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Roots of Protest, Branches Growing Hope

 

 

 

Elizabeth James is sharing some of her favorite moments from her 28-year career as the program associate of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS). In addition to supporting students in the Black Student Union and liaising with students, faculty, alumni, and staff, James also coordinates DAAS’s spectacular calendar of academic events and cultural celebrations. Some of her favorite memories include listening to Alice Walker read in Hill Auditorium, and the brunch she hosted for Desmond Tutu. 

 “He was a ray of light!” James laughs, remembering the day. “He came dancing out of the elevator, saying, ‘Here are my people!’” A staff member had brought a homemade cake for the occasion, and Tutu couldn’t help himself from “sneaking” thirds and fourths. 

But most of all, James treasures the moments with people she works alongside on a daily basis, or did before COVID-19. “I miss hearing our scholars speaking in the halls in French, in Swahili, or walking by an archaeologist, an anthropologist, a public health expert, and a historian of literature of the American South chatting in the Lemuel Johnson Center like some Jedi meeting! It’s a tremendous honor to work here.” 

Professor Matthew Countryman, chair of DAAS at the time of this interview, works closely with  James to think creatively when it comes to nurturing connections: between academic disciplines, between alumni and current students, and even between nations because DAAS scholars study and work all over the world. And this year—this unusual, challenging year when the department had planned to celebrate DAAS’s first 50 years—the work of nurturing connections matters more than ever. Not only did Countryman and James need to transition the long-planned anniversary’s festivities online; they also needed to transfer and sustain the energized network of students, faculty, staff, and alumni whose joy, knowledge, and love have guided DAAS’s first 50 years and will guide the department’s future. 

But Countryman and  James are determined to do it. “DAAS is the little engine that could.” James says. “We are a very small unit, but there is so much joy, knowledge, and love.”

Into the Archives

Stephen Ward, an associate professor in DAAS and the Residential College and faculty director of the Semester in Detroit program, sees the fiftieth anniversary of DAAS as an opportunity to dig into the history of Black student activism at U-M with his undergraduate students. 

In his senior seminar, “DAAS in Action,” Ward partnered with Cinda Nofziger, an archivist at the Bentley Historical Library, to introduce the students to the primary sources in the Bentley’s DAAS Collection. As the students familiarized themselves with its databases and materials, they also developed their archival skills, eventually growing comfortable conducting archival research independently at the Bentley.

The stories are there, but the material can be scattered, nonlinear, difficult to put together. “Students want to know how students in the past dealt with social justice issues,” Nofziger says. “We have so much material from our different collections to tell the story of student activism. Tracing these student demands and stories requires looking at different threads,” she says. 

Students studied the digitized DAAS collection and pored over handmade flyers from the student-led Black Action Movement in 1970, uncovering sources that told the story of the creation of the Trotter Multicultural Center, the beginnings of DAAS, and the history of the Black experience on campus. Ward, who also teaches courses in African American history, the Black Power Movement, the evolution of hip hop, and the history of Detroit, says he hopes his courses provide opportunities for his students “to learn by doing.” 

“Student activism was largely responsible for the creation of Black studies here at U-M,” Ward says, “and largely, the ideas and energies of students will shape its future.”

 

The Michigan Difference, All Over the World

Associate Professor Omolade Adunbi has spent the last 10 years in DAAS and Program in the Environment (PITE) as an interdisciplinary scholar connecting students with complex environmental issues all over the world. Adunbi brings DAAS students to Kenya, where they work with students from the University of Nairobi. They do homestays within the Masai Mara National Park and learn about the far-reaching connections between national resources like oil and issues of environmental, political, and economic justice. 

Adunbi has also built relationships between U-M and African scholars in his mentorship work with University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS), which brings early career faculty from African universities to U-M to accelerate their research capabilities and empower them to make an impact when they return to their home institutions—building mutually beneficial ties between U-M and institutions across the continent. 

What really makes DAAS special, Adunbi says, is that the department “draws scholars from almost every discipline,” connecting the African continent and its diaspora as well as connecting ideas from across fields of study and engaging students to explore them. 

James agrees. “DAAS holds a large world in a small department,” she says. “The impact is global.” 

