DK Summer Institute Focuses on Knowledge Production to Create More ‘Just Academy’
LeConté Dill’s grandparents were part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West, where, during the 1940s, they put down roots in South Los Angeles. Today, the once-vibrant neighborhood is plagued by gang violence, riots and poverty, causing many Black families, including hers, to pick up and leave.
Migration and out-migration have long fascinated the California native, who, as a doctoral student, traced their impacts on the Bay Area from World War II to today. Since then, they have figured prominently in her teaching and research, which focuses on minority adolescents in high-risk urban neighborhoods.
Dill is an assistant professor of public health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where more than 85 percent of her students are first-generation master’s and Ph.D. candidates from working-class, immigrant backgrounds. Turning Dill’s classrooms and office into “safe spaces” is of paramount importance to her, as many of her students live in a world of hurt—from evictions and homelessness to parental deaths and incarcerations, family deportations and domestic partner violence. (She also oversees several community-based research projects involving high school African American, Caribbean American and Latina girls with their own sets of problems.) When the opportunity arose for Dill to learn more about how universities can interact more effectively with less-empowered neighborhoods, while improving town-gown relationships, she leapt at it.
“The traumas experienced by my graduate students and co-learners, as well as my high school participants and co-researchers, often impede, illuminate and inform their roles as students,” says Dill, who considers herself an “othermother,” a term for someone who works tirelessly on behalf of the Black community. “As an ‘othermother’ in the classroom, across campus and in local communities, I am committed to justice and to supporting my students’ and participants’ agency.”
Dill was one of 20 fellows from around the world who converged on Syracuse for the Democratizing Knowledge (DK) Summer Institute. Made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the seven-day institute was hosted and organized by the University’s DK Project, a campuswide initiative that serves as a think tank for re-envisioning the academy’s predominantly Eurocentric knowledge base and as a model of exchange between community- and scholar-activists. To wit, the institute’s theme was “Just Academic Spaces: Creating New Publics through Radical Literacies,” and boasted an array of keynote speeches, workshops, panel discussions and site visits.
For Dill, the timing could not have been better. “The institute came right before my summer term at SUNY Downstate, where I had just ended my third year [as a faculty member],” she says. “It was critical to be around colleagues-as-comrades, as we wrestled with literature on decolonizing the academy, vented and healed about our own experiences outside and inside the academy and plotted a way forward.”
Dill teamed up with three other fellows—Monique Guishard, Corinne Castro and Nishaun Battle, professors at Bronx Community College, Texas Lutheran University and Virginia State University, respectively—for a collaborative project on the method and metaphor of erasure poetry, a type of poetry created by covering words from existing text in prose or verse. They also interfaced with the #notyoumule hashtag, and examined the “transaborder” poetics of Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa and Harryette Mullen. The quartet rounded out the week by visiting ArtRage, one of the nation’s few galleries devoted exclusively to issues of social justice and environmentalism.
One of Dill’s chief takeaways was much-needed clarity for a master’s course she was designing called “Centering Wellness.” No sooner had Dill finished the syllabus after visiting Syracuse than the course was approved by SUNY’s curriculum committee. Barring any complications, it will be offered in the spring of 2017.
“This course presents the creative arts as tools to promote health and to manage the effects of illness, stress and trauma,” says Dill, whose work echoes the “personal-is-political” ethos of 1960s second-wave feminists. “Concepts such as the life-course perspective, cultural humility, public health critical race praxis, intersectionality and social capital will be introduced side by side with reading and writing works of poetry, memoir and fiction. All of this crystallized at the institute, especially during my visit to ArtRage, where my pedagogy and praxis fortuitously came together.”
Dedicated to exploring “Just Academic Spaces,” the DK Summer Institute is a three-year, $500,000 initiative that is the brainchild of Arts and Sciences professors Linda Carty and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. During a recent meeting in Sims Hall, they reflected on how the concept grew out of the campuswide DK Project, launched in A&S in 2009 to make knowledge production more open, inclusive and democratic. Since then, the project has made good on this promise by hosting myriad events and activities for students and professors alike.
“Every campus has scholars whose research is marginalized or excluded in some way because it does not fit into the normative frameworks that are seen as legitimate within the disciplinary and epistemological structure of the academy,” says Mohanty, professor and chair of women’s & gender studies and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities. “As an institution of higher learning, Syracuse has a responsibility to honor subjugated knowledges and to foster collaborations between community activist movements and academic activism. Unfortunately, it’s a process fraught with challenges—here and at other institutions across the country.”
