Dr. Lori Baptista’s Legacy and the African American Cultural Center at UIC

If you expose students to difference as part of a normal thing, as opposed to ‘we will now have a program about difference’ No! We study with people who are not all just like us, in spaces that are not just all the ones we’re comfortable with, so if we do normal, everyday things in other spaces we’ll be less intimidated to cross borders. Totally makes sense.

Dr. Lori Baptista  |  African American Cultural Center Director, 2011–2018

A Very Brief History of the AACC

UIC’s African American Cultural Center (AACC) was a couple of decades in the making. Efforts to establish such a space began alongside conversations that culminated in the creation of the Black Studies Program (now the Department of African American Studies) at UIC, then known as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, in the early 1970s.  Both of these endeavors were part of the pioneering work of Professor Grace Sims Holt, who became the first Director for the Black Studies Program in 1974 and remained so until 1986. According to Dr. Lori Baptista, former AACC Director, Professor Holt “was instrumental in envisioning what [the AACC] would be.”

Twenty years would pass before the AACC was actually funded and established in 1991. Bolstered by racially and gender-based incidents in the early 1990s, a coalition of campus and community partners, allies, political leadership, and students demanded funding for the center. Following a series of interim directors, Dr. Phillip Royster, Professor of African American Studies and English at UIC, was appointed as permanent Director. In 1994, the AACC was moved to its current location in Addams Hall. Dr. Royster served as Director for over twenty years, creating and sustaining the Visiting Artists Series, a monthly installation highlighting the work of local African American artists, throughout his time at the AACC.

Dr. Lori Baptista Joins UIC

Following Dr. Royster’s retirement, the AACC welcomed Dr. Lori Baptista as its new Director in 2011. Dr. Baptista, who holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, brought with her extensive experience researching and developing arts-based and critically engaging cultural programming, as well as working with communities and organizations throughout the Chicagoland area. Prior to joining UIC, and along with Dr. Rosa Cabrera, current Director of the Rafael Cintrón Ortiz Latino Cultural Center at UIC, Dr. Baptista was part of an urban ethnography team at The Field Museum, and worked on a series of grant-funded projects focused on cultural diversity and environmental sustainability in various Chicago neighborhoods. “What was really unique and wonderful about our work there is that we took a very assets-based approach in thinking about communities and identity,” Dr. Baptista recounts, “if you want people to make positive changes in their lives, that benefit both themselves and the environment, how do you not just come in and prescribe to them what they need to do? How do you really respect the fact that cultural communities, themselves very diverse, have values and beliefs and practices and things that are important to them? How do you harness that first, and make a connection for them between the things they already feel are important and these other kinds of environmental priorities?”

Charged with breathing new life into the AACC and working to further integrate it into other vital university functions, Dr. Baptista’s vision for the AACC, and all the work that followed, was guided by this assets-based approach to community building and sustainability.

“I was interested in the position [of AACC Director] in that way because cultural centers at universities are often located in different places [and university units] and the cultural centers [at UIC] were located in Academic Affairs, which was appealing to me because in there is an opportunity to influence curricula, to partner very directly with faculty and academic units, as well as partnering with student affairs units, [and] also to bring in research-based, data-driven frameworks to help support cultural approaches. I was excited about what I could do to bring an assets-based approach to the cultural center to try to reinvigorate it. And that was really the charge at the time that I was hired. To help the center become more relevant, to become more deeply connected in very structured, but also very practical ways to academic units, and then to build relationships where it made sense both in the campus community and outside of campus.”

The AACC’s space itself had not been renovated since 1994, so first things first, Dr. Baptista’s tenure began with the practical aspects: asbestos abatement, recarpeting, and bringing the space into the 21st century.

“Over the years,” she explains, “we put in some AV as funds became available, we put in a TV, we got a lot of stuff from surplus, we repurposed a lot of things, but the whole idea [was] how do you engage more people to use the space? [The] visiting artists series was kind of, it was up and there were announcements made about it, and maybe people passed through, but it wasn’t tied to the curriculum, it wasn’t tied to community tours or anything, so part of the idea for the renovation was to think about how all these spaces would be used, and who would be using them, and how I would bring in partners to do that.”

An initial project was documenting the AACC’s history, particularly the struggles and events that led to its founding, which had not been properly recorded when Dr. Baptista joined as Director. Dr. Royster was particularly helpful in this regard, but “it required quite a bit of archival work,” Dr. Baptista recalls.

While excavating the AACC’s history, Dr. Baptista began to focus on the center’s future as well, working to build relationships with partners both within and outside UIC. “I mean, if we shared this common genealogy with African American Studies, it didn’t make sense to me that we didn’t have a formal structured relationship with the unit,” she explains. “So I spent like the first year doing the campus tour. I met with the heads of various academic and other units to understand what they already did, what they knew about the center, how they worked with the center in the past, and to see what opportunities there might be to work together in the future.”

