Born out of a national movement and a course taught by Assistant Professor Kiku Huckle, PhD, political science department, an initiative has taken root.
It was the killing of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests that drew increased attention to the problem of police violence against people of color, in particular, as well as the desire to support Pace University’s Black students that propelled Huckle to develop the Black Excellence Initiative.
Huckle explains, “police brutality is just one of many deep-seated problems faced in our country. Problems such as housing discrimination, disparities in healthcare, and the school-to-prison pipeline can all be attributed to one root cause: the systemic denial of Black humanity. In an effort to actively counter this implicit and explicit narrative, I came up with the Black Excellence Initiative for my Race and American Political Development course.”
The Black Excellence Initiative works to counter the endemic effects of racism and to create space to cultivate well-being and a mindset for success for Black students and communities. By regularly bringing Black speakers to campus who exemplify excellence in a variety of contexts to speak with Pace students about their accomplished careers and rewarding lives, the expectation is that these guest speakers will help normalize the presence of successful people of color and open opportunities for Black students within the larger university context to thrive.
Huckle first developed and implemented this concept for one of her courses. Thus, the Black Excellence Initiative module was launched. Thereafter, she brought it to light during a meeting of the political science department faculty, gaining the support of Amy Freedman, PhD, chair of the department. Intrigued, her colleague, Professor Meghana Nayak, PhD, women’s and gender studies department chair and political science professor, met with Huckle to learn more, which led to the module being housed within other courses in the department. “The more I educate myself and access anti-racism training and conversations, the more I have been exposed to endless examples of Black joy, love, liberation, and community; if all we are doing when we talk about race is focusing on trauma, violence, and discrimination, then we are failing. I am thrilled with Dr. Huckle’s idea and think it is crucial for non-Black and people not of color, like the two of us, to do this kind of work in our classrooms so that we can aim for more nuanced and rich conversations about race.”
A module housed in two courses when launched this past academic year, the initiative brings Black speakers to campus who embody Black Excellence. Racial positionality was explicitly discussed and addressed in each of these courses: Race and American Political Development, taught by Huckle in the fall semester, and Gender and Politics, taught by Nayak in the spring. Each course invited one speaker to converse with class participants. The guests also spent dedicated time with the students to facilitate their understanding of course material, and their ability to connect that material to lessons learned from these discussions.
Melba Ayco, artistic director of the Northwest Tap Connection in Seattle, WA, was the guest in the Race and American Political Development course in fall 2020. Northwest Tap Connection is a social-justice–oriented dance program that works to cultivate a self-identification of Blackness while teaching community values, integrity, and discipline. Raised in segregated Louisiana, and part of the forced integration of schools as a fourth grader in 1969, Ayco has a background that provided students with an important new perspective. She was able to both celebrate the students and challenge them, not only on considerations of race and policy, but in their own approaches to and considerations of race and equality. Recent graduate Emily Oberlender ‘21, Political Science, said, “Hearing Ms. Melba speak was truly inspirational, insightful, and brilliant. I greatly cherished hearing her stories and incredible commentary.”
As part of the Gender and Politics course in spring 2021, the guest was Maya Wiley—civil rights lawyer, previous counsel in the New York City mayor’s office, MSNBC legal analyst, instructor at The New School, and founder of the Center for Social Inclusion, as merged into Race Forward (as of 2017), a nonprofit that combines policy expertise with grassroots work to address civil rights and social justice.
Danielle Layton ’19, English and Communication Studies, who was invited to interview Maya Wiley, found the experience gratifying. When asked what her most important takeaway was from the event, she said, “It was when I asked Maya, ‘What advice would you give to younger Maya?’ She looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘You are worth it.’ In that moment, I knew that someone in that class needed to hear that. Such few words, but a message that captured the conversation—that excellence is already within us; we just have to tap into it.”
The students who heard Wiley speak were very engaged and expressed their appreciation throughout for being able to talk openly about the concept of Black Excellence. Afterward, students from the class and the Dyson Women’s Leadership Initiative expressed genuine thanks for being able to talk about race in a positive, community-building way.
Dyson College is on the leading edge of the effort at Pace to develop anti-racist or race-critical curricula. Huckle’s goal is to further incorporate the Black Excellence module into other courses, and she hopes that other professors and offices will also integrate the initiative, not only in Dyson College but across the University.