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ASU's biggest virtual campus tour ever now streaming on Amazon Prime Video

February 26, 2021

New TV series features students sharing personal stories about their ASU experience

As COVID-19 continues to make visiting college campuses a challenge for prospective students and families, ASU is stepping up and taking an innovative approach to allow students to tour ASU, all from the comfort of their living room sofas. Introducing the ASU College Tour, a 60-minute episode about ASU in the new Hollywood-produced series, "The College Tour," now streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Roku.

The new series was the brainchild of host Alex Boylan, an Emmy-nominated television personality and producer, most recognizable as a past winner of "The Amazing Race."

“My niece is now looking at colleges and with her family on a budget, she couldn’t tour as many colleges as she hoped,” Boylan. “I thought, what an amazing opportunity to showcase different universities to place-bound students around the country through a professionally produced television show.”

"The College Tour" was born and ASU is one of the first universities to be featured.

ASU’s full episode of the College Tour can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, Roku and on ASU’s YouTube channel.

“In a challenging year for many families, we knew that we needed to put in action bold ideas to help prospective students learn about the amazing university experience waiting for them at ASU,” said Matt Lopez, associate vice president of enrollment services and executive director of admission services. “Giving our current students the chance to tell their stories on platforms as far-reaching as Amazon Prime Video and Roku was an exciting way to meet families where most of us are right now – at home.”

Throughout the episode, which provides a sweeping visual tour of ASU, 18 Sun Devils share their personal academic journeys at the most innovative university in the country. One of those students is Lily Baye-Wallace, a mechanical engineering major and dance minor, whose segment on the show provides viewers an overview of ASU’s world-class academics. 

“I was thrilled to participate in ASU’s episode of The College Tour,” Baye-Wallace said. “I want to help prospective students understand that while ASU is by no means exclusive, it is home to incredible research and academic options that enabled me to graduate early with experience in a variety of fields by simply asking me to participate. My story is not unique either. I'm surrounded by peers that have multiple majors, minors and graduate a semester or even a year ahead when that's often impossible — not to mention expensive — at private universities."

Nikhil Dave, a double major in neuroscience and innovation in society, is another student featured. He narrates his story called, “What kind of university the world needs.”

“Our focus on accessibility is something that’s unique to Arizona State University, not only as a university, but for its students,” said Dave, a recent XPRIZE winner who assisted with ASU’s COVID-19 response efforts through the university’s Luminosity Lab. “In emphasizing inclusivity, our students have the opportunity to encounter diverse perspectives and different backgrounds, challenging their thinking and pushing them to grow.”

ASU’s episode focuses on student choices and personalized learning experiences available on ASU’s distinct campuses as well as through ASU Online. The desire to learn on a smaller, tight-knit campus with a focus on technology is one of the reasons why Rachael Shantz chose the Polytechnic campus. She’s a junior majoring in aeronautical management technology (air traffic management). In "The College Tour," she explains that she wanted a small college environment with the benefits of a large institution.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Polytechnic campus is truly where I belong,” Shantz said. “And I firmly believe that with all of the options and opportunities available to you at Arizona State, you can find where you belong too.”

“We are deeply impressed and grateful for the amazing students that volunteered their time and talents to tell the ASU story so well,” said Kent Hopkins, vice president for enrollment services. “When designing new ways for prospective students to experience ASU, we always want to highlight the stories of the amazing students that make up our university community. Our students are our best storytellers, and these 18 students have created something special for high school students around the world to learn about ASU.”

Boylan, the show's host, tells ASU News that the crew was impressed by the inclusivity of ASU during filming, as well as ASU’s diversity of locations and experiences available to students.

“Almost every student touched upon inclusivity in the episode and it was so awesome to see it up close and personal while filming on campus," Boylan said. “The second big takeaway is how impressive ASU students are. I’ve been on many college campuses and after meeting these students, one thing is clear – these young people are going to change the world for good.”

ASU invites prospective students and their families to a virtual ASU College Tour Watch Party at 6 p.m. (MST) on March 4. During the hourlong party, viewers will get the chance to meet Boylan and a panel of students featured in the ASU College Tour and watch select segments from the episode. President Michael Crow and Provost Pro Tempore Nancy Gonzales will also join the event to greet prospective students and families and answer questions about ASU. Attendees can submit questions to the panelists live by tweeting them using #TheCollegeTourASU on Twitter.  

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Brayboy named ASU's new vice president for social advancement

February 26, 2021

New duties will include overseeing and implementing a variety of academic and social initiatives in Arizona, Hawaii

Arizona State University’s Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy has a bevy of job titles and picked up a new one in February.

Brayboy was named the university’s vice president of social advancement. The new title carries with it a lot of national and global responsibilities and duties, and it’s something that Brayboy is eager to get in motion.

“I’m very excited about this portfolio because it allows me to take on new challenges that are near and dear to my heart,” said Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s senior adviser to the president on American Indian affairs. “This work is an opportunity for ASU to continue living our charter. The social advancement aspect is crucial. Part of my role is to convene people and to bring our vast intellectual and research power to assist in helping create the conditions for a better society.”

Brayboy said the new focus area of his job will be to build and strengthen capacity on many levels. He said this starts with individuals, who should develop their personal and academic skills so they can create futures of their own making. He also wants other institutions to utilize ASU’s resources to make themselves stronger in order to better serve their constituents, and for the wider society to create opportunities of racial and economic equity.

ASU President Michael Crow chose Brayboy for the role, saying his reputation as a convenor for facilitating conversation and bringing people together made him the ideal candidate for the job.

"As a New American University committed to being of service, we take seriously our responsibility to support the success of communities, both near and far," Crow said. "ASU's bank of expertise, resources and learning opportunities can help communities to craft well-designed, effective solutions. We want to convene and help empower individuals to achieve their goals and live their best lives."

Brayboy’s new responsibilities will cover a broad spectrum of transformational initiatives, including research projects, sustainability practices, academic and nonprofit collaborations, and social advancements with national and global impacts.

These are items that fall under ASU’s charter and leverage almost all eight of the university’s design aspirations, Brayboy said, which essentially ask the university to assume fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.

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The ASU Charter on Cady Mall on the ASU Tempe campus explains the university's mission to every student, faculty and staff member, and guest. Photo courtesy of ASU News. 

