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Skidmore College

Mellon Foundation grant supports Africana studies, humanities at Skidmore

January 26, 2022
by Angela Valden

A $1.185 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will support Skidmore’s Black Studies Program and Racial Justice Teaching Challenge, advancing Africana studies and social justice at the College through innovative course creation and teaching, undergraduate research, and interdisciplinary collaboration. 

The three-year grant comes as part of the Mellon Foundation’s Humanities for All Times Initiative, which supports curricular projects in the liberal arts that help students to see and experience the applicability of humanities in their real-world social justice objectives. 

Funding for Skidmore’s project, Africana Studies and the Humanities: Transnational Explorations in Social Justice, will support the development of new courses for the College’s Black Studies Program through the launch of “learning communities” that will help faculty to refine their own understanding of new teaching methods, schools of thought, and areas of study that will diversify curriculum and illuminate social justice issues within and across disciplines. 

This effort will directly reinforce the College’s Racial Justice Teaching Challenge (RJTC), launched in spring 2021 to increase Skidmore’s curricular focus on racial justice. Coordinated by the American Studies Department and Black Studies Program and supported by the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the RJTC encouraged faculty to develop content on racial justice and/or Black studies for their spring 2021 and fall 2021 courses, in consultation with Associate Professor of American Studies Beck Krefting and Professor and Director of the Black Studies Program Winston Grady-Willis, co-principal investigators of the Mellon grant. 

In spring 2021, the Racial Justice Teaching Challenge sparked participation from 63 faculty members who offered 96 courses, constituting approximately 12% of courses delivered that semester. In fall 2021, 81 faculty members took part and offered 110 courses, constituting approximately 14% of courses. Most of the College’s academic departments engaged with the challenge, from the humanities to the sciences.

There is a deep-seated desire among many Skidmore faculty and staff to be proactively anti-racist and avoid complicity, whether in the classroom or in their day-to-day lives. With faculty and staff eager to support racial justice initiatives, we can focus on creating pathways to do what we know we must." 
Beck Krefting
Associate professor of American studies

In addition to Grady-Willis and Krefting, the seven-person Africana Studies and the Humanities project team includes Wendy Anthony, head of Special Collections in Scribner Library; Susan Blake, visiting assistant professor of philosophy; Lisa Grady-Willis, associate director and visiting assistant professor of intergroup relations; Lucia Hulsether, assistant professor of religious studies; and Jamie Parra, assistant professor of English. 

The learning communities, three of which were launched this January, are a combined effort of the project team and other Skidmore faculty and staff across a variety of disciplines. Also taking part are the Tang Teaching Museum, Scribner Library, and The Center, a 5,000-square-foot facility that promotes principles of equity, inclusion, and justice in multidisciplinary programming for students, staff, and faculty. All of these resources and spaces will support research, discussion, and creation of new course content. 

The Center

Skidmore College President Marc C. Conner speaks to students Neke Abu '22 and Nakeysa Hooglund '23 during an open house at The Center, a new campus space dedicated to discussing, collaborating, and thinking creatively about equity and inclusion.

The project team’s work is informed by the Racial Justice Initiative announced by Skidmore President Marc C. Conner on his first day in office on July 1, 2020, as well as the collaborative anti-racist statement “Healing Through Action” that was signed by faculty and staff across the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium of colleges.  

In launching Skidmore’s Racial Justice Initiative, President Conner, whose own academic research is grounded in literary studies and Africana studies, outlined specific action steps to deepen Skidmore’s institutional commitment to racial justice and to catalyze substantive community conversations about the individual and collective work that remains to be done. 

One incredibly important concern that drove our entire team was the need to do whatever we could intellectually to honor the significance of this moment — not only the lives lost to racial violence, but the lives transformed through study and struggle — substantively. The Mellon grant gives us the opportunity to do just that, to collaboratively help move the institution forward.” 
Winston Grady-Willis
Professor and Director of the Black Studies Program

In addition to supporting course development, the grant will seed undergraduate research that centers on racial justice and engages with colonization/decolonization and power systems and structures. It will also fund the creation of two two-year postdoctoral positions in Black Studies with explicit grounding in the humanities. The program launched a national search for those positions in mid-January. 

“An education in the liberal arts — emphasizing critical thinking, creativity, and creation — matters now more than ever,” said Krefting. “Intentional work devoted to broadening institutional support for already existing social justice curricula and seeding new initiatives in this vein throughout the curriculum and in faculty and student research will profoundly alter the culture and climate at Skidmore, creating positive changes with long-lasting impacts.”

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