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“Folks they see gentrification every day in their community, they see poverty every day in their community, they see labor exploitation, they see police brutality all the time, you know they don’t have to wait for college or to take a class to be confronted with those kind of things, and so we shouldn’t have to wait for college to be confronted with some critical political analysis.”
This is Marco McWilliams, a Mississippi-born activist and educator now living in Providence. McWilliams says Rhode Islanders can access the critical political analysis he speaks of through a program he developed of free Black Studies classes. The classes are hosted by a variety of local activists of color through an organization called DARE, or Direct Action for Rights and Equality, which promotes unity and fights for social justice within the Providence community.
McWilliams says his own experiences in and out of the American education system motivated him to launch the Black Studies Program.
“One of the primary ways to derail a group of people is to disrupt their education. One of the places I got derailed was in education, so I saw education as a political site. I mean education with a radical consciousness. So for me that was black studies,” McWilliams said.
McWilliams is a nontraditional student. He never finished high school, but eventually returned to get his GED and in his words “thoughtfully wandered” his way through Rhode Island College, majoring in Africana Studies. For him, the discipline provides an academic examination of forces of oppression, a political education that accounts for the specific struggles facing black America. When McWilliams moved to Providence, he thought about what skills he could contribute to the community. Creating accessible education was a clear choice, particularly because he says ideas about black studies are generated within communities and then move into elite colleges, rather than the other way around.
“I would love to see a thriving political education center, like a freedom school, like something that rivals Africana studies programs at the colleges. I would love to see multiple classes being taught by folks in the community, directly engage with local things that are happening on the ground. I would like to see a more diverse range of topics that are being taught,” McWilliams said.
“You know and that’s me, like I’m poor. I’m teaching this stuff because that’s me too. I’m a poor black person who lives in Providence. I’m a working-class intellectual. I’m an independent you know non-academic scholar, and even when I do have a PhD I’m gonna commit class suicide and stay with the people.”
McWilliams recently finished teaching a class about Black Panther Party member and activist Assata Shakur, but the content of the DARE courses spans from 19th century Black Labor movements to examinations of Rhode Island and Brown University’s slave-built roots. The courses meet in person in DARE’S headquarters in downtown Providence. An average of 15 to 25 students are enrolled in each class, and are diverse in makeup: McWilliams has taught people across the spectrums of age, race, ethnicity, education level, religion, and socioeconomic status.
Thirteen-year-old Adrianna Robinson is one of the youngest alumni of the program. She is an 8th grader at Providence’s Sophia Academy and president of her student council. She has taken three of the black studies courses, including the most recent one on Assata Shakur. She says the courses have helped her step into the shoes of a changemaker: since beginning the classes, she started attending protests, and has plans for the future related to social justice work.
“One thing I want to do in the future is become a lawyer for criminal defense. The Trayvon Martin cases, Michael Brown… at the end, they’re dead. Do you see white people are doing the same thing as black people but they’re not getting brought to jail or they’re not going in for jail time? That doesn’t make any sense. The officers who are hurting people, they have a voice, they can go to jail and say what they want to say. But the teen who got shot can’t say anything because they’re dead. If I’m a lawyer, I’ll be able to say the things that they’re not saying,” Robinson said.
Adrianna says the class gives her more homework than her classes in school, but it’s not an issue.
“I have the drive to do it. I just need the education to push me. Even though it’s a lot of work, I feel like what you want is going to be a lot of work. I need to step up, I need to make a change, so I felt like going to these classes is going to help me… there’s young kids saying the things that adults don’t say, which means that young teens can do anything adults can do. We just need the resources to do it.”
The Black Studies program has been particularly meaningful in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained traction in the last three years since McWilliams’ program has been in existence. McWilliams was initially the sole faculty member, but now he has a staff of volunteers who teach the courses. One of McWilliams’ colleagues is Professor Sadakne Baroudi.
Baroudi skypes into the DARE classroom from Rio de Janeiro to teach a course on the Afro-Brazilian history in her city. When she speaks about education, it is with an attitude very similar to McWilliams’.
“You don’t need formal education to go to college, it’s about engaging with the black radical tradition, the black radical theory in ways that are very day-to-day for everyday people,” she said.
Professor Baroudi and McWilliams met through a community of internet activists, and started communicating with one another from afar. They’ve never met in person. Over the course of several years, Baroudi and McWilliams have strategized and organized via Skype in order to bring the Black Studies program into fruition. Baroudi has focused most of her efforts in recent years on what she calls the Afro-Rio Walking Tour.
The project is virtual: a website that maps out the specific areas of Rio that were involved in the infrastructure of chattel slavery, such as warehouses and slave ports. The idea is that any person walking around the city of Rio can access Baroudi’s walking maps and learn about the Afro-Brazilian history there, and the slavery that the city is built upon. Access to these maps could be particularly informative for tourists visiting during the upcoming summer Olympics, who come for the Rio glamour without understanding the city’s history. Baroudi says the ultimate goal of the walking tours is to make knowledge accessible, rather than contained within the Ivory Tower.
“African studies and African-American studies and radical black theory is something that is kind of contained at the university level, and it’s treated as something that is a matter of specialized higher education, and it isn’t. In my project and my website I’m very very conscientious about the language that I use in to make it accessible to anyone who has a high-school education,” Baroudi said.
McWilliams has seen many of his former students continue on to leadership roles in the community. Lexus Fernandez, a 17 year old senior at Mt. Pleasant High School, is one such student. She is in the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, started a chapter of an environmental justice organization called Moving Mountains at her school, and is currently waiting to hear back from the seventeen colleges she applied to.
“My favorite thing to learn about is my own history, and the histories that are left out of history classes that I have taken in high school. So that’s why I take the black studies classes at DARE. So ever since I’ve taken these Black Studies classes, I have felt like a revolutionary. Now, it’s my job to go in the world and teach what I was taught. Once I’ve learned to decolonize my mind, I can go out and decolonize other people’s minds,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez has been involved in local student-driven efforts to improve the history curriculum in Providence Public Schools. She says showing up to rallies here in Providence is important. Two months ago, the Providence Student Union rallied to bring ethnic studies into the local school system.
“The single most important thing I’ve learned is you need a voice. If you don’t have a voice then how will change happen if you can’t speak against these social injustices that are going on? You need to have a voice you need to speak up you need to be present and what you say needs to be effective. Also, so the power in a voice and also the power in educating. The most important part about educating people about black liberation especially the youth is that you’re building these little soldiers… to go out there and not to fight with guns and have a shield but to actually create change with their voice and create change with talking to other people about things they’ve learned.”
Registration information about the free Black Studies program can be found at blackstudies.site. Professor Baroudi will teach the next course, which meets weekly, starting April 8th.