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A Candid Conversation: The Importance of Engaging Our Black Communities

A Candid Conversation: The Importance of Engaging Our Black Communities

The Black Communities Conference, is a vibrant gathering featuring panel discussions, local tours, film screenings, workshops, keynotes, and more. Their core mission is
to foster collaboration among Black communities and universities for the purpose of enhancing Black community life and furthering the understanding of Black communities. In a recent discussion, Dr. Karla Slocum and Dr. Mark Little discussed their recent research and insights.

WHO IS DR. KARLA SLOCUM?

DR. SLOCUM – I am a cultural anthropologist who specializes in studies of rural Black communities and, generally, how their community identities are shaped by their histories and economic condition. I came to anthropology circuitously (I was an undergrad French major), out of a yearn for learning about new places and communities along with a commitment to global social justice.

DR. SLOCUM WE NOTED YOU SERVE AS THE DIRECTOR FOR THE INSTITUTE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN RESEARCH AT UNC-CHAPEL HILL. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE INSTITUTE AND THE WORK THAT IS BEING DONE.

DR. SLOCUM – The Institute of African American Research (IAAR) is an interdisciplinary research institute at UNC-Chapel Hill which, for 25 years, has been committed to scholarly studies of the global Black condition. Our programs support and help disseminate leading research by faculty and students that fosters a better understanding of various dimensions of Black life. We also provide research training and professional development for students who are committed to studying race or undoing racial inequality.

DR. SLOCUM WE ALSO NOTED YOU ARE AN AUTHOR. TELL US ABOUT YOUR LATEST BOOK BLACK TOWNS, BLACK FUTURES: THE ENDURING ALLURE OF A BLACK PLACE IN THE AMERICAN WEST.

DR. SLOCUM – After emancipation, the U.S. became home to hundreds of rural communities created for black Americans to achieve freedom and a secure life. Black towns, as they are called, have a remarkable past as vibrant black communities that thrived against the odds. But Black towns past is only part of the story. My book focuses on the ways that Black towns continue to be alluring places in the 21st century. Looking at heritage tourism, business development, return migration and even black town rodeos, I explore all the ways that people are drawn to and invest in these communities as well as the communities’ relationship to their past and possibilities as well as challenges for their economic and social future.

WHO IS DR. MARK LITTLE?

DR. LITTLE – I am an Atlantic African. My understanding of the world and my place in it are informed by the turbulent experiences of my ancestors, Africans stolen across the Atlantic to labor for generations in the Americas. Our culture, history, stories, music, and faith are all central to who I am. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are all from Eastern North and South Carolina, most identifying as Black but some as Indigenous. Through them, I have learned to bring kindness, respect and love in all of my interactions. I have lived in a few different cities around the US and even in China, but now I lead a team doing local economic development, mostly in rural North and South Carolina.

DR. LITTLE YOU SERVE AS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CREATE CENTER AND DIRECTOR OF NCGROWTH. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR ROLES AND THESE ORGANIZATIONS.

DR. LITTLE – NCGrowth was founded in 2012 as an on-the-ground economic development initiative that focused specifically on creating jobs in places that were struggling most—places that have the highest potential for growth. We provide technical assistance directly to people running businesses and leaders of communities (e.g., towns, cities, counties, tribal governments, etc.). Since our initial geographic focus on Northeastern North Carolina, our team of staff, graduate student analysts and external advisors now work across the Carolinas with an annual portfolio of more than 60 clients.

TAKE A MOMENT AND TELL US THE IMPACT YOU BELIEVE COVID-19 HAS HAD AND WILL CONTINUE TO HAVE ON OUR BLACK COMMUNITIES?

DR. SLOCUM / DR. LITTLE – COVID-19 has revealed enormous problems with the economic, educational, infrastructure and healthcare systems in the U.S. With more than 20% of the population out of work, millions trying to learn from home without the right technological tools, and starkly different health outcomes based on race, the gaps and failures have been laid bare. The economic, educational, judicial, infrastructure and healthcare systems across the US are vast and complex. For centuries, they were explicitly designed to create and maintain inequality, particularly at the detriment of Black people. This crisis has actually provided an opportunity for the US to amend these foundational inequities as the rebuilding begins.

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COVID-19 HAS HIT BLACK COMMUNITIES HARD. WHY DO YOU BELIEVE THIS IS SO, AND WHAT STORY DOES THE DATA TELL US?

DR. SLOCUM / DR. LITTLE – As Giselle Corbie Smith said, there are 400 years of Black marginalization that explain why Black communities are bearing a disproportionate brunt of this pandemic as it plays out in the U.S. While we need more data to help us tell the full story, what we are seeing so far is a familiar story of racial inequity. Black people’s access to health care, treatment by health care professionals, housing conditions, and wealth status –to name a few things—are contributing to the higher –often staggering– numbers of Blacks who are contracting the virus, dying from it and at the same time overrepresented in the jobs that are essential services during the crisis.

TELL US ABOUT THE BLACK COMMUNITIES CONFERENCE AKA BLACKCOM, AND SOME OF ITS ACHIEVEMENTS?

DR. SLOCUM / DR. LITTLE – Thus far, the signature feature of BlackCom has been our large scale conference where, in 2018 and 2019, we convened academic researchers along with Black community leaders, activists, artists to forge collaborations that would support Black communities’ capacity to thrive. More than 1400 people have attended our dynamic conferences in person and the energy of the event is one of the main factors that made it such a success.

WE’RE SURE COVID-19 HAS DRASTICALLY CHANGED YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL STRATEGY AS IT HAS MANY?

DR. SLOCUM / DR. LITTLE – Unfortunately, the need for physical distancing under COVID-19 has caused us to pause plans to convene a conference in 2020-2021. But, we remain committed to bringing people together and sharing the knowledge in ways that move Black communities forward at this critical time.

As Giselle Corbie Smith said, there are 400 years of black marginalization that explain why black communities are bearing a disproportionate brunt of this pandemic as it plays out in the U.S.”

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