The DAAS Flex

For students and alumni of the program, DAAS has nourished career aspirations of all kinds. “So many of our alums weren’t necessarily majors or minors. They took extra classes that mattered to them and were a part of the DAAS community and programs—and an astounding number have gone into community service and serving the public good,” James says. From Menna Demessie (Ph.D. ’10), Universal Music Group Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the Global Task Force for Meaningful Change, to Andre Brown (A.B. ’05), a leading public health AIDS and HIV researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, DAAS alumni work in different fields, but they have excellence in common. 

Alumna Kristen Harris Nwanyanwu, (A.B. ’04) an ophthalmologist who specializes in vitreoretinal surgery at Yale University, designs community interventions to decrease blindness, and she describes her education in DAAS as vital preparation for her career in medicine. “The whole time I knew I was going to be a doctor, but DAAS helped shape the kind of doctor I became,” she says. Nwanyanwu graduated from U-M with a double major in biochemistry and in DAAS, earning highest honors in the department. Her work in DAAS, she says, “flexed my critical thinking skills.” Nwanyanwu took DAAS courses in education, literature, architecture, and history. “DAAS gave me access to the voices and wisdom of Toni Morrison and Fannie Lou Hamer, to history and to a community where I understood different ways to be Black, and where I could nerd out,” she says. “It was a safe place and also a rigorously intellectual place.”

Nwanyanwu brought those critical thinking skills to her research on health disparities in diabetic retinopathy. “Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness. Black, brown, and indigenous people present with more severe cases of the disease and go blind more often,” she explains. “Right now I’m working with the New Haven community to ask about barriers to screening for this disease, and to find out how medical professionals can break down these barriers, with outreach and transportation help. Then I’ll put all this information together and return a framework to the community to see how it resonates with them. The goal is to design a patient navigator program for people at high risk and trial it next year.” 

 For alumna Je’Nai Talley Jackson (A.B., ’05), who worked as the equity, diversity, inclusion, and access manager in youth development and mentorship for YMCA National, DAAS cemented two lifelong values: “When you have people in your life who support you, challenge you, and care about you—it lifts you in a way that changes the trajectory of your life. Relationships, like the one I have with Elizabeth James, are the cornerstone of the work that I do, and they are why I am successful. And then there’s the social justice piece: It’s not enough that I do well in life, there’s a need and a desire to give back—there’s an interconnectedness to our well-being.”

Senior Ruthie DeWit credits her DAAS studies for helping her connect skills from different disciplines in her work with the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, Michigan. As part of the Graham Scholars Program, a program that offers undergraduate students field-based sustainability leadership experience in the community, DeWit and her team are working to build a new community and residential center for the homeless LGTBQ BIPOC youth the center serves. She’s listening intently to youth and using her studies in DAAS, PITE, gender and women's studies, and entrepreneurship to build with inclusivity and environmental sustainability in mind.

 

 


Senior Tiffany Harris is double majoring in political science and DAAS, but she makes time to lead, choreograph, and perform in the student-run Pure Dance Company; serves as president of U-M’s Creatives of Color and the Black Undergraduate Law Association; welcomes incoming Black students as part of the Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs program; and tutors students in math. After interning with the Congressional Black Caucus last summer, Harris founded a nonprofit called Black Excellence to implement networking and career fairs for Black students. Harris wanted to share the resources that DAAS provided her with students of color attending primarily white institutions who might not have programs like DAAS and who have less access to competitive political internships. 

Harris, like Nwanyanwu, Jackson, and DeWit, believes DAAS’s intrinsic value serves all career trajectories. “I want everyone at U-M to take a DAAS course,” she says. “Racial biases affect all professions and careers,” she says. “It’s just as important for engineers to learn about race as it is for anyone else. Everything we do is politics.” 

“It’s part of the same reckoning,” Nwanyanwu says, in reference to her DAAS studies and the questions about access and disparity that guide her work now. “And it was paramount to my development.” 

The Future of DAAS

Recently, Elizabeth James paired 17 DAAS students with 17 DAAS alumni. It had been a particularly rough year, and James “could hear the weariness in the students’ voices.” James wanted to offer them some mentorship, and found eager volunteers within her network of DAAS alumni. 

“DAAS has a strong community base,” James says. “I’m always astounded by how powerful the personal connections are. There’s this huge sense of the ancestors like Niara Sudarkasa and Evans Young [former U-M professor and former Assistant Director of CAAS, respectively] standing behind us, giving us strength and courage to persevere.”

