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‘A people’s project’: UCI professors and HBCU students archive the work of living Black activists

Screenshot of one of UCI-HBCU fellowship's meetings.
Screenshot of one of UCI-HBCU fellowship’s meetings. The summer fellowship was conducted virtually due to COVID-19.
(Courtesy of Jessica Millward)

From the confines of a prison, journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal sent four students from the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities a personal message during the first week of their research fellowship.

“One of the things he said to the students is, ‘The work that you’re doing is part of a really powerful inheritance of the best of the revolutionary spirit of our society,’ ” recalled Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, UC Irvine associate professor of African American studies.

Abu-Jamal, 66, was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in the 1980s. To this day, he maintains his innocence, and the case is widely described as unfair.

After nearly 30 years in solitary confinement on death row, his death sentence was dropped, and he is now serving life without parole. Abu-Jamal authored several books, including bestselling “Live From Death Row,” “Death Blossoms” and the most recent “Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?” addressing prison life, abolitionist democracy and major political movements.

He’s also a key figure in the HBCU students’ fellowship. Tariq Edwards, Ebony Owens, Cienna Benn and Shamya Hutchinson were partly tasked to work on the Activist Studio West, an open-access digital repository that will house a series of collections including the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home archives.

Willoughby-Herard and Jessica Millward, a UCI associate professor of history, received a three-year $271,902 UC-HBCU Pathways Grant to partner with Morgan State University.

The purpose of the grant is to attract and retain potential undergraduate students from HBCUs to UC graduate programs, where Black students are underrepresented. From 2015 to 2019, UC data shows African American graduate student enrollment stayed at 4%.

While students learned how to apply to graduate programs and met with UC staff central to the application process, they also gained skills in Black digital humanities and became familiar with important people in the activist landscape throughout six weeks in the summer.

Local Black activists will discuss next steps in the Black Lives Matter movement on Sunday at a “Reimagine Liberty” social justice forum in Santa Ana.

Millward initially brought the archiving project idea to Willoughby-Herard at a coffee shop. She had followed Abu-Jamal’s work and met with him years back.

“We knew we wanted to train the next generation of scholars who would be doing Black studies. At the same time, I have a personal relationship with Mumia ... But it’s more than just finding a project for a grant,” Millward said.

She describes the archive work as one part love letter and one part Black radical project born out of the desire to make records of people accessible to the masses and future generations.

“The campaigns both to keep him in prison and those to liberate him represents one of the largest social movements in the U.S. prior to George Floyd and between the civil rights movement ... To think that the papers associated with that movement and that man can disappear — as historians, as political scientists and as activists — that would be heartbreaking to miss this moment. How could we not document it?” Millward said.

The Activist Studio West archive collaborators include Johanna Fernandez, Gina Dent, Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, Thuy Vo Dang, Krystal Tribbett, Jewell C. Debnam, LaShonda R. Carter and Ella Turenne.

“It was uniquely a project centered around a man, but it was actually a project that was really steeped in Black feminist theory and Black feminist practices,” said Millward, referring to the efforts to digitize the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home papers.

The first fellowship cohort launched in summer 2020. Although the UCI professors partnered with Morgan State because it’s close to the nation’s capital and the campus has a tradition of mass communications and activism, the four students came from a variety of HBCUs — Claflin, Clark Atlanta, Howard and Lincoln universities.

“We really wanted to make sure that we got a spread of campuses and that enabled us to also get a kind of really generous group of students ... HBCU students are not just from the U.S. South, they’re from all over the world,” Willoughby-Herard said.

Due to COVID-19, the program was conducted virtually, but students engaged daily from their homes. Some also participated in protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“The intellectual tradition of HBCUs are so rich. The students are so ready, willing and have the work ethic that you want on a project like this, a people’s project. There were very few things we did that threw them a curve,” Millward said.

One student from the fellowship chose to research Bev Ditsie, a South African activist.
One student from the fellowship chose to research Bev Ditsie, a South African activist.
(Courtesy of Jessica Millward)

The first two weeks of the program consisted of an oral history boot camp honing in on research methods, and the remaining weeks were split with archive work and graduate training such as writing research proposals and how to ace GRE exams. Damien Sojoyner, Alison Perlman, Judy Wu, and Bridget Cooks served as UCI faculty mentors.

Students also created their own projects documenting the life of a living activist — choosing Colin Kaepernick, Tarana Burke, Bev Ditsie and Joan Gray. They collected research that could lead to full-length dissertations.

“Having them be able to use the [research methodology and theoretical frameworks] of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home papers was really important for them to be ready to ask the proper and really thoughtful questions of these living activists who are more available to us than Mumia,” Willoughby-Herard said.

The UCI professors are still in the process of acquiring and making collections available but plan to have a few things visible on the web page in the fall.

“We hope we’ve planted a seed that will carry some of them into their graduate career,” Millward said.

Willoughby-Herard noted that parents often don’t realize that degrees in humanities and social sciences are connected to great jobs. She said there is a lot of creative work to be done in the study of American political movements and humanistic research.

“Parents probably might rethink [their response] when students come home and say, ‘I want to major in African American studies,’” Millward added. “If ever there was a moment that this nation needed to understand the diverse history, tragedy and triumph of African Americans, this spring is a perfect example.”

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