BELIZE CITY, BELIZE — “Blackness is more than melanin and skin, it’s a state of mind,” announced Abdul Marin Nunez at the start of his lecture on the state of black Belize.
It was the second day of the fourth annual international trip hosted by the National Association for Diversity Officers in Higher Education. This year’s trip included 32 people — predominantly black and brown US born folks — who either work in building the diversity of colleges and universities or were, like myself, family members.
We were gathered in the small blue walled multipurpose room of the Muslim Center. Nunez, a community organizer, a youth worker and the center’s imam, was a tall dark-skinned man dressed in blue and white African garb with a wide smile and a booming voice.
He introduced himself as a Muslim, but also as a Garifuna — the indigenous and mixed people of Belize — and asked us to join him in a call and response starting with the words:
“I love my beautiful black self!”
The affirmations he led us in felt like a call to something deeply important, particularly for a group of people whose careers have led them to shape the policies and practices of inclusion at higher education institutions around the country.
I looked about the room wondering how those who didn’t identify as black felt about saying those words. Did they resonate inside them in the way they did for me?
The work of diversity officers is a part of the ongoing conversation the United States has been having about the validity and lovability and worthiness of blackness. Do we matter? Are our lives valuable in a way more profound than the commodification of our skills, labor and talents? Are we seen, heard and loved?
Many diversity jobs are predicated on numbers and the illusion of integration responding to the question: “Are there enough people of color at a given institution?”
Equally important, but not always asked, are the questions: “How are we treated? How are we protected from the psychological violence that can be perpetrated by the systems of higher education not designed for or by people of color — and especially black people?”
So it was no accident or coincidence that our first conversation on this trip would center love and blackness.
Dr. Archie Ervin, vice president and chief diversity officer of Georgia Tech, is president of National Association for Diversity Officers in Higher Education. He was instrumental, along with Dr. Benjamin D. Reese, Jr., in organizing the organization’s first international trip, which was to Cuba.
He said that diversity officers needed to understand the global context of origins of students of color in the United States.
“In the U.S. we were, at one time, shortsighted enough to think that it was about being African American or just black people,” Dr. Ervin said. “But when we fully begin to understand that this was not just black people but all these other marginalizations that the Western culture had defined such as genderized roles for women and or marginalizations of those outside that paradigm, that all of these were important dimensions of inclusion that we weren’t really getting or probably didn’t really understand. And that we had little understanding of the complexities of international communities in the US higher education setting and the impact that that has.”
The group decided first to explore the African Diaspora, said Dr. Reese, vice president for institutional equity at Duke University.
“The majority of the board feels or felt that that’s the starting place when talking about difference,” he said. The group has made four trips so far to Cuba, Brazil, Ghana and Belize.
Dr. Reese was trained as a psychologist and has been working on issues of race for almost 50 years.
The group, which started about 12 years ago, now has more than 800 members, a publication called Journal of Diversity in Higher Ed, a conference and formal training. A three-day institute for early career diversity officers is also in the works.
“So the organization has just grown and when I look back on my career it is one thing I’m very proud of,” said Dr. Reese.
He plans to leave Duke in May after 22 years, but he’s not retiring.
“In mid-July I have a fellowship in Canterbury, New Zealand talking about race and then I go right to the University of Adelaide in Australia for three weeks. Race and unconscious bias is my specialty and I’m going to work with aboriginal people for a couple of months,” Dr. Reese said. “Then I’m at the University of Xando in China pushing back on some of the stereotypes about black folks… So I’m going to lecture on the history of race in America, black leadership in STEM and black leadership in business, trying to give students something other than what they see on TV.”
The works he plans in China is important. Despite the increasing challenges presented by this administration’s immigration policies, there is still a robust community of international students enrolled.
But, despite their numbers, Dr. Ervin said international students’ often are not included in discussions of diversity.
“Because if you go to any institution of significant size today you have international presence there that we often find to be very very segregated communities because they don’t feel a part of the structure,” he said. “They come there to study and get degrees and they have enclaves. They learn so little and we have to understand that that experience is not the healthiest experience for even them.”
Dr. Ervin believes schools need to create inclusive spaces for all students in order to enhance everyone’s ability to learn from one another.
“So the institution isn’t really benefiting from their presence. You know we don’t learn from that. So we’re saying to understand all of that there are some global connections that are really important to understand.”
Dr Reese said that U.S. programs also do a disservice to international students by not engaging with the historical context of race in the United States.
“So it’s going to take some real creative thinking to sort of get us out of our boxes,” he said.
The Belize trip was organized by Dr. Siri Briggs Brown, the vice chancellor of community affairs for the Peralta Community College District in Oakland. She owns Global Academics, a tour company that focuses on Africa and the Diaspora.
“I really like to think it adds to their global understanding of humanity, and in this case the humanity of the African world,” Dr. Briggs Brown said. “It’s been helpful to them [NADOHE] in helping them immerse themselves in global diversity and what that means for their work as diversity officers back here, back in the U.S. on their home campuses with so many migrating students and all of that.”
She said the officers have a better understanding of the racial politics and identity politics of the countries they visit.