One of the larger objectives before Brayboy is to enact ASU’s vision for work in Hawaii, where a number of partnerships and research projects regarding food systems, oceans and education are already taking place.

“We get asked: Why is ASU in Hawaii? There are several reasons. Hawaii is a clear indicator and harbinger for what will happen in the future regarding our planet. Hawaii is a vibrant state that is, in many ways, an incredible place to explore the planet,” Brayboy said. “The geography includes everything from the top of a mountain to the bottom of the ocean floor and everything in between. It contains vibrant reefs, interesting food systems, unbelievable cultural knowledges and fantastic opportunities for us to learn. And contribute. If we’re really going to engage in — and be guided by — research with local people and explore planetary health and its intersections with rich cultural knowledges, this is the setting for us to be able to do that. The partnerships and relationships we have in Hawaii are so enriching. It goes both ways.”

One place where this is happening is ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, which launched in Hawaii in 2019 and is led by professors Greg Asner and Robin Martin in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. They have been working to document and save Hawaiian coral reefs, particularly during the 2019 Pacific Ocean warming event, to help hundreds of students and researchers with data from the largest constellation of satellites currently in orbit.

Asner and Martin aren’t the only professors working in Hawaii. ASU last month hired Haunani Kane, a Native Hawaiian scholar who will bring her extensive knowledge in climate science to the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science as an assistant professor.

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Haunani Kane was hired in 2020 and will bring her extensive knowledge in climate science to ASU as an assistant professor. Photo courtesy Haunani Kane.

Kane’s research combines coastal geomorphology, paleo-environmental reconstructions, spatial analysis and the perspectives of a Native islander to investigate how islands, reefs and island people are impacted by changes in climate. As a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow, she has spent nearly 200 days at sea aboard both traditional sailing and modern research vessels. She is working on a project in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage site in Hawaii.

ASU Prep Digital, an accredited online school serving students in grades K–12 and school partners around the world, recently helped Kamehameha Schools and Hawaii’s Department of Education build a personalized learning model to allow approximately 6,000 students to continue their education through the pandemic. The coursework emphasizes STEM exercises, language and culture.

According to Lisa Edgar, chief partnership officer for ASU Prep Digital, her division was charged with building this model within a hundred days. Not only did they make their goal, but she said students are thriving under this format.

“When the pandemic hit, we partnered with these schools to help ensure their students could continue their learning in a flexible and personalized approach,” Edgar said. “Not only are we helping to provide learning continuity for these students, but we are also giving students an opportunity to be exposed to university-level courseware early on in their high school career.”

Brayboy said this is the perfect example of social advancement.

“ASU Prep Digital built a school for the immediate needs borne of a global health pandemic. But they did so in a way that addresses the mid-term impacts of providing students with opportunities to also earn college credits and an even longer-term benefit of being prepped to complete a college degree in an increasingly complex society,” Brayboy said. “That’s part of the work of social advancement. It’s great for the individual students, it dramatically improved the institution’s ability to meet the educational needs of its students, and it created a small sense of equilibrium in communities and a society facing massive health disparities.”

The university is also building and investing in longer-term initiatives in Hawaii, including tagging along on the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s worldwide canoe trip that will visit approximately 45 countries, including 100 Indigenous territories and archipelagos. The 41,000-nautical mile circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean is expected to take 42 months.

ASU is partnering with other organizations to support the creation of a “Third Canoe” — an online platform that will allow educators and students across the globe to virtually participate and learn. The idea is to draw attention to the voyage and inspire people to make good sustainability choices for a healthier planet.

Generally, there are only 12 to15 individuals on any leg of a sail. The Third Canoe will create virtual reality experiences that will allow millions of people to experience part of a voyage, with the possibilities of virtual labs and educational experiences, linking learners across the globe around the common theme of planetary health and the future of the planet.

“The opportunity to leverage our online learning assets with our creativity and innovation with the courage and vision of PVS and its navigators advances our understanding of the Pacific Ocean, a 10 million-square-mile body of water, and it allows us to connect people from Arizona to Tahiti to Chile on this sail,” Brayboy said. “In that effort, we advance our collective understanding of what decisions we can make as individuals and organizations — as a broad global community — to be better stewards of the home we all share: Mother Earth.”

Jody Kaulukukui, senior advancement officer for the ASU Foundation who is based in Hawaii, said, “Bryan Brayboy is the ideal choice for this position. He understands that relationships are important for an island community, and he works hard to be a trusted and valuable partner.” And of Kaulukukui, Brayboy said, “She’s the secret sauce to our efforts. None of this happens without her wisdom and guidance.”

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ASU's Bryan Brayboy (far right) meeting with a contingent of representatives with the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii during a three-day meeting at ASU in February 2020. Photo courtesy of Bryan Brayboy.

 Closer to home, Brayboy will work on:

  • Advancing the overall mission of “To Be Welcoming,” an online curriculum developed by EdPlus at ASU — now residing in Learning Enterprise — for all Starbucks employees that is intended to drive reflection and conversation on the topic of bias. The curriculum has been adapted for use by ASU students and the community at large. It helps individuals work through challenges from perspectives of curiosity and understanding, Brayboy said: “Employers and society want individuals who seek to understand the experiences of those different than they are. It’s good for everyone.” He is working closely with the School of Social Transformation (Jessica Solyom and Mako Fitts Ward) on this effort. Brian Nethero (EdPlus at ASU), Kim Merritt (ASU Learning Enterprise), and Lisa Young (Office of University Affairs) have also been crucial to this effort, Brayboy said.

  • Coordinating with Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost of academic innovation and student advancement, and dean of University College; Cassandra Aska, dean of students; Melissa Pizzo, associate vice president of Enrollment Services; and Jacob Moore, assistant vice president for tribal relations, to build a data-driven model of success that will help the university to make better decisions in serving Indigenous students. If successful, they will use the model to serve other populations at the university. 

These new duties sound like a lot of responsibility, but Brayboy said his job is really simple.

“I’m a facilitator of other peoples’ success — I’m not the reason for their success,” he said. “My job is to make sure they have what they need, get out of their way and let them do their good work. How great is that?” 

