By Lauren Melendez and Kashema Hutchinson
The Futures Initiative’s Undergraduate Leadership Program (ULP) supports CUNY undergraduate students who are learning to be leaders within their colleges and within their communities. The program, directed by Lauren Melendez, MSEd Director of the Undergraduate Leadership Program and Administrative Specialist of the Futures Initiative, and Co-Director Kashema Hutchinson, PhD candidate in Urban Education, believes great mentorship and leadership means representing and responding to one’s peers in a way that supports everyone’s success. Through innovative pedagogical skill shares, student-centered learning activities, in-person meetings, student-led “prompts” and blogging on the program’s website, the ULP creates an inclusive experience across CUNY’s 25 campuses. This program structurally addresses the joint issues of equity, increasing diversity and preparing students for their present and future endeavors.
This year, for the 2019-2020 cohort, we were pleased to announce a new partnership with The Promise and Perils of Democracy Project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In addition to the focus on leadership and peer mentoring, we addressed questions of democracy and informed public engagement. We would like to give special recognition to Karen Sander, Director of Public Programs, and Donald Robotham, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Advanced Research Collaborative for making this partnership possible.
We began the program with our annual summer Leadership Institute, where our fellows build trust and rapport with one another, engage in content led by FI staff, faculty and graduate fellows who offer students advice on best practices for a meaningful and productive year in the program. FI staff led sessions on student-centered skill shares and activities on leadership, education, democracy, CUNY resources, a session on Audre Lorde, online identity, public writing, Intro to CBOX and The CUNY Leaders mentor’s site. Leaders were able to engage in community building, and getting to know their fellow peers who they will be alongside and learn from for the duration of the year long program.
We started the Fall 2019 semester off with a session led by guest speaker Professor Bianca Williams, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Lead of the PublicsLab, who is on the planning committee of the Promise and Perils of Democracy Project. During this session Dr. Williams held a candid and insightful discussion on democracy and shared aspects of the work she does within her areas of research in the field of Cultural Anthropology. She covered some of her additional research interests which included Black women, happiness, race, gender, equity in higher education; feminist pedagogies and she discussed the Black Lives Matter Chapter 5280 on MLKDay in Denver, Colorado, a citizen’s protest and action group that she helped create. Several questions that arose in the discussion became blog prompts for the Fellows, including: “What do you imagine democracy to look like?” “Are democracy and liberation synonymous?” “Will democracy lead to liberation for all?”. Reflections from this session were written by Christina Valeros (Macaulay Honors at Hunter College, CUNY) who wrote “Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like”: Liberation and Democracy’s Limits capturing her views of democracy as well as Calvin Herman (Macaulay Honors at Lehman College, CUNY) who wrote a post entitled: Democracy Reimagined: How to Fight for a Better Democracy.
Another core component featured each year in the ULP is social justice. A highlight from the Fall semester is a meet-up session that featured alum leadership fellow Steven Pacheco who is an undergraduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Mr. Pacheco is majoring in Social Justice for Cultural Change via the CUNY BA program. His work is focused on the cross-sections and intersections of culture, justice, and empowerment. He is dedicated to using his platform and voice to diversify the workforce and markets by re-enfranchising formerly incarcerated people and communities most vulnerable to the by-products of mass incarceration.
Pacheco led a session on the “Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color” which included his personal background and experience with the prison system, policy touch points as it relates to higher education, voting, housing, and employment. During his captivating session, Mr. Pacheco spoke about a historic event he attended the night before which was the New York City Council voting on a historic plan to permanently close Rikers Island and replace it with a borough-based jail system. The proposed plan allegedly will create a modern, more humane and safe justice system that includes substantial investments in our communities. To learn more about this initiative please see Council Votes on Historic Legislation to Close Rikers Island. Reflections from this session were written by Moses Matos (Lehman College, CUNY) entitled: Infatuation with Incarceration,
Micaela Arena (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, CUNY) entitled: The Conjunction of Three Words and a Slash, Samuel Win (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY) entitled: Shaping Reality with Perspective: Changing the Image of Prisons to Change the Impact of Prisons and Calvin Herman (Macaulay Honors at Lehman College, CUNY) who wrote a post entitled: Prisons: A Channel for Punishment, not Rehabilitation.
