When UC Berkeley’s African American Studies professors Leigh Raiford and Tianna Paschel launched the Black Studies Collaboratory (BSC) in 2021, their vision centered on creating a space for critical, joyful and generative engagement that would expand beyond the institution and into the surrounding community. “This is an opportunity to experiment with new forms of collaboration, engage in new conversations around freedom, justice, and joy, and to deepen our roots in the Bay Area,” said Paschel.
Chancellor Carol Christ added, “The project will take this critical moment in our history as an invitation to reimagine African American Studies’ relationship to the institution of the university and in turn reimagine the institution’s relationship to its surrounding Black communities.”
Now halfway into its three-year journey, the Black Studies Collaboratory has constructed creative and inclusive means to gather and mobilize artists, activists and scholars in service to the interdisciplinary, political, and world-building work of Black Studies.
‘Mo' better school’
Grounded in activism and arts, the Black Studies Collaboratory produces scholarly engagement largely through its Abolition Democracy Fellows Program. Named in part for W.E.B. Du Bois’s book Black Reconstruction in America, the program invites and funds an international core group of fellows to come together within a convening space to develop and publicize their work.
When Daphne Muse was initially approached to serve as the inaugural Elder-in-Residence for the Abolition Democracy Fellows Program, she was surprised by the invitation. “I thought, this must be a trick. Then I met Leigh [Raiford] and Tianna [Paschel], these fabulous young people and fellows, and now we have a tremendous intergenerational process. As I call it, old school + new school = mo’ better school.”
Muse has a longstanding legacy of activism and leadership at UC Berkeley. She joined the faculty of UC Berkeley’s African American Studies department in 1972, eventually serving in the English department and the McNair Scholars Program. A self-described ‘cultural broker,’ Muse often collaborated with Dr. VèVè Clark, another esteemed Black scholar, to uplift Black feminist voices such as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. “I’ve always felt compelled to help make sure there is a link between the community and what’s being done here on campus,” said Muse.
As Elder-in-Residence, Muse has worked alongside the fellows to provide mentorship, guidance and collaboration. “In my role, I help them translate their work because sometimes the language of the academy can be a barrier. I tell them, I want the bus driver to know what you’re talking about. This work is critical to the fabric of Black lives and cultures.”
Reflecting on her experience, Muse added, “This role has also given me an opportunity to listen and to understand. I know that those today are walking the earth seeing, hearing and tasting it differently than I did.”
“I see the Black Studies Collaboratory as a model that can be used in any department, not just in Black Studies, but across the academy. The aspect of having an elder and fellows is useful, and not just with graduate students, but with undergraduates as well. Everyone has an opportunity to become a part of the larger support system.”
Ruminating on the progress of the Black Studies Collaboratory, Raiford is also keen to recognize the important role of undergraduate students in this project. Although undergraduate research assistants were not part of the original grant, they quickly became integral to the process.
“Since we were bringing in fellows from outside the institution, we hired undergraduates as work-study students to serve as research assistants. They help our artists get acclimated to campus, support important library research and help artists prepare for their presentations. The students have been nothing short of a revelation in the way they committed to the work. The undergraduates really became a glue to the program,” said Raiford.
“Our undergraduates came to every weekly meeting, participated fully in conversation and readings and emerged as shepherds of the field. They were hungry for a new model of what Black Studies could be - they could see it, and they enacted it. It’s definitely a part of the program we’re continuing this year.”
‘To imagine and create the possibilities of joy’
True to its name, the Black Studies Collaboratory has sought to collaborate with partners both locally and across the country.
“We’ve been intentional in making sure we move off-campus when we can and work with ethical collaboration. The grant has collaboration in its title, but it’s also about redistribution and how widely we can support the work that is, in turn, supporting Black life,” said Raiford.
As a result, the Fellows Program has yielded a rich and diverse body of work from its first-year cohort.
“Over the past year, we’ve created a number of partnerships and connections in the Bay Area and beyond,” said Barbara Montano, project manager of the Black Studies Collaboratory. “Locally, we worked with Cal Performances, Oakstop and Critical Resistance in Oakland, the Ella Baker Center in Fruitvale, and the Center for Ideas and Society at UC Riverside. In New York, we partnered with The Kitchen and The Park Avenue Armory.”
“The first year of the Abolition Democracy Fellows Program was more generative and joyful than we anticipated,” added Raiford. “We look forward to building on that momentum with this new group of community collaborators, each deeply yet differently rooted in the Bay Area Black community.”
The second cohort, who joined in August 2022, continues to represent a wide array of experiences, disciplines and intergenerational perspectives. Projects include dissertation work, a book manuscript and new creative work. Throughout their communal journey, the fellows will also contribute to a course on Black Studies and present their work in a public forum in spring 2023.