By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Brandy Jones-Thomas commands attention as an instructor at Cosumnes River College, but she recently found herself in the learner’s seat.
Jones-Thomas, a department chair who teaches social work and human services classes at the local community college, has been sharing lessons from a recent trip to Africa through a series of virtual discussions. The educational journey was spearheaded by CRC’s African American president, Dr. Edward Bush.
“CRC, like other campuses, is trying to figure out what’s happening with our Black students,” Jones-Thomas said.
“The numbers for Black students in enrollment in college and college completion across genders is really low right now, most evidently history. He [Dr. Bush] wanted to find training for us, so that we could really dive into the work, to see what we were not having access to, what we needed to be better educators for our students.”
The inaugural All African Education Summit took place in September at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. The event drew educators from across the diaspora. Guest speakers included economist and social commentator Juliana Malveaux, cultural historian and author Anthony Browder and author and Clark Atlanta Professor Dr. Chike Akua.
“Going to Africa, it was important for us to hear and understand how they perceive the enslavement of their people,” Jones-Thomas said. “In addition to some of the history and practices that we call African centered. Things that some people may miss in education because they are African American, or haven’t been to the continent.
“The point was for us to really dive into understanding this Africaness, this African-centered practice, and what does that mean as an educator,” she continued.
The summit drew a diverse group of more than 400 participants, mainly those working at community colleges and historically Black campuses.
“There were other cultures there as well,” Jones-Thomas said. “It wasn’t just for Black educators, it was all educators that can go to really learn how to better support our Black students.”
For some, culturally sensitive training is little more than lip service. That’s not the case at CRC and in the wider Los Rios Community College district, Jones-Thomas said.
“That just speaks to the great leadership we have in this district and also speaks to the reality that some of the work that has to occur for us as African American educators – and also for those that are not African American, but are educating our children or young folks – that they too needed some kind of relearning.”
Dr. Bush led the conference and continues to lead the conversation, she continued.
“He thought the best way to achieve that was for us to go back home and bring other people with us to do that so that we could all be present to experience, I think basic, but it’s really more than that, some dug into African-centered practices and what it really means to challenge some of the myths we may have had about what Africa would look like.”
Jones-Thomas walked away from the trip with many lessons. “For African Americans that are part of the diaspora, those that were enslaved and grew up in different parts of the world and did not get to go home, a lot of the things we know about the continent came from a lot of books that weren’t written by us. This was an opportunity for us to challenge our own assumptions.”
Jones-Thomas has worked at CRC for five years. She started at Sacramento City College and is proud of working with Black students in the Umoja Diop Scholars program, an on-campus support community. Many students, she said, don’t know that such a program exists to help them with books, transportation to schools and other barriers to completing their studies.
“That’s sad because a lot of things that Umoja is doing is trying to clear some of these gaps and equities students have so that Black students can get degrees without stressing out while they’re doing it.”
Many African Americans don’t know much at all about African culture or their African roots, Jones-Thomas said. She admitted that much of what she learned about African history came from working with students in the Umoja program.
“It has not been given to all of us at the same time. We’ve got pieces or parts that we’ve never been able to sit down and say, ‘Wait a minute, what happened?’ We were able to do that there.”
Knowledge of self is important, Jones-Thomas said.
“I came back with this awareness that this was not the only way to be Black. At first it was like a kind of a culture shock. When we got there, everybody is Black. You go to the airport, everybody is Black. At the hotel, everybody is Black. You look at billboards, posters and everybody’s Black. The art in hotels and restaurants, everybody’s Black. There’s not a face that doesn’t look like me anywhere. I thought, ‘Wow, that was me.’ I’ve never seen so much embracing of the beauty of my own complexion.”
That alone, she said, makes one feel different.
“You move different in a place where you feel that you’re not a minority. Even though we don’t use the language ‘minority’ much now, we use BIPOC, but it’s very common that a woman like me is just me entering. There’s other people that have master’s degrees. I’m usually the only Black person in the room, maybe two of us, was one of the people. I had gotten used to that, so it was very exciting for me to see other people that look like me constantly, everywhere I went.”
Jones-Thomas is often in spaces where she’s one of only a few Black people in the room.
“I had gotten used to that, so it was very exciting for me to see other people that look like me constantly, everywhere I went.”
She also visited a number of historical sites. “We went to W.E.B. DuBois’ house, which is now a museum. We went to the Last Bath, a place where they bathed and cleaned the enslaved Africans – us – being taken from different parts of Africa and having to walk down to the coast to get prepared to go to the slave dungeon. We experienced that as a healing event.
The excursions were transformative, Jones-Thomas said.
“You can’t come out of these things and think about the world the same way – not good or bad. You’re just not the same when you leave.”
Almost a year later, Jones-Thomas is still unpacking from the life-changing experience of being in Africa.
“It took me two months or three months to come back and sit with all of the things that I dealt with over there and all the things I saw. The people. What I heard. Part of the requirements for us going was to come back and give some kind of training or some kind of presentation.”
Students also were curious to know how she spent two weeks away from them, so she started sharing online.
“People don’t know what they don’t know,” Jones-Thomas said. “This is just me being present and being able to say it in my true voice, as best I can so they understand what it felt like for me, the Black woman, to go back to the continent and come back and talk about it.”