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University Launches Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation

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“Systemic racism exists and terrible things can and do happen. Black students, faculty and staff may be depressed or angry. But what if we could focus on creating something of beauty? Or have a space to explore our culture and achievements? In the back of my mind, I wanted to create something that would build community and networks.”

– Natalie Graham, associate professor of African American studies

What would it be like to create a Black arts institute? To offer a space for intellectual study … a think tank for creatives? A place where students could write or edit a journal, develop creative arts and activities, learn more about African American culture, deepen their intellect and understanding? Where senior faculty members and the Black community could welcome and mentor newer faculty members?

The more that Natalie Graham, associate professor of African American studies, thought about it, the more compelled she became to create such an environment.

“Over the years, I watched what was happening in higher education,” she said. “For us, there was a push at the CSU level to develop an ethnic studies requirement, but then I also heard that many of our Black students felt like they didn’t belong. They would sometimes talk about being visible and invisible — they might stand out as the only Black student in their classes, but they often felt that their voices weren’t being heard. We’d hear about achievement gaps, retention gaps — and how this disproportionately affected Black students.

“I want Cal State Fullerton to be a place where Black students feel welcome and can thrive. We have taken steps to achieve this, but we know there is more to do.”

So how could the university achieve this goal? The result is the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation. The institute was recently approved by the university’s Planning, Resource and Budget Committee and will support students and faculty, campuswide, by institutionalizing the support and inclusion of Black people and Black culture, creative arts and intellectual history through collaborative, innovative, anti-racist research opportunities and publications; creative arts initiatives; community-based social science and humanities programming; and events that promote cultural competency.

“Our goal is to see students and faculty fellows collaboratively conducting research, centered on assessing and dismantling persistent legacies of institutional, anti-Black racism in higher education,” said Graham. “I see CSUF as a place for Black intellectual development. That’s what we can be known for — increasing achievement. I want people to understand that there’s something happening here. I think developing a cultural, intellectual space is a great step in that direction.

What if we could focus on creating something of beauty? Or have a space to explore our culture and achievements? … I wanted to create something that would build community and networks.

“I want to say to students and faculty, ‘Come here and create a community.’ Understand that reactive politics aren’t sustainable,” she said. “But that said, we still haven’t gotten out of an era of trauma. Protest is necessary. Pointing out systemic racism is necessary. I envision the IBII as a space to think and move forward. My goal has always been to be proactive, not reactive.”

Recognizing the significance of the institute for faculty, students and staff, Sheryl Fontaine, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, reached out to donors for their support. Howard Seller, professor emeritus of English, very quickly made a choice to donate $35,000 to assist in developing the institute.

“I was extremely impressed by the IBII’s goals and clear plans for development,” Seller said. “The multiple contributions the institute will make to students, faculty and the general community are especially relevant and timely. It seems clear to me that this endeavor is precisely what the College of Humanities and Social Sciences should be promoting and supporting.”

“We also want to support teaching initiatives that provide creative, experiential learning models for CSUF students exploring topics in African American studies,” Graham said. “Finally, we want to integrate community and academic leadership to mitigate barriers to well-being, retention and achievement for Black faculty at CSUF. We’re hoping to offer mentorship to faculty by looking beyond the university to community, corporate and academic leaders from across Southern California.” 

A primary goal during the first five years is to support the recruitment and retention of high-quality and diverse faculty and staff. The institute hopes to identify and select IBII advisory board members from the campus and beyond; develop a regional journal that centers on issues related to history, arts, culture and contemporary affairs of Black people in California; provide programs, events and conferences; and assess systems within the university that contribute to racist outcomes. They will also create a student research consortium and engage in fundraising to help support these goals.

A central space for IBII will be located in the Pollak Library, where Graham envisions an open area for students and faculty to meet, study and hold small events and lectures.

For more information, contact Graham at To donate to the institute, use the CSUF giving page.

Contact: Valerie Orleans,