Countryman agrees, noting the enthusiasm of retired faculty to return to the department to talk, work, and celebrate with students. “Not only is the multidisciplinary aspect of DAAS one of our key strengths, but so is the multigenerational aspect. These are our elders.” 

Elders and children both hold precious knowledge for DAAS Professor Nyambura Mpesha, who teaches Swahili, African literature, and African children’s literature. Mpesha researches the significant stories told about history, identity, and culture of African Children’s Literature—and is a prize-winning children’s author herself. “I believe that children’s literature in Africa is really a new branch. Children are always the last people to be considered. Now children’s literature is thriving.” 

She describes joining the department in 2009: “The first thing that struck me about DAAS is how comfortably I fit in,” Mpesha says. “This was a place of solace.” Mpesha’s been involved in various study abroad programs with DAAS as well, taking students to Tanzania and Uganda.

When the COVID-19 pandemic moved classrooms online, DAAS supported Mpesha’s pedagogical transition to Zoom by offering seminars and Residential College courses on teaching language online, which built her confidence as a virtual professor. Her online “Advanced Swahili” class is small, and “most delightful.” Many in the class have been Mpesha’s students for three or more years.

One teaching approach Mpesha is exploring with her students is teaching the Swahili language as a game. Channeling the spirit of Scrabble, for example, she can envision the words as a tree. Mpesha calls the game “Mizizimatawi,” which translates to “Roots and Branches.” 

“If we are facing one another, we imagine that we are creating a tree with the tiles,” Mpesha says. “You create the top and I create the bottom. We create words together: I go from the roots, you go from the branches.” Mpesha laughs. “I’m still working out the rules.”


Senior Tiffany Harris is double majoring in political science and DAAS, but she makes time to lead, choreograph, and perform in the student-run Pure Dance Company; serves as president of U-M’s Creatives of Color and the Black Undergraduate Law Association; welcomes incoming Black students as part of the Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs program; and tutors students in math. After interning with the Congressional Black Caucus last summer, Harris founded a nonprofit called Black Excellence to implement networking and career fairs for Black students. Harris wanted to share the resources that DAAS provided her with students of color attending primarily white institutions who might not have programs like DAAS and who have less access to competitive political internships. 

Harris, like Nwanyanwu, Jackson, and DeWit, believes DAAS’s intrinsic value serves all career trajectories. “I want everyone at U-M to take a DAAS course,” she says. “Racial biases affect all professions and careers,” she says. “It’s just as important for engineers to learn about race as it is for anyone else. Everything we do is politics.” 

“It’s part of the same reckoning,” Nwanyanwu says, in reference to her DAAS studies and the questions about access and disparity that guide her work now. “And it was paramount to my development.” 

The Future of DAAS

Recently, Elizabeth James paired 17 DAAS students with 17 DAAS alumni. It had been a particularly rough year, and James “could hear the weariness in the students’ voices.” James wanted to offer them some mentorship, and found eager volunteers within her network of DAAS alumni. 

“DAAS has a strong community base,” James says. “I’m always astounded by how powerful the personal connections are. There’s this huge sense of the ancestors like Niara Sudarkasa and Evans Young [former U-M professor and former Assistant Director of CAAS, respectively] standing behind us, giving us strength and courage to persevere.”

Countryman agrees, noting the enthusiasm of retired faculty to return to the department to talk, work, and celebrate with students. “Not only is the multidisciplinary aspect of DAAS one of our key strengths, but so is the multigenerational aspect. These are our elders.” 

Elders and children both hold precious knowledge for DAAS Professor Nyambura Mpesha, who teaches Swahili, African literature, and African children’s literature. Mpesha researches the significant stories told about history, identity, and culture of African Children’s Literature—and is a prize-winning children’s author herself. “I believe that children’s literature in Africa is really a new branch. Children are always the last people to be considered. Now children’s literature is thriving.” 

She describes joining the department in 2009: “The first thing that struck me about DAAS is how comfortably I fit in,” Mpesha says. “This was a place of solace.” Mpesha’s been involved in various study abroad programs with DAAS as well, taking students to Tanzania and Uganda.

When the COVID-19 pandemic moved classrooms online, DAAS supported Mpesha’s pedagogical transition to Zoom by offering seminars and Residential College courses on teaching language online, which built her confidence as a virtual professor. Her online “Advanced Swahili” class is small, and “most delightful.” Many in the class have been Mpesha’s students for three or more years.