Our next highlight from the Fall semester meet-ups was one held on “Medical and Social History of Disabilities” led by invited guest speaker Jessica Murray, doctoral candidate in Human Developmental psychology at CUNY Graduate Center and alum Futures Initiative doctoral fellow. Ms. Murry co-chairs a cross-campus group, the CUNY Disability Scholars. She had an early career in design before attending CUNY. She completed her Master’s degree at The Graduate Center in 2014 with a thesis titled, “Work-Life Experiences for People with Mobility Disabilities Living in New York City,” which examined structural and environmental issues impacting the daily lives of wheelchair users. Her doctoral research focuses on transportation and takes a universal approach to understanding information, communication, and psychological barriers in transportation impacting people with all kinds of disabilities. Ms. Murray began framing the session as a disabilities studies crash course. She gave a brief history of disability and “Models of Disability” we then had the students participate in a group activity that explored individual experiences with disabilities. Next, she discussed “Social and Legal Changes since 1990”, and also “Language, Identity, and Embodiment”. The presentation can be viewed here: Disability Studies Crash Course. Some of the reflections from this session were written by Moses Mases (Lehman College, CUNY) entitled: Education on Being Disabled, Carlos Pérez Valle (Macaulay Honors at Lehman, CUNY) post entitled: Disability: A post dedicated to my uncle ‘Migue’ and Kevin Torres (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) post entitled: The broader perspective of disability.
On October 24, 2019 our fellows attended an event showcased by this year’s partnership with The Promise and Perils of Democracy Project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and brought to us by Karen Sander, Director of Public Programs and Donald Robotham, Professor of Anthropology; Director of the Advanced Research Collaborative. The event was entitled “Racism and Democracy” moderated by Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, president of the National Council of Negro Women and former president of Spelman College, and featured Jelani Cobb, staff writer at The New Yorker and Professor of Journalism at Columbia University; Jessie Daniels, author of Cyber Racism and professor at Hunter College and The Graduate Center in sociology, critical social psychology, and Africana studies; Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a home for LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South; and Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, New York City. This panel discussion explored how racism undermines the very foundations of democracy and delved into issues surrounding systematic discrimination to the rise in white supremacy, racist currents in our society and how they prevent the free and equal participation of all. Some of the reflections from this session were written by Calvin Herman (Macaulay Honors at Lehman College, CUNY) entitled: Democracy Reimagined: How to Fight for a Better Democracy, Shao Ru Zhang home campus (Baruch, CUNY) entitled: Call for Action for Racism and Democracy, Evalaurene Jean-Charles home campus (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY) entitled: Racism and Democracy, Lucien Baskin home campus (Baruch, CUNY BA Program) entitled: Racism and Democracy in the Nadir of the 21st Century.
On November 14, 2019, students, faculty and staff from the Undergraduate Leadership program, the Futures Initiative and the CUNY Humanities Alliance presented at the 44th annual “Association for the Study of Higher Education” (ASHE) conference. Ashe promotes collaboration among its members and others engaged in the study of higher education through research, conferences, and publications, including its highly-regarded journal, “The Review of Higher Education”. Our session, “Higher Education for the New Majority: Community Colleges, Graduate Education, and the Humanities,” was framed as an interactive symposium and used CUNY’s Humanities Alliance as a case study to discuss the value of student-centered, humanities-oriented critical pedagogy in the lives of students and emerging scholars. Specific focal points included the value of the humanities in community colleges and the importance of pedagogical training for graduate students. Participants included Lauren Melendez, Director of the Undergraduate Leadership Program and Administrative Specialist of the Futures Initiative, Dr. Katina Rogers, Co-Director, The Futures Initiative and CUNY Humanities Alliance, Director of Programs and Administration, HASTAC, Dr. Sujung Kim, Postdoctoral Research Associate, The Futures Initiative & Humanities Alliance, Christina Valeros, a fellow in the Futures Initiative Undergraduate Leadership Program, Juan Sebastian Sepulveda, a former LaGuardia Humanities Scholar, Micheal Rumore, a former Humanities Alliance doctoral fellow), Luis Henao Uribe, a former Humanities Alliance fellow and a current Andrew W. Mellon Humanities Scholar, Leigh Garrison-Fletcher, a LaGuardia Community College faculty member and a former faculty mentor in the CUNY Humanities Alliance, and Kaysi Holman, Director of CUNY Humanities Alliance.
