Don’t put the Africans in the basement

Opinion by Mina Shah
Nov. 14, 2016, 12:07 a.m.

Last spring, the students who frequent the Center for African Studies received some horrible news. CAS, as we all fondly call the Center, is going to be moved, not once, but twice in the upcoming years. The first time will be in the summer of 2018 to the opposite side of Encina Commons from where it is now, followed by a second move in the summer of 2019. Not only will CAS have to move, but when we do eventually get moved to our final space, we will share the space with two other programs that, while they have admirable missions, do not share the same particular kind of student-facing ideals, and thus cannot truly be combined as seamlessly as Global Studies would like us to believe. Unlike the other two programs, CAS does not need a study space. We need space to be the family that we are.

CAS cannot be moved like this. Because moving it into a basement would destroy it. If CAS is moved downstairs, certainly all the decorations will move with it. All the amazing and brilliant people who make it what it is will move with the space. But at what cost? If CAS is moved anywhere other than a space dimensionally comparable to the one we now call our home, the magic of the place will die. The space allows us to really get to know each other. To build community. To hold one another in times of personal or large-scale crisis. To make art and music and magic and family.

Space is political, and the politics of space are important. We are living in an era in which violence is done to people based on their identity categories. This move, this series of moves, is a violence, and it is a violence that is unnecessary. The space proposed is too small for three programs, with not enough office space and too many cubicles. It will destroy the very thing that the administration seeks to preserve and lift up.

We as a Stanford community can choose to be the part of the America – Trump’s America – that has been exposed for its bigotry and misogyny by unfairly trying to move a community that exemplifies everything that is the best of this university. Alternatively, we can choose to be better. To lift up the communities that prove what is so wonderful about the institution and our nation. To throw off the chains of our history and be better than racism. CAS is the only space on campus that not only effectively allows for a deep mixing of students from Africa with students of Africa in a way that creates intellectual projects and a family nothing short of magic, but was specifically created to do that.

Moving CAS to a space smaller than it is will prevent it from serving the 350 undergraduate and graduate students that it does serve each week. Moving it into a space where there is not an appropriate mix of closed and open space will, too, killing the particular kind of community that exists there. It is unlikely that students will feel comfortable pouring their hearts out and truly being themselves when visiting faculty are working in cubicles no more than a few feet away from the space that is allegedly theirs to unwind in. Moving CAS to a shared space will prevent us from having the dynamic and diverse 120 events a year that we host.

Beyond all of this, it is important to try to actually preserve the community because it is a beautiful thing. CAS matters. It is true that, technically, CAS is an academic center and not a community center. However, the fact of the matter is that CAS is special because the intellectual project of the center and the community that it houses are inextricably intertwined with one another. Our conversations on politics and pop culture and how our days are run up into and over and among one another. We practice the languages we speak at home and ones we are just starting to learn.

Sure, some things might be the same if CAS is moved with such a violent transition. Stanford students will still receive funding to do service work and research on the continent. African language courses will still be offered. Students will still be able to receive a minor or an M.A. But the richness of all of those things, the life-changing dimension of possibilities created by CAS, will cease to exist if this move happens the way it is planned. A summer of service could potentially end up being just that, with no community to hold and support you when you return back to the Farm. A language could be something that you take simply to fulfill a graduation requirement. An M.A. could be sterile and purely academic and objectifying of the continent, a sort of intellectual imperialism. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. I know, because I see the vibrancy and beauty of CAS every single day that I am on campus.

I know that it’s hard, too, for folks that have never seen the space, never come to a CAS event to understand what’s at stake here. So I’m writing this column as an open invitation to our events and our space. Come see what we’re about. And once you realize how much beauty and magic is there, we hope that you (yes, I do mean you, who are reading this column right now) will be with us as we try to preserve this department, this community that does so much for the students it serves and the university as a whole.


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’

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