Re-thinking Inclusive Scholarship: Universities as Platforms for Social Justice, Restoration and Repair

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Written by Daivi Rodima-Taylor (Boston University, African Studies Center) and Joyce Hope Scott (Boston University, African American Studies Program and the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparatons, INOSAAR)

On February 21, 2020, an international community of scholars convened at Boston University to participate in a symposium 'Restorative Justice and Societal Repair: Global Racism and Reparations.' The symposium brought together academics, students, and community activists to discuss the ongoing concerns of global racism and reflect on redress for the enslavement and colonization of the people of African descent. The event aimed to provide an inclusive forum for discussing the issues of social justice and repair, while deliberating the transformation of the global community in this United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD).

The symposium built on the activities of the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR) that aims to facilitate a network dedicated to transitional justice and social repair for the enslavement and genocide of peoples of African descent. The discussions centered around the stated goals of the INOSAAR: to expand our collective definitions of reparation to incorporate cultural, spiritual, environmental and psychological approaches; encourage cross-community collaborations that are rooted in the praxis of cognitive justice; and promote the importance of African knowledge systems for conducting scholarship and activism around social justice and repair issues.

In this blog article, we would like to call attention to the potential contributions of universities and the scholarly community to the discussion of these topics, while advocating for an inclusive community-based research approach that aims to empower historically marginalized communities. Our discussions also draw on the objectives set out in the IDPAD, (2015-24), which provides an operational framework for eradicating racial injustices and ensuring the people of African descent their equal participation in economy and society. It stems from the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action that was adopted at the third ‘World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’ in 2001. The Durban Declaration acknowledged the victimization of the people of African descent by slavery, and called for states globally to adopt action to combat racism and xenophobia.

In 2014, IDPAD proposed a list of specific actions under the theme 'Recognition, Justice and Development,' providing a platform to fight against racism, prejudice and discrimination. It highlighted the recognition of the “right to development and measures against poverty” as one of the focal points of the International Decade. Recognizing that poverty is both a cause and a consequence of discrimination, the IDPAD advises developing national programs for eradicating poverty and reducing social exclusion that take account of the specific needs and experiences of the people of African descent, as well as fostering bilateral, regional and international cooperation in implementing those programs. It includes focus on a gender perspective in public policies, taking into account the specific needs of women and girls of African descent, as well as calls for incorporating human rights into development programs, including access and enjoyment of the rights to education, employment, health, housing, land and labor.

Black families and communities are still suffering from the consequences of historical and structural injustices of enslavement and colonization. Many of them are financially excluded, not having access to affordable financial products and services for saving, borrowing, or insurance. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve, the average black American family in 2016 had less than one-tenth the wealth of the average white American family. Nearly half of black households in the U.S. are unbanked or underbanked, with many black households relying on high-fee check-cashing services, payday loans and prepaid credit cards. The histories of racialized financial exclusion include the long-standing practices of ‘redlining’ that started with the National Housing Act of 1934, restricting mortgage lending in neighborhoods based on racial composition. Lending practices perpetuating racial segregation still persist in the formal financial sector at the present day.

These are some consequences of historical and contemporary structural inequalities still confronting many black communities and households. Very high remittance sending costs globally to countries in Africa constitute another type of exclusion for the people of African descent. Remittances - money transfers from migrants to their families and friends that occur over long distances - are central to the livelihoods of people in many developing countries. The affective and relational elements of remittance transfers are foregrounded and often viewed by migrants as a moral obligation and spiritual investment. The price of sending remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be far higher than any other region in the world, often costing 20 percent more than remittance transfers elsewhere (World Bank, 2018). Despite the challenges of formal sector payment infrastructures, in both remittance sending and receiving ends, grassroots organizations and informal economic groups play an important mediating role, channeling and circulating payments. With the advent of digital technologies such as mobile money and digital currencies, the payment infrastructures remain mediated at their junction points by diverse social and institutional gatekeepers.

These include grassroots mutual support groups that have historically played a central role in mediating the entry of cash in local economies in Africa, and have become important actors in channeling remittances and e-money. This highlights the importance to study grassroots institutions and initiatives. For example, African Canadian women are successfully running such informal savings groups in poorer parts of Toronto, countering business exclusion and racialized attitudes and perceptions in formal banks. Diaspora members from West African countries residing in Massachusetts have been similarly reported to belong simultaneously to several informal savings groups that shape their economies’ activities as well as remittance sending. The purposes of such informal groups include livelihood survival as well as social connectedness and political action.