Reinvigorating AACC Programs and Initiatives: Expanding Engagement and Reach

From the beginning, under the leadership of Dr. Royster, the AACC was meant to be “a very arts-based, practice-based arm, [a hub that would] support students in a number of different ways that were tied more closely to the curriculum as opposed to just social activities,” says Dr. Baptista. The numerous programs and initiatives developed during Dr. Baptista’s tenure continued in this vein and stressed the significance of assets-based frameworks and research-based programming.

Aside from the Visiting Artists Series, which was meant to provide a platform for young, aspiring Black artists, and to highlight Black culture and tie it into campus conversations, the AACC was mostly being used as a meeting space. Programming budgets had not been increased, “and there was no room to really develop new programming,” Dr. Baptista explains. While funding has remained hard to come by, Dr. Baptista figured out ways to develop partnerships and bring in internal and external grants to fund a number of AACC and collaborative initiatives. For instance, in recent years the AACC has received support from the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement (IPCE) at CUPPA, the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women, and the Illinois Humanities Council.

There’s a mindset about how you support students as a cultural center,” explains Dr. Baptista, “sometimes that’s about “you let them have social events in your space,” and that’s not the only way to do things. That’s actually not been our mission. Our mission is really engaged around supporting the academic and diversity missions through very thoughtfully conceived and measured initiatives that relate the Black experience to a number of different points, right? [If] you’re a cultural center people think it’s just a social event, that you just do programs. There’s this presumption that there’s no thought behind programming. “You just do stuff, well, how come you can’t just do more?” You dream up a program in the shower and you come in, and it’s a program! I had to argue with someone about the need for research support and they were like, “you’re not a research center, why do you need research support?” Well, we do historical exhibits, you actually have to research them. Even if you were just doing genre-based exhibits, if you were looking at “Black post-structuralist…” I don’t know, impressionist painters, you would still need to research it. So there’s a presumption that programming is like this thing you just do, and there’s no framework or no explicit goal.

In 2012, the AACC launched its Summer Arts Festival, which aimed to increase visibility and strengthen campus and community partnerships. Through a series of arts and research-focused workshops, the festival’s program fostered engagement with various African Diaspora and African traditions and public celebrations.

“I mean, I should say, before we started doing things, part of my listening tour, because I come from an assets-based approach, we did asset mapping. We needed to understand who were the stakeholders in the center, what were the concerns that people had, what were the visions or the ideas that people had for the center in terms of what they thought it was or what it should be, who it should serve or how it should serve [them].  So the biggest initiative we started off with, which was a kind of “welcome to this new space that we renovated, and here’s new leadership, and here’s how we’re trying to approach these things” was the Summer Arts Festival”

When UIC’s School of Art and Art History launched the Museum and Exhibition Studies M.A. Program, Dr. Baptista was invited as affiliate faculty, and this new partnership allowed for participation by Museum and Exhibition Studies graduate students in the curatorial process for programs at AACC.

“It was a nice way again, within the institution, to build a relationship with an academic unit where the assets that we had, which were gallery space and the ability to create exhibitions, were a value to them. So students would have practical experience doing that. Part of the practicum in class involves in some way generating an exhibition for the cultural center [such as “The Cavalcade of the American Negro,” curated by Jacqueline Smith in 2015]. And so we’ve done a number of the exhibits that have come out of that work, either through [Graduate Assistantships] or student [coursework] to build content material. That has been a very successful partnership that we’ve had for many years now. Two of the Fall exhibits that are coming up now are coming out of the seminar that I just taught this spring for Exhibition Practices.”

The AACC’s focus on arts-based, critically engaging programming has produced a number of well-received exhibitions. One example is “The Reason Why” (June 6th – October 11th, 2013), a historical exhibit meant to illuminate African American participation at the World’s Columbian Exposition, or lack thereof. “I think that was one of the programs that I’m most proud of,” shares Dr. Baptista, “in terms of the impact it had, its relevance.” “We had a lot of units, History, Sociology, African American Studies, all over campus, that tied it in as a co-curricular activity, which was also part of the goal and so that was fantastic.” An earlier exhibition presented in 2012, “Black/Inside”, was a collaboration with Project NIA, an organization emphasizing participatory community justice, as well as the College of Architecture and the Arts at UIC. A timely exhibition, it explored the relationship between the conditions of slavery and mass incarceration.

I think [these exhibitions were] successful not only because so many people came, but [also] because they were very relevant and timely. [They also] did what we do well, which is use research-driven approaches to look at historical events, or social events, issues, or concerns and engage people around those areas in ways that also involve aesthetics.

In 2013, the AACC collaborated with a number of community-based veteran service organizations, the Office of the Dean of Students/Student Veteran Affairs, and the UIC ROTC, to develop “The Things We Carried” and “Thank you for your service,” which explored the experiences of student veterans more broadly, and of African Americans and people of color in the military, more specifically, while highlighting the complex intersections of race, class, and gender in this context.

