Five scholars from northern Manhattan are coming to Columbia to pursue independent academic projects, fulfilling part of the University’s commitment to the West Harlem neighborhood.
The Community Scholars Program, which was outlined in the Community Benefits Agreement signed in the wake of Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion in 2009, allows the locals to research in University libraries and audit classes.
The five scholars will examine topics including women’s liberation in Guinea and the intersection of Harlem’s black and Jewish musical communities in the early twentieth century.
For one of the scholars, Vivian Nixon, the chance to study at Columbia is an opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream. Nixon currently works as executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit that connects women coming out of the justice system with opportunities in higher education. But she hopes to merge that work with a deep passion for writing and journalism.
Nixon, who comes from a working class African-American family, attended City College of New York to study theater and creative writing. Her parents, however, refused to continue funding her education.
“When your mother tells you can’t be what you want to be, it changes who you are,” Nixon said. “And for several years, I did drugs, I partied … I lost a lot of years of my life.”
Nixon eventually ended up serving three years in jail on forgery charges, where she said she heard the stories of “people who lived absolute lives of horror.” She added that her experiences in prison inspired her to work toward educating formerly incarcerated women as a member of CCF.
As a Community Scholar, Nixon will once again study writing and journalism, but this time she hopes to tell the stories of the same women she met in her journey through the justice system. She plans to publish articles and is considering publishing a book or screenplay on female incarceration.
“We have a lot of preconceived notions about women in prison … but they’re as diverse as any other group I’ve known, in terms of their background, what they want to do with their lives,” she said. “With education, these women can see themselves outside their community, see themselves in the outside world.”
Other scholars are also reaching into their past for inspiration. Mariama Keita, a fellow for the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, plans to draw on her graduate thesis to analyze historical women’s movements in her family’s native Guinea.
Keita, who traveled to Guinea as a graduate student to interview female civic and political leaders, hopes the program will help her publish her work, and serve as a launch point for a pilot initiative to educate young women in Guinea.
“The scholars program will be my foundation to launch something that I think will be a global transformational project and can be taken from country to country, and also applied to the United States,” said Keita, who plans to work with professors of African studies to expand her graduate research.
Other scholars are working on more Harlem-centric projects. John Reddick, a curator at the Smithsonian Institute’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Center, will use the program to explore cultural engagement between black and Jewish entertainers in Harlem during the early 1900s. Reddick, an architect by training, said his experience curating exhibits on public monuments in Harlem sparked an interest in the topic.
“I didn’t grow up in Harlem, but it has a mystical quality to me as an African-American,” Reddick said. “It was a gateway to success for those coming through the South or the Caribbean, and that is the energy I want to help bring back.”
Paula Kimper, a composer who has written four operas, will research her next opera—but she hasn’t chosen the topic yet. Her existing operas are “basically American stories, American history stories,” she said.
Kimper said she’s excited to use Columbia’s resources.
“It’s a fabulous resource and it’s great that it’s opened its doors,” she said. She’s auditing a class and using the libraries, but said “I feel like I haven’t really scratched the surface” of the University.
“I’m just optimistic that all five of us are going to come up with extraordinary work, both on our own and also together,” Kimper said.
The last scholar, CB10 member Steven Watkins, is the founder of a sustainable development and technology firm. He will compile a report on energy management and sustainable environmental practices in Harlem and abroad.
Avantika Kumar contributed reporting.