Black Life Symposium June 2

The free public event will honor IBL founder Juel Smith and share multi-disciplinary research on Africa.


By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May, 25, 2011) – “Perceptions have been changing, in some quarters, but Africa is still far more shrouded in mystery and misconception than you would imagine, even at this late date,” said University of South Florida Associate Professor Cheryl Rodriguez, director of USF’s Institute on Black Life (IBL).


“But those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience Africa are thrilled about sharing our research, our travels and our love of the continent in order to change those perceptions.”


And sharing is exactly what will happen at the Global and Collaborative Inquiry Symposium on June 2, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions.


Registration is free to this Research One event which is a joint venture between the institute and the USF African Initiatives Faculty Group.  It’s open to faculty, students, staff and the public to register via email to Olga Atehortua at or by phone at (813) 974-4727.


The symposium represents a new era of strategic partnering and higher visibility for the institute.

At the same time, the symposium will look back and honor the institute’s founder, Juel Shannon Smith, now retired.


“Dr. Smith was way ahead of her time in bringing African scholars to USF and taking students and faculty to Africa,” said Rodriguez. “You can trace many of USF’s early relationships with African scholars to her involvement. Twenty-five years later we’re still standing.” 


Smith also is responsible for establishing the Center for Africa and the Diaspora within the institute to focus scholarship directly on African issues worldwide, taking in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, where Africans can be found in abundance.  

“African history and culture touch on politics, health, economics, gender and so much more. They grow in importance with all the changes happening on the continent and throughout the world,” said Rodriguez.

“It’s essential to focus on Africa’s woes – such as dislocation, genocide and hunger – but it’s also important to shine a light on Africa’s achievements and progress, which are significant. Dr. Smith understood this when she did the hard work of starting the institute in 1986 and it’s just as true today. The symposium represents exactly what she had in mind and acknowledgement is long overdue.” 

The call for papers to be presented at the symposium has attracted abstracts from USF researchers in many disciplines: anthropology, public health, communication, geography, geology, integrative biology and education.


IBL, now part of USF World, is reinvigorating its role as a hub for campus and community research and scholarship related to African Americans in Tampa Bay and beyond.   


“Africa is enormous and enormously rich and varied in so many ways,” Rodriguez said. “It’s time for USF’s scholars to take their place among those from other leading universities for the work we’re doing, which has been somewhat invisible when taken as a whole. When we bring all of the individual efforts together, they’re quite impressive.  We plan to build on these efforts in the weeks, months and years to come.”


Though not her first time in Africa, Rodriguez is still excited about an inspiring trip to West Africa she took last October.  It yielded a few surprises – among them the diversity on the University of Ghana campus.


“You would have thought you were at an historically black college right here in the U.S. though with a substantial number of students from Europe, Asia and Latin America mixed in,” she said.  “After spending time with faculty and students there, it became clearer than ever that we have a lot of knowledge to share with each other and plenty of research to do, ideally together.”


Not wasting any time, Rodriguez began collaborating on a new book on women’s and gender studies with two Ghanaian scholars, Akosua Ampofo and Dzodzi Tsikata, who will be attending the June 2 symposium.   If all goes according to plan, Rodriguez hopes to work out a transatlantic co-teaching arrangement – technology permitting – that will bring more African scholars into USF classrooms. 


The institute and its director now call the Patel Center home, close to neighbors that include Education Abroad, International Services, the Confucius Institute, the Center for India Studies, the Peace Corps Office, the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), and the Africa Initiatives Faculty Group. Together they comprise USF World under the leadership of Karen Holbrook, senior vice president for Research, Innovation & Global Affairs.


An anthropologist, Rodriguez already teaches a course on “Women in Africa and the African Diaspora” as well as one on “Black Women in America” and “African American Community Research” in the Department of Africana Studies. She knows being part of USF World will further enhance IBL’s global perspective and spur interdisciplinary projects. 


“Partnering with African scholars to both teach and learn as well as emphasizing the research component of our international and home-grown connections are goals I share with Dr. Holbrook,” Rodriguez said. “I’m really excited about where we’re headed.  Africa is clearly part of the university’s global research strategy as it should be.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.