Fenda Akiwumi brings cultural values to USF – The Oracle
Having grown up in a cosmopolitan lifestyle, professor in the School of Geosciences and director of the Institute on Black Lives Matter (IBL), Fenda Akiwumi has a heart for African people and leads with a holistic perspective.
Akiwumi’s parents had the most impact on her life. She said her values and interests stem from their influence.
Having an ethnically African father and an African American mother helped her develop a cross-cultural perspective at a young age, Akiwumi said.
Her parents were college professors, which allowed her to grow up on various college campuses around the world.
Outside of the United States, Akiwumi has lived in places like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, England, and Russia. She felt she had grown up with a global perspective.
“[My siblings and I] had friends from all over the world,” Akiwumi said. “This opportunity to grow and understand different cultures and different people has made me the person I am today. I am comfortable in any environment.
When it comes to issues of justice and advocacy, Akiwumi said she has always been concerned with fairness and fairness.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been kind of, ‘It’s not fair. You can’t do that, ‘the kind of person,'” she said.
She started working as a geologist and hydrogeologist after completing a bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Manchester. However, due to her experience living among diverse groups of people, she has realized her passion in highlighting the cultural and political perspectives of geological research.
“I have a scientific background,” Akiwumi said. “But somewhere along the line I had this eureka moment and realized that no matter what field you’re in, the human element is very important, and you have to understand where people fit in. in everything you do.”
Recognizing this sparked a desire to “understand where people fit in” in his research, according to Akiwumi. She continued her doctoral studies. in environmental geography in 1991 at Texas State University, where she had begun to incorporate a more humanistic perspective into her work.
Teaching about Africa and the history of the African Diaspora, empathy and open-mindedness are frequently used in his lectures, encouraging his students to approach cultural differences with sensitivity.
“I tell students in my classes to ask the question ‘why’ before they say anything about anything you see,” she said.
“So if you see something and [want to say] whether it’s weird, weird or disgusting, ask yourself the “why” question first and use it as a learning opportunity. You have to listen to people. Put yourself in their shoes and show empathy.
Working as a teacher allowed her to be a mentor to her students, a valuable aspect of her teaching career, she said. As a black woman in science, Akiwumi said she cares about black students being properly represented and supported.
“[Black and female students are] constantly under pressure to prove [themselves] and be the best to be recognized and accepted in those spaces,” Akiwumi said.
“So for me, it’s very important to mentor these groups that are marginalized and to share my personal experiences and the things that I’ve learned along the way that have helped me.”
A passion for bridging the gap between science and culture, as well as being an advocate for black experiences, recently made her Director of the IBL.
After the IBL’s former director, Associate Professor of African Studies Cheryl Rodriguez, stepped down, she asked Akiwumi to fill the role because of her work ethic and professional and cultural background.
“[Akiwumi] has a vision for [IBL] and she was very receptive to the projects I was working on,” she said.
“I think that [her knowledge about Africa is not the only thing that] makes it excellent [for the role]. She also knows the African-American experience, so she can bring both to the IBL.
Playing the role isn’t a lonely endeavor, Akiwumi said. When she stepped into the role of director, she said she encountered difficulties due to the fact that the IBL had a smaller workforce than in the past. Having a smaller office led to her having fewer resources to work with, such as having fewer staff on board to help her.
Rodriguez and other colleagues were Akiwumi’s main supporters during her freshman year, she said.
“I had a diverse faculty [who were] some of my biggest advocates and supporters,” Akiwumi said. “Their ideas, their support in helping organize panels for conferences and getting their classes to attend events…really helped me tremendously.”
The impact of Akiwumi’s work for the IBL also extended beyond the university. The IBL recently hosted its Annual Conference, an annual event intended to highlight the collaborative work of IBL faculty, students, and community partners.
Conferences are thematic events discuss key research areas such as education and student achievement, economic and environmental impacts, black education and research and anti-black racism, heritage preservation, and community-based research initiatives.
Jhe 2022 conference, held on February 1, was a landmark event as it was the first time it was not held on the Tampa campus. Host the event on the St. Pete. campus was a very exciting opportunity, Akiwumi said.
“The African-American community [at the St. Pete campus] was thrilled because the research focused on their relationship with the university and the work they do in collaboration with university partners,” she said.
The event’s theme was “The Tampa Bay African-American Neighborhoods Project,” a project that Christian Wells, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Brownfields research and development, said was a valuable project for Akiwumi.
“[The African American Neighborhoods Project of Tampa Bay is] such an amazing project that she has done,” he said. “[I’m] so proud of that. It’s like a jewel in the crown of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The project explored various perspectives on African-American neighborhoods in Tampa Bay. It has a online collection of data on the demographics, history, mobility, and economic conditions of African-American communities accessible to local residents and scholars.
This year it highlighted and featured communities in the town of St. Pete., an addition organized and led by Akiwumi.
His impact extends beyond his career as well. Roxanne Watson, an associate professor at the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications, found her passion and authenticity to be among her most admirable traits.
“She’s very much alive,” Watson said. “What you see in her is a real human being. There’s no “Oh, I wonder how she is in private”…she’s a real McCoy [she is a real and genuine person].”
She applies those traits at USF and in her own life, Akiwumi said. In general, she says she does it to show respect and support to others, but for her personally, it’s a rule of life.
“I think that [virtues] are an important thing to have. I believe there is some kind of karma for that… If you come out of the positive, the positive comes back to you,” Akiwumi said.
“I try to bring happiness to others in any way I can. I tell my sons that the mantra of life should be just to be kind and respectful to people. That’s it. That’s all what you need to do.