Top photo: President's Professor and new Vice President of Social Advancement at Arizona State University Bryan Brayboy poses for a portrait outside his home in Phoenix on Feb. 16, 2021. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News 

ASU students from underrepresented communities to benefit from Schwab scholarship

February 25, 2021

Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business is one of seven universities announced as a participant of Charles Schwab Corporation’s $3.5 million endowed scholarship program. The program — funded through Charles Schwab Foundation — will provide financial assistance and professional development opportunities to students from underrepresented communities.

“Diversity and inclusion are inherent to the DNA of ASU, and we’re very happy to receive support from the Charles Schwab Foundation to continue the important work of drawing finance majors from all backgrounds to the business school,” said Amy Ostrom, interim dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business and PetSmart Chair in Services Leadership. “Diversity builds a healthy, vibrant community and is crucial for developing innovative solutions and effective change.” McCord Hall Download Full Image

Underrepresented students at W. P. Carey are eligible to apply for approximately $10,000 a year in scholarship funds. In addition to the two-year scholarship, recipients will be invited to apply for and participate in an internship at Schwab, which could help inspire a future career in finance. In addition to the direct benefits to the scholarship recipients, the program will also assist ASU in enhancing its student diversity for the benefit of the entire student body.

“We believe programs like our scholarship endowment can make a meaningful impact by creating educational opportunities, which can help break down barriers and open new possibilities,” said Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of Charles Schwab Foundation and senior vice president of Charles Schwab & Co. “Schwab was founded on the belief that our industry should be more inclusive, and that starts with providing encouragement and support to more underrepresented students as they explore college majors, including financial planning.” 

In addition to financial support, the program will make voluntary mentorship and professional development opportunities available to help prepare the scholarship recipients for a successful career in financial services.

“In working closely with universities near our employment centers, we believe we can help open new possibilities through financial assistance, mentorship, professional development and industry experience,” Schwab-Pomerantz said.

This new Charles Schwab scholarship program complements other initiatives at W. P. Carey to support underrepresented communities, including:

  • A grant funded by Schwab Advisor Services, in partnership with the Charles Schwab Foundation, will help develop and deliver a new financial planning concentration to attract talent representing gender and racial/ethnic diversity and targeted coursework for a career in financial planning.
  • W. P. Carey’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee to support Black lives, Native communities, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and others who live at the intersections. 
  • W. P. Carey’s involvement in the ASU LIFT Initiative to accelerate meaningful change at ASU and contribute to a national agenda for social justice.

ASU was recently ranked sixth in the country by the Princeton Review for resources for minority students. The ranking was based on reported school data, such as the percentage of students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups, and student surveys asking questions related to resources for minority students, how supportive the culture is of minority students, and whether fellow students are ethnically and racially diverse.

Current ASU W. P. Carey juniors majoring in Financial Planning with demonstrated financial need can visit the W. P. Carey Scholarship & Resources website at and apply through the W. P. Carey General Scholarship Application beginning in November 2021 to cover the 2022–23 academic years.

For more information, contact:

Shay Moser, W. P. Carey School of Business

Stephanie Corns, Charles Schwab                                            

Communications assistant, W. P. Carey School of Business

AAAS award marks ASU advances in STEM diversity, equity and inclusion

February 25, 2021

It’s no secret that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields need more diversity and would greatly benefit from the new perspectives and ideas that come with it. Now increasing diversity has moved from a topic of discussion to one of action.

Arizona State University is leading the way, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science has taken notice through its SEA Change initiative, an effort focused on STEM equity and inclusion for underrepresented students, faculty and staff.   Scientist working in a lab SEA Change recently gave ASU a bronze-level award for its efforts in STEM equity and inclusion. ASU was one of only five universities given this distinction, the highest level of recognition ever awarded. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News Download Full Image

SEA Change recently gave ASU a bronze-level award for its efforts in STEM equity and inclusion. ASU was one of only five universities given this distinction, the highest level of recognition ever awarded. 

While much remains to be done and the focus needs to remain in perpetuity, ASU has made significant progress in STEM equity and inclusion. SEA (for STEM Equity Achievement) Change is a comprehensive initiative from the AAAS that implements a proven self-assessment process to effect sustainable change with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM at U.S. institutions of higher education. 

ASU’s action plan already is delivering. In the past six months alone, ASU has announced a series of high-level hires to its executive leadership, bringing in Sally C. Morton as the first woman to head the Knowledge Enterprise, ASU’s $640 million research organization, and appointing Nancy Gonzales as provost pro tempore and executive vice president to lead ASU’s Academic Enterprise. 

The College at ASU recently announced three new hires in its natural science departments and schools, naming Donatella Danielli the director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, Patricia Rankin as chair of the Department of Physics, and Tijana Rajh as director of the School of Molecular Sciences.  

“Our world faces multiple challenges, many of which need new advances in science and technology to help solve,” said Gonzales, who will become ASU’s executive vice president and university provost on July 1. “What helps most in tackling these grand challenges are new perspectives that will only be possible if women and underrepresented groups are included in STEM.

“This is what makes breaking down barriers and being more inclusive so important. It is about equity and inclusion and belongingness, but it’s also about achievement and moving forward as a society.”

The SEA Change award recognizes institutions for their past efforts and proposed commitments to create diverse, inclusive and equitable campus environments where students, faculty and staff thrive. For ASU, the award review process drew upon the expertise of a large and diverse faculty committee and included an institutional self-assessment and resulting five-year action plan (2021–26) to address barriers and challenges to advance equity, diversity and inclusion at ASU.  

The award requires institutions to conduct a data-based self-assessment to appraise their institutional makeup, policies and culture to identify knowledge gaps and barriers. Each institution then develops detailed plans to become more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive in its educational functions and in its operations.  

“As a leading university, we have to look into the future to see what society will need and it needs the new thinking that women and people who come from many diverse segments of our culture can bring to STEM fields,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “Earning a SEA Change bronze award shows ASU is on the right course to make this happen and that we don’t just say it, we act upon it and open access and continue to remove barriers to science and technology education.” 

The SEA Change awards require participating institutions to improve. Institutions must reapply at least every five years to maintain their award level or earn a higher award level. Gold and silver awards also are attainable depending on how far the institution has advanced and how far the culture change has emanated throughout the organization.

