Institute works toward better understanding of race and difference

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Nov. 3, 2015

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The staff of the revitalized James Weldon Johnson Institute includes (left to right) Danielle Wiggins, graduate research assistant; Anita Spencer Stevens, program administrative assistant; Michelle Gordon, visiting fellow; Nikki Brown, visiting fellow; Andra Gillespie, JWJI director; Taryn Jordan, graduate research assistant; Kali-Ahset Amen, JWJI assistant director; Carl Suddler, visiting fellow.

Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference is ushering in a new era of leadership.

Now under the direction of Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, and assistant director Kali-Ahset Amen, the institute has relaunched this year with an energized vision and amplified social science focus.

Established within Emory College of Arts and Sciences in 2007, the institute was created to foster new scholarship, teaching and public dialogue focused on the legacy of the modern civil rights movement.

The revived institute continues that mission with a goal to:

  • Support scholarship and public engagement that examines race and intersecting dimensions of human difference, including class, gender, religion and sexuality.
  • Foster dialogue on the significance of race and ethnicity in American life and culture.
  • Engage social science and humanities scholars of the African American, Asian American and Latino/Latina American experiences.

That mission is important to Gillespie, whose own research focuses primarily on African American politics, political participation and leadership. She's eager to see the institute become a research hub for scholars representing an array of disciplines from across the university — and beyond.

"I like to build things," says Gillespie. "So I've very excited about the prospect of being able to shape an institute. My goal is to help contribute to Emory's reputation as a leading center for scholarship on race in the United States."

Atlanta has too many natural resources "for Emory to not leverage those advantages to harness the possibilities for fascinating scholarship," Gillespie explains.

"We should be a place where professors want to teach on race and difference because Atlanta is their laboratory, where students want to study issues of race and difference," she says.

"Given Atlanta's history in the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and its importance to that historical narrative, Atlanta has to have an institution that embodies what scholarship on race and difference looks like," she says. "I think Emory can be that place."

Inviting voices to the table

The James Weldon Johnson Institute was founded by the late professor Rudolph Byrd, an acclaimed literary scholar and former director of Emory's African American Studies Program — a fact that serves both as a personal inspiration and challenge for Gillespie, who considered Byrd a friend and mentor.

 "My goal is to honor his legacy by making sure this institute sustains itself — that it not only lives, but thrives," she says. "There are definitely ways in which we hope to continue his vision. The structure, the fellowship program — those things will continue."

But there are also ways that Gillespie will seek to expand Byrd's vision. "We want the James Weldon Johnson Institute and our website to be a hub and repository for interesting data on race — a publicly embraced site where scholars can download and search for data, check a digital archive, or even link to the Rose Library," she explains.

Given the national dialogue around race and difference that has been ignited in the United States in recent years, there couldn't be a more important time to strengthen the institute's role in nurturing new knowledge, adds Amen, a political sociologist.

"The James Weldon Johnson Institute is reviving itself at a really crucial moment," she says. "We're really trying to cultivate an inclusive and more welcoming space about race."

"In previous years, a lot of the scholarship here was very grounded in the humanities," she says.  "We're now seeking to give support as well to social science scholarship and the professional disciplines, to reach out across the College of Arts and Sciences to engage our colleagues in the School of Public Health, School of Nursing and the School of Medicine."

"It's important to have those voices at the table," she adds.

Expanding the conversation

If Gillespie has an overall goal it's to increase intellectual dialogue — between the campus and larger community, between outside scholars and Emory faculty, between disciplines.

"It was very important to Rudolph that the work the institute did would be relevant and accessible to the community," explains Gillespie.

"This is a place where we can talk about race broadly," she says. "We're talking about Latinos, we're talking about Asian-Americans. We want scholars to talk about issues like immigration. Scholarship has to be our primary focus, but our events and activities are open to everyone."

That revitalized energy is reflected in an ambitious calendar of public panels and roundtables, a weekly campus colloquium series showcasing local and national speakers, and the visiting fellows program — a signature program supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that brings three senior or junior scholars to campus for an academic year of research and teaching. (see sidebar)

Highlights this semester include:

The institute is also actively planning spring events, including a symposium on the relationship between Southern and African American history and a keynote lecture on the scholarly significance of educator and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois.

Ask Gillespie what excites her about her new role and she quickly describes "the possibilities of being able to create something new and lasting, creating a place where race can be studied, to find additional ways to study race that are nationally relevant."

"To see us become a clearinghouse for research on race, a place where you can go to find and download information in a way that can be responsive to relevant breaking news," she says. "That excites me.