The concept of a “just academy” flourished between the 1950s and ’70s, when movements for civil and social rights, equality and justice swept the United States. The academy responded by adopting a more democratic, open-admissions stance. With diversity, came the demand for degree programs in ethnic, cultural minority and gender studies. Syracuse, with its historic commitment to racial equality and social justice, seemed poised to light the way. Then things changed.
“There’s been a recent shift in societal expectations of higher education,” Mohanty says. “Shrinking public funding and two major recessions have forced us to rethink our program choices, along with tuition charges and research outcomes. A byproduct [of this approach] is that research is becoming privatized.”
Leaning on private donors to fill the void, however, can sometimes backfire. Carty, associate professor of African American studies, worries that the academy’s social contract, which cultivates research for the public good, is at stake.
“Privatization can be risky because academic priorities are driven not by national policy or the peer-review process, but, instead, by what’s trendy or of interest to a donor,” she says. “When this happens, other disciplines are doomed to irrelevancy, economically speaking. … We want teachers, scientists and scholars from all walks of life to work equally amongst themselves and with their respective publics, including policymakers.”
To date, the DK Project has hosted a plethora of campus presentations and conferences, supported campus activism for what Carty and Mohanty characterize as a “more equitable culture,” cultivated scholar-activists, received financial awards and expanded its infrastructure. The DK Summer Institute is thus viewed as a logical addition to the project’s achievements. Besides bringing dynamic speakers and fellows to campus, the institute has forged ties with organizations, such as ArtRage, within the larger Syracuse community. Doubtless these partnerships give voice to individual stories and histories and provide space for ongoing activism.
Jason Williams, a newly minted justice studies professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, made the trek to Syracuse last summer. “Democratizing Knowledge provides a platform for continued rhetoric and pedagogical changes that are needed for decolonizing the academe, the nation and then the world,” he says.
Carty, in turn, marvels at how the DK Project—and, by extension, the institute—is transforming the campus climate. “We’re contributing to the growth of inclusive publics in higher education, the workforce and the larger polity, in general,” she says. “What we do—changing the hierarchical structuring of knowledge production, so that one doesn’t necessarily need to enroll at Syracuse to benefit from it—involves many people from on and off campus. It’s quite amazing.”
“Just Academic Spaces” may be the DK Project’s finest hour. During a streak of unseasonably hot weather, Mohanty, Carty and the DK Collective hosted this year’s group of DK Mellon Fellows, selected from an institutionally and ethnically diverse pool of more than 70 applicants. One of the fellows came from as far away as Germany, another from India.
Also on hand were colleagues from Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) and Spelman College in Atlanta, to where the institute is traveling in 2017 and ’18, respectively. They included Shirley Collado, executive vice chancellor, chief operating officer and associate professor of sociology at RU-N; Sherri-Ann Butterfield, senior associate dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of sociology at RU-N; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, chair of both the Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Comparative Women’s Studies Program at Spelman, where she serves as the Anna Julia Cooper Professor; and Erica Lorraine Williams, associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Spelman.
The weeklong institute presented a series of sessions that culminated with a symposium featuring presentations by the fellows and prominent guest speakers. Each day of the institute corresponded with a different aspect of the “just academy,” and was punctuated by a guest speaker, a panel discussion or workshop and a site visit. Fellows had a chance to interact with some of the biggest names in social justice scholarship: Barbara Ransby, a historian and activist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, known for her biographies of activists Ella Baker and Eslanda Goode Robeson (wife and business manager of singer Paul Robeson); Dolores Delgado-Bernal, an expert in Chicana/o feminist studies and community-engaged research at the University of Utah; Adele Morrison, known for her cross-cutting work in family law, domestic violence and LGBT studies at Wayne State University in Detroit; and Sandy Grande ’87, a critical theorist at Connecticut College, specializing in Indigenous and Marxist theories of education.
“I was enthralled by how down-to-earth the scholars who spoke to us were in the DK Collective and in the multiple ways they invited us to reflect further,” says Reanae McNeal, an award-winning international performing artist and inspirational speaker who also was a DK Mellon Fellow. “I deeply appreciated them sharing their experiences and guidance. They helped us connect to real-world issues, while emphasizing how our activist scholarly work can produce transformation.”
A Ph.D. candidate at Texas Woman’s University (TWU), McNeal studies “pencil genocide,” a decades-old policy in which people of blended racial heritages (e.g., Native Americans and African Americans) have been systemically expunged from federal documents. She is using her DK experience to design a collegiate curriculum that fills in “unnatural gaps” in knowledge production about such peoples, mainly women, by weaving together their stories, histories and epistemologies. “My project is motivated by my activism as a woman of Cherokee, Choctaw and African American ancestry,” says McNeal, who is based in TWU’s Department of Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies. “I am now even more confident in the approach I am taking, using methods from subjugated communities, while challenging what is known as traditional forms of scholarly discourse. My outlook has been broadened by the possibilities of scholarly work on behalf of marginalized communities.”
