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Master’s student Alexis Brown, who earned her bachelor’s degree in communication studies in 2021

Last year, an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that, according to federal data, only 2.1 percent of tenured professors at four-year colleges are Black women.

Many universities have initiatives to diversify their teaching and research faculty, but there are persisting issues and pressures that present themselves to minorities in a workforce.

Current master’s student Alexis Brown is taking a close look at the experience, identity, representation, communication, and support networks of Black women in academia.

One thing she studies is social media – in particular, Twitter activity – to see how Black women academics are supporting one another, sharing resources and ideas, and sometimes interacting with students.

She began her research on women, empowerment, and identity while completing her bachelor’s degree at UNCG, also in communication studies, working with her mentor, Dr. Cerise Glenn, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies.

With Glenn, she helped lead a fall 2021 practicum that focused on Black feminist thought, and, as Glenn says, “the intersections of what agency, leadership, and empowerment look like, in the era of the pandemic and where we are with this moment of social justice and equity.”

The course also included analysis of some popular culture touchpoints such as the character of Grace Greenleaf in the show “Greenleaf,” an Oprah Winfrey network show about a Black family who owns a megachurch.

“Throughout the show, you see how Grace becomes an advocate for a lot of different people,” explains Brown. “And she pushes back against the norms of what a woman should be, especially a woman in the church. She really takes on a leadership and advocate role. And that’s what I wanted to focus on with my research: strong women. In particular, I want to see how professors are engaging, and how they’re dealing with a lot of issues that they have to go through, whether it’s because of their race or their gender.”

Glenn’s 2021 book “Womanist Ethical Rhetoric,” which Brown helped with as a research assistant, has a chapter discussing Greanleaf and “womanism,” a term coined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker that means “a black feminist or feminist of color.” Glenn and Browns work describes how womanism involves both survival and emotional strength.

The pandemic era, as Brown and Glenn point out, generated a lot of survival-related issues to consider for women, and for Black women in particular. The pandemic put disproportional pressures on working women with children, and the murder of George Floyd and other incidents of police violence against Black people create extra emotional pressure for Black women.

“So, Black feminism or womanism happens at the intersections of race and gender,” says Glenn. “So, we are asking, how are women of color navigating two sets of very difficult and unprecedented issues in American society?”

As a student representative for the organization for the Society of Communication, Study of Communication, Language, and Gender (OSCLG), Brown shares their work, and she has taken part in roundtables, presentations, and a virtual conference. She will submit her research for consideration for a panel at the next OSCLG.

“Working with Alexis shows the developing talent,” says Glenn. “Being able to have her as a research assistant, helping lead a research practicum, and now seeing her leading her on her own independent project – particularly in this pandemic when we’ve done a lot of work virtually – has been a great experience for me as a faculty mentor. It’s also been a pleasure watching Alexis grow and develop as a scholar in her own right.”

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography and image by Martin W. Kane, University Communications, with material courtesy of Alexis Brown

 
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