Theory on the Ground – Participant Bios


Nyle Fort is a minister, organizer, and scholar based in Newark, NJ. He received a BA in English from Morehouse College and a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.Currently, Nyle is pursuing a Ph.D in religion and African-American studies at Princeton University. Nyle has worked in the fields of education, criminal justice, and youth development for nearly a decade in various capacities including as Youth Pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, programdesigner at Union County Juvenile Detention Center, andinternational fellow at the St. Andrew Centre for Human Development in Southern India.

An organizer committed to social justice, Nyle co-labors both locally and nationally. He recently travelled to Ferguson, Missouri where he assisted in organizing protests and establishing community programs in an effort to help build the Movement for Black lives. Upon his return to Newark, he co-founded The Maroon Project: a grassroots community based organization committed to creating a just society through political education, civic engagement, and social activism.

In addition to his organizing work, Nyle has given public talks at various academic, cultural, and religious institutions including Harvard University, the Malcolm X and Betty Shabbazz Center (former Audubon Ballroom), Providence College for Women in Southern India, and the historic Riverside Church. His writings have been published in several academic presses including Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy and Socialism and Democracy as well as in various popular media outlets including HuffPost, The Guardian, Gawker, The Nation, and more.


Deon Haywood is the Executive Director of Women With A Vision, Inc., a New Orleans-based community organization founded in 1991 to improve the lives of marginalized women, their families, and communities by addressing the social conditions that hinder their health and well-being.  Since Hurricane Katrina, she has led the organization to a vibrant locally-rooted international network addressing the complex intersection of socio-economic injustices and health disparities.  In 2009, Deon oversaw the launch of WWAV’s NO Justice Project, a campaign to combat the sentencing of women and trans* people arrested for street-based sex work under Louisiana’s 203-yr-old “crime against nature” felony-level law, which resulted in a federal judicial ruling and the removal of more than 700 women from the sex offender registry.

For her quarter century of work and leadership at the intersection of of HIV/AIDS, harm reduction, LGBTQ rights, reproductive justice and criminalization, Deon was honored with the 2011 “Political Activism Award” from Forum for Equality, received the 2012 “Teri Estrada Memorial Award” from AIDS Law Louisiana, was named’s 2012 “Health Hero,” and represented the U.S. South as a delegate at the 2013 Frontline Defender’s Dublin Platform.  In 2015, Ms. Haywood had the distinct honor of being awarded the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Award for Women’s Health by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Kiyoshi Kurimiya Award for Women’s Health by Philadelphia FIGHT.


Josef Sorett is a member of the faculty at Columbia University, where he is an Assistant Professor of Religion and African-American Studies and Associate Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life (IRCPL). Josef is also the founding director of the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS), which is located within Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS).

As an interdisciplinary scholar of religion and race in the Americas, Josef employs primarily historical and literary approaches to the study of religion in black communities and cultures in the United States. He has a special interest in how ideas about religion inform broader conversations about culture and society, and how such ideas emerge and take shape in (discursive and physical) spaces typically assumed to be outside the provenance of “religion.” His current research addresses two central themes: 1) how ideas about religion have animated histories of African American literature, arts and popular culture, and 2) the relationship between the cultural politics of religious institutions (especially black churches) and American public life.

Josef’s research has been supported with grants from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the Fund for Theological Education (now the Forum for Theological Exploration). He has published essays and reviews in Culture and Religion, Callaloo, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and PNEUMA: Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. His current book project, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2015) illumines how religion has figured in debates about black art and culture. He is also editing an anthology that is tentatively titled, The Sexual Politics of Black Churches. Josef received his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Harvard University; and he holds a B.S. from Oral Roberts University, and an M.Div. from Boston University.

Josef’s writing and commentary have appeared in a range of popular media outlets, including ABC News, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, as well as on the BBC and NPR. He is also a member of American Academy of Religion’s Committee for the Public Understanding of Religion.


Laura McTighe is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. She received an M.A. and M.Phil. in Religion from Columbia University (2013 and 2014, respectively), an M.T.S. in Islamic Studies from Harvard Divinity School (2008), and a B.A. in Religion from Haverford College (2000). Laura’s research unfolds at the intersection of religion, race, gender and migration in North America, with a particular focus on the American South. Her dissertation project, “Born in Flames,” is a meditation on power and the production of history. Through a combination of ethnography, oral history and archival research, she is working with leading Black feminist organizations in Louisiana (the incarceration capital of the world) to explore how reckoning with the richness of southern Black women’s intellectual and organizing traditions will help us to understand (and do) Black history, American history and religious history differently.

Laura comes to her doctoral studies through more than fifteen years of direct work to challenge structural policies of criminalization and support everyday practices of community transformation. She is the co-founder of the Institute for Community Justice, and currently organizes Religion and Incarceration, a collaborative forum for activists and academics to explore religion, power and the ends of mass incarceration. She is also a Board Member for Women With A Vision, Inc. in New Orleans, Men & Women In Prison Ministries in Chicago and Reconstruction Inc. in Philadelphia. Laura’s writings have been published in Beyond Walls and Cages: Bridging Immigrant Justice and Anti-Prison Organizing in the United States (2012), the International Journal for Law and Psychiatry (2011), Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice (2009), and a variety of community publications.