This trip included lectures on black Belize and on the Guatemala-Belize conflict. We also took a Garifuna dance and drumming workshop. An hour outside of Belize City, the group chartered a boat on the New River — or the Tzulzilacob (river of foreign faces) as the Mayan named it for the Europeans they encountered there. The boat took us to Lamanai Mayan Temple ruins where we hike to the top of the Jaguar temple, saw howler monkeys and all manner of exotic birds.
We also met locals who were making an impact on Belize. Cynthia Ellis started a collective for Garifuna women to become economically empowered. Pen Cayetano is an artist and musician who was part of the band who started the genre of music known as Punta Rock. He and his wife, a German woman who is also an artist, hosted us for a traditional Belizean lunch of fish in coconut soup with pounded cassava. They walked us around the yard pointing out all of the plants and trees growing there.
We also met Cannon Jerris Valentine, an episcopal priest and Garifuna who founded a school for the preservation of Garifuna language and culture. We hiked to the small waterfall in the Bocawina National Park, saw a crocodile way too close for my comfort, and all the while got to really know one another by sharing meals and drinks and long bus rides.
And of course we met Abdul Marin Nunez, the imam of the Muslim Center.
“The country is made of migrants,” said Nunez. “We have mestizos who are creole as well, the mixture of Mayan and Aztec. We have the creoles who are a mixture of blacks and other Europeans. We have the Garinagu who are a mixture of Africans and Arawaks. We also have Americans, expatriates, Mennonites. We have all kinds of people, but what the British did strategically was to put everyone in their place.”
Nunez also told the story of the Garinagu, or Garifuna. Garifuna is technically the singular tense of Garinagu, I heard it used interchangeably. Throughout the trip, we heard different versions of this story but what everyone seems to agree on is a ship full of Africans heading into slavery crashed on the coast of St. Vincent. The survivors landed and intermarried with the Arawak people and successfully maintained their freedom, even fighting off a British invasion until they were re-kidnapped in the early 1800s. They were taken to Honduras and Belize as indentured servants or slaves — depending on who is telling the story.
“This is uniquely positioned area of the Caribbean where it really wasn’t a destination for slave trade per se, but it became a stop off point for those who were trading in slaves,” Dr. Ervin said. “There was a contemporary influx of people who were enslaved brought here for the express purpose of timber harvesting which was unique.”
While further north, slavery was generational, in Belize, the Garinagu worked for a certain period of time and then went back to being free, become a part of the local community, Dr. Ervin said.
In the 1950s, according to Nunez, Belize was 90 percent black and Garifuna, but now it is closer to 41.6 percent. There has been an influx of Chinese immigrants who have cornered the market on grocery stores and Guatemalans who have taken over the construction industry.
Nunez says that the running joke is that the industry black folk dominates is crime. According to Nunez some of the original members of the Bloods and Crips were Belizean and living in Los Angeles. After being deported, they started up new chapters of the gang and have been contributing to the rise in violent crime ever since.
Nunez works with teen offenders to prevent recidivism, but cites lack of economic opportunity as being the top motivator for crime. During his short lecture I learned a lot, my mind couldn’t help but fixate on the ways our histories and present circumstances are inextricably linked.
“One of the things that we understand about this work of diversity, this work of inclusion and equity, the tripod of our existence is diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Dr. Ervin. “You can have it in any sort of formulation of that which you want, but your work has those three tiers and that understanding the complexity of diversity today requires you to understand the global connections that have led us to this place in time.”
Kathleen Russell has been on two trips, Belize and Ghana. She has gone with her mother, Dr. Paulette Granberry Russell, who is the senior advisor to the president for diversity and director of the office for inclusion for Michigan State University.
“Our ancestors came through Ghana, West Africa so it was really eye opening to be sort of in the space where we could recall our past family,” Russell said.
Russell asked her mother to tell a family story about a man named Zebica who was from West Africa.
“Somewhere in the South or actually before he was brought over…how does that story go, Mom?”
Dr. Granberry Russell filled in the details of the story: “Zebica was the one brought from Ghana. Eventually he tried to fly back to his ‘goodie country.’ He made wings, put them on a saddle and jumped from a hill to try to fly back to what he called his goodie country, and broke most of the bones in his body. So he was no longer able to work in the fields so his responsibility was to watch over the kids in the field.”
Zebica was murdered for disrupting the brutal beating of his grandson. The legend goes he took a hoe and killed the overseer and then he was killed by the plantation owners.
Dr. Granberry Russell talks about learning these stories from her grandmother and then confirming the details through various ancestry websites and property records.
While she has been to Tanzania and Senegal, this is her first trip to Zebica’s homeland.
“I had always said I was going to find my way to Ghana,” Dr. Granberry Russell said.
“Last year when they said the trip was to Ghana I said I had to go,” she said. “And it was, it was a moment when as soon as I landed it felt like home and I know it has a lot to do with the story. And then when I did our DNA almost 20 percent is from Mali, Togo, and Benin, so it’s all west African. So obviously somewhere within Africa is Zebica’s story and that’s our story.”