A sense of purpose A sense of purpose A sense of purpose

With scholarship support, Tony Nabors found a calling and a lifelong commitment to racial equity.

By Malavika Jagannathan | Photo by Pamela Dore | March 2023

When Tony Nabors, ’06, walked into an introductory American ethnic studies course, he thought he was checking off a general- education requirement. He didn’t know it would change his life.

From Professor Rick Bonus’ first lecture, Nabors was captivated by how the class examined American history from the perspective of marginalized communities. “I had never been very interested in social studies or history courses, because they never felt relevant to me,” recalls Nabors, who is African American and grew up in Tacoma and Spanaway. “This course was mind-blowing, because my lived experience just collided with the history of the United States.”

He signed up for more classes, eventually declaring a major in American ethnic studies. Nabors found it powerful to understand how race was a social—not biological—construct, and how power and access were intentionally connected to race.

What he was learning in the classroom transformed how Nabors saw his life experience—including the negative messages he’d received about his own racial group. “Growing up, the box of what Blackness is was tiny,” Nabors explains. “It was a way you talk or things you should be good at or not do because Black people don’t do those things.” His UW coursework revealed the depth of history and culture that created the present-day realities, motivating Nabors to devote his life to racial equity—where a person’s racial identity doesn’t determine their outcomes.

A love for learning

Nabors was a star student from an early age, but he saw how Black students like him were often treated differently because of teachers’ implicit biases.

When Nabors was in second grade, his first-grade teacher, who was also Black, recommended him for an advanced program. But his current teacher, who was white, was skeptical of his potential and had to be convinced to allow the young boy to take the test—which he aced. The experience still weighs on Nabors some three decades later.

“It’s rare for any child, especially in the state of Washington, to have a Black teacher,” says Nabors, recalling the educator who advocated for him. “For her to be able to see me and my potential was huge.”

My sense of purpose is the marginalized people who are not heard, who are not given a fair shot or who are dismissed. Those are the people who are in my heart.

Tony Nabors

Even in his diverse high school, Nabors observed stark differences in the spaces he occupied. “I would assimilate to white people in my academic courses, but then sink more into my Blackness when it came to athletics,” he remembers. “I did a lot of chameleoning to make people more comfortable around me.”

When it came time to choose a college, the UW was his first choice—close to home with an excellent academic reputation. That choice was made possible, in part, by receiving the Costco Diversity Scholarship, awarded to high-achieving students from underrepresented communities. With four years of guaranteed support (supplemented with a part-time job), Nabors had time to explore academically, as well as play intramural basketball and football and be a student ambassador for the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity.

Nabors arrived at the UW planning to study computer science. But when he walked into that American ethnic studies class, he found a calling.

Making equity part of the job

Nabors brought both his lived experience and his passion for racial equity to post-graduation jobs in sales and college admissions. As a multicultural outreach counselor at Seattle Pacific University, he was a resource for students from diverse and lower-income communities—and for his fellow counselors, whom he trained in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) topics.

The work took on new meaning in 2012 when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was fatally shot in Florida. This national news spurred a larger discussion around racism in America—and Nabors found himself answering questions on social media from friends and strangers alike.

Not everyone welcomed his input about racism. Some got defensive; others were reluctant to take action. Frustrated by what he felt was a lack of respect for his experience and academic training, he no longer wanted to offer his knowledge for free. The idea for Racial Equity Insights was born, and in 2018, Nabors’ new consulting business landed the Harvard Law Women’s Association and Harvard Law Review as his first two clients.

Nabors was soon at a crossroads, both professionally and personally. Was there a career doing what he loved—helping organizations advance racial equity—that would also financially support his wife and young kids?

Charting a new path

In 2019, Nabors found the perfect opportunity as the Everett Housing Authority’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion—and the first DEI director for any public housing authority in the nation. The role combined Nabors’ strengths as an educator and strategic thinker with his UW training on how history shapes the present.

The history of U.S. public housing is intertwined with entrenched discriminatory practices like redlining and segregation, which limited where people of color could live and their ability to buy homes. That gap persists: Today, nearly 75% of white households own homes, compared to 45% of Black households.

To address that legacy, Nabors helped the Everett Housing Authority rewrite its mission, with a key goal to “replace systemic racism with equity for all.” He created a framework to achieve it, including staff training on institutional racism and partnerships with local affinity groups to understand the community’s diverse needs. Nabors’ work got the attention of the national Public Housing Authority Directors Association, which shared his strategy with the incoming Biden administration as an example for other public housing authorities to emulate.

“It’s demoralizing to feel we’re just doing actions that aren’t taking us anywhere,” says Nabors, who’d continued consulting part time. “I want us to be able to build something that’s sustainable.”

In 2020, after the killing of George Floyd and ensuing nationwide protests, Nabors saw yet another shift in the conversation around race: a commitment from individuals and organizations to learn about and combat racism.

It was the right moment to take Racial Equity Insights full time. Over the last year, Nabors has helped nonprofit, for-profit and governmental organizations create DEI strategies. He’s built a following on social media, where he breaks down topics like institutional racism and implicit bias in thought-provoking educational videos. And he’s developing an online curriculum.

What keeps him going, Nabors says, is knowing that this work has an impact on those with the least power. “Everything in society benefits from knowledge about race, anti-racism, social justice and equity. My sense of purpose is the marginalized people who are not heard, who are not given a fair shot or who are dismissed. Those are the people who are in my heart.”