The questions facing the academic community are: how to identify, connect with, and study these grassroots institutions and agencies; and how to bring these informal groups out of the shadows of marginality and facilitate meaningful connections between local initiatives and inventiveness, and formal sector institutions and policies? The activities of the Boston University African Studies Center and the African American Studies Program have aimed to establish meaningful dialogue with both diaspora scholars and African diaspora groups and actors and provide a multi-sided platform for a participatory engagement around issues that matter to Africans on the continent and in the African diaspora.

The African diaspora has been historically one of the largest and most educated diaspora groups in the United States and has exerted a profound impact on the evolution of the country’s democratic liberties. Today’s complex world is marked by intensifying global mobility. Many recent global policy initiatives, including the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, highlight the relevance of facilitating the social and economic contributions of the diaspora that can positively contribute to the migration and development nexus. Diaspora cross-cultural knowledge and social expertise can affect ideas and practices of citizenship and sovereignty in their source countries. Diasporas can promote democracy and peace-building, especially in fragile and conflict-affected states, through public dialogue and diplomacy, economic contributions, and development assistance.

This recent policy focus on diaspora contributions and institutions, however, has also brought light on significant challenges and constraints that African diaspora actors face in their efforts to help the communities in the U.S. and in Africa. This fact foregrounds the importance of the initiative and help that academic communities could provide. The Boston University Diaspora Studies Initiative at the African Studies Center focuses on the dynamics of transnational diaspora networks and communities, and aims to provide a facilitating forum for diverse institutions to exchange experience and strategies in diaspora engagement. We have also developed a comparative aspect of diaspora studies via engagement with post-conflict and transitional country diasporas from other parts of the world, facilitating knowledge sharing and mutual learning. The activities have expanded awareness and education about diaspora topics among Boston University students and faculty via events, publications, and outreach, and facilitated diaspora connections with civil society organizations, development actors, and policy makers.

The community-based, activist group, Boston Pan-African Forum (BPAF), has striven to promote a widespread appreciation of current socio-economic, political and other issues affecting relations between Americans and peoples of African descent around the world. BPAF is based in Boston with a membership throughout New England. The organization’s mission emphasizes connecting African peoples with each other and with their friends and allies. BPAF has hosted numerous panel presentations, meetings, and receptions concerned with issues, leaders, and events of importance to the African continent and its world-wide diaspora, including forums on reparations and restorative justice. Guest speakers have ranged from former heads-of-state, to civic and political leaders, and leading academics and writers.

These joint events have also helped to highlight and facilitate the role of the African diaspora as an important mediator of innovation and transnational knowledge exchange, seeking solutions to the problems of exploitative appropriation of indigenous knowledge and innovation resources. BPAF programs have also made a systematic effort to connect with educational institutions in racially and ethnically diverse communities of the Boston area, including community colleges and public schools in the area, for establishing joint communities of practice.

Much more remains to be done, however, for facilitating truly inclusive partnerships between minority communities and academic institutions. Thus, we are calling for a systematic exploration of new ways of relating between scholarly institutions and historically marginalized communities and individuals. We ask, how can we, African Studies Center and African American Studies Program, become more impactful platforms for inclusive engagement and empowerment of people of the African descent, victimized by the historical and contemporary atrocities of forced migration and slavery? How can we build bridges between academic research, activism, and local communities for the empowerment of marginalized communities and social groups that are often restricted from access to such knowledge? How can academic institutions forge participatory research partnerships that foster inclusive knowledge production with grassroots organizations and groups that they seek to study? How can we, as scholars, enhance meaningful community-based learning and knowledge sharing with a focus on inclusion and social justice, while challenging structural and historical injustices and inequalities?

Therefore, we are calling on the academic community in the United States and internationally to reflect on new approaches of promoting inclusive knowledge production that do not follow extractive research practices still prevalent in the contemporary academy, but rather that establish equitable and mutually respectful research partnerships, that are able to attend to the real challenges of financial exclusion, poverty, injustice, and discrimination still experienced by African-descended and other historically marginalized communities.