ASU was cited for an action plan that prioritizes institutional transformation to actualize the ASU Charter. Specific actions include:

  • Fostering and reinforcing a culture of valuing the synergies between access, excellence, diversity, equity, inclusion and belongingness. 
  • Dismantling cultural and structural barriers that hinder more inclusive models of excellence. 
  • Aligning and reinforcing the ASU Charter in the hiring, promotion, evaluation, retention and university culture in adopting both structural changes at the university, college and department level and individual faculty initiatives, like mentoring.
  • Integrating networked responses to institutional changes and linking structures and initiatives with organizations and faculty groups to achieve widespread university collaboration, dissemination and adoption of innovations and initiatives to align the ASU Charter and culture with diversity, equity, inclusion and belongingness values. 

ASU’s 28-page action plan includes specific actions for various campus groups to advance equity, inclusion, diversity and belonging at ASU.

The wider representation in the STEM fields will benefit all those who come into contact with ASU.  

“The key to inclusion and diversity is a supportive culture that values people for their contributions and their actions,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who recently was appointed vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative, which is building the future of humans in space to create a bolder and better society. “All the hiring metrics in the world won't work without a good culture; without the culture people who feel more like outliers will lack the support to persist and become leaders. Here at ASU, I'm proud to say, we are working on that culture. We want every voice to be heard.”  

Graduate student aims to expand autism treatment options in India

February 24, 2021

A decade ago, Preeti Lather learned her daughter was at risk of not being able to talk because of an autism diagnosis. Armed with a master’s degree in applied psychology from the University of Delhi, she immediately set about learning everything she could about her daughter’s diagnosis, poring over literature and research.

“I’m not the type of person to give up, or be fatalistic about my circumstances, so I started reading a lot about what autism was and how I could make a difference,” said Lather. portrait of ASU grad student Preeti Lather Preeti Lather, graduate student in ASU's Department of Psychology applied behavior analysis master's degree program. Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

While her frustrations were plentiful, she saw her daughter improve through applied behavioral analytic therapy. After four years of hard work with Lather and her therapist, her daughter could finally speak, and Lather finally knew what she wanted to do.

At the time, Lather was working in an organizational psychology position at Yamaha Motors India, optimizing workplace efficiency and satisfaction, but she pivoted her career after the challenging autism diagnosis sparked her real passion. Lather is now a graduate student in ASU's Department of Psychology Master of Science in applied behavior analysis program.

It is estimated that 1 in every 160 children worldwide is on the autism spectrum, with diagnoses doubling from 1996 to 2007 in the United States. However, in India, rates are significantly underdiagnosed, with only 1 in 435 children reported on the spectrum. Additionally, autism wasn’t classified as a disability in India until 2016.

“Applied behavior therapy is a well-documented science in being effective in helping individuals with behavioral and developmental issues, and it is something that is not well known in India. I knew that this was my opportunity to make a tangible difference in the lives of so many families like mine,” said Lather.

Lather decided she needed to find a program that would give her access to both training and resources to make an impact. She chose ASU specifically because of its 92%-plus passing rate on the Behavior Analyst Certification Board examination and the 1,500 hours required practicum experience.

“The hands-on experiential learning component is the icing on the cake; it not only helps us to translate what we do in the classroom, but it also makes us familiar to the problems we will face when we are professionals in the field,” said Lather.

The ASU program has doubled in enrollment size over the last three years and recently expanded into a virtual synchronous learning model to provide additional learning opportunities for students outside the Phoenix Metro area.

“We’ve had great success expanding this program to really serve not only our local community but communities across the nation” said Don Stenhoff, director of the program. “Students like Lather typify the important desire to improve and help our most vulnerable communities.”

Lather is a therapist-in-training at the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) and could not be happier. SARRC is an internationally recognized nonprofit agency that provides evidence-based services and training to build inclusive communities for individuals with autism and their families.

“My daughter has been a driving force for me taking this program. (Because of) the ups and downs that we’ve experienced, I wanted to equip myself with the skills to help my child and others like her. Also, there is a scarcity of services that cater to young adults on the spectrum – this is why I specifically chose to work with SARRC,” said Lather.

One of the things that stuck with Lather most was a quote from Stenhoff: “We live in a broken world, and we are tasked to fix a little bit of it.”

“The best part is, we get a chance to make a difference in the lives of so many people – people with physical or intellectual disabilities, optimizing people in the organizational level or even adjusting animal behavior,” said Lather.

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


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New ASU student engagement initiative hopes for a better tomorrow

February 23, 2021

TomorrowTalks brings the thought leaders of today in conversation with the changemakers of tomorrow

Anybody who has had the opportunity to hear Michael Eric Dyson speak will tell you how powerful an experience it can be. That includes former President Barack Obama, who once said that anyone unlucky enough to follow him was sure to “pale in comparison.”

Fortunately for students at Arizona State University, where the famed author and one of America’s foremost public intellectuals will be paying a virtual visit to discuss his latest book, “Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America,” they will only have to ask him questions.

Dyson’s visit on Feb. 25 is part of a new student engagement initiativeTomorrowTalks is led by the Division of Humanities in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU and hosted by ASU's Department of English and Center for the Study of Race and Democracy in partnership with Macmillan Publishers. Additional assistance is provided by ASU's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. at the university called TomorrowTalks, which aims to place the thought leaders of today in conversation with the changemakers of tomorrow.

“Our access mission is the heartbeat of what we do at ASU,” said Kyle Jensen, director of writing programs in ASU’s Department of English. “We want to give students opportunities to engage with some of the most influential people about some of the most pressing issues of the day so that they can shape a future we all want to be a part of.”

Following Dyson, Melinda Gates will engage students on Thursday, March 18, in a discussion about her book “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” and the semester will close with ASU’s own Ayanna Thompson, Regents Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, who will be discussing her latest book “Blackface (Object Lessons)” on Thursday, April 15.

All events are free and open to the public.

flyer for ASU student engagement initiative TomorrowTalks

Graphic courtesy of ASU Department of English

As a facet of the TomorrowTalks initiative, students have been meeting ahead of Dyson’s visit to discuss his book, related current events and possible topics of conversation. Sophomore Bailey Shaw said she has felt energized by their preparations and is excited to be able to participate in an event that really values students’ input.

Dyson’s book in particular was a “tough read,” said Shaw, who is white. “It was very humbling and sad to read, but important at same time.”

As for the author himself, who serves as Distinguished University Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, he is looking forward to sharing with students how they can find power and create change with their own words.

