Interview by: Jamilah Grizzle and Kate Little
Afia Ofori-Mensa is a specialist in narratives and cultures of communities of color in the 20th- and 21st-century U.S. Her primary research interests are in ethnic studies, American studies, women’s and gender studies, and popular culture studies. Her current book project examines relationships among femininity, race, and U.S. national identity using beauty pageantry and princess culture as case studies. She is also a photographer; her piece “The Winner” was exhibited at Oberlin College in 2012. She came to Oberlin as an Oberlin College-University of Michigan Partnership Postdoctoral Fellow and is now Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Afia Ofori-Mensa is also the Director of the Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation (STRONG).
Q: What do you love about the Oberlin College community?
A: What I love about the Oberlin College community is the kinds of conversations that I get to have with people. I’ve taught at other schools before, and the conversations that I get to have in and outside of class with Oberlin students, I think I’m far better suited to them than to conversations that I’ve had at other places. It’s a real privilege to work and teach here because it’s like I get to delight in the conversations just as much as I get to facilitate them. As far as the Oberlin community more broadly, I moved here just about this time 7 years ago.I remember arriving and standing right near the corner of College and Main St. and looking in every direction and thinking “Is this it”? But what I loved about it was that every time I went into a business, everybody was so friendly and so willing to answer my questions and engage honestly and openly in conversation with me. I think, to some extent, that’s a midwestern quality. But I also think that the smaller and friendlier the town, the more you get to take part in those conversations.
"It’s a privilege to work [at Oberlin College]; I delight in the conversations that I get to have with students just as much as I facilitate those conversations."
Q: What role do you see yourself as playing within the Oberlin community in making positive change?
A: The change that I feel is my passion in life is working with other like-minded people to transform this institution to be better suited to the needs of students who are currently underserved, such as low-income students, first-generation college students, students of color, queer students, immigrants and international students. We operate in an industry in higher education where the kind of schooling that we offer, by and large, were not designed to meet the needs of those people. And so, for many years, that has ended up looking like those folks are underachieving. That’s not really what’s happening. What’s happening is that the institution was not designed for them. My interest is in transforming institutions of higher education, and in the meantime being a soft landing place for students who identify in those ways, within the existing structure and to work with them on how they can operate successfully within the limits of the existing structure.
Q: What kind of culture does STRONG seek to cultivate within the community it supports?
A: My aims as the program director of STRONG were for the features and elements of the STRONG program to cultivate a community of care that centered on the scholars who were in the program and extended to their mentors, and to the people they met over the course of the summer, whether those were faculty members, staff members, students, or community members. I think that people sometimes have an easier time, in a diffuse community, caring about people if they can identify with them. We say here’s a small group of people identifying as STRONG scholars, how can we help them do what they want to do? If they want to be in the sciences, we want to support them to be in the sciences. A lot of people care about the strong scholars; it’s a community of care, I would say is the kind of community that I hoped to foster through the program.
"I am committed to seeing who [the STRONG Scholars] become in the world.”
Q: What positive impacts do you see STRONG having on your life and the community?
A: STRONG has a tremendous impact on me. One of the things for which I am really grateful to my supervisor, Dean Elgren, is that he asked me to design the STRONG program. Before the STRONG started, I did not consider myself to be in science education, and now I do. So getting to spread out and learn new things in those ways has been one really positive impact that STRONG program has had on me. The most positive impact is just the people that I’ve gotten to meet. Another thing that I love about Oberlin students, including the students with whom I get to work with in STRONG, OCRF, and Mellon, is that I really feel like, on the whole, I get as much care as I give and that’s not true always as a teacher. So, I love them passionately. I care about them and you and all of the OCRF and Mellon fellows in ways that your joys are my joys. I really am committed to seeing who you become in the world. To get to feel that way about somebody is one of the greatest gifts I think I’ve gotten from STRONG. One benefit that I have heard, most explicitly, from others is that people who lived in Third World House (Price) before STRONG and then who have lived there since the program started say that STRONG really transformed the Third World community. Third World is a more cohesive, more solid community because of STRONG and I think it’s the fact that, when you take a group of people who already know each other and already have some kind of affinity and then put them in a larger group of people with which they identify with, it can have a positive impact on the entire living community.
"With a lot of the students I work with, I get as much care as I give; that’s not always true as a teacher."
Q: Picture a highly successful Oberlin, years from now. Imagine some challenge we overcame. How did we do it?
A: Our challenges are racism, classism, white supremacy, queerphobia, ableism, heterosexism, and cissexism. The challenges of Oberlin College are the challenges of the world, as far as I’m concerned. From my academic vantage point, those are the ones that I think about every day. We would have to overcome all of those. We would have to push past white supremacy. That’s my life aim. It’s to eradicate racism from the world. I recognize that I can’t do that by myself and it won’t happen in my lifetime but that’s still what I reach for every day. That’s what gives me clarity of focus in my work. [Change] would start with transforming the way that we deliver education at the institution to focus on the needs of folks who are currently underserved. Once we get all the staff members and all the faculty members and students to [understand] how to nurture and love and care for and welcome the folks who are currently underserved, then we’d transform the student body. I would love for everyone who was admitted over a four-year period of time to be a first-generation college student, an immigrant, a low-income student, a student of color, and a queer person. But only after we have designed the educational model to actually serve those folks needs. Because I think that if you just bring in a variety of people and you have the same stodgy system of education then you’d just increase disparities and replicate the problems that you have and then you’re like, “Oh, look we let all these people in and then they failed. That means they’re not any good.” Those are the kinds of things that happen when people mix up correlation and causation. I think that’s what we have to overcome.
"[Oberlin College] is a place where students...are passionate about the things they’re learning.”
Q: Do you think that the Oberlin College community has a cohesive identity?
A: The identity on which the institution rests, learning and labor and that we were the first to admit and graduate white women and black students, is so old. We can’t rest on the laurels of a history of now almost two hundred years ago. That was a radical position at that time, and if we’re not living that radical position in the present then we’re not meeting the standards of the legacy that was set. That’s what I think the institutional identity is.
I think that the identity of the student body is a bit clearer. I think that Oberlin is a place that draws students that are highly academically motivated, that identify with being a student, being a learner. We draw students who, in some cases, felt like they were the odd one back home or in their high school and they can come here and be around a lot of the odd ones and they don’t have to feel so odd anymore. I think we also are known as a place where queer students and, to some extent, trans students can feel comfortable and thrive in different ways. Those are the people who self-select to come to Oberlin. That’s then what becomes the campus culture of the student body. You end up with folks who are progressive, left-leaning, interested in learning about, and increasingly invested in social justice. I think it’s a place where students really want to learn and do the work. They’re really passionate about the things that they’re learning. I have more real friends, not like Facebook friends, real friends that are former students of mine than I have from any other moment in my life. We are a good fit for each other and develop relationships of care from very early on and continue them into the future.