One teaching approach Mpesha is exploring with her students is teaching the Swahili language as a game. Channeling the spirit of Scrabble, for example, she can envision the words as a tree. Mpesha calls the game “Mizizimatawi,” which translates to “Roots and Branches.” 

“If we are facing one another, we imagine that we are creating a tree with the tiles,” Mpesha says. “You create the top and I create the bottom. We create words together: I go from the roots, you go from the branches.” Mpesha laughs. “I’m still working out the rules.”

 

 

Whatever the next 50 years of DAAS holds, Ward believes it will be the students who create the rules of building it. In addition to pursuing their own questions about the history of DAAS in his class, Ward’s students proposed new courses, projects, and community partnerships to carry DAAS into the future. One student proposed a partnership between DAAS and Ann Arbor Public Schools wherein DAAS students teach Black studies to middle schoolers. COVID-19 put that project on pause, but the people of DAAS are not deterred.

“Paving a new path is a part of our theme in DAAS, and it’s a part of our history,” James says. “DAAS was formed out of student protest. Students in the 1960s called for classes on Black history and issues and challenged the university to stand up to its promise to provide its students with a full education,” she continues. “I always tell students—it’s a challenging time to be alive, but it’s also a moment that’s important to be alive.” 

“The future of the world belongs to them,” Professor Adunbi says of his students. “They’re the leaders who will shift us into a more just society.”

 

Top image of student courtesy of Lon Horwedel; illustrations by Alicia Vazquez. Photos were taken prior to the pandemic and COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and mask requirements.   

 

 

Whatever the next 50 years of DAAS holds, Ward believes it will be the students who create the rules of building it. In addition to pursuing their own questions about the history of DAAS in his class, Ward’s students proposed new courses, projects, and community partnerships to carry DAAS into the future. One student proposed a partnership between DAAS and Ann Arbor Public Schools wherein DAAS students teach Black studies to middle schoolers. COVID-19 put that project on pause, but the people of DAAS are not deterred.

“Paving a new path is a part of our theme in DAAS, and it’s a part of our history,” James says. “DAAS was formed out of student protest. Students in the 1960s called for classes on Black history and issues and challenged the university to stand up to its promise to provide its students with a full education,” she continues. “I always tell students—it’s a challenging time to be alive, but it’s also a moment that’s important to be alive.” 

“The future of the world belongs to them,” Professor Adunbi says of his students. “They’re the leaders who will shift us into a more just society.”

 

Top image of student courtesy of Lon Horwedel; illustrations by Alicia Vazquez. Photos were taken prior to the pandemic and COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and mask requirements.   

 

 

Whatever the next 50 years of DAAS holds, Ward believes it will be the students who create the rules of building it. In addition to pursuing their own questions about the history of DAAS in his class, Ward’s students proposed new courses, projects, and community partnerships to carry DAAS into the future. One student proposed a partnership between DAAS and Ann Arbor Public Schools wherein DAAS students teach Black studies to middle schoolers. COVID-19 put that project on pause, but the people of DAAS are not deterred.

“Paving a new path is a part of our theme in DAAS, and it’s a part of our history,” James says. “DAAS was formed out of student protest. Students in the 1960s called for classes on Black history and issues and challenged the university to stand up to its promise to provide its students with a full education,” she continues. “I always tell students—it’s a challenging time to be alive, but it’s also a moment that’s important to be alive.” 

“The future of the world belongs to them,” Professor Adunbi says of his students. “They’re the leaders who will shift us into a more just society.”

 

Top image of student courtesy of Lon Horwedel; illustrations by Alicia Vazquez. Photos were taken prior to the pandemic and COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and mask requirements.   

 

Reimagining DAAS

Professor Matthew Countryman is marking 50 years of DAAS by creating a dynamic website that showcases the history of the department. The website includes an archive of videotaped oral histories from early faculty and alumni, and the extraordinary arts, culture, photography, and music holdings from DAAS’s collection.

 

 


 


 

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College has looked a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

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Release Date: 05/10/2021
Category: Faculty; Alumni; Students; Staff; Meet The Moment
Tags: LSA; Afroamerican and African Studies; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Semester In Detroit; Gina Balibrera; Alicia Vazquez; Black Student Union