89. Building The Institute for Critical Race & Ethnic Studies w/ Dr. Natalie Byfield, Dr. Raj Chetty, & Dr. LaToya Sawyer

Dan invites Dr. Natalie Byfield, Dr. Raj Chetty, & Dr. LaToya Sawyer to talk about the creation of The Institute for Critical Race & Ethnic Studies (CRES) at Saint John’s University in Queens, NY. To best set the tone for this episode, here’s a quote from Dr. Natalie Byfield, the Founding Director of CRES:

“I was looking for something this morning on my computer and I just came across all these things that students had sent me that I’d been collecting about things they were experiencing, and I thought it was just so important that that always be remembered because what came out of that, very clearly I think, in the student space and in the activism that was taking place among the students was that they wanted to do something to make Saint John’s a safer space for students of color. They wanted to do something to ensure that even after they left, structurally and institutionally, there would be programs and there would be parts of the structure of the university that would be more welcoming to students of color. And so I do want to go back to that and keep that in mind because I think a lot of time transformations that take place in university spaces do come from students or at the impetus of students and I just think that in general terms there’s a long history of it so I’d like to also place the work of the students at Saint John’s in the context of that history.” –Dr. Natalie Byfield

Dr. Natalie P. Byfield is a Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology. Her research is interdisciplinary; it is broadly concerned with hegemony, specifically the relationship between knowledge and power in the construction and reproduction of racial inequalities in the modern western world and the social justice response to them. She writes about the construction of knowledge and power relationships in the language, media systems, technologies, and research methodologies that occur in the institutions of policing, journalism, the social sciences, and higher education. Dr. Byfield is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the university’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society. Her past fellowships include a Samuels Center Fellowship from the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College of the City University of New York, a Revson Fellowship at Columbia University, and a National Science Foundation Fellowship. She is the author of the monograph Savage Portrayals: Race, Media, and the Central Park Jogger Story. Dr. Byfield has been a consultant on major documentaries about the Central Park Jogger case including “The Central Park Five,” a documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon and the ABC 20/20 Documentary, “One Night in Central Park.” She has worked as a journalist for the New York Daily News. Her work in journalism has also been published in The New York TimesHuffPostTimeThe Weekly Newsmagazine, New York Law Journal, and New York Woman Magazine. Her current book project is titled Minority Report: Place, Race, and State Surveillance in New York City.

LaToya Sawyer joined the English department in 2017 as an assistant professor. She specializes in rhetorical theory, digital rhetoric, feminist theory and rhetoric, and cultural rhetorics (African American and Caribbean rhetoric). Dr. Sawyer teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in African American women’s rhetoric, literature in the global context, African American literacies, and feminist theory.

Dr. Sawyer is currently working on her first monograph which explores the identity performances, rhetorical production, and agency of Black women on social media. Through case studies on Black women-dominant spaces online, this book shows how Black women’s use culturally-specific literacy and discourse practices online as a means of empowerment and offers a critical examination of the constraints, risks, material labor and possibilities associated with digital Black womanhood.

Awards and Distinctions:

National Women’s Studies Association Women of Color Leadership Program (2018)

National Council of Teachers of English Cultivating New Voices fellow (2014-2016) Conference of College Composition and Communication Scholar for the Dream (2012)

Dr. Sawyer’s publications: https://latoyasawyer.com/publications/

Raj Chetty is associate professor in the Department of English at St. John’s University University, specializing in Caribbean literature across English, Spanish, and French languages. He is at work on two projects: “On Refusal and Recognition”: Disparate Blackness in Dominican Literary and Expressive Cultures,on the articulations between Dominican literary and expressive arts and conceptualizations of Black Diaspora; and The Entry of the Chorus: Theatrical Legacies of C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, a study of the performance legacies of James’s Haitian Revolution plays. With Amaury Rodríguez, he is the co-editor of a special issue of The Black Scholar on “Dominican Black Studies” (2015), and with Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann and Alex Gil, he collaborated on the public humanities digital resource, Ethnic Studies Rise! (2019-20). His work appears in Estudios SocialesSmall Axe,  Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black InternationalMeridional: Revista Chilena de Estudios LatinoamericanosAfro-Hispanic Review, and Callaloo.

People and Texts Mentioned in the Episode

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“I would always tell the students, ‘We get to do stuff because we get to ride your coattails. As soon as you make very public and very concerted and very organized mobilizations, all we have to do is show up’ and that seems really minor, but in a real sense that’s what we did, we would show up and students would see us and we’d make the kind of partnerships that in no small sense facilitated everything movement-wise that we’re seeing now.”
–Dr. Raj Chetty

“I think this type of community that we built is what is allowing us to push for so much change within the institution.”
–Dr. LaToya Sawyer

“A lot of what’s happened at Saint John’s has been happening in the context of the pursuit of community among the students and also among the faculty and then a desire to institutionalize the ways in which we can pursue and grow these communities.”
–Dr. Natalie Byfield

“Always within the context of any of these institutions whatever is created has to fit within the context of its internal structures but the thing is we have all these lessons that we have learned over the last many decades of trying to institutionalize Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, […] there are lessons that need to be taken from what’s happened before that have not allowed many of those programs to sort of blossom and thrive as opposed to existing in an isolated underfunded anemic context.”
–Dr. Natalie Byfield

“So when you ask this question about Texas, part of me is like, “It makes sense,” this is the sort of […] dialectical response to the kind of pressure that is also dialectically happening in response to oppressive systems pushing; this is the history of Black struggle.” 
–Dr. Raj Chetty

“We’ve heard things about the types of courses that we teach, Critical Race Theory or Studies, being “trendy,” you know the type of “trendy” things that we do in the classroom, those types of attitudes prevail and kind of motivate us to work harder.”
–Dr. LaToya Sawyer

“This is the work that I do. This is the work that I do. I’m not going to do a different kind of work […] and this is the type of work that the students need and appreciate.”
–Dr. LaToya Sawyer

“This is the work […] so the job is I’m a professor at the institution, but then there’s the work […] and you don’t let the job distract you from the work.”
–Dr. LaToya Sawyer

“I assume that maybe what we need to do is what we have been doing, in that we are calling attention to the necessity for the teaching of Race. And I’m saying it that way as opposed to attacks on Critical Race Theory because I think that is actually a red herring because it’s being used to shut down the teaching of Race.”
–Dr. Natalie Byfield

“We should be ensuring that the histories of people that have been marginalized and erased get put back into the conversation.”
–Dr. Natalie Byfield

This episode was recorded on April 2nd, 2022. Because we recorded via Zoom, there may be occasional audio hiccups. The theme song is “4 am” by Makaih Beats. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher and follow us on Twitter & Instagram  @WritingRemixPod.

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