The Importance of Belonging

Author Bettina Love discussed paths to academia and the value of 'place' at Thursday's book signing

Just a few hours before she delivered the keynote speech at Kent State University’s 2022 Anti-Racism Conference, Bettina Love, Ph.D., met with Kent State students, faculty and staff for an informal discussion and book signing.

The gathering was less a discussion of Love’s newest book, “We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,” and more a chance for attendees to get to know the award-winning author and ask questions. 

Seeing herself

Love was introduced by Shemariah J. Arki, EdD, assistant professor in Kent State’s Department of Africana Studies. Arki met Love at an academic conference nearly 10 years ago and they became friends. 

While attending the conference, Arki was in a hallway when she heard “a dynamic voice. Speaking like somebody from my community, talking like they’re talking to me, but talking about what it means to do this work,” she said.

“To see someone in that space, allowed me to see myself in that space. And 10 years later…” Arki said.  

Shemariah J. Arki, assistant professor, Department of Africana Studies.

As Arki introduced Love, she invited the people in attendance to expand the conversation beyond discussing the book and talk about what it’s like to be a student at Kent State and “What can we do, as a small, thoughtful group of committed folks, to transform this place that we’re in?”

Love’s path to academia

Love first spoke about how she became an academic. “I never thought I would be an academic,” she said. “That was not my trajectory at all: I played basketball. I was really, really good at it. And so that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to play basketball for the rest of my life.”

“I got to college and realized that I wasn’t that good. I was good. I wasn’t that good. I stayed on the floor more than I was up. I had to figure out something else.”

So, she started reading about her options and exploring academics outside of basketball. She was fortunate to have several mentors who suggested that she should become a professor. As a first-generation college student, Love wasn’t quite sure what professors do. She asked one of her mentors, “What does a professor do?” His answer? “You write and you talk sh*t,” he said. So she said, “Sign me up. Sign me up. And that’s how I became a college professor.” 

Finding common threads

Mwatabu Okantah, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Africana Studies, shared that he had a path to academics that was similar to Love’s. He explained that Kent State recruited him for the track and field team. “When I got to this level, running track,” Okantah said, “People that I could outrun before I got here were running away from me. So I had to figure out something else to do.”

Okantah and Love have another thing in common: They are both parents of twins. 

Mwatabu Okantah, associate professor and interim chair, Department of Africana Studies.

The importance of a space

Okantah also shared some of the story of the origins of Oscar Ritchie Hall, born out of some of the protests on campus in the early 1970s. Black students on campus had asked for a Black studies program, more Black faculty and staff, and a Black cultural center on campus. 

“This building is literally the fulfillment of the dreams of earlier generations,” he said. “It looks the way it looks because we wanted to create a space where saw ourselves, a space where we could come in out of the cold, a space where not only could we study ourselves, but we understood that it wasn’t just for us: Other people needed to know our story.” 

When baseball great Jackie Robinson’s mother visited campus, Oktantah was excited to meet her and took great pride in showing her around Oscar Ritchie Hall. She asked him “Why are you separating yourselves?” He replied “We are not separating ourselves – but can’t we have a house? Can’t we have something that’s ours that we can invite other people into?”

Okantah said, “ Because if you come into this space, outside of the student center, this is the most diverse place on campus.”

Creating a sense of belonging 

Love agreed with Okantah, citing statistics that indicate historically Black colleges and universities produce 50% of Black doctors, 50% of Black lawyers and 50% of Black CEOS. She said, “There are over 3,000 colleges in the United States and you mean to tell me that 20 colleges are producing 50% of Black doctors, lawyers and execs? That’s a huge understanding of what belonging can do.”

“When we have our own, when we have an opportunity to see ourselves, to feel protected, to feel loved, that’s community,” said Love. “And it’s pumping out 50% of Black lawyers and Black doctors. I’m in Atlanta, Georgia: I can see and I know what it does.”

Bettina Love's book, "We Want to Do More."

POSTED: Monday, October 10, 2022 04:44 PM
UPDATED: Saturday, May 18, 2024 03:33 AM
Phil B. Soencksen