“We curated from our community partners’ collections to put together a timeline of African Americans in the military, and hosted a series of dialogues around those issues, which were really productive and engaging with that particular community. What we were also hearing, as the Student Veterans unit was being established, is that as more students who were veterans were returning from the war in Iraq and were accessing their benefits and enrolling in classes, they were being asked really inappropriate questions in class by peers, or they were dealing with stereotypes [about African American and Latino participation in the Military].”

“My intention for this space is not that it’s a closed unit, where everything just happens here and I’m in charge of it all. It has to make sense and be of value, and address issues that are already important to people, or be of use to other units,” says Dr. Baptista. This emphasis on collaboration remains a cornerstone for the AACC, and for the six other Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change (CCUSCs) that are currently part of the Office of Diversity, whose Directors meet once a month to discuss potential collaborative projects and thematic foci (such as UIC’s Heritage Garden and Internship).

For the AACC, a particularly significant collaborative initiative has been to develop exhibitions and other co-curricular materials that could be tied to the Illinois Fine Arts and Social Science curricula for K-12.

We had a lot of high school groups, and grammar school groups actually, that would come to our campus and they wanted to visit the AACC. So, rather than just have people come to hear us say “Hi, we’re the African American Cultural Center and these are the kinds of things we do,” why don’t we just create a [program] that is tailored to when they come? So we started to adapt our tours, for example, to meet the curricular standards. If a teacher were to bring a group of 6th graders, we could take them through an activity that maps to the Illinois standards, so they are getting something out of this than just understanding that this is a space that Black students fought for.

Beyond expanding the reach and relationships of the AACC, under Dr. Baptista’s leadership, and in collaboration with campus and community partners, the AACC has also worked to broaden perspectives regarding Blackness, and to integrate the diverse, and yet interconnected, experiences of Black Diaspora cultures: African Americans from Chicago and elsewhere in the United States, African-African-Americans, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latinx cultures, to enumerate just a few.

From “Black/Inside,” from “The Reason Why,” and from some of the more specific thematic programs that we’ve done that have been very intentionally about these intercultural dynamics, “Cintio Vitier” was another one that was more recent, [our audiences can see that] actually Black people are also Hispanic, you know, Black people exist in other planes, and actually there are points of connection that people might not realize they have until they see it and recognize it.

Valuing the work of the CCUSCs

While in the process of transitioning into her new position as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs and Advising at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, Dr. Baptista shared some of her hopes for the future of the AACC and the various centers at UIC.

I think [Associate Chancellor and Vice Provost for Diversity] Dr. Amalia Pallares has a unique way of looking at cultural representation that’s not just symbolic, that’s not just “we need X number of whatever,” so I’m excited that the future will be more of this kind of meaningful engagements from an assets-based approach. What have you already done? What do you have the capacity to do? Who’s in the network that could speak to this particular issue? […] And what are the things that are already being done that could just be amplified as opposed to “we need fifteen new things”?

It Ain’t Where You’re From

The AACC’s Summer 2018 exhibit, “It Ain’t Where You’re From,” underscores some of the intercultural dynamics and complex interrelations among Diasporic groups that Dr. Baptista points out above. It is also based on her own work.

“My own research, outside of here, I looked at food and identity, and how people communicate aspects of who they are and how they see themselves in the world through food.  It also ends up being this complicated history of place and time, and never as clean and straight as people might imagine. There are always these very interesting points of overlap and intersection that people discover when you’re reading someone’s very particular story. Even if it’s not your story you get to a point and you’re like “We totally make collard greens too!” Maybe your version is different from my version, but we have this thing in common now that we didn’t know we had”

Drawing from fieldwork and visual documentation of the relationship between food and identity in a Portuguese ethnic enclave in Newark, NJ (Dr. Baptista’s hometown), the exhibition explores stories of global mobility, race and identity, and community struggle and survival. It aims to challenge notions of belonging, difference, place, and place-making. If you missed it, check out the exhibition’s site for links to a virtual tour and Dr. Baptista’s artist talk at the exhibition’s opening: It Ain’t Where You’re From.

Also check out the AACC’s upcoming Fall 2018 exhibit, “Sanctified“: “Sanctified is an exhibit to increase public knowledge of the contemporarily famous gay black author and black and gay rights activist Assotto Saint (b. Yves Francis Lubin) and introduce visitors to news way of thinking about Afro-Diasporic religion” (AACC).

 

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In addition to numerous initiatives and exhibitions, the AACC also rents out its space to student organizations and hosts Open Study Hours during the academic year. Some professors have been known to use their library space for Office Hours, which, according to Dr. Baptista, can be a great way to reach those students who may not otherwise engage outside the classroom.

Even if you’re just using this space for quiet study, you will learn something about Black history, Black culture, cultural practices, and traditions, because it’s a part of who we are, but […] that doesn’t have to be your experience to appreciate it. It has to have value to more than just the people who self-identify in that way, so that’s been a nice balance to provide people with different ways in.

 

For more information about the African American Cultural Center’s programs, exhibitions, and initiatives, please visit their website.