“… I hope to engage them in a serious conversation that permits them, encourages them and inspires them to reflect on their own lives and what role they can play in thinking about race; how they can challenge themselves to elevate their consciousness and respond to these issues, and also to think a bit about how writing and reading … can also have political and social impact,” he said.

Here he answers some questions for ASU News, ahead of his talk.

Michael Eric Dyson

Question: The goal of Tomorrow Talks is to put college students in conversation with thought leaders, particularly those who have used writing as a tool to address pressing societal challenges. At what point in your own life did you realize there was power in writing?

Answer: I certainly admired writers as I came up in Detroit, Michigan. I was deeply informed by James Baldwin, whose first book, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” I read as a young person. Later on, I read the great speeches of Black people including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And later, I read Ralph Ellison and the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. All of that sparked my interest in and curiosity about writing and the effect it could have and what it could do to change people’s lives.

Q: At ASU, you’ll be discussing your most recent book “Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America,” which just came out in December, and it couldn’t be timelier. What was your inspiration for this book?

A: I’d been thinking about ideas for a while but the occasion for the writing of the book was the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and how they profoundly impacted me. Then I started to write about others – Elijah McClain, Sandra Bland, etc. – and all of that came together into this book that was inspired by their horrendous deaths.

Q: What do you hope students get out of reading your book and the upcoming discussion?

A: I hope they get a sense of who I am and what these issues are. Why race is so important to speak about and talk about, and I hope to engage them in a serious conversation that permits them, encourages them and inspires them to reflect on their own lives and what role they can play in thinking about race; how they can challenge themselves to elevate their consciousness and respond to these issues, and also to think a bit about how writing and reading — fundamental practices of any educated person — can also have political and social impact.

Q: Do you have any messages or advice in particular for non-Black folks about how to deal with racism and/or what they can do to make change?

A: You’ve got to acknowledge the problem. And sometimes family members are part of problem, or your peers, and there’s no way around that. We can’t get to racial healing and reconciliation if we can’t get to the truth first. That means we have to address these issues. They must be grappled with if we are to have the possibility of a better future for our nation, and that means white people have to own up to their responsibility to engage in these issues. Race is not a Black problem or a brown problem; it’s a white problem, and what our white brothers and sisters need to do is acknowledge that and be willing to take it on.

Q: What are your thoughts on this moment in time and the potential to accomplish that? Do you believe America is capable of finally reckoning with race?

A: We’re certainly capable. Whether or not we do depends on whether or not we’re reminded to. We have to be on top of our game. We have to constantly be willing to renegotiate the terms of the racial contract in light of the noble ideas and grand aspirations we put forth as we continue to grapple with what race means in this country. The global pandemic has revealed issues of systemic racism that make Black people more vulnerable to die from this disease. Why is that? It’s not just a physiological phenomenon; it’s interacting with larger social forces. So how do we address that and deal with that? Reckoning doesn’t have to be a colossal change all at once. There is everyday stuff that needs to be dealt with. Health care, the prison system, the justice system — everything that ends in the word “system” has to be reexamined. We have to be constantly and religiously revising and reviewing in order for us to make progress.

Top photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

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Telling the story of America’s racial divide, criminal justice reform

February 23, 2021

'Must See Monday' speaker series hosts CBS News correspondent, author and journalist Wesley Lowery

A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and a leading voice in the national conversation on racial justice and police reform said he has no problem being called an activist as long as he isn’t labeled an advocate.

“I believe firmly that the best journalists are activists, and what I mean by that is they're activists for the truth,” said CBS News correspondent and author Wesley Lowery at a Feb. 22 Arizona State University virtual event. “They’re activists for transparency, they’re activists for the public’s right to know in these times … throughout all of American history, those stances are fundamentally and foundationally activists.”

Lowery’s talk, “Reporting on America’s Racial Divide,” was part of the spring 2021 “Must See Mondays” lecture series hosted by ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Man in blue suit and tie

Wesley Lowery

The conversation was moderated by the Cronkite School’s Vanessa Ruiz, director for diversity initiatives and community engagement. Ruiz said Lowery’s reporting on race and criminal justice in the past few years has set a high benchmark on how these critical topics should be discussed.

“I am thrilled that Wesley Lowery, a powerful voice among a new generation of journalists, will be at Cronkite connecting with our students,” said Ruiz, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist who teaches ethics and diversity. “At a time when a social reckoning can no longer be denied, his multiplatform journalism already has an inspiring track record. Attendees can expect an honest, authentic and thought-provoking conversation.”  

In addition to America’s racial divide and police reform, Lowery’s hourlong discussion touched on a variety of topics including winning a Pulitzer Prize at age 25, newsroom politics, objectivity vs. identity, the role of social media and advice for journalism students.

Lowery said his Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post’s 2015 “Fatal Force” project, a database of all fatal shootings nationwide by officers in the line of duty, stemmed from timing, hard work and the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland.

“This was a story that was an all-out sprint, and it was overwhelming, and it was politically charged,” Lowery said. “Everyone was mad at you no matter how you reported it or what you did. There were land mines everywhere. You have to learn those things on the fly. … And so by the time you get to the 2016 Pulitzers, it felt validating and there was an ability to exhale after doing so much work.”

Lowery said he wrote “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement” in 2016 so the public could understand the scale of police violence in the United States.

Lowery said despite his Pulitzer, he still had to lobby his editors hard for stories he believed were worthy of coverage.

“We’re at a place – The Washington Post – and I’m not the only one with some hardware in the room,” Lowery said. “And so it certainly doesn’t become a carte blanche to do things. There was one project (“Murder with Impunity”) that I had to lobby for more than a year for us to do that project.” That project, an unprecedented look at unsolved homicides in American cities, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.

Lowery also covered the Ferguson, Missouri, protests for The Post and reported on the murder trial of the NFL’s Aaron Hernandez and the manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers while with The Boston Globe. He was hired by CBS in February 2020. In addition to his duties at CBS News, Lowery contributes to “60 at 6,” a “60 Minutes” spinoff series. He is also a contributing editor to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to sustain a sense of urgency around the nation’s criminal justice system.

Lowery said his involvement with The Marshall Project is to ensure quality journalism at the local level survives.

“(The Marshall Project) presents a space for donors and people who are civically minded to help fund the type of quality journalism on issues that really matter that they might not normally get in their daily coverage,” Lowery said. “It’s really sad to see the way that local news has been gutted.”

