TED Talk Highlights the Work of Poverty Disrupter & MSU Psychology Alumna Dr. Aisha Nyandoro

October 20, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Dr. Aisha Nyandoro wears a green pantsuit and stands on the Ted Talk stage. She smiles at the non-visible audience. The Michigan State Psychology department congratulates psychology alumna Dr. Aisha Nyandoro on her recent TED Talk titled “What does ‘wealth’ mean to you?” Dr. Nyandoro, who specialized in ecological-community psychology at Michigan State, founded Magnolia Mother’s Trust, the longest-running guaranteed income program in the United States.  

The Magnolia Mother’s Trust provides low-income, Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi $1000 cash on a monthly basis for 12 months straight—with no strings attached. This is the first program that specifically focuses on extremely low-income families headed by a Black female living in affordable housing in the United States. 

“I am proud to claim my space on the TED stage and share my heart and vision for an equitable world that begins with centering Black women with a wider audience,” said Dr. Nyandoro. “Not for my own personal ambition, but because I truly believe what I said in my talk: We are all made less wealthy by virtue of tolerating a country where anyone must prove themselves worthy.” 

In 2022, Dr. Nyandoro received the John P. McNulty Prize, which works to identify leaders and ventures with innovative models of change that respond to injustices of today. The McNulty Prize aims to help these leaders and ventures get on the fast track to greater recognition and support. Each winner received $150,000 towards their organization. 

Rooted in Community Psychology 

When Dr. Nyandoro was a senior year as an undergraduate at Tennessee State, her academic advisor suggested she research community psychology programs. After looking into it, she applied to the handful of programs that existed at that time. She decided to attend Michigan State’s program after seeing that the program emphasizes the importance of looking at the full picture of what defines a community before then incorporating that into research designs.   

A headshot of Aisha Nyandoro.Among her cohort, Dr. Nyandoro was the only student who didn’t want to become a professor or go into the traditional route of academia. Her advisor, Dr. Bill Davidson, encouraged her to figure out the steps and the training she needed to be successful on the route that she wanted to take. They worked together to find community-focused opportunities while making sure she also learned the language and skillset of research.  

“The training that I had under the leadership of Dr. Bill Davidson gave me a lot of direction that I needed when I needed it,” said Dr. Nyandoro. “Having a professor who met me where I was, supported me in the preliminary idea of what I wanted to do, and taught me technically how to get there, was really important.” 

Dr. Nyandoro recognizes that the problems that community psychologists are trying to solve are not short-term problems.  

“Take small bites,” advises Dr. Nyandoro. “It would behoove us to recognize that the solution to these problems will not be manifested overnight. We have to give ourselves grace and understanding.”  

Through these small bites, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust is now making a big difference in the community of Jackson, Mississippi. They have seen that the one-year cash infusion enables families to reach longer-term stability. More mothers were able to pay bills on time (from 27% to 83%), families with health insurance rose to 25%, and families with emergency savings increased from 40% to 88%.  

In early 2023, they released an MMT Alumni Study which looked at their past cohorts including how the program affected both the mothers and children that were in the study. They found that even after the cash benefits of the program ended, their program had “a lasting positive impact on parenting efficacy, parent-child relationships, and children’s mental health.” This model has inspired over 100 similar programs around the country.  

Dr. Nyandoro hopes their work continues to change cash assistance programs in this country and impacts social safety nets and the federal policy. She also hopes to change how poverty is talked about—including centering the needs of families in the conversation on poverty. 

“I hope we have an impact on how we talk about poverty, how we center the needs of families in the conversation about poverty, how we no longer look at poverty as an individual failing but really understanding the system and policies and how that comes into play,” said Dr. Nyandoro.  

In her TED Talk, Dr. Nyandoro continues this conversation by calling us to redefine what it means to be wealthy and to listen when people about what they need most.  

To watch the full Ted Talk, click here.