Who is Dr. Kimberly Nao? This is a question many students on the Samo campus would be hard-pressed to answer — many have never heard her name, let alone the work she does as the senior Social Outreach Specialist. She is a realist, an activist, a mentor, a teacher, a listener, a mother — the answer differs with whom you ask. Most can agree, however, that she is as invaluable to the school as any House adviser.
“She’s my go-to lady for sage-like advice,” English teacher Kitaro Webb said. “I always look to her for her experience and insight, and she never fails to help me work through issues without actually telling me what to do — sort of like a teacher therapy session. It’s a very empowering experience to have a conversation with her.”
Nao is the ultimate behind-the-scenes worker. She keeps a low profile, with her surprisingly spacious accommodation in a dark corner next to the H-House office, but she is undoubtedly loved by the rest of administration and staff.
“She is super, super organized and pays attention to details, but never loses sight of the big picture,” H-House principal and Nao’s supervisor Leslie Wells said. “I can’t sing her praises enough. We cut a couple of positions in the last six months — three Outreach Specialists of six — and I’m super glad I was able to keep her right next to me.”
Nao is a Los Angelino born and bred, attending Westchester High School and getting her degree in African-American Studies at UC Berkeley. After graduating with her Master’s in Literature from UCLA, she started working at Samo as an administrative assistant in 1994, and taught English for a few years. As a teacher, she decided to combine her two passions — African-American culture and literature — creating the African-American Literature and Harlem Renaissance college prep course.
“The African-American Literature class was only one semester long, but lots of the students wanted to take another semester,” Nao said. “That wasn’t an option at the time, so we created the Harlem Renaissance course.”
In 2001, Nao went back to UCLA to get her PhD in education. There, she studied how students of color socialize and work in an advanced English literature class.
“I did research here at Samo, observing how students of color in AP English classes socialized in the classroom, and how language is used to claim space,” Nao said. “Something vital that I learned is that, if you have control over language in a particular kind of way, you are going to have more ownership over that space. The question is, do students of color have that same kind of claim to that space?”
This question was still on her mind upon her return to Samo, where she was first hired as a Social Outreach Specialist.
“The first group of Social Outreach Specialists were hired in 2005,” Nao said. “Basically, we helped high school students who were struggling, whether academically or socially. Now, my job has expanded to include more duties, like tardy sweeps. Other than that, I’ve participated in Project Safe Zone, Racial Harmony, and now I have this black mentor group going.”
Organized by Nao and Special Education teacher Gregory Pitts, the mentor group meets every Monday at lunch to examine issues related to the black community both at Samo and elsewhere. The group is comprised mostly of upperclassmen and women.
“The mentor group is a place where upperclassmen give positive input on how we can change our overall image and representation on and off campus,” senior Isaiah French said. “Dr. Nao is a great leader for us. Her whole aura is dynamic, and she helps us get a better understanding of our culture. I really love the program.”
The group is steadily preparing to put on a Black Forum in May — an idea Nao had a few years ago.
“I did a similar forum, a Black Forum, back in 2007, where about 60 kids came on a Saturday to discuss issues about the black community,” Nao said. “It’s in part an attempt to help students of color find a place to feel engaged and have a place on campus.”
She is currently employed by the district as a consult on students of color and their place in the achievement gap, and is one of the three remaining Outreach Specialists of the six that were originally hired — the others were cut for budgetary reasons.
Nao stays realistic but hopeful about the position of Social Outreach Specialist.
“I think we fill a hole in the system,” Nao said. “In terms of what we do, we’re not in the classroom, so we can have a completely different relationship with the students, and I think the more of us that have that role the better. But given budget constraints, if districts can find a way to do without, they probably will.”
In order to perpetually remain accessible, Nao’s office door is kept ajar all day long, just in case a student or teacher or other staff member happens to come to her with a problem that needs a solution.
“She never stops thinking about other people,” English teacher Ruth Magnuson said. “Never.”