It was an historic moment.
In 2003, President Ruth Simmons charged faculty and students with exploring Brown’s relationship with slavery. One outgrowth of this charge was a commitment to advance research on the topic through the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), which was officially established in 2014.
“[Research] must evolve as new information comes to light and the winds of justice shift direction,” Simmons said at the center's dedication. In a highly prescient moment, she also noted that there is “little evidence that slavery in its current forms will soon disappear.”
Four years later, the center's robust work falls under two of the research themes laid out in the University's current strategic plan: Creating Peaceful, Just, and Prosperous Societies and Exploring Human Experience.
From acknowledgement to institutional leadership
Under the leadership of inaugural director B. Anthony Bogues, the Asa Messer Professor of Humanities of Critical Theory and Professor of Africana Studies, the CSSJ has instituted an ambitious plan to expand its contributions to the dialogue about historical and modern-day slavery. The goal is to translate its vital research into community impact in its core areas: the Global Curatorial Project, human trafficking, examining the American criminal justice system, race and medicine, and race and education.
“I’m proud of the way that Brown has challenged and illuminated its own history, and shown itself to be a leader among peer institutions,” says David Haas ’78, a Philadelphia-based philanthropist who recently made a commitment to support the work of the CSSJ over the next five years. “I believe that the center's ongoing work will continue to play a leadership role in the field.”
Mr. Haas's interest in the CSSJ was piqued when he attended the 2017 Debra Lee Lecture featuring distinguished filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr., whose documentaries focus on black history in America. He felt the center needed to reach a larger audience, so he helped fund a collaboration with PBS.
“People are attracted to the ways in which the center can intervene in the world,” says Bogues. “What turns the light bulb on in their minds is the public outreach mission.”
Connecting the past to the present
The center fulfills its public outreach mission through several community partnerships—with schools, museums and service organizations. For example, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies Elena Shih, who leads the CSSJ's human trafficking research cluster, works with a variety of organizations in Providence to help them better understand and respond to the links between trafficking and the child welfare system, immigration policy, and the criminal justice system.
“We are looking at the racial hierarchies of global inequality and how they affect labor exploitation and mobility for certain groups,” says Shih. “When there are so few protections for vulnerable groups, people become targets for this type of exploitation.”
Julianna Brown ’18, a health and human biology concentrator, was drawn to Shih's work by her interest in the effects that anti-trafficking policies have on public health. Julianna is analyzing data that Shih helped collect and using it to develop training materials for volunteers at COYOTE RI—a grassroots service organization, whose Providence chapter was founded by Bella Robinson.
“Authorities use the anti-trafficking narrative to threaten consenting adult sex workers,” says Robinson. “But they're not developing services to help those who want to leave that life.”
“There are many layers to what justice looks like in the United States,” says Brown. “The research we are using is a tool that will lead to tangible solutions. It's amazing to find groups that are willing to involve a student in this kind of work.”
But students, says Shih, are an integral part of moving the work forward. “Anti-trafficking has become a global funding priority. Support for the center enables more students and faculty to study the interconnectedness of these issues.”
Pictured at top from left to right: B. Anthony Bogues, the Asa Messer Professor of Humanities of Critical Theory and Professor of Africana Studies; Julianna Brown '18; and Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies.