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Ultimate Anthropologist: John Jackson, Penn Social Policy & Practice Dean

Authored by: Jacquie Posey

Photography by: Candace diCarlo

Faculty & Research


John L. Jackson, Jr., dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, is harnessing the power of faculty and student expertise to address some of the most pressing social justice issues in America.

Jackson defines himself as an urban anthropologist. At Penn he’s a man of many titles. He joined the faculty in 2006 as the first Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor. He is the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Anthropology and Africana Studies, and he holds appointments in Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, School of Arts and Sciences and, of course, Social Policy & Practice, referred to within the School as SP2.

Faster than a speeding lecture, more powerful than a standing committee, able to take great intellectual leaps in a single bound, Jackson is also Anthroman. He has blogged under the pseudonym, and a likeness of the action figure appears on the dean’s Twitter page

A myriad of meetings fill his days. He connects the dots in all of them seeking to ultimately accomplish his vision for the school. He’s on a mission to make the School affordable to promising young leaders who want to pursue graduate interdisciplinary education and research on social innovation, impact and justice.

dean image 2“During the course of any given day, you go from, say, a meeting with students about an event they are organizing, to a discussion with a potentially new donor for a center or
program, to a building walk-through with an architect trying to remodel some office space, to a visiting scholar who wants to debate the finer points of contemporary social policy on poverty or mass incarceration,” Jackson says. “And part of your job is to put all of those seemingly disparate pieces together into a portrait that allows you to keep an eye on how they combine to form and inform the School’s overall mission.”

For more than a century, the School of Social Policy and Practice, formerly the School of Social Work, has promoted social justice and work that eliminates oppression. Two of the school’s highest priorities are inclusion and impact, also tenets of Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact 2020.

Jackson sees himself reflected in many of the students who pass through the halls of the Caster Building on Locust Walk where the School is housed. More than a third of the students currently enrolled in five different graduate degree programs are underrepresented minorities or international students.

Jackson, 44, is African-American, born and raised in Brooklyn. He earned his B.A. in communicationsumma cum laude from Howard University as a University Merit Scholar. He spent his 20s and 30s rising in the ranks of the academy to become one of the nation’s preeminent urban anthropologists.

Jackson’s interest in social justice mirrors that of the School’s students and faculty. His mother inspired him to take up the cause of the underprivileged. When he was a teenager, she returned to school to become a caseworker. She helped impoverished seniors threatened with eviction keep their homes or find other places to live when marshals put their belongings on the curb.

Jackson has utilized art as a vehicle for social change through his work as a filmmaker. He and his wife, Deborah Thomas, a professor of anthropology and Africana studies at Penn, have teamed up on different film projects. They co-directed the award winning documentary “Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens,” which looks at the history of state violence against Rastafarians in Jamaica.  

Penn recruited them from Duke University where they were cultural anthropology professors. Thomas and Jackson have two young children and live in South Philadelphia.

The film-making dean is author or co-author of five books exploring race and class, including Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness and Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money and Religion.

Clearly, the dean enjoys facilitating conversation, whether it’s politically correct or otherwise.

Jackson observes: “One of the things you learn to do, if you want to get people to question their own behavior, to get them to think differently about things, is understand how they got to where they are in the first place. You need to know why and how they believe what they believe. Before you start being judgmental, you want to see the world, as best you can, through their eyes. That is the quintessential ethnographic/anthropological pulse at its best.”

He recently completed an 11-city speaking series dubbed the “Future of Social Change Tour.” It ended in China in June. He met with hundreds of alumni, potential students and others to discuss the future and the school’s holistic approach to global and local social issues.

“The tour was productive on so many levels,” Jackson says. “We had alumni who came out. We had prospective students who attended. The prospective students got a chance to chat with those alumni. They also talked with faculty and staff, including the head of admissions, and some of them are now enrolled.”

Many of these students are aligning themselves with social movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and becoming involved in public protests to right different societal wrongs.

“I’m excited about “being at a school where our job isn’t just to think about knowledge for knowledge sake but to translate that knowledge into institutional and intimate actions and policies that make people’s lives better,” Jackson says.


With the approach of the 2016 presidential election, Social Policy & Practice has launched a yearlong initiative to advance social justice and progress for society’s most vulnerable members. The kick-off event, a public forum “Voices for Votes: Real Talk on the Key Social Justice Issues for the 2016 Presidential Election,” was held on Sept. 19 at the Penn Law School.

The event was a prelude to the forthcoming release of SP2’s “Penn Top Ten Social Justice Issues for the 2016 Presidential Election.” The publication and multimedia package will feature faculty addressing issues that the United States faces via multiple mediums, a workbook of “mini essays,” op-eds and policy briefs. Topics will include  mass incarceration, homelessness, gun violence, child welfare and foster care. Animated videos and faculty interviews will be posted on a complementary website.

Jackson was named dean of the school last July, succeeding Richard Gelles. Under Gelles’ leadership the school changed its name from the School of Social work to the SP2 to reflect a new mission, the addition of new degree programs, and a continuing commitment to “the passionate pursuit of social innovation, impact and justice.”

“This is the most exciting job I’ve had in my life because I’m still trying to think about important issues but now from an academic perch where I can more easily help to make institutional changes happen and to impact students’ and faculties’ lives in productive ways,” Jackson says. “That’s exhilarating.”