UC Berkeley’s Department of African American Studies Awarded $2.8 Million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

January 14, 2021
By: Hagit Caspi
images of protests, art, people


The Division of Social Sciences congratulates UC Berkeley African American Studies on this inspiring achievement. Led by Professor Leigh Raiford and Professor Tianna Paschel, the grant is truly a reflection of the cumulative contributions of the entire department, under the leadership of H. Michael and Jeanne Williams Professor Ula Y. Taylor. These are times that call for precisely the sort of intellectual and community engagement around racial justice that the Black Studies Collaboratory proposes. We look forward to supporting and amplifying this important work, which ties in with Berkeley’s Democracy multidisciplinary theme, over the next three years of this grant, and beyond.  There is much work to do, and with this major grant, the African American Studies will continue its visionary work – beginning with this Spring’s “Critical Conversations” series.

The Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley is excited to announce that it has been selected as one of sixteen recipients of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures grant(link is external). This grant is a collaborative effort to address racial inequality through new humanities-based research & solutions. The $2.87 million—the largest award UC Berkeley has ever received from the Mellon Foundation—will fund “The Black Studies Collaboratory,” a three-year project aimed towards amplifying the interdisciplinary, political, and world-building work of Black Studies. The Black Studies Collaboratory will consist of academic-year think tanks, summer labs for graduate students, research grants for faculty and students, and a university course open to the public. The Black Futures Retreat organized in collaboration with a host of community partners will be the culmination of the initiative.  With the Mellon Foundation Just Futures grant, the Department of African American Studies at UCB is poised to greatly expand the scope and impact of its scholarship. 

"Our Department has always had large scholarly visions that include providing our students the best opportunities for academic growth as well as stretching beyond the formal academy to embrace artists and organic intellectuals whose work is equally significant to the mission of Black Studies,” said Ula Taylor, Professor and H. Michael and Jeanne Williams Chair of African American Studies. “The financial support from Mellon will increase our capacity to do the transformative work that is vital to this cross-fertilization." 

In August 2020, the Mellon Foundation’s Higher Learning program issued a call for proposals from multidisciplinary, humanities-led teams working to address racial inequality as part of its new strategic focus on building “just communities.” A select group of 38 universities, including public universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and private universities were invited to participate in the Just Futures Initiative. 

“Through extraordinary collaborative exploration and rigorous humanities-driven inquiry, the Just Futures Initiative will expand our collective understanding of our country’s history,” said Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. “We are thrilled that the work of these multidisciplinary teams will propose and implement solutions to real social problems, and also mark new milestones in the effort to better capture the contributions of the many different communities that make up the American story.”

From Covid 19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities to the global protests against anti-black state violence, the events of the last year have prompted an unprecedented social awakening to questions of racial justice. At UC Berkeley, this uprising has turned into increased demand for the insights of African American Studies.  

Co-Principal Investigators Dr. Leigh Raiford and Dr. Tianna S. Paschel took the Mellon Foundation’s prompt, and the current moment, as invitations to ask: what are the lessons of the Black Feminist, Black Radical, and Black intellectual traditions for our moment of crisis and what is the role of Black Studies in building more just futures? And how do we concretize our commitment to Black Studies as a public good?

The Foundation received 165 applications, from which 16 winning proposals were selected by a jury of 8 distinguished scholars with expertise in racial justice. 

“Black Studies at its heart is a life-affirming field centered in Black humanity,” says Black Studies Collaboratory inaugural Program Director Leigh Raiford. “Among our goals for the Black Studies Collaboratory is to provide space for critical engagement and collaborative dreaming, to create opportunities for joyful and generative engagement among Black faculty, students, staff, the surrounding community and around the country.” 

The Black Studies Collaboratory launches this Spring with the “Critical Conversations” Speaker Series, organized in collaboration with the Abolition Democracy Initiative. The series will celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Barbara T. Christian, an architect of Black feminist criticism, a founding member of the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley and a gifted writer and teacher; and explore the concept of “abolition democracy,” thinking creatively and collaboratively about the practice of abolition as necessary to building life-affirming institutions and robust democratic structures. Speakers include Alice Walker, Fred Moten, and Mariame Kaba. During the Spring 2021 semester, the Black Studies Collaboratory will also prepare for its first Global Black Feminisms Summer Lab, a two-week summer intensive for graduate students, and recruit its first cohort of Abolition Democracy Fellows, a year-long think tank comprised of UC Berkeley faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, artists, elders and activists in residence, dissertation and postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars each doing humanities-based Black Studies work researching and making sense of our histories in imaginative ways. 

“The project will take this critical moment in our history as an invitation to reimagine African American Studies’ relationship to the institution of the university and in turn reimagine the institution’s relationship to its surrounding black communities,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ.

Join the effort!  Learn more about supporting the Department of African American Studies here