A gift of $500,000 that’s rooted in reparations and recognizes the powerful contributions being made by Michigan State University’s Department of African American and African Studies (AAAS) toward racial and social justice will benefit the students and faculty of that department for generations to come.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters, a Catholic congregation of more than 400 Dominican sisters and 200 lay people headquartered in Adrian, Michigan, gifted the money to Michigan State University to create student scholarships within the AAAS Department and to support AAAS faculty with their student engagement initiatives.
The AAAS Department was selected for this gift for the depth and breadth of its curriculum and its unapologetic focus on Black feminisms, Black genders, and Black sexualities. It is the first gift the AAAS Department has received since its inception in February 2019.
“We looked at all Michigan institutions of higher education and what kind of programs they had for Black Studies/African American Studies and it was MSU’s program that jumped out at us as being the most dynamic, interesting, alive, committed, and unequivocally, unabashedly unapologetic about Black Lives Matter,” said Sister Elise D. García, Prioress of the Congregation. “We were so struck by the integrated approach of all the different elements that are being taught and are part of the department. It aligns with our sense as Dominicans of the integration of study, community, prayer, and ministry in justice. MSU’s program was the one we were drawn to and wanted to support.”
“It was MSU’s program that jumped out at us as being the most dynamic, interesting, alive, committed, and unequivocally, unabashedly unapologetic about Black Lives Matter.”Sister Elise D. García, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Congregation
AAAS is the newest department within MSU’s College of Arts & Letters. Just this past year, in Spring 2022, the department launched the Bachelor of Arts in African American and African Studies and, in Fall 2022, the department moved in and celebrated the opening of its new space located on the second floor of North Kedzie Hall.
As the AAAS Department continues to evolve with its expanding curriculum; diverse scholarly approaches to research, teaching, and civic engagement; and the purpose of “living beyond survival into wellness,” it is committed to making concrete connections between its scholarship, pedagogy, and social justice and encourages students to study and appreciate the complexity of Black communities as well as the particularities of Blackness as it is lived, imagined, and created.
“I want to thank the Adrian Dominican Sisters for seeing us, for believing in our departmental aspirations, celebrating our focus on Black Girlhood Studies, and valuing Black feminisms, genders, and sexualities studies,” said Ruth Nicole Brown, Inaugural Chairperson of the AAAS Department. “To have the support of an external organization that wasn’t part of our everyday work see us so clearly and be so appreciative of our values and practices, enlarges our sense of community and deepens the impact of AAAS, in and beyond the state of Michigan.
“This first gift is significant. In AAAS, our students are our greatest why. Their transformative artistry, bold intellectual curiosities, and compelling resolve to make the world a better place by bringing the whole of themselves to their coursework, internships, and experiential learning opportunities are special and worthy of investment. Because the Adrian Dominican Sisters committed to Black study, recognized our powerful work, and then decided to support our student’s intellectual interests and learning experiences means we are with resourced opportunities to transform ourselves and the communities to which we belong. I am beyond thrilled!”
“I want to thank the Adrian Dominican Sisters for seeing us, for believing in our departmental aspirations, celebrating our focus on Black Girlhood Studies, and valuing Black feminisms, genders, and sexualities studies.”Ruth Nicole Brown, Inaugural Chairperson of the AAAS Department
The $500,000 gift was used to create seven separate funds with the primary investment — six of the funds — going to scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students of the department and another fund supporting faculty in their engagement with students related to their educational pursuits. One of the six scholarships supports experiential learning, another is for emergency needs, and the other four recognize academic excellence.
“The gift from the Adrian Dominican Sisters is an incredible opportunity for students and faculty within the AAAS Department to execute their visions and dreams,” said Gianina K.L. Strother, Assistant Professor in the AAAS Department. “Unfortunately, students’ bright ideas are often dimmed due to insufficient funds. With this endowment, we can offer financial assistance that inspires members of our collective to activate the unimaginable. This gift, and all future gifts to the department, supports our continued commitment to rigorous scholarship, art that stimulates discourse surrounding issues affecting society, dialogic community engagement, and service that brings us joy.”
Commitment to Racial Justice
The Adrian Dominican Sisters are part of the worldwide Dominican order of preachers and have been in Michigan since the late 1800s. In recent years, they have taken their commitment to racial justice to heart in a much deeper way by looking to their own congregation and why in its 135-plus year history there have only been six Black sisters with only two that remain today. Yet, at one time, there were as many as 2,500 sisters who were part of the congregation.
