Maryland Academic Center to Focus on Black Women, Work
COLLEGE PARK, Md.
The unique experience of African American women and work is the focus of a new academic center under way at the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP). The proposed Center for African American Women’s Labor Studies hopes to bring together scholars, policy analysts and labor activists to develop a more critical understanding of the topic.
“Historically, Black women and men were brought here to work, but they (Black women) have often been marginalized in labor studies and excluded from the history of women and work and even Blacks and work. The center hopes to correct that dearth of scholarship,” says Dr. Sharon Harley, acting chair of UMCP’s Afro-American Studies Program.
Harley, who is the principal investigator, received a two-year planning grant from the Ford Foundation to create the center. The new grant is an extension of a number of Ford-funded research seminars conducted by Harley and other UMCP faculty.
The first seminar, “The Meanings and Representations of Black Women and Work,” was funded from 1995-1998 and brought together more than 20 Black women scholars from various disciplines (see Black Issues, May 27, 1999). That project will culminate in an anthology of essays Sister Circle: Black Women Represent Work to be published by Rutgers University Press this fall. The second seminar began in 1999 and takes a multidisciplinary approach to labor issues and all women of color. A public symposium where seminar participants will present their individual and collaborative research projects will be held next month.
Whereas many academic centers are isolated in a higher education environment, an important aspect of the UMCP center will be to reach and influence a wider audience. A recent organizing conference at the College Park campus fulfilled that goal by bringing together scholars, labor organizers and working women to develop the center’s agenda.
In addition to the more traditional center activities such as sponsoring ongoing seminars and housing research collections, conference participants highlighted several potential activities for the center including an oral history project to capture the experience of the Black woman worker.
Conference participants also emphasized the need to disseminate information through means other than books and scholarly articles. Ideas included a one-page fax to government officials and agencies informing them of relevant research. “I can see the state legislature and congress both benefiting from a position paper on low-wage labor and Black women’s lives,” says Harley.
Overall, Harley envisions the center as not only creating a community for scholars, but one for working women as well.
“Working women can come to hear a topic or speech — to hear something that may affect their lives,” says Harley.
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