Op-Ed | Rethinking Black, Race & Ethnic Studies at CUNY


Earlier this month, a group of Brooklyn College students helped guide me on a tour of the Flatbush African Burial Ground, a sacred site that is the resting place of enslaved Africans who were brought to Brooklyn and died there from the late 1600s until the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827. The students are participating in a paid internship program with the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition (FABGC), a Black-led, multiracial organization that is fighting to preserve the site and teach its history. It’s an experience that aligns their studies in anthropology and sociology with an exploration of the history of slavery in the city and connects it to present-day battles for racial justice.

The internship program is part of CUNY’s wide-ranging efforts to reimagine the study of race and ethnicity, and to expand opportunities for students across the University to engage in research and other endeavors related to these disciplines. It’s an ambitious undertaking that is being driven by CUNY’s Black, Race and Ethnic Studies Initiative (BRESI), which we launched last year with a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This initiative, and the many different projects that BRESI has helped to launch, goes to the core of CUNY’s mission of diversity and inclusion and its commitment to advancing racial and cultural understanding on all our campuses and throughout our city. BRESI’s 126 projects were selected from more than 500 proposals submitted by our faculty and staff. Together, they are propelling our efforts to reconceptualize racial and ethnic studies as a living, breathing academic field that will provide many avenues for students to drive social change in their communities.

How to be ‘Hands-On’

This student internship program at the Flatbush African Burial Ground provides a powerful example. Many of those buried there were enslaved by Dutch settlers who were later buried in a church cemetery four blocks away. The internship participants have seen the difference between the two burial sites, as I did when we walked from one to the other during my visit. One is expressly called a “cemetery” and has been duly preserved. The other is a “burial ground” that was largely obliterated by streets and utilities as Brooklyn developed and redeveloped. Under the direction of Brooklyn College professors Kelly Britt and Emily Tumson Molina, our students are helping the FABGC educate the public about the site and preserve what remains.

“I didn’t know anything about FABGC prior to last fall,” said Elijah Addison, a 25-year-old Flatbush resident and Brooklyn College business administration major who has interned with the organization this academic year. “I realized they were very hands-on in helping my community, and that sparked my interest. Participating in the FABGC events helped me get a good idea about what they were offering the community and gave me a better idea about how I could serve.”

That’s the kind of experiential learning opportunity that both deepens our students’ understanding of the evolving dynamics of race and ethnicity in our society and gives them tools to apply those lessons in their lives. That’s what BRESI is about.

And so are the many other wide-ranging BRESI projects that are now getting off the ground on 22 CUNY campuses. At Kingsborough Community College, communications professor Lili Shi is investigating how mothers from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown used the China-based social media platform WeChat during the COVID-19 pandemic to develop a feminist, diasporic online space.

At Queensborough Community College, a program by biological sciences professor Punita Bhansali is providing internship opportunities at community health care facilities for students to promote racial health equity through patient outreach, education and preventative care initiatives. These experiences will educate students on the evolving impact of longstanding racial and ethnic inequities as they prepare for careers in medical and public health professions. They will also be beneficial to patients and communities.

At John Jay College, public management professor Judy-Lynne Peters is indexing and analyzing the birth records of enslaved mothers and their babies, mandated after New York’s 1799 Gradual Emancipation Law, a project that will explore connections between the generations of those descended from emancipated Black people.

In addition to these and scores of other projects, the BRESI program will develop CUNY’s first multidisciplinary doctoral program in Black, race and ethnic studies. Launching next spring, it will expand our existing offerings in the discipline and build on CUNY’s research, teaching and training capacity.

As we commemorate this Black History Month, CUNY is proud of the commitment we are making to fostering racial and ethnic understanding and to a society that becomes more inclusive and equitable for the generations to come.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.