By SHANNON O. WELLS
A $1.7 million, three-year Ford Foundation grant to the University Consortium on Afro-Latin American Studies — comprised of Mexican and U.S. universities, including Pitt — will be used to “expand and institutionalize” the field of Afro-Latin American Studies at the University, transforming Pitt into “an engine for racial justice and inclusion.”
That’s the intention of Ariel Armony, director of Pitt’s Center for International Studies, and his colleagues in the Department of History and Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), including Keila Grinberg, history professor and CLAS director.
"The Consortium, with generous support from the Ford Foundation, stimulates and sponsors scholarship on the Afro-Latin American experience and provides a forum where scholars, intellectuals, activists and policymakers engage in exchanges and debates," Armony said. "We hope to include Latin America and the Caribbean in the discussion about structural racism and raise awareness about the need to confront it."
Grinberg said the grant makes it possible for prestigious Latin American institutions that don't have the same access to funding as American universities to join in a dynamic collaboration.
“What we’re having together is our six postdocs for two years in each (individual) university, and also a year conference that will put together graduate students and young scholars from all those places,” she noted. “And also a specific part on annotation and the writing of teaching materials that could be used for K-12 (instruction).”
In addition to the Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies and Harvard University’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute (ALARI) representing U.S. learning institutions, the University Consortium on Afro-Latin American Studies includes representatives from:
Mexico — Afro-descendants and Cultural Diversity, The National Institute of Anthropology and History / National Autonomous University of Mexico
Colombia — The Center for Afrodiasporic Studies, Icesi University
Brazil — AFRO Center for Research and Training in Race, Gender and Racial Justice, Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP)
Argentina — Afro-Latin American Studies Group, University of Buenos Aires
The four Latin American universities are new partnerships for CLAS. Pitt has worked with Harvard since 2013, but formalized a collaboration between the CLAS and ALARI programs upon Grinberg's arrival in 2021.
The grant will fund a post-doctoral student for CLAS, who is expected to start by August. The search committee will include representatives of all the universities working directly with principal investigators from each university. Grinberg, who will serve in the PI role for Pitt, said the process should get underway in February.
“We are really, really, really excited with the possibility of not just expanding the field, but also having the opportunity to train more people, and to raise the awareness here at Pitt of the importance of thinking about the African diasporas in the world, but especially in Latin America,” she said of citizens displaced and scattered from their homelands.
“When you think about the African diaspora in the U.S., most people do not know that 95 percent of the Africans went to Latin America and the Caribbean. So this is really part of the historic background that we’ll find important to highlight, especially to the Spanish and Portuguese and former colonies,” Grinberg added. “For us to understand issues related to race, racism, of course, and all our culture and other matters that relate to the African diaspora, we really need to understand Afro-Latin America.”
The common assumption that the U.S. was where most Africans were brought into slavery, along with the belief that it’s a topic best avoided in classrooms creates a paradox, Grinberg said, that leads to misplaced terminology.
“I would I like to use the word ‘responsibility,’ instead of ‘guilt’, because this is not something that people in the present have done,” she said. “In some ways, it’s our responsibility in the present to face it. If we don’t want to talk about race anymore, we need to fight racism first, right? We can’t do that without looking to the past and understanding where we are and why we are in that situation. And that doesn’t apply only to the U.S.
“I’m from Brazil, and Brazil is a country that has never really dealt with the past as they should have,” she added. “So those are common issues. And again, there’s only one way to overcome this, which is to face it.”
Established at Pitt in 1964, the Center for Latin American Studies exists to promote global understanding through support for teaching, learning and research in and on Latin America, the Caribbean and the “diverse diasporic communities of Latin American and Caribbean origin,” its mission statement says. The center shares its resources regionally, nationally and internationally through various community engagement programs.
The new $1.7 million grant comes on the heels of Pitt’s Afro-Latin American and Afro-Latino Studies Initiative in academic years 2018-19 and 2019-20 that featured symposia and conferences, summer workshops, student certificate programs and a graduate study abroad seminar.
“Some of our students that are doing our certificates already at the center, they are very excited,” Grinberg said. “We have also some Ph.D. students in history that are excited about it. One of the main focuses of the Center for Latin American Studies is Afro-Latin America, and we discuss in that context. We are also working with the library to create a special collection on Afro-Brazilian heritage. So you can see the set of initiatives that go under this umbrella of Afro-Latin America.”
Grinberg credits the dedication and passion of Pitt faculty for making the Afro-Latin initiative and new grant-funded collaboration possible.
“I think this is really because of some wonderful faculty that were affiliated with Pitt in the past at least four years in all fields: political science, economy, but especially in the field of history,” she said. “They, in the past, were able to attract an important number of historians of Latin America, in general, but also historians of Afro-Latin America. The center has a big, big tradition in the field. Everyone knows the Center for Latin American Studies at Pitt.”
After teaching for 20 years at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, a public university, Grinberg arrived at Pitt during the height of the COVID pandemic. The CLAS program and Pitt’s history of engagement with Afro-Latin American studies proved attractive incentives for furthering her academic career.
“For many years, the center was able to attract lots of students that were dealing with those topics, because there were also some professors here working on that,” she said. “And this was actually a good reason for me to want to come to that tradition, because here I have a good place to continue my own studies on this topic.”
At Pitt, she said, it’s about “the things that we can create — we have more freedom and also opportunities to get resources, but it’s really the wonderful group of scholars and that long-term tradition of Latin American Studies at Pitt that made me come,” she added.
If the Afro-Latin American Studies expansion proves a success at Pitt and other universities, Grinberg can see similar initiatives being established elsewhere.
“It’s gonna take work,” she said. “This is a three-year funding program. We want to be able to expand the grant to get more funding so we can include other universities also in that team.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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