Hundreds of Brandeis students, faculty and alumni convened in Levin Ballroom on Feb. 9 for the AAAS and Alumni Legacies Panel as part of the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the the Department of African and African American Studies.  The AAAS department welcomed five alumni, Aja Antoine ’17, Janice Johnson Dias ’94, Lucrecia Jones ’77, Napoleon Lherisson ’11 and Curtis Tearte ’73 to share how AAAS has enabled them to grow as individuals and beneficiaries of its legacy.

 “[The anniversary] is not just about the history, it’s about people,” Professor Chad Williams (AAAS) said when he introduced the panel.

As the chair of AAAS department, Williams credited the former department chairs on their monumental strides to enhance the department’s historical presence and contemporary value. He highlighted Ronald Walters, the founding chair of AAAS, and discussed Walters’ views on the founding values of the department. Considering how the American education constantly overlooked the implications of racism and intersectionality, Walters saw AAAS as a “much needed environmental intervention” and upheld the conviction that the department presented the “same opportunity to develop intellectually” as other disciplines did, as Williams reiterated Walters’ remark. Walters came to Brandeis to not only enable Black students to learn about their own heritage but to foster a close-knit community between students and the AAAS department, according to Williams. “Without very strong ties to [the] Brandeis Community, Black studies would be irrelevant,” Williams said, quoting Walters.

Antoine, a summa cum laude graduate with a dual degree in AAAS and sociology, shared her first AAAS experience. “The value of my education has been in its content [sic], but it’s also deeply personal,” she said. “I gained some self-sovereignty. I was able to understand myself as a nation, as a Black, woman, young nation."

Her “well-rounded” AAAS education not only enabled her to flourish as a scholar but also gave her a sense of purpose and helped her embrace the future as a scholar, she explained.  

When asked what skill set she gained from her AAAS degree and how it has informed her work in the field of public health, Jones described how her education taught her to combat poverty with social justice. Returning to her hometown of Bronx, New York after her undergraduate career, she was astounded to witness the “disparity between her neighborhood and others,” Jones said. Aiming to conduct extensive research about issues of housing, environment, and education in order to promote environmental and social justice causes, she founded Mothers on the Move.  

“It’s worthwhile to make change outside of Brandeis,” Jones said in reference to her immersion in AAAS academia, where she gained the research skills she utilized to help alleviate wealth inequality. 

Johnson Dias shared how her upbringing with and expertise in AAAS had been empowering and, in the meantime, left a lasting social impact across the nation. Born and raised in a low-income family in Jamaica, she never imagined herself attending college. When she first came to Brandeis, she did not understand the Ford Hall movement or the interracial dynamics that existed among various Black student groups, she explained. However, she said, majoring in AAAS  taught her to “enjoy the benefit of being Black.” 

Her time at Brandeis also shaped her into an articulate leader and social activist, as she spearheaded the campus-wide initiative of Black History Month. She has since gained organizational skills through “multicultural coalition” and  co-founding the ICC in 1992, she explained. 

While equipping her with the ability to advocate for herself, Johnson Dias’ time as a AAAS student at Brandeis also transformed her understanding of the “insidiousness of poverty” as she noticed the disproportionate wealth distribution between white and Black people through a book she read in sociology class. 

Apart from uneven interracial wealth distribution, women and girls were always susceptible to the implications of poverty. “The burden is felt in their bodies. They couldn’t march or protest just because their bodies couldn’t do it,” Johnson Dias said. Thus, she founded the  GrassROOTS Community Foundation to combat the health challenge faced by impoverished women and children by teaching youth early “how their physical, mental and sexual health was going to be essential to their ability to be free,” she explained. 

In 2009, when Lherisson was a AAAS major, the University demoted the AAAS department to a program in the wake of the recession, he explained. Students and the AAAS leadership formed a unified front to restore the department’s status, and Lherisson said he was grateful that the protest shaped his vision of AAAS. “This was an important program for me in terms of my own identity and development,” he said. “This is our history.”

Looking to the future, Lherisson asked, “What can we do to continue the legacy of this department?” As the co-chair of the Brandeis Alumni of Color Group, he regards the AAAS department as “the backbone of this university.” He urged the audience to take substantial steps to not only better understand AAAS, but to “think of all the goals that this University made, and how [they] can lead the change of the world.”

Tearte, secretary of the Board of Trustees, echoed Lherisson’s remark, adding that “it’s important to make contributions to [the University’s] endowment” and reminded the audience of President Liebowitz’s “vision” and the “Springboard funding initiatives” proposed in the early semester. He commended Williams’ endeavor as the co-chair of Liebowitz’s Equal Opportunity, Social Impact, and Community Engagement Working Group. According to Tearte, Williams worked tirelessly to engage in conversations with Board of Trustees that are “key to our success.” Tearte also encouraged students to participate in the  forums that Liebowitz plans to host in the coming months. 

During the Q&A, recent alumni shared their own understanding of the AAAS department and asked the panelists an array of questions. The panelists’ responses often centered around the importance of building lasting connections. As the co-founder of the ICC, Johnson Dias explained that intellectual development and intercultural immersion are inextricably connected, which parallels the conjunction between the AAAS department and the ICC. Often, she found that “students are too intellectual” at the University, and they “don’t come together in social spaces.” Johnson Dias urged students to build connections with those who “really helped [them] become [their] better selves.” Lherisson agreed with Johnson Dias’ statement, assuring students and alumni, “we have to really connect with one another to build a community, so if there’s anything we can do to support you, let us know, we are here for you.”

Johnson Dias closed the panel with her hopes for future alumni, saying, “know your capacity and recognize that you are a genius. It may not be currently apparent to you, but that genius is real, so explore it, know it, and be able to articulate it.”