The nonprofit initiative also gives Lowery an opportunity to work with undergraduate and graduate students on their investigative journalism skills. His advice to them, he says, is fairly straightforward.

“This is a field where you learn by doing. Journalism is a trade as much as it is an academic profession,” Lowery said. “You learn by putting in the repetitions. I always encourage students to start putting those repetitions in as soon as possible.”

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images.

Reporter , ASU News


Jewell Parker Rhodes' children's novel 'Black Brother, Black Brother' nominated for NAACP Image Award

February 22, 2021

In her novels, award-winning author and Arizona State University Professor Jewell Parker Rhodes often combines her firsthand experiences with historical events and a bit of imagination to create fictional worlds readers can both relate to and learn from.

Black Brother, Black Brother,” Rhodes’ latest children’s novel, follows that same formula — exploring her interest in the history of fencing, her experiences as a mother of biracial children and her passion for social justice. Since its release nearly one year ago, the story has won numerous awards and most recently was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work. Award-winning author and Arizona State University professor Jewell Parker Rhodes' latest children's novel, “Black Brother, Black Brother,” was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work. Download Full Image

As the founding artistic director of ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Rhodes has written 15 novels for children and adults on topics ranging from social justice, equality and environmental stewardship. “Black Brother, Black Brother” highlights colorismA form of prejudice or discrimination in which people who are usually members of the same race are treated differently based on the social implications that come with the cultural meanings that are attached to skin color. and racial bias in the school system through the story of two brothers: Trey, who presents as white and Donte, who presents as Black. 

Because of his skin color, Donte is taunted by his peers at school and bullied by the captain of the fencing team. Throughout the course of the story, Donte uses sport to become a fencing champion, to assert his sense of identity and to beat the bully at his own game.

“Though Donte is able to dispel stereotypes and prejudices, when he comes to the end of the book, it’s more about how he’s embraced his own identity with self-love,” Rhodes said. “The idea is that if people have bias or prejudice against you, the problem is in their heart. It really is a shoutout to the codes of fencing and the codes of being great human beings — integrity, honor, fairness, respect, self-confidence, self-esteem and self-love.”

Rhodes said it’s rare for youth to have a book that creates a safe space for them to discuss topics like colorism and identity, but with “Black Brother, Black Brother,” young readers have that opportunity to celebrate and explore their own identities.

“Youth love ‘Black Brother, Black Brother.’ They love it as a sports book, as a triumphant tale of the underdog, a call for social equity in schools and as a celebration of everyone's unique ethnic heritage. Biracial children especially love the representation,” she said.

Rhodes shared her thoughts on the NAACP Image Award nomination, her inspiration behind “Black Brother, Black Brother” and more.

Question: What inspired you to write “Black Brother, Black Brother”?

Answer: In a sense, I believe “Black Brother, Black Brother” is more of a companion book to my New York Times best-selling book, “Ghost Boys.” “Ghost Boys” is about systemic bias and the criminal justice system and “Black Brother, Black Brother” is about systemic racial bias in the school system. America, on a family level, has made clear its racism and colorism. My kids and our family have lived with it for 30-plus years. That was really the core inspiration. “Ghost Boys” sort of opened up my heart to all of this racism that I faced as a child and that my family has lived with. With “Black Brother, Black Brother” I was able to call on my personal history more than any other book I’ve written. The characters are not my kids but they are inspired by what we all went through and continue to go through as a family.

Also ever since I was a child I’ve loved swords and the idea of fencing. I just adored “The Three Musketeers.” When I was 25 years old I saw in Smithsonian Magazine that the author of “The Three Musketeers,” Alexandre Dumas, was a biracial man. I found out later through Tim Reiss’s book “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” that Dumas was actually writing about his dad who was a great fencer and was a general in Napoleon's army. This was a revelation to me that one of the most famous writers in America had been a person of color and that he was writing about his father.

In “Black Brother, Black Brother” it worked out perfectly that I could marry social justice and the colorism that prevented kids of color from knowing about the history of fencing while also tying in that sense of undermining that fencing has just been an aristocratic, white sport, particularly in America.

Jewell Parker Rhodes 

Q: What did your writing process look like?

A: My books will have long gestation periods. “Black Brother, Black Brother” took me about two years. I dream, I have nightmares, I think about it. But I can't write, not unless I hear the character's voice. So when Donte starts out the novel without hearing his voice, I can't tell his story because I don't plot, I have to feel my way through the character. When my characters break down and cry, that's because I'm crying. When they're joyous, I feel that joy ... It's like a stew, all these elements just come together in my mind and my experience. Every time I finish a book, I say, “I'm never writing another one!” Because they take on average two to seven years to write — even my youth books which are so small take a long, long time. It's a marathon. But after about two or three months of not writing, I get grumpy. 

Q: How does it feel to be nominated for an NAACP Image Award?

A: The NAACP, proudly and fiercely, advocates and represents the Black community. As a child growing up in a segregated, poor community, they were fighting to make a more equitable future for me. Because of lack of representation of Black writers and Black characters in books, I almost lost my vision to be a writer in the world. To be nominated for a NAACP Image Award, to know my community believes I am representing well our heritage and culture, fulfills my lifelong artistic dream.

Q: What do you hope those who read “Black Brother, Black Brother” take away from it?

A: That none of us are just one genetic thing, we all know we’re descendants from Lucy. We all have a great mixed-race heritage. When I was growing up, my grandmother said, “Jewell child, there's nobody in the world better than you. And you're no better than anybody else. We're all a mixed blood stew.” That was essential for how I grew up and how I live my life. If everyone could accept that we have all kinds of mixed-race bloodlines, it emphasizes our common humanity and the inclusivity. Color is no more than a superficial difference. This book celebrates the uniqueness of the individual, as well as the common humanity of all people. There are a lot of people who have mixed heritage or come from biracial families. In the book, I think they will find themselves mirrored in their most essential sense. It's not your skin tone that matters, it's your interior self — your heart, your mind, your spirit — that makes you like any other wondrous human being. 

The 52nd NAACP Image Awards will stream live on March 27 at 6 p.m. MST.

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

ASU Law Indian Legal Program launches 'Salt River Scholars'

February 22, 2021

In a new partnership with the Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, two top Native American ASU Law students have been named the first Salt River Scholars.

