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Social justice and identity through children's stories

By Mandira Banerjee

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Adelia Davis was a freshman at the University of Michigan the year Nelson Mandela died.

Listening to his obituary on CNN in her dorm room, she heard the word “apartheid” mentioned several times, but didn’t quite understand it. She was surprised that no one had discussed the word or that she hadn’t learned global black history in her school.

That summer, she decided to go to South Africa through study abroad offered by the Center for Global and Intercultural Study to visit Mandela’s country and to learn about race relations. She spent the summer in Pretoria, where she visited medical clinics, saw national elections and interacted with the communities.

“It was an important time for reflection, to understand race and its tensions and my identity as a black person,” Davis said.

The experience helped deepen Davis’ belief in working with kids to explore how they identity themselves and bringing them children’s literature from different communities. She wants to use the books as a tool to talk about issues of diversity and social justice.

It eventually inspired her plans as the next recipient of the Wallenberg Fellowship. The award is given each spring to a graduating senior with exceptional promise and accomplishment to service and the public good.

The fellowship will provide Davis with $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after her graduation. She plans to go to South Africa to work with children in schools in Khayelitsha, outside of Cape Town, to help children of color to tell their own stories and their own history.

As a premed student, Davis is certain how her studies intersect with her social justice work.

“I hope to go into psychiatry and have my own practice, where I can build on the importance of mental, psychological and spiritual health in urban and impoverished communities across the globe through various forms of self-expression therapy, like art and music therapy,” she said.

Race and identity have been at the core of Davis’ stay at U-M.

“During one of my study abroad trips to Uganda, I had to confront my identity from a totally different angle,” said Davis, who was asked if she was white because of her lighter skin color. “It really shook my belief but also made me realize that race is a social construct.”

Davis took two classes with Nesha Haniff, director of pedagogy in the Department of African and Afroamerican Studies, that helped her further explore race and identity. One course explored race and genius where the students studied the lives of Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks and Michael Jackson. The other class discussed the lack of representation of women and people of color in medical research.

“Adelia has a great work ethic. She can write and she thinks critically,” Haniff said. “When students are exposed to a critical idea, it’s important that they are attracted to it, they pursue it and they value it. Adelia has it.”

Davis attributes the confidence she has to the belief her teachers and parents instilled in her. It empowered her, she said, and now she wants to offer it to the children in underprivileged communities around the world.

To Khayelitsha, a small town on the outskirts of Cape Town, Davis is bringing children’s books from South Africa and from the U.S. to share the stories with children ages 8-12. After the reading session, the kids will engage in an art workshop to interpret the stories.

“By using a collection of U.S. and South African literature to talk about how representation affects black children’s self-identity, I am hoping to instill in them the same confidence,” said Davis, who hopes to replicate the storytelling and the art workshop in a Detroit school when she is back in the U.S.

The Wallenberg Fellowship honors one of U-M’s most illustrious graduates—Raoul Wallenberg, who graduated with a degree in architecture in 1935. As a Swedish diplomat during World War II, he saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, using safe houses and creating special passports for them.

Davis said it feels great to be connected to Wallenberg and the fellows who have come before her.

“It is this mosaic of partnership in different countries working towards the same common goal to uplift people,” she said.

U-M alumnus Bert Askwith created the Mary Sue Coleman Endowed Fund for the Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship to support future generations of U-M students inspired by Wallenberg’s legacy and to honor Coleman’s leadership during her tenure as a U-M president. In addition, U-M parents Jon and Lili Bosse made a generous gift to launch the Wallenberg Fellowship.

Wallenberg is the second person after Winston Churchill to receive honorary U.S. Citizenship from Congress. He also is an honorary citizen of Canada, Hungary and Israel. Memorials and statues have been raised in countries around the world. One in Gothenburg, Sweden, bears his photo as a U-M freshman.

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