The Ivy League Professor Amplifying Voices of the Marginalized

The Ivy League Professor Amplifying Voices of the Marginalized

Why you should care

Because knowledge should not be reserved for the elite.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner, New York City

Frances Negrón-Muntaner was nominated for the OZY Educator Award by Andrea Garcia-Vargas, who wrote: “Frances made the content so incredibly accessible. She made me rethink the way I thought about race, ethnicity and [their] intersections.”

I woke up early, hoping to finish a book. But it got late, and I had to run to give my lecture on race and media. So I rushed downtown, and after class, a number of students wanted to talk further about careers in the arts. I stayed for a while before hurrying home to write until dark.

I’m one of a few Latina scholars at Columbia University, where I teach Caribbean and U.S. Latino studies with an emphasis on culture and politics. Growing up, I always wanted to pursue a “life of the mind.” But I saw academia as the family business, particularly on my father’s side. Like most young people, I didn’t want to join the family business. So I studied film to chart my own path, but the effort was futile; academia was in the blood. I’ve been a filmmaker, educator and scholar since age 19.

I wanted to accelerate change by challenging the frameworks that justify inequality and injustice, through films and scholarship about people and places often deemed too insignificant to matter.

My work is animated by two core questions: Why are human societies (still) organized hierarchically, and how can humans create freer and more just societies? Much of my interest comes from my own background. I was born in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, a place where inequity is omnipresent. Starting at an early age, I noticed that Puerto Rico was much poorer than any state of the union, and that Puerto Ricans were discriminated against in multiple ways: from being U.S. citizens and serving in the military but not having the right to vote for president, to experiencing disproportionate destitution and racism when migrating to the U.S.

The concern also comes from my dad, who is a historian of Puerto Rico. When I was a child, I helped proofread his dissertation — it was on 19th-century Puerto Rican politics before U.S. rule — and accompanied him to the island’s national archives to assist with his research on slavery. I learned that not only are today’s inequities rooted in the past, but also that deep social transformations happen slowly — too slowly. As I grew older, I wanted to accelerate change by challenging the frameworks that justify inequality and injustice, through films and scholarship about people and places often deemed too insignificant to matter. My first film was AIDS in the Barrio (1989), about how poverty, homophobia and sexism fueled the AIDS epidemic in a Philadelphia Latino community; a more recent film of mine, Life Outside (2016), considers the impact of excessively long incarceration for the elderly through the story of a woman who was released at age 71 after 27 years in prison.

I have always been interested in how media shapes how we see ourselves and others. One of my first essays to gain notice was titled “Jennifer’s Butt,” which looked at how Jennifer Lopez’s figure became a battleground on the question of whether Latinas are considered a valuable part of American culture. Later this year, I’m releasing the third in a series of reports about Latinos and media, which began with The Latino Media Gap, where we document how the low levels of Latino diversity in U.S. media greatly contributes to continued discrimination against Latinos.

While I came relatively late to university teaching — I was 36 when Columbia recruited me — all my prior work has nurtured my teaching philosophy. I believe the teacher’s role is to motivate the student to learn by himself or herself, in dialogue with others. I assume that each and every person I interact with already knows things I will never know. So they will learn the most not from writing down or memorizing what I say, but from being inspired to learn what they need.

As a professor, I have been fortunate that Columbia students are diverse, open-minded and eager to go “where no woman has gone before.” At the same time, I struggle with the hierarchies that continue to inform our education system. I believe that every person in the world, regardless of identity or status, should have access to an excellent education. I also think that the goal of education cannot be to reproduce privilege and the current social order. So, one way I have made peace with these tensions is by trying to redirect the resources and visibility of the Ivy League toward freer and more just societies — worlds where no one’s knowledge is dismissed and everyone’s creativity is supported.

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