The Right Place at the Right Time

The Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies

By Cherie Haughney

The Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies, named in honor of the Brooklyn native who became the first African American woman to win a seat in Congress, examines the roots and impacts of structural racism and systemic inequities in communities today.

A Seat at the Table

Anyone who has fought for a seat at the proverbial table knows it can be a long, slow process. This is especially true for women and people of color. Shirley Chisholm, who was both, knew this better than anyone. And she had some advice: If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.

In the midst of the racially fraught 1960s, Chisholm hauled her folding chair from Brooklyn to Barbados and back to Brooklyn before settling in Washington, D.C., where, in 1968, she earned a seat at the table in the halls of Congress, representing New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1969 to 1983.

Fast forward to 2020, and Chisholm’s legacy lives on at the Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies, located at SUNY Empire’s Brooklyn campus in the Shirley A. Chisholm State Office Building at 55 Hanson Place.

From here, on the ninth floor of a 13-story building in the borough’s Fort Greene neighborhood, Program Manager La Tasha Brown, Ph.D., will lead the center, which will examine the legacy of slavery and colonialism, address ongoing disparities, and develop policy for a more equitable society. In other words, the center will not just talk about social and racial injustices, but will, together with SUNY Empire’s Rockefeller Institute of Government, write policy to combat them.

“A conversation about healthcare or education can impact creation of policy and the allocation of funds and resources to communities that are lacking,” Brown explains. “It creates change.”

Brown, who holds a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in African and African diaspora studies, and a doctorate in comparative cultural studies, was an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz and director of the college’s Jamaica Service Learning Program prior to joining SUNY Empire. She also serves as co-director of the SUNY-UWI (The University of the West Indies) Center for Leadership and Sustainable Development.

A Nation in Need

At SUNY Empire’s 2019 Fall Academic Conference, Brown proposed a Shirley Chisholm memorial lecture series. Former President Jim Malatras liked the idea, and it quickly took on a life of its own. Malatras secured space within the Shirley A. Chisholm State Office Building and, long story short, the Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies was born.

“Racial identity is the crux of many of the issues we face as a society,” Brown says. “We’ll discuss race in terms everyone can understand, not academic jargon. We want those outside higher ed to participate in this conversation — to get educated and meet people well-situated to create change.”

The timing could not be more significant.

The center opens amid overlapping global and national crises, including a health pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a widespread social movement for racial justice and police reform sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died at the hands of a white police officer in May of this year.

“This is the right place at the right time to talk about race,” Brown says. “Recent events scaffold this conversation and give us something to grab onto.”

A Good Start

SUNY Empire students will have opportunities to learn alongside some of the nation’s leading researchers, policymakers, business leaders, and organizations working to increase access to educational, political, and economic opportunities for the historically marginalized. The center will also offer educational and cultural programs.

“It will be a multicultural, intergenerational experience. You’ll come in and walk away with a seed of knowledge,” Brown says. “What you learn, you bring back to your community and vice versa — a constant wave of knowledge and experience.”

Although COVID-19 has temporarily curtailed some of the center’s planned activities, Brown is busy working on center initiatives including a podcast series (see inset below), an online seminar series, a peer-reviewed journal, and a book proposal with Chisholm’s former speech writer, Robert Frishman.

After leaving Congress in 1983, Chisholm made her home in the Buffalo suburbs with her husband, Arthur Hardwick Jr. In 2005, she died of a stroke and was laid to rest in Buffalo, New York.

What would Chisholm say about the center if she were alive today? Brown thinks she would say it’s “a good start.”

“She would be proud that we’re rooted in Brooklyn,” Brown says, “and she would think the world of providing a voice for those who have been marginalized over the last 400 years. She’d say we haven’t crossed the finish line, but we’re past the starting gate.”

Chisholm Center Research Areas:

  • Slavery’s impact on contemporary life
  • Structural, interpersonal, and institutional racism
  • Education access and educational policy and reform
  • Disparities in health and healthcare
  • Income and wealth inequality
  • Arts and cultural expression

Listen Up

The Shirley A. Chisholm Center for Equity Studies will release the first three in a series of podcasts about the life and accomplishments of its namesake. The podcasts, collectively titled “Chisholm: An Intimate Portrait,” will be available on iTunes, via the SUNY Empire website, and on the center’s Twitter and Instagram channels.

  1. Cradle to Grave. La Tasha Brown interviews Anastasia Curwood, associate professor and director of African American & Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky, about her upcoming book on Shirley Chisholm’s life. The book spans Chisholm’s birth in Brooklyn to her death in 2005 and every challenge and triumph in between.
  2. Press On. Brown speaks with Robert Frishman, Shirley Chisholm’s former press secretary (1972-1983), who provides insight into her stances, speeches, and their unlikely connection. Frishman, a young white man with no background in politics, helped write some of Chisholm’s most iconic speeches.
  3. I Never Saw Her in Snow Boots. Dr. La Tasha A. Brown talks with Kayla Jackson, a former student of Shirley Chisholm’s during Chisholm’s professorship at Mount Holyoke College. Kayla remembers Chisholm as always being prepared, coifed, and “dressed to the nines,” inspiring a room full of college students, specifically women of color, to dress up for every one of Chisholm’s classes.