August 29, 2022
The Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY Department of Ethnic and Race Studies (DERS) has partnered with the BMCC Office of Internships and Experiential Learning to launch the Black Studies Across the Americas program. Operating under a cohort and mentorship model, the program enrolled 18 students during its first semester in Spring 2022.
The research program virtually brings scholars from national and international institutions to BMCC, to learn more about the study of Africans and Afro-descendants across the Americas.
The Black Studies Across the Americas program is one of seven projects funded through the President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation which was established in December 2020 through a generous donation to BMCC from philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott.
BMCC faculty, staff and students work closely with researchers at outside institutions including Ohio State University’s Center for Latin American Studies as well as New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Students can apply to the program and once accepted, are eligible to receive a small stipend.
Through weekly workshops, meetings and one-on-one mentorship, the students conduct research and create new Black Studies academic course materials. At the end of the semester, those materials are shared on OpenLab making them available to educators across the globe. The BMCC-produced content—lesson plans, booklets, videos and digital course materials—can be incorporated into subject areas where Black studies are not typically found, such as business, math and science courses.
Students gain research skills and global perspective
Students in the program gain first-hand research skills they can put to further use as they continue their higher education journeys at the four-year level and beyond.
The program’s team leaders include Ethnic and Race Studies Professors Judith Anderson and Lissette Acosta, and Experiential Learning and Study Abroad manager Jessica Levin. They work closely with other BMCC faculty members from various academic disciplines who serve as mentors to the cohorts.
“The cohorts focus on the countries where our international collaborators are located,” said Professor Anderson. “In the Spring 2022 semester, we worked remotely with international collaborators in Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.”
While the United States has a large Black population, there is a much larger number of people of African descent across Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, Brazil has the second largest Black population on earth, second only to Nigeria. There are significant historic parallels between African Americans as well as people of African descent in the rest of the region with both descending from settler colonial societies.
“The BMCC program offers a wonderful opportunity for faculty, students and everyone involved to have the chance to learn more about Africans and Afro-descendants right here in the Americas,” said Professor Anderson.
After years of discussions and planning, she says the President’s Fund for Innovation and Research enabled the program’s leaders to make the Black Studies Across the Americas program a reality.
“We have so many knowledgeable and talented individuals here at BMCC, and our students come from such diverse backgrounds, many from the continent of Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean,” said Anderson. “Everything we needed was already here, we just needed the resources to support the program.”
Program has potential to impact colleges across CUNY and beyond
Professor Anderson and other Black Studies Across the Americas team leaders believe the program should become a permanent fixture at BMCC. Undergraduate research opportunities outside of the traditional STEM fields, especially at the community college level are rare. Faculty and colleagues at other institutions including CUNY have expressed interest in BMCC’s Black Studies Across the Americas program, according to Professor Anderson.
“It would be wonderful if we could coordinate across the CUNY system and expand this program, but we’re definitely looking to make this more of a permanent fixture with internal funding from CUNY,” said Professor Anderson.
Cohort model provides valuable one-on-one time
Professor Lissette Acosta says the program’s cohort model provides a lot of space for critical one-on-one time between faculty, collaborators and the students. Each student brings their own set of skills and talents to the program, such as photography, writing, drawing and videography, which get incorporated into each cohort’s final academic project.
“One of the educational goals is to gain knowledge about the Black diaspora outside the United States and increase the understanding that this experience is not unique to North America,” said Professor Acosta.
The humanities-focused research the students are conducting through the program will prove useful in whatever career they end up choosing, including STEM-related fields, said Professor Acosta.
“Researching and learning about society is just as important as learning science through science,” said Professor Acosta. “When a student comes to college, they don’t just learn how to become a computer scientist, they learn skills on how to interact with the world at large and the communities they may end up working in.”
Program normalizes conversations around race
Experiential Learning and Study Abroad Manager Jessica Levin says her office is always on the lookout for global experiential learning opportunities that develop student’s professional skills.
“We talk a lot about race in the United States,” said Levin. “I thought it would be beneficial to do some kind of virtual project where students could look at race in different countries.”
Levin’s role in the project since receiving the President’s Fund award has been mostly administrative. She has also helped recruit students and faculty into the program. She said the President’s Fund allowed the project’s leaders to create a space where students can engage in research and have the luxury to examine topics that are important to them.
“We are looking for students who are very motivated to engage in a project that speaks to them personally,” said Levin. “I believe one of the main successes of the program so far, has been the increasing normalization of conversations around race, showing that there are a lot of different ways to engage in race studies.”
Faculty mentors work closely with students
Teacher Education Professor Jean Plaisir, one of the program’s faculty mentors, says it has been exhilarating to provide personalized mentorship and coaching for the students in his cohort.
“We meet on a weekly basis to assign the students tasks they’ll need to perform to achieve our research objectives,” said Professor Plaisir. “We have to turn in deliverables to meet our project outcomes. The students are learning how to work with one another and how to be accountable.”
He says the faculty mentors teach students how to organize their research and time and also how to document their findings.
“We turn in weekly reports. We also learn how to go out into the field and interview people, to work collaboratively with our international research group,” said Professor Plaisir. “One project focused on the impact of the Dominican community in Washington Heights. A video project focused on ways school teachers could replicate some of our efforts by taking their classes on field trips where students report on some of the issues impacting the daily lives of Black people.”
Professor Plaisir adds, “We are here to work harmoniously with everybody and we draw attention to the past so we don’t continue repeating the same terrible mistakes.”
Program provides tools to push back against a system that allows for inequities
“Race impacts our culture and our lives, yet we are not trained to talk about it,” said Media Arts and Technology Professor Agustin McCarthy, who is also a faculty mentor in the program.
Professor McCarthy says the classroom is an important place for students to actually develop and practice engaging in a topic that often gets avoided.
“The facts are clear. Inequity is a problem, we see it in our students at BMCC, and we need to empower everyone with the tools they need to be able to engage in a nuanced conversation, and raise their voices and push back against a system that continues to allow for real inequities based on racial divisions,” said Professor McCarthy.
Student project features interview with noted Dominican poet, educator and activist
Digital Marketing major Alexis Jacquet, who has since graduated from BMCC and earned a scholarship to New York University, was part of a cohort focused on the Dominican Republic led by Professor Plaisir.
Jacquet worked with her team to produce a video that examines how anti-Blackness culture impacts the beauty aesthetic, especially among women, in the Dominican Republic, she explained.
“During the interview with the Dominican poet, educator and activist Michelle Ricardo, we talk about how art can be a tool for social change but also how anti-blackness culture especially impacts women,” Jacquet said.
Having completed the program, Jacquet says the importance of Black Studies in academia and beyond is vital.
“Black Studies as a curriculum area has been ignored for centuries,” said Jacquet. “We have to emphasize it more, even as we face certain political interests that are trying to dismiss Black Studies from being incorporated into school curricula. Black Studies is foundational and to ignore it is to ignore world history itself.”
The Black Studies Across the Americas project relates to the BMCC Strategic Plan including Strategic Goal #6: Strengthen BMCC’s role in a thriving NYC and as a leading community college nationally.
Program is one of seven projects funded through the President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation
Students work in cohorts and learn valuable research skills
Mentors guide students in research on Africans and Afro-descendants in the Americas and create course materials shared on OpenLab