For more than a year, one of the sisters pored through the congregation’s archives to see if there was any evidence of discrimination in how Black sisters and Black women candidates were treated but found nothing to indicate this, which led the congregation to take a more introspective approach and to the publication of Reckoning with Racism: A Lenten Journey in October 2020. That publication, written by García, engaged the congregation in reflection and dialogue where they began to unpack, explore, and document their own individual experiences and actions.
“One of the things we wanted to do is expand our archives to have more of these anecdotal stories that could fill out the picture for us of the ways in which we have been complicit in the sin of racism as a congregation,” García said. “Following that, there was the murder of George Floyd that just stunned everybody and brought us all to a halt in terms of the way in which we were thinking about racism.”
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the Adrian Dominican Sisters drew upon its learnings with Reckoning with Racism to determine what they could do as a congregation to address the issue of racism and to create a more equitable and just society. After consulting with the congregation’s two Black sisters, Sister Jamie Phelps, Ph.D., OP, and Sister Maria del Rey Plain, OP, it was decided, through acts of reparation, to invest in Black students and Black education and in programs that educate about the African American experience.
“I don’t want students to grow up like we did, not really knowing who they are and not really understanding the contribution we have made to this country.”Sister Maria del Rey Plain, OP
“I don’t want students to grow up like we did, not really knowing who they are and not really understanding the contribution we have made to this country,” said Plain, who has been a member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters for about 55 years. “I want them to be proud of who they are and not feel ashamed or not knowing anything about themselves.”
The Adrian Dominican Sisters first invested in a scholarship for Black students at Siena Heights University, the Catholic university founded and sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. They also established a scholarship for students enrolled in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. They then wanted to invest in another Michigan institution and researched all higher education institutions in the state and choose to invest in Michigan State University’s AAAS Department.
“We were so impressed by MSU’s Department of African American and African Studies. It is truly extraordinary and such a gift to the world,” García said. “Programs like the one that MSU has help all of us to become educated and to really learn what our history is and what it is that we are called to do today to help build a beloved community. We as Dominican Sisters of Adrian who share the values that are being articulated by that program are really proud to be in this partnership and to have the ability to do what we have done.”
The Adrian Dominican Sisters don’t receive any money from the church. Whatever money they earn through their teaching, health care, and all other areas of employment, is pooled together and they only spend whatever is needed to live on, so over the years this collective pool has grown, and they also receive some donations.
“We were so impressed by MSU’s Department of African American and African Studies. It is truly extraordinary and such a gift to the world.”Sister Elise D. García, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Congregation
The first contact the Adrian Dominican Sisters made with the AAAS Department was through an email García sent to Brown at the beginning of the Fall 2022 semester. That email stated: “It is our intent to make reparation for our congregation’s past participation in structural racism and to support new pathways toward racial justice through an endowment of $500,000 that will provide scholarships for African American students enrolled in your outstanding studies program. Of all the programs in African American Studies offered at Michigan institutions, we found, in consultation with our two African American sisters, your program to be the most dynamic and compelling with its unapologetic centering of Blackness and Black feminisms, its Black Girlhood Studies, and its clearly articulated vision, mission, and values.”
Creation and Naming of Funds
Once the AAAS Department decided to establish seven separate funds with this gift, the Adrian Dominican Sisters worked to name the funds and choose the names of organizations and individuals related to African American Catholic sisters.
The funds include:
Dr. Geneva Smitherman Faculty Endowment
Dr. Geneva Smitherman is a University Distinguished Professor Emerita of English and co-founder of the African American and African Studies doctoral program at Michigan State University. Sister Maria del Rey Plain was a student of Dr. Smitherman more than 20 years ago at Wayne State University and says she still remembers some of the things she taught and wanted to support the program that Smitherman started at MSU. Thanks to Dr. Smitherman’s efforts, AAAS at Michigan State University began as a Ph.D. granting program in 2002, which helped pave the way for the creation of the AAAS Department.
This fund will support faculty in their engagement opportunities with students such as research projects and study away/abroad opportunities, with preference given for educational pursuits that focus on conditions of Blackness, locally and transnationally.
Dr. M. Shawn Copeland Experiential Learning Fund
A Black Catholic theologian, scholar, and award-winning author, Dr. M. Shawn Copeland is a former member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters and a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. She is a Professor Emerita of Systematic Theology at Boston College and is known for her work in theological anthropology, political theology, and African American Catholicism. She also was the first African American to serve as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the principal association of Catholic theologians in North America, and for five years served as Convenor of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium.
This scholarship will support experiential learning opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students pursuing a major or advanced degree offered in the AAAS Department.
Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, OSP, Student Needs Endowment
Servant of God Mother Mary Lange is currently being considered for sainthood by the Vatican. If canonized, she could become the first Black American saint. She is the founder of the very first congregation of Black sisters in the United States, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which she established in 1829 in the enslaving state of Maryland. The purpose of the congregation was to educate Black children and the congregation still exists today. The school she established, Saint Frances Academy, in 1828 in Baltimore, Maryland, is the longest continuously operating school for Black children in the country.
This endowment will provide emergency financial assistance for graduate and undergraduate students who are pursuing a degree offered in AAAS and who experience unexpected, unforeseeable, or unavoidable emergencies. Cost of attendance needs also will be considered.
National Black Sisters’ Conference Funds
Three of the funds are named in honor of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, which is an inclusive Catholic organization of vowed Black Catholic women and associates from many congregations across the United States that was established in 1968 by Black Catholic sisters in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two Black Adrian Dominican Sisters, Sister Jamie Phelps and Sister Maria del Rey Plain, are founding members of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.
The National Black Sisters’ Conference Funds include:
- National Black Sisters’ Conference Fund for Freshmen and Sophomores — This scholarship will recognize and encourage freshmen and sophomores who have either indicated an interest in or declared a major within AAAS.
- National Black Sisters’ Conference Fund for Juniors and Seniors — This scholarship will recognize and encourage juniors and seniors who have declared a major within AAAS.
- National Black Sisters’ Conference Graduate Student Support Fund — This fellowship will recognize and encourage graduate students within the AAAS Department.
Adrian Dominican Sisters Award
The only award of this endowment named after the Adrian Dominican Sisters, this award will honor students who have exemplified visionary wisdom, cultural advocacy, and/or excellence in or a passion for art, creative writing, music, dance, visual arts, multimedia projects, and/or theatre.
Student and Department Impact
The scholarships and awards from the Adrian Dominican Sisters endowment will be given out annually. AAAS students already are starting to benefit from these funds. Two students, Mike Martin, a senior AAAS and Arts and Humanities double major, and Amber McAddley, a junior AAAS major, recently were the first to receive funding from the Dr. M. Shawn Copeland Experiential Learning Fund Award. More scholarships will be awarded in Fall 2023.
“This allows us to dream big and really gets us imagining all that we can do and where we can go. It’s igniting a new fuel within us, which is something we needed; we wanted; we desired.”Amber McAddley, junior AAAS major
“I get concerned about how I’m going to make this work; how I’m going to achieve what I want because of limiting factors such as money. This allows us to dream big and really gets us imagining all that we can do and where we can go. It’s igniting a new fuel within us, which is something we needed; we wanted; we desired,” said McAddley, who will use the money from the Dr. M. Shawn Copeland Experiential Learning Fund Award to host a lecture in Spring 2024 in her hometown of Canton, Michigan, where she will give potential incoming students information about African American and African Studies, and more specifically MSU’s AAAS program. She also plans to provide resources, such as self-care kits, to “better represent all that the department stands for.”
“The Dr. M. Shawn Copeland Experiential Learning Fund allows me to step outside my comfort zone and give back to my community in a unique way,” McAddley said. “I am thrilled to share my personal experiences and use my voice to encourage and empower others through their fears.”
Jhala Martin, who is a senior African American and African Studies major and on track to become one of the first students at MSU to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in African American and African Studies, said she is grateful for the Adrian Dominican Sisters and their gift. “I think this gift will positively impact my education and will open more opportunities. If the Adrian Dominican Sisters can notice us and notice how hard the faculty and staff are working and how they are putting together these classes that showcase the love for African American and African Studies, then other people in the future will notice us too. I’m just super excited to see what’s to come.”
“This is truly just the surface of the work that we are able to do and having more capacity to create these opportunities will definitely continue to grow this excitement.”Yvonne Morris, Academic Specialist in the AAAS Department
It has only been four years since the MSU Board of Trustees voted on Feb. 15, 2019, to support the creation of the AAAS Department and so the department is still building and, in many ways, is at the very beginning of all that is envisioned for the future. The gift from the Adrian Dominican Sisters will go a long way in helping to fulfill that vision and mission.
“Right now, we are a department of six. There are six of us who are doing the laborious work of running the department but also still building the department, and so if our students, the campus, the community, and other stakeholders are finding the work we have done within this short period is already remarkable and impressive then just wait until we can get into our individual and collective bag of gifts and really show what we can offer and bring to the table,” said Yvonne Morris, Academic Specialist in the AAAS Department. “This is truly just the surface of the work that we are able to do and having more capacity to create these opportunities will definitely continue to grow this excitement.”
Written by Kim Popiolek