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UNC alumna talks Stone Center fellowship, Black activism in academic spaces

UNC alumna Saskia Staimpel is pictured in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, where she was once a Sean Douglas Leadership Fellow. Photo courtesy of Donn Young.

When Saskia Staimpel was a sophomore, she took a class with Claude Clegg, a Lyle V. Jones distinguished professor in the history department and Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies that "cracked her brain open."

That course, Black Nationalism in the United States, introduced the UNC alumna and December 2021 graduate to Black radical politics.

“That piqued my interest," Staimpel said. "Talking about resistance and Black power in general — Black people reclaiming their own identity, forging their own way, making demands from the state, recognizing how systems are working against them.”

From 2020 to 2021, Staimpel was a Sean Douglas Leadership Fellow at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

The SDLF Program grants undergraduate students the opportunity to gain leadership experience through center activities and programs, as well as projects that potential fellows propose when they apply. Students also serve as interns at the Stone Center and work closely with the director and staff.

Staimpel said it was a perfect opportunity for her because she had declared her African, African American, and Diaspora Studies major at the time. After starting her time at UNC with ideas of becoming a forensic scientist, Staimpel said she initially had reservations, unsure of what careers paths she could pursue with her AAAD degree after graduation.

"I just knew that I really loved studying Black history, and just the humanities in general," Staimpel said.

Work as a Sean Douglas Leadership Fellow

Staimpel said she was recommended to apply for the fellowship by Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center and vice provost for academic and community engagement.

The fellowship presented Staimpel with a chance to explore new academic and career options while working alongside Jordan, who has an established career in Black history and diaspora studies, she said.

Though Staimpel never had the opportunity to work in person at the center, she said she had some ambitious ideas — including a proposed art show to feature work from incarcerated people.

She wanted to highlight ways to reach police and prison abolitionist goals by establishing community-based societal and safety reforms, she said. This included organizations that use transformative or restorative justice, as well as sexual assault crisis centers, community health initiatives and programs that teach proper gun violence intervention.

Staimpel said she was able to get in contact with someone aware of her project, who directed her to a few formerly incarcerated people, and she was able to get some interviews.

“I wanted to talk to the incarcerated people to see their perspective on prison abolition for one thing and then also just kind of understand deeper the systems in place that get people to be incarcerated,” Staimpel said. “And the kind of support that they need once they leave.” 

Staimpel said what she learned was shocking.

People who are convicted of murder are often referred to with criminal terminology, she said, but talking to formerly and currently incarcerated people made her aware of the cycles of violence those individuals were forced into as a product of their circumstances.

“Interpersonal violence and violence like that is so preventable, but not with the systems that we have right now,” Staimpel said.

Staimpel was also a part of the Stone Center Space Initiative, a student-run, student-led project to renovate the basement of the center into a safe space for Black students and organizations to congregate and collaborate.

Jordan said he asked Staimpel to convene some students and begin discussing ideas for the space.

“They came in, they looked at some possibilities for our project, and she also talked to people who had been engaged with the Stone Center over the years," Jordan said.

Black activism in academic spaces

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Staimpel said though she experienced racism while growing up, she better understood its systemic roots after enrolling in AAAD courses at UNC. 

She said she's become inspired to participate in activism in the community, and just being able to learn about the history of Black activism has meant a lot to her.

"Having just being thrown into that world is also something just completely new, but something that tugs at my heart, for sure," she said. "Because it's something that I had been able to see more so in person, like growing into my own self."

For another class she took with Clegg, African American Intellectual History, Staimpel wrote a research paper titled “Rebellious to Revolutionary: SNCC and its Transformative Activism." The paper was published in the department’s undergraduate research journal, Global Africana Review, at the recommendation of Clegg, who was Staimpel’s mentor for the research paper.

Clegg said he appreciated the way she bridged contemporary and historical contexts.

“She was writing in the midst of 2020, the social justice protests that were taking place, then the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “It was one of those cases in which a student takes advantage of their own positions and contemporary culture, contemporary life and brings that to bear — to illuminate something that's happened decades ago, in a way that they would not have been able to put forth for the fact that they live to the contemporary moment.”

Jordan said he valued that Staimpel had a global perspective and an interest in connections between different communities around the world in her work.

"She was just curious, straight out," he said. "Just intellectually curious about understanding what's going on in the world around her."

Staimpel said she plans to enter graduate school for a doctorate degree in history and become a professor after taking a few gap years.

It is still too early to tell, Staimpel said, but she wants to stick within the realm of activism with young people, centering around ideas of abolition and Black power.

“There’s so much to discuss in that,” she said.

@jenniferhtran_ I