Initiated last fall and funded directly by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the program offers ASU Law students who are selected to receive a full-tuition scholarship, a paid research assistant position, faculty mentorship and financial assistance to gain legal experience during summer breaks. The inaugural Salt River Scholars are first-year ASU Law students Ashleigh N. Fixico and Noah Goldenberg. Photo of Noah Goldenberg and Ashleigh N. Fixico Noah Goldenberg and Ashleigh N. Fixico are ASU Law’s inaugural Salt River Scholars thanks to a new partnership with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Download Full Image

“The (Indian Legal Program) is very proud to offer this prestigious scholarship to honor our partnership with the Salt River Indian Community,” said Kate Rosier, executive director of the Indian Legal Program and ASU Law’s assistant dean of institutional progress. “ASU Law has one of the best Indian law programs in the country and we want to continue to attract the best students.” 

Fixico and Goldenberg said they are grateful for this opportunity. 

“Being named one of the first Salt River Scholars is a tremendous honor, and I want to thank the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community for investing in my education and future,” said Fixico, from the Mvskoke tribe in Seminole, Oklahoma and a graduate of Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in government and a Bachelor of Arts in Native American studies modified with Hispanic studies.

Goldenberg, a member of the Mdewakanton Sioux tribe, was born in Massachusetts, raised in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from the University of British Columbia with a double major in religious studies and history.

“It is an enormous honor to be one of the first Salt River Scholars,” Goldenberg said. “It fills me with tremendous pride, but also with humility. This honor reminds me that I have a role to play in the future of our communities. Being a Salt River Scholar has further energized me to develop my legal knowledge to the best of my ability.”

Fixico, who interned in 2017 with the U.S. Department of Justice in the Office on Violence Against Women through the Udall Native American Congressional Internship Program, says when she began considering law school, she knew that ASU Law was her top choice and is grateful to be part of the ILP family.

“A part of me always knew I would be coming to ASU Law, and I am so thankful to be starting my 1L spring semester here, even in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Fixico, who was also the Wilma Mankiller Policy Fellow for the National Congress of American Indians from 2018–19. “I always feel like there is someone rooting for my success because the ILP family is full of encouraging words and a strong willingness to help.”

With several ASU Law alumni and students as her mentors and friends over the past few years, Fixico says she had a firsthand look at how encouraging and supportive everyone is from ASU Law.

“I feel valued as an aspiring Native attorney, and that is something not every law school can provide,” she said. “Law school is challenging, but with SRPMIC’s support I am able to focus on my professional goals and develop the skills I need to affect meaningful change in my community, as well as across Indian Country.”

Most recently, Fixico worked with Pipestem Law, P.C., as a legal and policy analyst. She currently serves on ASU Law’s Native American Law Students Association board as an 1L representative and will be clerking this summer at the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado.

For Goldenberg, his motivation and preparation to apply to law school began with the Native American Pipeline to Law Initiative workshop in 2019 and deciding that ASU Law was the right choice for him for several reasons.

Goldenberg wanted to be part of a large Native American community and knew that this community at ASU Law was already well-established with the Indian Legal Program and Native American Law Students Association. Choosing ASU Law also felt like a “no-brainer” for him and his wife, Alyssa, as they have been living in Phoenix since 2018 due to a career move for Alyssa. And Goldenberg’s brother Simon is a 2018 ASU Law and Indian Legal Program alum.

“I am so proud to be part of the ILP family,” he said, adding that the Salt River Scholars program is a testament to the meaningful relationship that the program has with tribal nations in Arizona and throughout the country. “This active and meaningful relationship between tribal nations and the ILP is a constant source of motivation.”

Goldenberg wants to pursue a career in federal Indian law to advocate on behalf of Indian tribes, and he believes that ASU Law offers the best Indian law program in the country. A performer, coach and teacher of improvisational comedy in his spare time, Goldenberg says he has not found a class he doesn’t enjoy in law school and hopes this trend continues.

To learn more about the Salt River Scholars program and how you can be a part of it, email

DesiRae Deschine, a 2019 ASU Law JD and ILP alum, contributed to this story.

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

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ASU film students to see their own possibilities in legacy of Poitier

Film school students will create short works on Poitier's legacy in new class.
February 19, 2021

Sidney Poitier New American Film School to embrace impact of groundbreaking actor

When Arizona State University’s film school was named after the legendary actor Sidney Poitier last month, it represented not only a commitment to diversity and inclusion, but also a duty to Poitier’s extraordinary impact.

The Sidney Poitier New American Film School was named on Jan. 25 after the first Black man to win a best actor Academy Award, for “Lilies of the Field,” in 1964. Poitier turned 94 years old on Feb. 20.

Attending a film school named for Poitier will connect ASU’s students to the continuum of history, according to Tiffany Ana López, the new vice provost for inclusion and community engagement at ASU. She is the former director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“He is an essential part of understanding American film history,” she said.

“He has a litany of ‘firsts,’ but it’s important for students and people following the film school to understand the impact of being first and to have people understand what is possible,” López said.

“This is why representation, seeing people who look like you on the screen, is so important. Because if you can’t see it, it’s hard to imagine being it.”

Jason Scott, interim director of the film school, said: “From the beginning, when we became aware that this naming would really happen, there was a public face that is glorious, but there is also the responsibility and ownership of that legacy.”

Part of that is teaching students about Poitier. In the fall, Scott and Lopez will teach a new class called “The Filmmaker's Voice,” which will focus on Poitier.

Students will not only see his film work, but also delve into interviews and other media. Over the semester, they’ll collect as many resources as possible into a digital repository to be kept at the school.

“Part of this is to get the current group of students to know who this person is and to help bring the stories to life,” Scott said.

“It will be, ‘You tell us how you connect to his story and how you’re inspired by him.’"

At the end of the semester, students will propose a video project based on the legacy of Poitier’s work. In the spring semester, the students will produce the projects.

“It could be a short bio, or a three-minute animated rendering of the story he tells about getting his first acting job,” Scott said.

Those short works could be displayed in the film school’s new location in downtown Mesa, which is expected to open in 2022.

'We had done it'

López said she wants students to understand how Poitier created opportunities for himself.

President Barack Obama awarded Sidney Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Poitier grew up in the Bahamas and moved to New York as a teenager. Working as a dishwasher, he responded to an ad seeking actors for the American Negro Theatre.

