Geography Professor Brandi Summers talks about her students, research and work to advance Oakland, her hometown

Archive of Urban Futures team

Members of the Archive of Urban Futures team, a collaboration between UC Berkeley and the Moms 4 Housing organization, in front of Mom's House in West Oakland.

Top (L to R): Clara Perez, Maya Sapienza, Nikki Thomas, Brandi Summers, Cassandra Waller-Mims and Mateo Villa.
Bottom (Lto R): Bry'Anna Wallace, Sharena Thomas and Sameerah Karim.
April 25, 2024

UC Berkeley Geography Professor Brandi Summers began her journey in academia after receiving her Ph.D. in sociology from UC Santa Cruz and a masters degree in social sciences from the University of Chicago. Throughout her career at Berkeley, Professor Summers has taught, mentored and inspired countless undergraduate and graduate students. Her research aims to use ideas from cultural and urban geography, urban sociology, African American studies and media studies to examine how people rethink and reshape race (especially blackness) and urban spaces through culture, politics and capital. Her research has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Institute for Citizens & Scholars, UC Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), and the Social Science Research Council. 

Professor Summers spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences recently about her career, her work with students, and her work to advance Oakland, where she grew up. Her interview is edited, with portions paraphrased, for clarity. 

Please tell us about your students? 
Brandi Summers: I love my students! I've had the distinct pleasure of working with several undergraduate and graduate students since I've been here. I absolutely adore Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). I've met some of the most engaging and brilliant students ever. I've had the pleasure of working with multiple levels of students, Ph.D students, Ph.D. candidates and also undergraduates of all years. I've just been so astonished by how talented they are. I've had to delegate quite a few tasks and projects, and I've been so excited and energized by how engaged, thoughtful, and creative they've been with the various tasks that I've given them and those that they've come up with on their own. They've just been really wonderful, and I couldn't have done any of this without them. 

How do you mentor your students? If they are interested in pursuing research at the intersection of geography, sociology and cultural studies, what advice do you give them?
Brandi Summers: I emphasize the need to be clear about the kinds of questions they want to explore, not necessarily to find an answer, because oftentimes we think we're going to find the answer and then get more confused through the research process. Rather, it's important for them to know what drives them and what's going to continue to drive them over time. I explain how blackness has really been central to all of my questions as it relates to my work — how that's allowed me to jump into different disciplines and think meaningfully about various methods that help me to explore various questions about blackness.

We'd like to learn more about your work in Oakland. What projects have you led there and what's been their impact?
Brandi Summers: I'm from Oakland, and reading up on what kinds of scholarly work was being produced about Oakland, I felt as though there was a space for me to contribute. I wanted to capture the homeless epidemic, particularly for Black unhoused people, since they represent a disproportionate number of those experiencing poverty and displacement. So I asked an artist friend to produce images that represent where we could go if we continue along this path. And from that collaborative work, I decided to write about it. This work also led me to the Archive of Urban Futures, which is funded generously by the Mellon Foundation. The archive itself is a way to document the Oakland I miss, the Oakland I grew up in, but also a way to think about its future and involve people in the community. 

What do you see as Oakland's future? 
Brandi Summers: I know what I want for Oakland, but I don't know when I'm actually going to see that. Part of that has to do with the nature of politics as Oakland is absolutely impacted by economic, cultural and various political shifts in our country and in the world. We see that play out in the aftermath of the tech boom, which had a profound impact on Oakland; the homelessness crisis that's existing not only here but all over the place; and in the moral crisis of crime that's all over the media, despite what reports actually say. So what I hope for Oakland is for it to be seen as an open, progressive, inclusive, creative and beautiful space for people that’s a welcoming space. I want that to be the reality. 

As you reflect upon your career, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Brandi Summers: I'm motivated by certain kinds of accomplishments, not in terms of awards or prizes, but when students that may not have confidence in a particular area turn around. Their families are so proud that they got the job they wanted or they published in a journal they never thought they could or something like that. I feel like I'm a vessel. I give a lot of my time, my energy, and my expertise as a way to facilitate, but I'm not where the process ends. I'm proud of the ways that I've mentored or guided my students. It's not just my students; it can be helping my colleagues or community members. I love connecting people and helping provide what they need.  

What inspired your current book project on Black resistance and the aesthetics of Black life in Oakland? How do you see this project contributing to our understanding of urban spaces and cultural politics?
Brandi Summers: I knew I wanted to write a book about Oakland, particularly because I haven't seen too many academic texts that have been focused on Oakland despite the fact that it's just such an interesting place. I also wanted to challenge myself to write about a place that I had an intimate connection with. My book Oakland Echoes: Reimagining and Reclaiming the Black City is focused on Oakland’s long time relationship with urbicide, which is this kind of intentional form of place annihilation, an intentional killing of the city. In particular, I'm looking at how the Black city of Oakland has gone through multiple rounds of urbicide, whether it's urban renewal, the impact of the war on poverty, or the impact of the war on crime and drugs, even if we're thinking about gentrification. I'm interested in detailing the various ways that Black Oaklanders have responded to urbicide in their attempts to reclaim their city; whether that’s through activism, cultural production or commerce.