Stanlie James on rights for women, people of color and her journey to higher education

Former vice provost to speak at School of Social Transformation webinar March 30

Portrait of Stanlie James, the keynote speaker for the ASU School of Social Transformation's webinar "Black Women in Higher Education."

Stanlie James, professor emeritus and former vice provost of inclusion and community engagement, was the third generation to attend college in her family. "I've mentioned that because people are a little shocked to hear that," she said. "Sometimes assumptions are made about who is a first-generation college student."


Stanlie James, a professor emeritus and former vice provost of inclusion and community engagement at Arizona State University, is a lifelong learner and advocate for women’s and Black issues in the U.S. and beyond. 

In preparation for the March 30 webinar "Black Women in Higher Education: A Conversation with Stanlie James," the School of Social Transformation sat down with James to talk about her career milestones, academic passions, research and more.

Question: Can you please introduce yourself?

Answer: I’m Dr. Stanlie James, I’m a professor and for the last four years of my career, I was vice provost for inclusion and community engagement at ASU. On a personal note, I'm from Des Moines, Iowa, and I'm a fourth-generation Black Iowan, which is unusual. There are fourth-generation Iowans, but they're much younger … very few are my age. Other than that, I'm the third generation to have gone to college in my family.

Q: That’s a great accomplishment.

A: Both of my parents graduated from the University of Iowa: my mother with a bachelor’s degree there and my father received his DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery). My maternal grandmother attended UI as well. I've mentioned that because people are a little shocked to hear that. Sometimes assumptions are made about who is a first-generation college student.

Q: Where’d you go to school?

A: I did not go to the University of Iowa because by the time I graduated from high school, I was ready to leave Iowa. I attended what was then considered the “best high school” in the state. Iowa was "integrated" throughout the 20th century and even before. We didn't have a large population of Black people, so we did not have segregated public schools or segregated public accommodations. The high school that I attended only had 12 Blacks out of several thousand students, so, in a way, we were integrating that school, and it was not always a comfortable situation.

Anyway, I left Iowa and went to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, which is one of only two Black women’s colleges in the country. It was a member of the Atlanta University Center, which was comprised of six Black colleges, or HBCUsHistorically Black colleges and universities, as we now call them. I majored in sociology and history. There was open enrollment across all those campuses for the students. While I was there, I encountered Professor Anna Grant at Morehouse College. … She was a very tough teacher.

Q: A lot of work, I'm guessing?

A: I took her “Black Families” class. We were assigned to read every important book available on Black families at the time. We had to write papers on every single one of them, and then we had to write a final paper. I didn't realize we had to write a paper on all the books until near the end. I missed the first day of class … so now I tell my students never to miss the first day of class because you might miss some very important information about the class!

Q: Sounds like you learned a lot from that experience.

A:  Yes. I nearly had a nervous breakdown, but I finally completed all the work for that class, and when the grades came out — I received the only A!

Q: That’s motivating after all of that work.

A: It certainly was. After that, she wanted to see me, so I went to her office and she sat me down and asked me, "What do you want to do with your life?" I said, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'll be a teacher or social worker or something like that." That's what women did in those days. She said, "Oh no, that's a waste of your talent." She told me that I needed to be a college professor.

Q: So that moment changed your whole trajectory?

A: Absolutely. Even though she was a Black woman college professor, it did not occur to me that this was something that I might consider. And I didn't even know how you did it. I was in shock, and I had to go home and mull over whether or not that was a possibility. It opened up a new way of looking at things. I went on to apply for the junior year abroad scholarship offered at Spelman College. I decided that I wanted to attend Makerere University in Uganda. I applied, but they did not respond in a timely fashion. And when I finally did hear from them that summer, my application was rejected because they did not accept American undergraduate students. By then, of course, it was too late to apply elsewhere.

Q: That’s so frustrating.

A: I thought, "Well, now what? I'm too late to apply to go someplace else to do this year abroad." But the scholarship was funded by the man who at that time was the president of the Spelman board of trustees. One of my classmates told he that he was a friend of her parents, and she encouraged me to write him a letter, explain my situation and ask if he might help me. So, I sent him a message and he told me to make an appointment to meet with him when he was in town for the next board of trustees meeting. I made the appointment, and we took a 15-minute walk around Spelman's campus as I told him what happened to me. He understood and agreed to give me the money for graduate study instead. So, that is how after I graduated from Spelman, I was able to go to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to get my first master's degree.

Q: Some good news!

A: It was. The educational system is different. We chose three areas of concentration and took the same seminars across the three (what we would call) trimesters. One of my areas was social change in sub-Saharan Africa, and another one was in religions of sub-Saharan Africa. We took only one exam for each seminar at the end of the year. Exams were given in certain rooms throughout the University of London system, and the exam proctors were dressed in academic regalia. It was all quite formal. And by the way, if you missed that exam, regardless of the reason, you either had to retake it the following year (at the same time) or if they allowed you to graduate, your diploma would say that you had not taken the exam! The exams were then sent to readers who could be anywhere in the Commonwealth, so it took a while before you were formally informed about whether or not you passed.

After I wrote my master's thesis and got my degree, I came back to the states and was trying to figure out what to do. I got a job working at Central State University, which is an HBCU in Ohio. I taught there in the sociology department for four years and then married and went back to Iowa. We lived in Iowa for a while, and I had my daughter but the marriage did not last … so I was trying to figure out what to do. By that time, I was teaching in the community college in Des Moines, and I knew I did not want to do that for the rest of my life.

Q: Then what happened?

