Although January term courses — which often have a study-abroad component — were online this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, students were still able to interact with the global community. Particularly, students were able to take two new classes which collaborated virtually with community-based organizations in South Africa. Students in the course Community Organizing and Public Health in South Africa joined forces with the Movement for Change and Social Justice in South Africa, and students worked with The Black Power Station while taking Arts Activism, Liberated Spaces and Creative Economies at The Black Power Station.
MCSJ is run by and for Black South Africans to tackle issues of race, class and gender injustices in the poverty-stricken, peri-urban town of Gugulethu, South Africa. MCSJ was founded in 2016 in South Africa and aims to connect local organizations to one another and encourage citizens to take an active role in their community. The course allowed students to interact with members of MCSJ and learn more about how to create sustainable relationships with both MCSJ and organizations similar to it.
Assoc. Public Health Prof. Chris Colvin has been fostering a relationship with MCSJ cofounder Mandla Majola for many years and is one of the people who organized the course Community Organizing and Public Health in South Africa.
“Much of the teaching is actually done by our partners in South Africa,” Colvin said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “They connect with the class every day, teach language, host discussion sessions, teach the students about South African history and politics and work with them to develop projects that will be both useful for MCSJ and the communities it works with, as well as for the students participating in the program.”
Students in this course had the opportunity to contribute to MCSJ’s work in the areas of health information, policy, and community organizing. Under the instruction of Global Development Studies Director David Edmunds, students were able to contribute through research, newsletter submissions and creating networking plans. The goal of the networking plans was to set up a “Friends of MCSJ” group of students, academics, activists and others who had visited or engaged with MCSJ in some way and wanted to maintain the connection.
In Edmunds’ class, students had the opportunity to explore non-Western public health measures.
Fourth-year College student Andrea Henriquez’s group explored the concept of friendship benches, which originates from Zimbabwe. Through the Friendship Bench, grandmothers receive free mental health training from local psychiatrists and sit on benches in various community centers, and anyone can stop and talk with them about struggles they may be experiencing for free.
“I always find it really valuable to link that kind of conceptual and theoretical work we do here at the University with people’s everyday practice outside the University and inside, too,” Edmunds said.
Students like third-year Batten student Valencia Lagbo found that taking this class gave them a new perspective on similarities between the United States and South Africa. Acknowledging the histories of slavery and oppression in both countries allowed students to come together and discuss their insights collectively.
“The first week of the class we did a lot of conversation about South African history and … a lot of students were able to have an opportunity to talk about how we still see legacies of slavery, genocide and some of these other topics in the United States,” Lagbo said. “So it's been a lot of listening, interacting and trying to find relationships and … it's been a space for a lot of growth for a lot of people.”
The course also highlighted how it is important for organizations like nonprofits to consult with the local community when attempting to find solutions to problems.
“I really like the way one of the group members said ‘There’s no for us without us,’” fourth-year College student Rebecca Meaney said. “[I think this means] you can’t come up with a really sustainable, impactful solution if you’re not getting input and perspective from the community that you’re trying to help.”
The J-term course Arts Activism, Liberated Spaces and Creative Economies at The Black Power Station was taught by Asst. Music Prof. Noel Lobley and hip-hop artist and activist Xolile “'X” Madinda, the visionary behind The Black Power Station.
Madinda is an entrepreneur and community educator that combines poetry and beats with social activism to forge community. Lobley and Madinda met in 2007 when Lobley moved to Makhanda to do fieldwork while he was a doctorate student at the University of Oxford. The two have now been working together here at the University for the past five years, collaborating on syllabi, compositions and artworks. Madinda has come to the University twice and plans to return after the pandemic.
The Black Power Station is an abandoned industrial area reclaimed by artists that operates completely independently and is a community-driven space in Makhanda, South Africa. The Black Power Station hosts community events such as book readings, art exhibitions, live performances, spoken word and community conversations.
“The Black Power Station is such a cool, world-class space,” Lobley said. “It’s a liberated space where people are invited to be themselves. They don’t have to explain themselves. It’s protected space — it’s community-protected. Students that have come back from Makhanda loved it. I think it’s fair to say it’s changed their lives. It certainly changed my life 20 some years ago.”
In the past, students have been able to travel to South Africa to be involved with the creation and expansion of The Black Power Station and help with the National Arts Festival — the biggest arts festival in Africa. Some students have worked on festival content, and some have even performed poetry or DJ-ed. This J-term, students focused on raising funds for a new building for The Black Power Station and made a series of creative works that will likely be featured on the soon-to-be-launched website.
“We looked for less Western approaches, and it showed us when you’re community organizing you have to be looking everywhere — not just at Western ideas,” Henriquez said. “We never gave them an idea without getting their input.”
Students in these J-term classes had the opportunity to connect globally with organizations, learn from new perspectives and broaden their view of the world. These classes taught students about the importance of establishing and maintaining respectful, mutually affirming relationships, which are skills students can continue to use beyond the classroom.
“Students in our J-term class proved admirably responsive to interacting with the creative and conversational energies shared and delivered by The Black Power Station,” Lobley said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The formation of respectful and trusting relationships with the team at The Black Power Station in Makhanda enabled students to think through difficult and pressing issues on race, gender equity, and African philosophies of ubuntu (humanity), lessons which will stay with us all and can be deployed in multiple ongoing real-world realities in each of our interconnected lives.”