school children who had never seen a Black professional woman interact with white parents or give orders to the white school establishment. Only about nine percent of the population of Utah is Black, and Dunkley faced some hostility when she first arrived, as some people believed she and her team were there to impose DOJ initiatives on the state.
Among De Dunkley’s many accomplishments, she says she takes the most pride in her work with the Jamaican Diaspora. She has been the Global Jamaican Diaspora Council member for the US Northeast Region for three years, working with Jamaicans in need and connecting them to relevant resources to improve their lives. She notes that her love of giving back stems from her personal knowledge of “the kindness of strangers,” and she is proud of the fact that Jamaicans always seem to strive to better themselves.
Dr Dunkley continues to have an influence on educational policies and practices throughout the US and is in high demand from school districts in New York, Philadelphia, and Utah. Her reports to the DOJ on racial discrimination and harassment have been made public and a focus of US media. She was also featured in articles in Vanity Fair and Black Enterprise magazines.
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