Despite longevity, a decorated faculty and student body which includes this year’s commencement speaker, lack of funding has kept the Africana studies department at the University of Rhode Island from reaching its true potential since the program’s conception over 30 years ago.
Africana studies is designed to service the entire university on all things involving African culture, both foreign and domestic according to Director of the program Dr. Vanessa Quainoo. Quainoo is an associate professor in both the department of communication studies and Africana studies and has been hoping for better funding for a long time. She said she thinks the program is now ready for the challenge.
“It’s unfortunate,” Quainoo said. “That’s why I’m here. What keeps me coming back is to keep sounding the alarm, to keep being the squeaky wheel so to speak. This is a program that is tremendous and worthy of investment.”
Most of the money that goes into the discipline is provided by the state for the faculty and staff, but Brownell said she is constantly looking for grants and donations from alumni to help ease the burden. Marlon Bodden, a civil rights attorney and past guest lecturer at URI, recently donated $20,000 to the department. It is the highest donation Africana studies has ever received.
While Africana studies is a program at URI, it does not have its own department. Because of this, courses are often cross listed with majors like English or history. A lot of events, such as movie screenings, guest lectures and other events are co-sponsored as well.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Winifred Brownell said that she agrees that Africana studies needs more money, but that all of the majors in Arts and Sciences have modest budgets and the bigger fields of study need the most funding to accommodate the high amount of students they educate. Compared to schools like psychology or communication studies which has thousands of students majoring in each respective field, Africana studies only has about 16 majors.
“The entire College of Arts and Sciences, we really have very modest budgets,” she said. “Most of the money is in people and the faculty.Very little is in the operating budgets. We discovered the power in partnerships by reaching out together. When there is a speaker Quainoo wants, I’m usually the first to jump on board and try to help co-sponsor.”
Some of the main departments that Africana studies has worked with over the years include the English, history, gender and women studies and film media departments. The Center for Peace and Nonviolence and the Honors Program have helped fund events as well. One of the department’s most recent events included a lecture from Bobby Seale, a former member of the Black Panther Party.
Quainoo, who draws inspiration from W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Soul of Black Folk,” expressed that she feels the present administration has communicated an attitude of support and has taken steps to correct the financial problem in Africana studies. She also said that every member of the faculty works hard to make sure they can properly educate students, but there needs to be more to make a significant impact and draw in more students.
“To do quality work, you need to have quality input and we don’t have the financial strength to do the level of marketing and public relations that’s needed to attract students,” Quainoo said. “…Africana studies is severely, severely underfunded and proper funding would enable us to do a proper job. Really our students are being cheated.”
Though there are no immediate plans to provide the Africana studies program with a major financial increase, Brownell said that they’ve begun to hire more staff for next year. Quainoo and members of the English department are also interviewing graduate students to help reach peoples starting in kindergarten through the 12th grade along with certain special initiatives that Dr. Quainoo and the faculty have developed.
“I don’t think we should go about doing our work and looking over our shoulder at the same time to say ‘What kind of impact am I making?’” Quainoo said. “I try and I endeavor to come to work every day and give 100 percent and make sure that I spend a good deal of my time mentoring students. I would hope that I’ve helped people from all walks of life. I would hope that I raised the consciousness, the discourse, the discussion about race and race relations.”