A: I met a man who was a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, and he became my mentor. He encouraged me to think about going back to get my PhD and becoming a college professor. We decided that the University of Denver had the program that I wanted. I applied to what was then called the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) but is now known as the Korbel School for International Studies. That’s where I got a second master's degree and my PhD.

Q: During your education and career journey, what’s something that surprised you or changed your perspective on life?

A: There are so many things. One is about being in England in the early '70s; there was an Africa Center there. I had an opportunity to meet so many Africans from all over the continent, as political colonialism was ending. I'm saying that specifically because we continue with what I would call “economic colonialism” to this day. But back then, countries were attaining their freedom and setting up their governments. So many of the Africans I was meeting at the time were from different countries around the continent. And because they were being educated, I knew they were returning to their country to be involved in establishing their country after colonialism. It was really exciting to get to know those people. It’s like they had a mission. They were getting their education, but it wasn’t so much about, “Oh, I’m going to stay in England and make a lot of money, or I’m going to go to America and make a lot of money.” It was, “How can I take this knowledge back to help my country?"

At the same time, England was going through a period where racism was becoming quite prevalent and quite open, but the racism was focused on Asians and particularly East Indians. It was at this time that Uganda was expelling all Asians from their country, and those people that they expelled held British passports and could legally immigrate to England. There was just so much hatred against these people. Since I grew up in the United States, I was quite familiar with racism, but somehow we had always been taught to believe that Europe was where you could escape racism. So, to go to England and discover that that wasn’t the case was eye-opening. It was a rude awakening to learn that racism was (and continues to be) an international phenomenon.

Q: Can you tell us about your book, "Practical Audacity: Black Women and International Human Rights"?

A: All of my books have been labors of love, but this is the first one that I've written as sole authorship. The others were anthologies, and while they were very important and did important things, this is the book that I have been working on for decades. It is the culmination of all of my work. One of the areas of concentration for my PhD was international human rights, and that's important because most people who were involved in this field of study were studying it in law schools. Yet, I was not in a law school but I got a PhD with a concentration in it. With this book, I wanted to bring human rights out of law school and make them available to everybody. Because unless you are in law school or you're involved in the United Nations, you may or may not know anything about it. Also, I have always worked on Black and women’s issues. So "Practical Audacity" is a culmination of my research in all those areas.

I was aware that in the past, there were Black women who had decided to pursue work in international human rights. Now, we spent the latter part of the 20th century unearthing the work that Black women have done in the American civil rights movement. Some women had come to the conclusion that civil rights could not adequately address their experiences of multiple oppression. They sought something beyond civil rights. As they became cognizant of the field of international human rights, they considered pursuing their agendas in this more comprehensive field.

What I wanted to do with this book was to identify some of those women. I wanted to share their stories through this book because women are doing important and unsung work that we need to know about. I'm trying to present these untold stories to inspire people to figure out what they can do to support international human rights work, to make a difference in the world.

Q: What are some of the social problems that you're concerned about? Why do you think that these problems are important to address?

A: I call them the “family of -isms”: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia and ableism. Those things are all deeply intertwined. They're all intersectional. They all have had an impact on the way that we are able to live our lives and what we're able to do. It's important for us to understand them, but also to figure out how we can effectively counteract those -isms. And the interesting thing is that they shape-shift: You think you may have solved the problem, and then it comes back differently.

Q: What you just said about the “-isms” — that’s brilliant. Why do you think that these problems exist at their core?

A: I thought about that a lot because the problem seems illogical and stupid. You can say all kinds of negative things, but I think it's fear. At the very bottom, it is fear of the unknown. It's fear and it's an effort to figure out how one can be important, or how one can be better than someone else.

Similarly, I was recently listening to Robin Kelley — a very important historian. He observed that we talk about capitalism and we talk about racism, but separately. He argues that racism is an integral part of capitalism. He says that there is no capitalism without racism. Racism feeds capitalism. So we had slavery, which fed capitalism, then we abolished slavery but proceeded to establish Jim Crow to replace it. But what was important, at least if we’re talking about this only as a Black-and-white issue, is that it’s also applicable to other groups of people of color. The specific history varies, but the main point is that all forms of racism have fed capitalism, so to speak.

Q: Can you tell us a few of the topics that you'll be covering during the "Black Women in Higher Education" talk March 30?

A: We will be discussing women of color — and particularly Black women — in higher education. Many people are pursuing higher education, but I want to discuss the fact that just because you get a PhD doesn't mean that you're going to become a professor or that you're going to remain in education. And part of that is because pursuing a PhD is a difficult process under the best of circumstances. Then when you mix in sexism and racism, sometimes people decide, "OK, I've had enough of this, and I'm not going to subject myself to the tenure process." So they choose to do something else with their education.

I also want to touch on one of the things that I see that is so important. … It is the fact that we have attained degrees in a wide array of areas. For example, before, we could only be an educator in sociology or history or English. But now, you have people in astronomical sciences, mathematics or engineering. Black people are doing those kinds of things — that's exciting.

Q: Given how difficult pursuing higher education can be, what’s your advice for students, whether they're an undergrad or grad, in the School of Social Transformation or any other school at ASU?

A: I tell people that you are going to meet challenges. I don't know how to say this because I don't want to denigrate people who don't reach success, but ultimately, if you are going to make it, you have to overcome setbacks. And those setbacks can be a lot of things. Maybe you pass your tests, but you struggle with your dissertation — maybe it's not approved, etc. We all have our struggles and hurdles to overcome. We may not talk about it, but sometimes I think we should, because the capacity to meet adversity and move beyond it is what it takes to survive and ultimately to thrive.

"Black Women in Higher Education: A Conversation with Stanlie James" will be held via Zoom at 6 p.m. on March 30. Register here or visit the ASU Events listing for more information.

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