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Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols is the new director of family, youth and community engagement for the Madison School District.

Nichelle Nichols has a long history both with Madison and the school district where she now works.

In July, she began her new job as engagement chief for the Madison School District. The position oversees a multitude of initiatives — including the new Parent Academy — designed to empower families and students, especially those who previously may have felt left out.

Born in Madison, Nichols, 46, graduated from Madison West High School in 1987. Her dad, Larry Nichols, is a retired systems analyst for the school district. Her mom, Barbara Nichols, is a retired nurse who was the first African-American to be president of the American Nurses Association.

Nichols said she had a comfortable upbringing with great role models. Yet a few years out of high school, her life was not going as planned.

She was single and living in California, with two children and a third on the way. She had not yet finished college. It was at that point, in 1995, that she decided to return to Madison.

“I worried that old friends would wonder, ‘What happened to her?’” Nichols said.

She turned it around, earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. She’s now working on a doctorate.

For the past 17 years, she’s worked for a variety of local nonprofit organizations, including Family Enhancement, the Community Action Coalition and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. Her family has grown to four sons, the youngest an eighth-grader at Sennett Middle School.

The theme in all of your jobs has been helping struggling families. Where did that passion come from?

Once I had kids, I was on public assistance. I was a single parent trying to go to college while working full time. I was experiencing a life that wasn’t the experience of my own upbringing. Yet I knew I had opportunities others didn’t. I decided to use my voice to help those families.

You ran unsuccessfully for the Madison School Board in 2012. How do you view that experience now?

It was a genuine attempt to say that the voices of people impacted by the district’s policies need to be at the table. I wasn’t hearing the voices of families like mine.

As a candidate, you said the district was failing too many families, especially families of color.

Yes, this is an incredible opportunity now to be part of the solution from the inside.

In 2009, you competed in the national Poetry Slam finals in Florida. What do you like about poetry and spoken word performance?

When you can match the feeling with the right words and people in the audience are like, “Oh, my God, you just so touched me” or “You go girl! I really needed to hear that tonight,” it’s an incredible feeling. You know you’ve tapped into something bigger than yourself.

You’re a regular at Dane Dances — weekly August dances on the Monona Terrace rooftop — right?

People who know me best know I’ll never turn down an opportunity to get on the dance floor, and that I’ll come off the dance floor two hours later drenched in sweat.

You have the same name as the actress who played Lt. Uhura on the television series “Star Trek.” Were your parents Trekkies?

I think my parents may have been inspired by her, but I’ve never been able to get that out of them. I will say it was fun to see my name in TV Guide every week growing up.

I feel compelled to ask: Have you ever gone where no man has gone before?

Beam me up. Beam me up.

— Interview by Doug Erickson

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