Last week, a small group of graduate students, college professors and community members attended a Mini Conference at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) to share articles, essays and other works on the challenges faced by African Americans in California. The gathering was both informative and a model of focused collaboration so necessary for achieving actual change.
The motivation and enthusiasm of graduate students, in particular, were reflected in the abstracts of papers, but more importantly, in an apparent desire to link academic research to the daunting issues facing Black people in California. Perspectives on issues were presented without an ounce of negativity.
The project, Black California Dreamin': Social Vision and the Crisis of California's African American Communities," is headed by Dr. Clyde Woods, Acting Director of The Center for Black Studies Research and Associate Professor, Department of Black Studies, UCSB. It is a book and Internet project and the articles, essays, poetry and other works will be published by the Center. There is a particular interest in documenting the perspectives of youth, women, families and the African American "pioneers" who arrived in California during the 1940s and 1950s. (Gratefully, my paper on Black leadership, a related exception to the aforementioned list of papers, was among those summarized and discussed at last week's conference.)
Black California Dreamin' was designed "to critically examine the multiple challenges faced by Black individuals, families and communities as a result of the global, economic meltdown.... Prior to the latest depression, African Americans already led the state with the highest rates of high school dropouts, homelessness, incarceration and mortality. Since then, they have also experienced extreme rates of layoffs, unemployment and housing foreclosure, the elimination of life-sustaining social and economic programs and the closure of major organizations, institutions and cultural programs."
The (very ambitious) purpose of the project is as follows: To investigate the central role African Americans have played in transforming their communities, the state and the nation during the last three decades; to document the origins of the multiple crises currently facing African American communities; to examine the impact of the current economic crisis and the emergence of new conditions, policies, communities, organizations, institutions, social movements and cultural practices; to identify solutions to crises emerging throughout the state.
The keynote speaker was Ms. Susan Burton, founder of the Los Angeles-based "New Way of Life Re-entry Project" that assists women and girls "attempting to break the cycle of entrapment in the criminal justice system by leading healthy and satisfying lives." The non-profit organization has provided housing and other services to more than 500 formerly incarcerated women and over 200 children.
Ms. Burton spoke of the enormous challenges faced by formerly incarcerated women and poignantly described the trials and tribulations of building her organization. She emphasized that, despite progress, much more needs to be done since major obstacles for helping these women remain, including grossly inadequate funding. Susan Burton embodies the courage and resolve necessary to provide adequate services for women who, despite great need, are among society's lowest priorities.
Abstracts submitted at the mini-conference included the following:
Remember the Fillmore: A Study of Place, Change and Healing in Black San Francisco. For a brief period in the 1940s and 1950s, the Fillmore was home to a vibrant African American community, often referred to as "the Harlem of the West." After World War II, as the shipping industry and many of its African workers moved away, government officials declared the area a slum and large portions of the neighborhood were razed and replaced by housing projects. Fillmore experienced increased concentrations of poverty, crime, rapidly deteriorating schools and drug trafficking and violence; Teacher Practices and Selected Motivation in a Middle School Program for African American Males: An instructional program emphasizing African American history and culture was examined to determine the classroom experiences present, as well as the impact on achievement and motivation. Findings were discussed in relationship to cognitive evaluation theory and the motivation-enhancing elements of this program.
The Foreclosure Crisis and African American Neighborhoods in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area: This paper examines the status of foreclosed properties in neighborhoods with larger than average proportions of African American residents in the Los Angeles area in an effort to determine the impact of the foreclosure crisis on the region's African American communities. Betye Saar's CAGE. Los Angeles artist, Betye Saar has ranged widely in selecting topics for her art. At the age of 84, she focuses on incarceration as the topic of her most recent major exhibit, "CAGE." She makes installations out of birdcages in order to open our eyes to life in our society where too many people are locked up in prisons, locked out of opportunities and locked into habits and behaviors they cannot control.
Would that the motivation, commitment and sense of service at last week's conference could be bottled and widely distributed. Realistically, the significance of the Black California Dream' project will depend on participants, and countless similarly concerned individuals and groups developing the political influence indispensible for improving the lives of California's African American population.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail