Every February we celebrate the stories of black heroes. It is a time to reflect on how racism has shaped America’s history and continues to shape its present. While we celebrate the likes of Malcolm X, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, we must also recognize the work of those who stay out of the headlines but work tirelessly for change. As Occidental students, we gain wisdom and humility from engaging with the stories of those who came before us. The black women featured below have generously shared their personal narratives with us.
Sarah Weishaupt: Can you tell me about your early life, what it was like growing up, what kind of culture you were exposed to in America?
Erica O’Neal Howard: I was born locally in the Santa Monica area, in what’s now called the Pico neighborhood. It’s a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood — a working-class neighborhood. I lived there for the first five years of my life and then moved around. My father, when he left the army, did military contracts, so I moved around. I spent most of my formative years in Oceanside, right next to Camp Pendleton, the northernmost tip of San Diego County by the coast. It’s a military town, again, Marine Corps, so I ended up spending from middle elementary school all the way up to high school graduation in Oceanside. I was exposed to a lot of cultures. Military towns are always interesting — not only black people, but Latino, Asian, lots of biracial families, with the common denominator of being in some way connected to the military.
SW: Can you tell me about your college experience, your degrees, where you went, that sort of thing?
EH: People in Oceanside tended to look at the local community college, going into the military, going to work and occasionally going away to a four-year college. In my case, I met a woman who was a Harvard-Radcliffe alum, who asked if I would ever consider going to college in New England. She encouraged me to apply, so I did, put another option on the table; long story short, I went to Harvard as an undergrad, majored in Romance Languages, Latin American Studies — I was very interested, having grown up close to the border, living in bilingual communities throughout my formative years. I met some terrific roommates, some terrific faculty and staff and had a wonderful experience, but it was also rocky here and there. I was at Harvard at the time that Boston had a lot of racial polarization. I was there in the midst of the bus incidents, the desegregation in schools. There I was in Harvard, in Cambridge, across the river, and people would always talk about, “Oh, you should get out, go to the city; just don’t go to these certain neighborhoods.” And that was a very strange and unsettling message. So on the one hand, I felt very blessed and privileged to be going to Harvard, but then I would go into the city, and it was a whole other world. That was a constant reminder that what I did with my education, regardless of which career path I took, should include giving back and making sure that I address these issues in a way that’s accordant with my strengths.
Sarah Weishaupt: First, I’d like to ask just a little bit about your early life, you know, what it was like growing up and the culture you experienced when you were young here in America.
Ella Turenne: I’m originally from New York. I grew up in Queens, which is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and I am a child of immigrant parents. My parents came to the United States from Haiti, and growing up, I had a middle-class existence — my neighborhood was mostly homeowners and mostly folks from the Caribbean who had also immigrated from different places. I went to Catholic school, both elementary school and high school. In elementary school, I would say 90 percent of the kids I went to school with, from K through eighth, were black as well, although most of my teachers, I would say, were white, so that was a very interesting thing that I didn’t realize until later, and then high school was less of a percentage. The students of color were definitely a smaller percentage of the school, but otherwise, it was really inclusive and had a great experience. And then for undergrad I went to Stonybrook University in Long Island, which was also a great experience, just because it was a large state school and I made lots of friends, and got to study interesting things and be mentored by great faculty. So I would say growing up, I had a really great childhood, and my parents — their focus was on making sure that I had the best education that they could possibly provide for me.
SW: I noticed that when you were at Eugene Lang College [of Liberal Arts in New York City] you were the director of something called the Prison Education Program?
ET: That was a project that myself and — when President Veitch was the Dean there— we started. We collaborated with a medium-security prison on Staten Island and we were able to start offering classes for credit at no cost to the students inside. We had our faculty volunteer to teach classes at this place, and then we would give them an actual transcript, we gave the students inside special student status, and then we convinced the president and the provost to waive all of the fees, and we were able to offer about two or three years’ worth of classes before the facility actually shut down, and that happened right after I moved here. Unfortunately, I’m guessing a lot of the men who were taking classes were moved to places where they might not have access to classes anymore, so I hope they are in spots where they can take advantage of that. It was definitely close to my heart, and I just remember how important it was for those men to just have the access to the classes, and how much our faculty loved teaching those classes, because everybody all around was just hungry for information and hungry for the dialogue, and being able to learn.
SW: It would be wonderful to see something like that in more colleges across the nation. Do you think there’s any possibility of that becoming a more widespread idea?
ET: Actually, I do! In New York, for instance, there are about seven or so college programs — before 1994, there were a lot of higher ed programs in prisons, and then in ’94, our government kind of eliminated the ability for people inside to pay for their schooling with Pell Grants, and after that, that really sort of killed a lot of higher ed programs in prisons. But there were some that continued to do it, so New York was one that held on, and then there are some more that have grown, but I think all over the country this is becoming a larger movement, and even in California, in the past few years, I think there’s been more of a movement to do this, so there are community colleges offering classes, Cal State LA just got a grant to offer classes for credit, Pitzer College is offering classes for credit where they’re bringing their college students in and we’ve been doing something similar here at Oxy as well.
SW: You definitely have a proclivity for social justice programs, I’ve noticed from reading your bio — because here, you run the Alternative Break Program, right?
ET: Yes, the Alternative Spring Break program was sort of the brainchild of myself and Rev. Susan Young, from the office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and we had both done alternative spring break programs before and we really wanted to continue offering that experience to students, but we were of the same mind in terms of what these programs should look like. Most of the time, you sort of go for a week and do some service, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s great.” But we wanted it to be deeper, and so we thought we could craft this “alternative spring break” to actually be an entire semester in which there would be some preliminary community building and really think about the issue we were going to be tackling, and then doing some extensive stuff during the week, and finishing up with a project that students could do to give back to the community, whether it’s the Occidental community or the community at large. So, we decided to call it ‘Exploring Citizenship’ because we wanted to think about the times at which, in our country, citizenship has been troubled or tested. The first one was, we focused on Japanese internment, and we actually went to Manzanar and we did some work there, and then when we came back we met with community organizations, spiritual organizations, to think about the connection between what happened during World War II and what the current situation is in terms of the civil rights movement for Japanese-Americans and for other Americans. So that was our first one and it was really successful, and after that, we did a program on Islamophobia, we did one on immigration, we went to the South to study the Civil Rights Movement, and this year we’re doing arts and corrections in youth. It’s been really rewarding to work with community partners on a deeper level, and really have students be connected to not only the past, but what’s going on right now.
SW: And you said you did one on Muslim life in Los Angeles and one about immigration, too?
ET: Yeah, and last year we did one about connecting communities, and we were trying to tie in the environmental impact of community, so we went to Mexico. We went to the border, we saw all the walls that Donald Trump says don’t exist, but there’s actually already two walls there, and so I think that was really eye-opening, and I feel like a lot of people will hear this rhetoric around ‘build the wall,’ about what our borders are like, and they’ve never been there. And I think it’s important, not only to see what is there, but to meet people who are affected by it. We went to this place called Friendship Park. But it’s this one little stretch of land that’s on the border that is the only place that the U.S. opens up, for all intensive purposes, like, once a week. And opens up means, it allows people on both sides to come to the wall, it’s a huge fence, and so there are people on the American side who meet with their relatives on the Mexican side, and this is the only contact that they have. We talked to mothers who have been separated from their children because they got deported, or they had to go back to Mexico, and in a way it’s really heartbreaking to see that this is what we’re doing to people, to families. For me, it’s really important to have students not only talk about these things, but to experience it, to be there, and to be able to see how they can make some change in the system.
Sarah Weishaupt: What was your early life like?
Sherry Simpson-Dean: I’m originally from Queens, New York, and the area that I’m from is called Jamaica, Queens. I went to school at private schools and public schools in the Queens area, and the neighborhoods in which I went to school are actually considered now — and I believe they might have been then — some of the most diverse cities, municipalities in the world. So, kind of walking out to go to school every day, from my viewpoint it was a primarily black and Jewish community where I grew up, and then it became really, really integrated over years, and now it’s the most diverse place you can imagine. So I really feel in many ways that I grew up with this literal experience of being in and around people of all different races, creeds, colors, as the backdrop to my daily life, and it’s very cool.
SW: I talked to Dean Turenne, and she also is from Queens.
SD: Yeah, that’s right! And we laugh about that, and it’s a wonderful, amazing place that I think, now that I’ve been to so many other places in the world, I appreciate for being not only a place where people of different cultures are, but even within the African-American experience, there are people from the Caribbean, and people from so many parts of the world, so it’s not just like, “You’re black,” it’s more that we grew up saying, “Where are you from within Africa? Where are you from within the Caribbean?” That was very much a part of our lives.
SW: You are a Senior Fellow at the McKinnon Center.
SD: Yes, I’ve been at Occidental since 2011; that is a role that I took on about three years ago, and I don’t know if it’s still my official title, but I came to Occidental as an adjunct lecturer teaching the Model U.N. Then, fortunately for me, I was asked to be co-faculty advisor for OxyPreneurship, now known as OXP, and in that role I first met Sanjeev Khagram, who is, of course, the director of the Young Initiative. He and I since that time have been really getting together and working on OXP, and have co-developed a curriculum in the area of entrepreneurship and social enterprise that I’ve been teaching as well. It’s extraordinary. I think as an African-American woman, one of the things that my experience worldwide has been that as women, we bring this incredible ability to mesh so many different skill sets. One of my commitments, and I’m certain it directly correlates to my being a black woman in this country, is around how we debunk and demystify this whole world of the “other,” such that we are not blending and trying to sort of mesh our philosophies in life and who we are, but to rather have diversity be appreciated and celebrated. And this is one of the greatest things that I feel I bring to this community is a celebration of diversity, not only racially, but culturally. I think we miss out on a great deal of living when we don’t celebrate this kind of diversity, and having come from a community that does, and spending time in South Africa for a couple of years, seeing such diversity there shows how it can either plague your society or become an element that uplifts it.
SW: You are a noted filmmaker, you’ve won an Emmy. I remember reading about, “Blue Note” which was about jazz?
SD: Yeah, the history of modern jazz. I really believe that music is a universal language, having grown up in the era that hip-hop music was taking a full, global stage, and it really emanated in large part from the South Bronx and Queens, where I’m actually from. My father worked in the South Bronx when I was a kid, and so I saw a direct relationship between music and people who may not have had a voice, or at least were not heard, being heard in new realms, and I thought, “Oh my God, music is key to people being able to hear and understand one another,” because it always has a way of being able to infiltrate places where political speeches and policy couldn’t. So “Blue Note” was another expression of that for me; I was the American-based producer for this German-funded film about the Blue Note record label, and how jazz played a great role in transforming culture. I love looking for the real stories, culturally, of any particular place, and in fact, when I travel the first thing I do is listen to the music. “Blue Note” was a great experience, I got to work with greats like Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. I’m working on a documentary currently — it’s actually on the blues, the Delta blues, and an amazing guitarist, Robert Johnson. We’re working now with Nas, the rapper, who is executive producing it and narrating the film, and we’re currently exploring doing a virtual reality version of a visit to the Mississippi Delta. So that is my way of saying that as African-Americans, or people of any particular heritage, we don’t need to necessarily explain or defend our culture, but we do have a responsibility to share it.
SW: You said you spent time in South Africa?
SD: Yes, for seven years I traveled back and forth to South Africa to research the truth and reconciliation commissions as part of exploring the role of music in transforming South Africa from a political and social standpoint. Amandla, meaning ‘power’ in Zulu, was the name of the film I produced, and it really actually had the impact of changing my life in a big way, because after spending time in South Africa, one of the things I got is that as tough as conversations can be, you have to be willing to have the tough conversations to actually see transformation occur, and I think that we could learn a lot from South Africa. Everything is a work in progress, with the initiating idea that at the first free elections, there were people engaged in conversations around, “Who are we for one another?” I’ll speak for myself and say that I think African-American women are particularly committed and bold about recognizing the need to appreciate people, but also as women, to integrate those conversations into our society in ways that can be around the dinner table, with our children, in classrooms. We don’t feel that we have to reserve a certain kind of conversation for a certain dimension, we recognize that we have to use whatever platform we have to communicate. Film is my medium for that, and I feel that I have been blessed; I’m just a vessel through which stories get told, and I listen for the stories of the voiceless so that I can help to be a bridge so that they can be direct, in not so much my voice as theirs.
Sarah Weishaupt: Can you tell me a little bit about your early life, what it was like growing up in America for you?