Our Fall semester concluded with an enrichment outing to The Bronx Museum of Arts where our leadership fellows were able to visit the Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987 exhibit. We had the coincidental pleasure of meeting Henry Chalfant in the flesh while visiting his exhibit, who is best known for being a sculptor in New York in the 1970s, who turned to photography and film to do an in-depth study of hip-hop culture and graffiti art. This exhibit chronicles the start of the graffiti era and features works by legendary subway artists, including Dondi, Futura, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, and including Bronx legends Blade, Crash, DAZE, Dez, Kel, Mare, SEEN, Skeme, and T-Kid. Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987 was originally produced for the Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente in Madrid, Spain, and curated by SUSO33. Following this tour we were able to create our very own works of graffiti art on how we would envision and would produce them on the subways, just as the artists did that we learned about and whose work was captured in the exhibit.
We also had the pleasure of visiting the The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop exhibit. This exhibit features photographs of Alvin Baltrop, who was a Bronx native, that captured photographs of a then deteriorating Hudson River piers, gay men as well as a chaotic and financially crippled New York City during the 1970’s to mid 1980’s. The exhibition features over 200 photographs and documents a significant moment in the LGBTQ community in its struggle for inclusion and civil rights prior to the AIDS crisis. Some of the reflections from this enrichment outing were written by Micaela Arena (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, CUNY) entitled: Volcanoes and Red Velvet, and by Evalaurene Jean-Charles (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY) entitled: The Power of Art.
Over the years, we have created lasting relationships with our Leaders. In January, we had our first alumni meet-up! It was great to see the alums from previous cohorts. Regardless of which cohort the former Leaders were in, the meet-up was spent (re)connecting and having conversations about navigating social and professional spaces. They exchanged the knowledge and skills that they acquired, which help them to move forward. As big as CUNY is, someone will know someone. Lucien, who was in the 2019-2020 cohort, is friends with Kia Thomas, a rising senior studying Black Digital Studies at The City College of New York, CUNY, who was in the previous cohort. Kia invited him to the alumni event and he fit right in. It was a cohort of its own.
For our first meet-up in the spring 2020 semester, we teamed up with the Humanities Alliance Scholars. We worked through various topics of professional development and career readiness and addressed topics including, but not limited to resumes, cover letters, job interviews, informational interviews and questions to ask the interviewer. This was followed by our last face-to-face meet-up in March for Women’s History Month. To put a twist on the meet-up, the Leaders had to choose an inspirational song that a woman sang. Leaders chose songs in different languages and inspirational messages covering topics such as impact (“I was Here” by Beyonce); defying cultural norms (“Mi Mayor Venganza” by La India) and; being comfortable in your own skin (“Scars To Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara).
Then the pandemic hit and the world as we knew it changed before our eyes. We switched to Zoom meet-ups. As a collective, we were all trying to get used to social distancing and experiencing the pandemic. Due to the community we created since our Summer Institute in August, our transition was easy. Lauren hosted an amazing impromptu wellness check-in in the beginning of April aside from our regular meet-up. This was important as we addressed the impact COVID-19 was having on our lives. In this session, we held space to breathe and process a lot of what we were feeling and experiencing. Part of our conversation was assessing our support and knowing who to turn to in a time of need. It helped us to recalibrate to our new routine. For our original April meet-up, we were supposed to see the new play “Help” by Claudia Rankine. However we read “Radical Honesty: Truth Telling as Pedagogy for Working Through Shame in Academic Spaces” by Dr. Bianca Williams, and had an extremely candid conversation about challenging patriarchal and racist institutions by showing up as our multiplicative selves.
