Anita Brown-Graham

Anita Brown-Graham is a professor of public law and government within the UNC School of Government and director of the school’s ncIMPACT initiative. Her research focuses on creating opportunities and removing barriers to work-based economic prospects, particularly for residents in distressed communities.

Anita Brown-Grahamphoto by Alyssa LaFaro
October 3rd, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I wanted to be a lawyer more than, and for longer than, anything else. But my career path shows that I was never destined to make my mark in the actual practice of law.


“Finding the facts that matter.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

There were two pivotal moments. During my middle school years, I heard a woman lawyer speak at a career exploration day. I knew the moment she started talking about using her tools to create opportunity for others that I wanted to be able to say the same about my career. Then, life happened. In my high school years, computers were becoming more ubiquitous and I loved using them. I decided to major in computer programming in college. But my first class sent me running back to my first love — pre-law.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

“Baby, we don’t need 20 minutes. This county is the same now as it was 20 years ago, and it will be the same 20 years from now. What else do you have for us today?” These were words directed at me by a community participant in my carefully planned exercise for strategic visioning very early in my career. A chorus of “Amens” across the room followed.

Brown-Graham celebrates New Year's Eve 2017 by dancing the year away with her two daughters.

Brown-Graham celebrates New Year’s Eve 2017 by dancing the year away with her two daughters.

I had used the exercise effectively many times before to unleash the imaginations of residents of rural places devasted by the loss of manufacturing and agricultural jobs, but I understood immediately that “baby” was code for “you are wasting our time.” There was no choice but to pivot and, on the spot, devise a constructive way to explore why people thought things were not better when the economy had been more robust and, more importantly, why they saw no prospects for progress. We went on to have a productive strategic visioning session and the community has made great strides in creating new economic engines.

Lessons learned: (1) No day in community-based research is predictable. Be prepared with Plans B-Z. (2) A community’s perspective is their truth; be willing to hear it. (3) Each person starts in a different place; be attuned to where they are as you work to move the group to where you need them to be. (4) Bring your sense of humor to work every day; be happy laughing at yourself.

What are your passions outside of research?

I am that annoying girl at the music performance who will not sit down. I love to dance, especially to live music, and I will travel great distances with family and friends for the chance to lose myself in a melody. Dancing nourishes my soul. It represents for me the gift of being able to completely lose all worries about “being good at it.” Everyone needs something they love for the beauty of the process even if the end product lacks evidence of talent.

Women in Science Wednesday highlights UNC researchers at all levels of their careers across dozens of fields. From medicine to mathematics to sociology, women at Carolina excel in research, mentorship, and advocacy. Click here to nominate an exceptional scientist.