In addition to ArtRage, attendees visited La Casita Cultural Center, an A&S program drawing on research, cultural heritage preservation, media and the arts to bridge the gap between Latinos and other Central New Yorkers; the Ska-nonh—Great Law of Peace Center, the Haudenosaunee heritage center located in the ancestral territory of the Onondaga Nation; and the 98-year-old Dunbar Center, one of the city’s oldest nonprofits serving the African American community.
Tamara Butler, assistant professor of English and of African American and African studies at Michigan State University, praises the institute for fostering relationships in ways the academy sometimes inhibits. “The academy encourages collaboration, but rarely grants scholars the time and place to genuinely dialogue and learn about people as people—not just as researchers, scholars or academics,” she says, recalling various offline conversations with Syracuse’s Marcelle Haddix, who led a presentation on decolonizing educational practice; Dellareese Jackson, the DK Project’s graduate assistant; Mohanty; and Carty. “The institute’s facilitators encouraged us to articulate and work across our differences, so that we can build sustainable partnerships, develop transformative scholarship and honestly evaluate our commitments.”
Like Dill, Butler felt the site visits helped her gauge the twin notions of erased histories and lived realities. “The DK Summer Institute came at a perfect time for me because I’m working on an oral history project with my home community,” Butler adds. “I was grateful to have met other scholars, especially women of color, who are writing about ethics, epistemology, storytelling and creativity in ways that I can build upon, cite in my work and teach in my courses. It was exactly what I needed.”
Jason Williams teaches in New Jersey, but spends most of his downtime in Manhattan. With his long, unapologetic locs, he doesn’t fit the mold of a typical college professor. Williams characterizes himself as an “African American male and millennial” who believes fervently in the democratization of knowledge. That he earned a Ph.D. in administration of justice from Texas Southern—a large Historically Black University in Houston, with a storied commitment to critical urban issues—likely accounts for his desire to work at the margins of academia.
For several years, Williams pieced together various teaching gigs in and around New York City, including a tenure-track position at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. The opportunity to train at Syracuse, on the eve of his new position at Montclair State, seemed fortuitous. “My scholarship has become deeply intersectional—in every sense of the word,” says Williams, a DK Mellon Fellow interested in criminal justice. “I thought I was intersectional before, but after sitting through workshops and interacting with my fellow participants, I am now a more complex thinker and a better radical scholar. The institute compelled me to think deeper, question epistemic boundaries and find ways within which to foreground marginalized knowledge and ways of meaning-making. I am forever changed.”
For Williams, the institute presented many highlights—workshops on social justice themes, visits to La Casita and Dunbar (“I am big on history,” he says), lessons about the region’s diverse cultures and histories—but none so transformative as a sidebar he had with Mohanty and Carty about the challenges and complexities of being a leftist political scholar. “I had a major awakening after conversing privately with them about handling negative energy,” he says, adding that some of his ideologies are misunderstood by colleagues. “As someone of color whose work is radical-left, I am often confronted with pressures that are negative. Linda and Chandra shared wisdom with me regarding how they have handled such situations because their scholarly backgrounds are similar [to mine]. … I was startled at how we participants had so much in common, regarding the pressures we face and the fears we carry in university spaces.”
Like many of his peers at the institute, Williams has qualitative and theoretical pursuits. He is adamant about giving voice to the marginalized and underserved—not only as a form of protest (in his case, against mainstream apolitical criminology), but also as an attempt to facilitate “paradigmatic revolutionary change.” His DK project examines policing and race, with an eye toward democratizing criminological knowledge. “Black perspectives within the criminological enterprise have been marginalized, despite the persistent publication of works by black criminologists,” says Williams, alluding to a spate of scholarly articles that have come out in the wake of events in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. “This literature has become so much more neo-liberalized and quantitative, which has led to the discounting of humanistic research.”
Surely, as Mohanty and Carty begin plotting the next two summer institutes, the stakes couldn’t be higher for them and the DK Project in general. “Education doesn’t always happen in the classroom,” Carty says. “This year’s cohort of fellows was extraordinary, and it’s likely that, for most of them, the real work began as soon as they returned to their respective campuses. We’ll repeat the process next year and in 2018, each with a new cohort of fellows.”
Mohanty likes how the institute is rewriting the rules of public scholarship—in particular, the concept of a 21st-century liberal education. “By integrating gender, sexuality, class, race, ability and indigenous and transnational experiences into our curricula, we’re dismantling structures of inequity and exclusion,” she concludes. “In their place is what we hope is a newfound respect for experiential knowledges and subjugated histories.”