In his 1980 memoir “This Life,” Poitier describes how, after a brief audition, he was rejected because of his strong Bahamian accent. So he bought a radio and listened to it constantly, mimicking the voices until he lost his accent. Six months later, he tried out again and was accepted. He later found out that he got in because not enough men had auditioned.

Soon, he won his first role, a small part in “Lysistrata” on Broadway. On opening night, he had such acute stage fright that he froze, bungling the lines. The audience laughed and the newspaper review the next day praised his comedic talents.

After acting in road shows for a few years, Poitier went to Hollywood in 1950 to star in his first movie, “No Way Out,” directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. He was 22 years old, playing a doctor who treats two white brothers who are racists, and he marveled at his at ease in front of the cameras.

By 1958, he had starring roles. In “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier and Tony Curtis played escaped prisoners who were shackled together. Curtis requested that both of their names appear above the credits. Both were nominated for best actor Oscars, with Poitier becoming the first Black man nominated. David Niven won that year for “Separate Tables.”

Poitier made a triumphant return to Broadway in 1959 in “Raisin in the Sun,” a play by Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry that he called “an uplifting experience.” He starred in the film version as well.

In 1963, Poitier traveled to southern Arizona to make “Lilies of the Field,” playing a handyman who reluctantly builds a chapel for a group of nuns. In “This Life,” Poitier says little about his time in Arizona except that the movie was on such a tight budget the shooting schedule was condensed into a fast two weeks.

Poitier won the best acting Oscar for his role. In his memoir, he recounted his reaction: “I was happy for me, but I was also happy for the ‘folks.’ We had done it. We Black people had done it. We were capable. We forget sometimes, having to persevere against unspeakable odds, that we are capable of infinitely more than the culture is yet willing to credit to our account.”

Poitier’s blockbuster year was 1967, in which three of his biggest hits were released: “To Sir With Love,” in which he plays an engineer teaching a rowdy group of students in London’s East End; “In the Heat of the Night,” playing a police detective investigating the murder of a white businessman, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which Poitier’s character is engaged to a white woman. All of the movies directly addressed racial issues.

“It’s not just that he was the first one who did things, but that most of the things he did are relevant to our discussions of how we understand race and power, and race and status,” Scott said.

“His characters are complex, they’re not just Black savior heroes.”

Lois Brown, director of the Center for the Study of Race in Democracy at ASU, said that she was very moved by the naming of the film school for Poitier because his work helps people understand the challenges of being a person of color in America.

“He’s a person who used film to bear witness to the dignified and courageous ways in which people of color negotiated bias and racism and assumptions and stereotypes,” she said.

Brown, whose parents were teachers, first came to know of Poitier through books that were adapted to film, such as “To Sir with Love.”

“That also underscores the power of the film school. It’s such a multidimensional initiative because films are forever connected to narrative, and narrative can be made manifest in a number of genres,” said Brown, Foundation Professor of English at ASU.

Scott is compiling a spreadsheet of Poitier’s roles and the availability of his movies, and said that the actor played many captivating parts in lesser-known films. “Pressure Point” is a particularly relevant movie, in which Poitier plays a psychiatrist who must treat a Nazi sympathizer who tries to overthrow the country.

“It’s been fascinating to chart these less-remembered roles, and I’m excited for our students to see them for the first time, and not have this just be ‘Sidney Poitier’s Greatest Hits,'” Scott said.

On to directing

In “This Life,” Poitier wrote about his career slowdown in the 1970s, and the backlash over his many distinguished characters — often the only Black character in a movie filled with white people: “A Black man was put in a suit with a tie, given a briefcase; he could become a doctor, a lawyer, or police detective. That was a plus factor for us, to be sure, but it certainly was not enough to satisfy the yearnings of an entire people. It simply wasn’t.”

He stayed away from Hollywood during the heyday of Black exploitation films (mostly made by white men), which he saw as only temporarily satisfying to Black audiences, who would eventually want movies that reflected their lives better than a doctor or a hustler.

That’s where he saw the role of comedy. In “This Life,” he described screening “Uptown Saturday Night,” the third movie he directed, to a roomful of white production company executives in 1974. After the movie ended, there was an awkward silence from the group, who didn’t know what to make of its joyful depiction of Black humor and camaraderie. It was a huge hit.

“He was really elevating and normalizing Black culture through comedy, not through social justice movies, which he continued to act in but most of the stuff he directed was comedy,” Scott said.

Poitier returned to Arizona twice as a director. When he was directing “Stir Crazy” in 1980, Columbia Pictures wanted to rent what was then called the Arizona State Prison in Florence. The warden agreed and used the money to build a rodeo arena. More than 300 inmates signed on to be extras in the movie. Two years later, Poitier returned to Tucson to direct “Hanky Panky.”

Poitier acted in fewer films in the 1980s and '90s, adding roles in TV movies and shows, including portrayals of Thurgood Marshall and Nelson Mandela.

An inner compass

Poitier’s intentionality in choosing his roles and his career path is a key lesson for students, López said.

“He redefined roles in the film industry and on stage and for African Americans by rejecting parts that were based on racial stereotypes,” she said.

Until recently, students in the film industry were advised to say yes to every role or opportunity, she said.

“For our women, but also students from other groups, saying yes to everything is not only not safe, it could be damaging to your own sense of the impact you want to make in the world,” López said.

“And Poitier understood that. He was a model for that. You have to have your inner compass forge your career with a sense of the impact you want to have.”

The film school is deep in planning the many ways that Poitier’s legacy will be incorporated in teaching and scholarship. His work will serve as a starting point for students to explore 20th-century Black excellence.

“There’s Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron,” Scott said.

“We can go beyond Poitier to the culture he was a part of.”

Brown said that Poitier’s roles showed the breadth and depth of experiences of people of color in the face of racism.

“I think because Sidney Poitier is such a giant in the field and because he is forever associated with gentility, graciousness and presence, he models for young people today how to hold your ground in the face of obstacles and challenges and downright exclusions. And sometimes hate,” she said.

“He confirms for them that we have already been there and there’s somebody who was out ahead of them and who has made a way to step into the field and create new paths.”

Brown said the renaming is a profound action.

“I can’t say enough how moving and institutionally powerful this is because it reminds us just how long the road is toward full inclusion and robust critical engagement with history and culture and the future,” she said.

Top image by Getty Images

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News