Speaking of multiplicative, one of our Leaders, Evalaurene R. Jean-Charles, wears many hats and one of them is being the founder of Black on Black Education, a social media platform started to bring black educators, experts and thinkers together to increase learning in the black community. She invited us on her amazing podcast to discuss our roles and impact in education.
Little did we know, the world we lived in was on the cusp of unrest. It started with videos of police across the nation assaulting Black and Latinx people for “social distancing” while disregarding whites. Then the heart-wrenching video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered was released. After Dreasjon Reed was murdered, which was caught on his Facebook Live, one of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officers, was caught saying, “Looks like it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.” Breonna Taylor, an EMT worker who was murdered while she was asleep in March, went viral. There was a lot on our minds and hearts. As critical race scholars Derrick Bell and Alan Freemans argued, racism permeates every aspect of our lives. As Black women and the director and the co-director of this program, we are dedicated to bringing awareness about the social injustices that impinge on the lives of not only Black and Latinx people, but other marginalized communities in this nation to every cohort of Leaders throughout the year.
Our final meet-up was on May 22, 2020. For this meet-up, the Leaders had a final project about leadership and democracy. They presented in various formats such as poetry, video, podcast, infographic and PowerPoint/Prezi. Some of the Leaders presented the impact of the program since the Summer Institute. We held spaces for learning and unfiltered conversations that some of them did not normally have in academia or otherwise. Some Leaders had to grapple with their old truths and acquire new truths about leadership, democracy, and their perspectives.
A bittersweet part of the meet-up was saying farewell, especially to two of our Leaders. Tahamina Hossain, who majored in Sociology at The City College of New York, CUNY and Calvin Herman, a Biology major at Hunter College, CUNY, will be graduating this year, but have been with us for three iterations of the program. We are so proud to witness not only their growth, but the obstacles they have overcome to make it this far. Their contribution to the program has been priceless and they will be truly missed, but now it is time for them to be Leaders in new spaces and we wish them all the very best.
Clip from ending of last meet-up in May 2020
A final note of gratitude: We would like to end this glimpse into the 2019-2020 year and fifth iteration of the Futures Initiative Undergraduate Leadership Program with thanking each and every person who attended, participated and or helped contribute to making this year and the past years of this program a success. We would like to give special thanks and recognition to Karen Sander, Director of Public Programs, and Donald Robotham, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Advanced Research Collaborative, for making the partnership possible with the The Promise and Perils of Democracy Project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
We would like to thank the Teagle Foundation, especially Desiree Vazquez Barlatt, former Program Officer, and President Judith R. Shapiro, former President. A grant and subsequent Presidential Award from the Teagle Foundation supported the early years of the Futures Initiative Undergraduate Leadership program. Many thanks to the Graduate Center and CUNY Central Office for their ongoing support of the program.
No year would be complete without shining light on those who help make this program a success each and every year! We would like to thank Dr. Cathy Davidson, Founding Director of The Futures Initiative, Dr. Katina Rogers, Co-Director of The Futures Initiative, Celi Lebron, Budget Manager, Dr. Sujung Kim, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and our Futures Initiative doctoral fellows who all aid in making this program one that stands out from the rest and is meaningful in places it matters most; which is to the students for the students and the reason it is structured and designed the way it is. We look forward to our new joint ventures and for continuing to strive to help students reach their academic and professional goals.
Looking ahead, It is with extreme honor and excitement we announce that the Futures Initiative will continue with it’s leadership and peer mentoring program and will begin a new iteration that will continue for the next five years starting in the Fall 2020 semester. The new iteration will combine elements of the Futures Initiative Undergraduate Leadership program and the CUNY Humanities Alliance Scholars to focus on learning leadership and peer mentoring skills in addition to exploring humanities education and career pathways. The new iteration of the program will be supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is slated to begin August 2020.