Africana initiatives connect academics, activism

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
September 15, 2015

Students, faculty and staff at the Africana Studies and Research Center have long worked to combine their research and scholarship with activism on issues facing the community, the nation and the world.

But this year, the center is making more efforts than ever to offer students the opportunity to “make a difference,” said Gerard Aching, professor of Africana and Romance studies and director of the Africana Center. Through speakers, mentoring efforts, special events and even classroom renovations, the center wants to become an undergraduate hub for students who want to undertake research, talk about issues of the day and envision ways to have an impact.

Three professors from the center also recently won an Engaged Curriculum Grant from Engaged Cornell to design two courses focused on food justice and community-engaged oral history research in Ithaca and New York City.

“The teaching body at the Africana Center is second to none,” said Brianna Barrett ’18, a government major in the College of Arts and Sciences. “There’s a sort of intimacy with the classes there because they’re small. And being a black student, it’s great to be able to relate to your professor on another level.”

“After the success of last year’s ‘Ferguson to Baltimore’ events, we realized that we want to increase our commitment to be a space where students feel they can come to analyze national events,” Aching said. “We are an academic unit with a strong commitment to social engagement.”

Several of the fall’s biggest highlights will be:

  • Sept. 18, noon: The center will Skype in two recent Rhodes scholars who are currently at Oxford: Christopher “Kit” Dobyns ’13, an Africana studies major, and Rachel Harmon ’15, an ILR graduate, to speak about their experiences at that university.
  • Sept. 25-26: The center will hold “My Life Is One Long Debate,” a conference that will examine the scholarship and legacy of the late Ali Mazrui.
  • Oct. 6, 4:30 p.m.: There will be a showing of Leah Mahan’s award-winning documentary on the aftermath of Katrina, “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek,” followed by a panel discussion featuring Africana alumni Leslie Fields ’82, director of environmental justice and community partnerships at the Sierra Club, and Kenneth Robinson, a professor from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development.
  • Oct. 16-17: The center will hold a conference, “Governing Extraction,” to examine the effects of the Chad oil and pipeline project.

“Professors connected with the Africana Studies and Research Center are also experts in history, political science, gender issues and many other areas,” Aching said. “And we are one of the most international units for our size because our faculty’s research is all over the world, so there are rich assets of intellectual possibilities for research and for teaching here.”

Several spaces in the building have become traditional student gathering places for meetings and projects – the library, the multipurpose room and the Hoyt-Fuller Room. Plans are also underway to renovate a classroom space as a more flexible meeting space for students.

Barrett said she uses the Africana Center’s library for studying, but agrees that it would be great to have more informal spaces available for students to meet, talk and work on group projects.

She’s also encouraged by the center’s efforts to educate students on the career paths possible with a major or minor in Africana studies. Barrett spent her summer as an intern with the Democratic National Committee.

“I’m thinking about doing a minor in Africana, and it will be good to hear from alumni about what you can do with the degree,” she said.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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