By George Mauzy
Department of African American Studies Chair Ronald J. Stephens arrived on campus just in time to help plan the department's 40th anniversary celebration. He spent the first few months of his tenure gaining a better understanding of the department's current landscape, which he said puts it in a perfect position to regain its place as one the nation's most prominent programs of its kind.
What made you interested in the job as chair?
Ohio University has one of the 10 oldest African American studies departments in the nation and that makes it somewhat unique and gives it some national notoriety. I also was impressed with the faculty, and it was attractive to work at a Tier 1 research university. Since I'm from Detroit, I'm also closer to home. I envision doing some really important things here.
The department, founded in 1969, is marking its 40th anniversary this year. What do you have planned?
The 40th anniversary celebration is based on the theme of Sankofa, which means "looking back while moving forward." One of our key events is a one-day symposium on April 29. The morning session involves some of the department's former chairs, faculty and students discussing the history of the department. During the afternoon, nationally prominent African American scholars have been invited to campus to discuss the current and future state of African American studies departments across the nation, including ours. With the help of these scholars, we hope to develop a clear vision for our ongoing strategic planning. We are also hosting a Hip-Hop Expo on April 11 that will focus on media arts and community activism. Several other events are being planned through fall 2009 and will be announced when finalized.
What projects are you working on?
I want to develop a five-year strategic plan that will increase the amount of majors and minors in our department, improve the prominence of our Research and Service Institute and increase faculty involvement in our discipline. I also want to re-institutionalize some of our department policies and improve our Web page by making it more interactive. We've also made some fundamental changes to how the department operates and will continue to work hard to expand our partnerships on campus.
What are some of your future plans for the department?
In either fall 2009 or sometime in 2010, we plan on hosting a student-centered symposium on careers at which we hope to engage students from all majors in discussions about how they can benefit from pursuing African American studies as another major or minor. We also want to set the momentum for a rebirth of the department by elevating the foundation laid by past department chairs and faculty. My long-term goal is to add a graduate degree or certificate.
What can someone do with an African American studies degree?
The sky is the limit. The black experience hasn't been fully given voice in the service professions and other careers in which people serve African Americans and don't fully understand them. Whether you're a pharmacist, lawyer, journalist or doctor, it's critical to understand the people you're serving. The world is becoming small and integrated, and people often don't understand each other.
What are your personal research interests?
Local history and black towns, settlements and resort communities of the 20th century. I wrote a pictorial book about the historic community of Idlewild, Mich. (70 miles north of Grand Rapids) when I lived in Nebraska and Michigan. While in Denver, I researched the Black American West Museum and co-authored a similar publication about its black population. Forty percent of the proceeds go to the museum.
Are you currently writing any books?
I'm working on two books. One of them is on Robert Franklin Williams, a veteran civil rights leader who hasn't received a lot of notoriety. It will include his writings, columns, interviews, speeches and letters in book form, and I hope to have it finished by the end of the year. The other one is on the Idlewild community, which will celebrate its centennial in 2012. I plan on having it done before the celebrations begin.
Community and Campus Day, first held in 2002, recognizes the significant contributions and history of people of color in Southeast Ohio and the Ohio River Valley. Do you plan to continue this tradition?
We will meet soon to start planning one for spring 2010. We thought we might have one this spring, but our partner in planning the event, the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill, is currently busy with other projects. The next time we have it, I want to make sure we have even stronger input from the community.
What discoveries have you made about Athens that you'd like to share?
For one, I've discovered two restaurants that I enjoy -- Zoe and Salaam. Zoe has good lamb chops, and Salaam has a very good peanut butter stew. I also like Stephen's, China Fortune and a few of the chain restaurants in town. I've also joined the Kanawha Environmental Education Project, which meets once a month to talk about different issues surrounding community sustainability. We talk about the research on sustainability and how to incorporate it into our courses and also do some hiking to some of the local sites of interest.