Dr. Chandra Ward, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, spreads her hands six inches apart. That’s how close the self-described “goody-goody-two-shoes” came to rebelling in high school and joining a gang.
“Well, when I was in high school, there were gangs, and being in a gang was popular. And I tried to join a gang. I asked this guy who I knew at my school who was in a gang, and he was like, ‘As a girl, in order to be in our gang, you have to be sexed in.’ And I was like, ‘OK, well, that’s not going to happen.’ And then for female gangs, it’s about getting beaten in, jumped in. My students are oftentimes shocked to learn that I was maybe this close,” she said, spreading her hands. “So see, gang member or professor? So this [being a professor] ended up working out.”
Ward teaches urban sociology with the mission to amplify traditionally marginalized voices. She has researched public housing residents and written a textbook, “From the Margins: Fresh Perspectives on an Introduction to Sociology.”
A UTC faculty member since 2017, Ward was selected as a commencement speaker this spring and spoke of being a first-generation college graduate. Her research at UTC has focused on Chattanooga and Smart City projects. Currently, she is working with Vanderbilt University and the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority on a multimillion-dollar transportation project that has contributed to her interest in mobility and its relationship to citizenship.
Ward earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, a master’s from Texas State University and a doctorate from Georgia State University.
She was born in Atlanta and raised in Albany, Georgia, by her grandmother while her single, teenage mother, Cassandra Ward, battled mental illness.
“When I was growing up in Albany, my grandmother was really old at the time because my mom was the youngest of seven children—and my grandmother was already well into her 60s when she got me. She was a housekeeper for this family in town. And it was happy, but I realized had I stayed in South Georgia in terms of just being exposed to things, I’d be sort of limited because my grandmother was born in 1920. And we didn’t even get a color TV until the mid-1980s,” she said.
Her grandmother, Mary Ward, used an old-school washboard and a wrought-iron Singer sewing machine. Mary died in 2004. “My grandfather was a sharecropper, and he always got taken advantage of by the wealthier white people,” the professor said.
Aunt Barbara Carroll, a librarian, taught Ward her love for reading. The UTC professor also enjoys yoga and bicycling.
As a young girl, she was bused to Mock Road Elementary School in Albany before moving to Marietta, Georgia, and winding up in the gifted program at Osborne High School in Marietta.
“Daughter of a teen mom, raised by her grandmother, I have truly dreamt of being in this position—and my dreams are coming true,” Ward said before her commencement speech. “I am excited to encourage our graduates to dream and never stop because this is the beginning of an exciting new adventure for them.”
Ward’s aunt, Ella J. Ward, a retired Atlanta area sheriff’s captain, said her niece overcame difficult circumstances as a young girl. “She has always been a very loving and caring person all her life. She just kept striving and keeps striving. She has a calm demeanor. She loves to debate but I’ve never seen her argue.”
Ward said she shed her accent as a little girl and, unbeknownst to her how, has spoken the King’s English most of her life. She suspects it’s from all those years watching her grandmother’s soap operas, such as “Days of Our Lives.” An uncle approached her grandmother once and said Ward “sounds like a foreigner” instead of a young girl steeped in an Albany accent.
Her childhood was stark and something akin to living in the 19th century versus the 20th, she said.
“I’m grateful to have had that as my compass, if you will, as opposed to other influences. My grandmother was very protective of me anyway and instilled a lot of rules just to ensure that, in retrospect, I was on the right path.
“My grandmother nurtured that and showed me love in a way that I’ve rarely experienced in life. She loved all the things about me, things that may have been too nerdy,”
When Ward moved in with her mother, they lived on federal disability payments. Her mom was forced to drive illegally because public transportation was lacking and their vehicle was uninsured.
“It seemed like every month my mom is hoping that a police officer doesn’t come to the door because she’s written a bad check at the end of the month for food,” Ward said, adding her family didn’t have the $20 for her to go on a field trip and see “Les Miserables” at Atlanta’s Fox Theater.
She spent years living at an apartment complex with the unfortunate name Garrison Plantation.
“I don’t have a good relationship with my biological parents,” she said. “I considered my grandmother to be my mother and my father in every conceivable way. So it was kind of like, ‘OK, I don’t feel seen or appreciated by my parents.’ I will say, and I don’t use this word lightly, they were both abusive in their own ways.”
Ward said she’s gingerly trying to reconnect with her parents—her father in just the past year—and sends her mother money each month and the occasional Lyft ride for her to visit her daughter in Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, while teaching at UTC, Ward has been studying the “two Chattanoogas”—the well-to-do one and the underprivileged one. With the city embracing smart technologies, it very well could exacerbate inequality if not addressed, Ward said.
A paper she recently co-authored with Assistant Professor of Sociology Darrell Walsh titled “I Just Don’t Go Nowhere: How Transportation Disadvantage Reinforces Social Exclusion” has been accepted into the Journal of Transport Geography—a leading interdisciplinary journal focusing on the geographical dimensions of transport, travel and mobility.
“My own internal compass that pretty much dictates many things in my life, including my research, is including traditionally marginalized communities in city projects and conversations about city projects instead of being left behind,” she said.
This summer, the city will begin offering CARTA vans to offer in-demand rides—micro transit—to impoverished communities that have been pushed outside the city limits because of skyrocketing rents and other economic considerations.
“And so instead of just thinking about people who are maybe the most vocal or people with the most money, how do we think about mobility—transit in terms of creating greater equity and mobility?” Ward asked. “Not everybody has had the ability to move across space equally.”