Erica Ball: Sure. My experience might be different from most because my father was in the Air Force, so most of my life was spent outside of the United States until sixth grade. I was living on bases in Europe and on bases in the Pacific, but in sixth grade we moved to Arizona because my father was stationed there, and I went to junior high and high school in Arizona. So, my experience is that I’ve gotten to have the kind of cohesive sense of community that comes from living on a military base in another country, which is its own specific kind of American culture, and then suddenly not being on the base, but being a black American in Arizona.
SW: Do you know the approximate minority percentages of the schools you went to in Arizona?
EB: I was definitely in the minority once I left the base school. I went to base school through sixth grade, and then in junior high I was thrust into the Mesa, Az., public school system, where I was definitely in the minority. I think my graduating class had some 700 students, and of those 700, there were maybe 12 black students.
SW: Do you think your experience as a marginalized person in America has influenced your work — what you like to do, your projects, how you work with students?
EB: I think that having moved around a lot in my life and having been in a range of environments makes me especially sensitive to students who are coming from a range of different backgrounds, so I think that sort of shapes how I interact with students. I’m sympathetic to what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, as it were. In terms of my work, I first got interested in studying African-American history in college because I found myself learning about stories that I didn’t already know, and I was determined to learn more and more about it, so that’s how I started, and I just haven’t stopped.
SW: How do you think the portrayal of the black American experience in media is going to influence this current political climate over the coming years?
EB: That’s a tough question because I usually don’t make predictions; I usually look backward, as a historian. I can tell you that one of the issues that people of African descent have had to contend with in the United States is the gap between what is shown on screen and the complexity of the black experience itself, so if voters vote solely based on what they’ve seen on screen, we can find ourselves in some pretty dicey territory. But in this past year and in recent years, we’ve seen some black directors, filmmakers, screenwriters make interesting strides and offer a more complex vision of what black life is like in the United States, both past and present, and my hope is that that will not only entertain people, but help the culture at large.
Sarah Weishaupt: You grew up in this area. Can you tell me a bit of what the black culture was like when you were growing up versus what it’s like now?
Monica Jones: Well, I’m very multicultural in my living situation. I came from a neighborhood where we had every ethnic group represented. I lived across the street from a Japanese family. I lived catty corner from a Jewish family, who actually were Holocaust survivors. My neighbors behind me, they were Creole, primarily coming out of Haiti. A couple of doors down there was a Chinese family that we grew up playing with their kids, and a Native American family, so I kind of grew up everywhere, and I went to school in a primarily white environment. So my everyday life wasn’t entrenched in the black community per se, but I was raised in a household where black history was important, understanding your history was very important. And you know, growing up in the ’70s, there’s a picture of John F. Kennedy and a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and secretly, we had an autobiography of Malcolm X written by Alex Haley, so, you know, that’s how I grew up.
SW: You said your mother’s from Louisiana?
MJ: My grandmother’s from Louisiana, my mother’s from Texas, my father was born and raised here in Los Angeles. My grandmother is my father’s mother. She was born and raised in DeSoto Parish in Louisiana, which is close to Shreveport. My grandfather was born and raised in Arkansas, he’s actually a war veteran. My grandfather’s situation is very unique when you talk about black history because he grew up picking cotton on his grandfather’s plantation. So his grandfather was white and his father was half white, and he grew up with a very different view on white culture than maybe I would, because I didn’t experience that. My grandmother grew up in a situation where her mother was a cook. She was very well respected in the community for her cooking skills and had a reputation for non-tolerance of anything— my great grandmother didn’t take any mess. So, I grew up in a household where the female presence was the dominant presence. My grandfather worked three jobs to take care of us so he was rarely home, and when he was he was always very soft and warm and loving and she was bringing down the hammer because, you know, she was the woman with the house of kids, so it was very different.
SW: How long have you been working at Occidental?
MJ: It will be 20 years in August.
SW: Did you come straight to Occidental after getting your culinary degree?
MJ: No, [after] culinary school – I ran the bakery, the student-run bakery, for a while, and then I moved on to Universal Studios, and I stayed there for a while before I moved on to the Cheesecake Factory. That was not a good fit for me; I ended up leaving there and trying to start my own business, and then needing healthcare and things like that for my son, so one of my culinary compadres said that Occidental was hiring and had full health benefits, so I applied, because having a 3-year-old and no health benefits is not good.