Dana P. Saxon is the Founder of Ancestors unKnown, an education social enterprise which won a Fair Education Innovation Award in the UK in September 2020. She is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the USA. I met Dana when I was coordinating the education programme The World in Your Classroom in The Hague, the Netherlands. High school teachers would send me exceptional praises about her guest lectures, not only about the quality of their content but also about how Dana could engage their pupils. Finally, I was able to attend one myself and was really impressed about how powerful her message was and how captivated these teens of all cultural backgrounds were.

Her concept is suitable for all levels of education and even for adults in the workforce. Most of us know little about our family history past our grand-parents. After 8 years living in the Netherlands, Dana moved to Bristol in the UK last year. Ancestors unKnown is ready to expand both online and in the classroom, so please help Dana enrich people’s lives and strengthen their self identity by connecting her to potential clients.  

Elan Creative
What services do you offer and to whom?
Currently, Ancestors unKnown provides schools, families, universities, and even corporations with curriculum and workshops to introduce new audiences to family history research and other untold histories. We aim to inspire young people (and adults!) with knowledge about their personal histories and their ancestors, helping them shape their identities, better understand world history, and see the significance of their own legacies.

Ancestors unKnown is still a small organization, and the coronavirus had an obvious impact on my ability to reach a wide audience this year. However, I’m currently adjusting the model to provide more services online, increase fundraising efforts, and collaborate with more schools in the upcoming school year. In total, I want to impact at least 1,000 students/families in the US and Europe. Once I reach that target, I’m confident we can expand exponentially and reach audiences in even more countries

What is the story behind Ancestors unKnown? Why did you set it up?

I started Ancestors unKnown to address a need I’ve felt since I was growing up in the US. I descend from survivors of slavery. Because of the way education systems are structured in the U.S. and worldwide, the history of my Black ancestors was largely left out of school’s curriculum. And although my parents instilled a sense of pride about my history and identity, they just didn’t know much about our family’s history to share stories about my ancestors. I always believed my history essentially had been erased by an unjust system that consistently marginalized Black people. As an adult, after working about 10 years in the education nonprofit sector, I began digging into archives to learn something about my family’s history. Much to my surprise, I found my ancestors’ names in many archives and uncovered incredible details about their lives and how they got me to where I am today. Almost immediately, I began to walk taller and share their stories with a bold sense of pride. 

Once I realized this type of family history research was possible, I wanted to give young people an opportunity to have similar revelations about their family histories. And I felt it was most important to reach them in schools, while they’re still young and forming their personal identities. This was the catalyst for me to begin disrupting history education with curriculum and workshops, bringing young people’s ancestors into classrooms to diversify and personalize lessons.

What makes you different from others offering education programmes?
There are a select few education programmes that improve and expand upon history education by highlighting and celebrating Black and brown histories. However, Ancestors unKnown is one of the only organizations that teaches young people about untold histories using family history. While most people teach history by focusing on the heroes and better-known events, we believe it’s easier for a young person (as well as adults) to relate to historical events and see their place in history by studying the lives of average people with whom they can relate – their own ancestors. As an added benefit, Ancestors unKnown provides participants with valuable skills, including research, storytelling, and self-advocacy.

Connection, Presence and Collaboration. I highly value the connections I form and intentionally create deep relationships with people. I am also mindful of the energy I bring in the room. I know that each one of us is a gift and I hold the sanctity of my presence (and others too) highly. I love working with others on meaningful projects and have a knack on making ideas fly mainly because of the collaborations I am part of. 

Have you ever lived abroad and did it make you grow?
I left the U.S. to live in the Netherlands, and I currently still live abroad in the UK. I’ve also briefly lived in Ghana and Suriname. I’m a traveller and I love new adventures. Living in different countries, understanding different cultures and life experiences, hearing different languages, and appreciating the world’s diversity has shaped my entire world view. I wouldn’t be who I am without my incredible experiences outside of my home country.
If you had to name 3 values that guide you, what would they be?
Courage, confidence and kindness.
When was the last time that you were touched by a participant’s or educator’s reaction?
I’m frequently moved to tears when I hear from students about the impact of Ancestors unKnown. Not long ago, in the Netherlands, I completed a workshop about Black history, in which I discussed the importance of family history research. After class, I was approached by a young Black girl who was crying. She expressed the sincerest gratitude for my presentation, explaining that she had been so frustrated by the lack of lessons about people who look like her. Making matters worse, she had been experiencing racist bullying in school. Following my workshop, she explained she felt so proud and confident. While we were both emotional, our tears were happy tears.
Any exciting news about your social enterprise?
Yes! I’m launching an online course to teach individuals and families how to research their family histories. Since many people will be staying home this summer, it’s the perfect time to spark conversations about ancestors and impactful family stories. I recently asked my followers if they can name an ancestor who was alive 150 years ago. By the end of this year, with the help of my course and motivation, I hope at least 1,000 people will be able to share the names and stories of their ancestors who lived in 1870 and beyond.

For more information: https://onlinecourses.ancestors-unknown.org/

To whom would you like to get connected to?
I want to connect with more schools! All schools! I have incredible partners in the Netherlands, Stitching Zieraad, who have facilitated partnerships and helped me reach a wider audience by translating the Ancestors unKnown curriculum into Dutch. Whether a school wants to incorporate the Ancestors unKnown curriculum (in English or Dutch) into its programming, or simply invite me to conduct one or two workshops, I would love to have the opportunity to expand my audience and reach more young people.
How can people reach out to you?
This interview was conducted by Lucie Cunningham from Tell Them Well Communications in June 2020. Lucie is a freelance editor, copywriter and translator with many years of community project management. She has lived in France, England, The USA, the Netherlands and is currently based in Scotland.