Charting a new course

Research and Scholarship
Sombo Muzata moderated the Ambassadors’ Panel: Diplomatic Engagement in Anti-Corruption Initiatives on Feb. 8. The panel included ambassadors and government officials from Zambia, Tanzania, Madagascar and the United States.

SUMMARY: A collaborative approach enhances the 14th Annual Interdisciplinary African, African American and Diaspora Studies Conference.

“‘Reckoning’ can … be thought of as a compass setting, the idea of dead reckoning, the idea of wayfinding. It offers a way through, and not just a tabulation of … justice.”
 — Delores Phillips,
AAAD Director

Deftly encapsulating why the theme for the 14th Annual Interdisciplinary African, African American and Diaspora Studies Conference was so relevant in 2024, AAAD Center Director and professor Delores Phillips spoke intently. While our conversation took place during the week before spring break, she, professor David Babcock and professor Sombo Muzata, who served as her fellow conference conveners, exuded a sense of purpose — our post-conference debriefing gave them the chance to reflect on their successes and future goals.

A woman with a shaved head speaking behind a podium
Associate Vice President for Research
and Scholarship Besi Muhonja

2024 marked the first year that AAAD partnered with the Accountability in African Public Policy and Administration Conference, with the two running concurrently. AAAD’s sessions were held online, and the accountability panels took place at the JMU Washington Center, while simultaneously streaming via Zoom. This partnership, facilitated by Muzata, introduced new co-sponsors to the program, including JMU’s Department of Political Science and the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. As she was organizing the initial setup for the accountability side of the program, Muzata was traveling in Zambia and Namibia and emailed Executive Director for Access and Educational Outreach David Owusu-Ansah, who was directing JMU’s Summer in Ghana program at the time. He suggested that, “if you want to succeed with this, work with AAAD … find the bridge in which you connect the work they’re doing and what you’re doing.”

Owusu-Ansah’s recommendation led Muzata to connect with Phillips and Babcock, who saw the partnership as a natural extension of AAAD’s activities. Babcock noted, “the conference was focused on trying to build intellectual exchange and partnerships with people on the African continent and with intellectuals there … there have been partnerships with universities in Kenya around education and other disciplines, [but] this is probably [our] largest scale partnership.” According to Phillips, this history of collaboration is made possible by “a mechanical space where you come in with your [project] and then [AAAD] gives it shape … mak[ing] it so that … it reaches as many different constituencies as it possibly can, both in terms of people that want to participate as well as those who can contribute to it.”

With the center diligently working to realize the vision of JMU faculty like Muzata, the hope is that the accountability part of the conference will become an annual event, highlighting JMU’s global engagement and transnational research. Tying this year’s theme together with AAAD’s position on campus, Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Letters Traci Zimmerman affirmed that, “‘Reckoning’ encapsulates the energy, vision and vital work of the AAAD Center, as it unites responsibility and accountability with knowledge construction and dissemination. AAAD provides leadership within the college and across the university through its programming and initiatives and, with the addition of key international partnerships, extends this influence across the globe.” When asked about the center’s role in JMU’s research landscape, Vice President of Research, Economic Development and Innovation Anthony Tongen said, “the AAAD annual conference demonstrates JMU’s leadership role in advancing interdisciplinary Africana Studies and establishing partnerships across the African continent. Through recent travel with the State Department to universities in southern and northern Africa, I’ve seen first-hand how this important work will further our efforts to grow international research opportunities for faculty and students.”   

A man with a ponytail speaking behind a podium
State Department Coordinator 
Richard Nephew

Muzata and Phillips anticipated what will help make this happen is support from campus partners. When Muzata tried to secure Richard Nephew, the Department of State’s Coordinator on Global Anti-Corruption, as a speaker, she emailed Ben Delp, REDI’s director of federal relations and communications, for assistance, and within the hour, he made the connection she needed. That kind of support also manifested from the JMU Libraries, Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence and its hallmark publication, the International Journal on Responsibility. Babcock explained that interdisciplinarity is in the conference’s “DNA … [it] came from a place of bringing different schools of campus together,” making it a natural fit for IJR. Since the journal focuses on “themes includ[ing] the use of responsibility in academic and nonacademic settings; the development of new perspectives on the topic of responsibility; the application of a focus on responsibility in practical problems; and, the historical and interdisciplinary dimensions of responsibility,” Phillips felt the journal was the ideal outlet to produce a special issue featuring proceedings from the conference, especially since it would allow participants to think about “the questions of what is our responsibility to history. How does history represent a reckoning?” Having worked closely with units in the College of Arts and Letters, Phillips is looking forward to building relationships with other colleges, noting that this year’s theme would lend itself to an exploration of business ethics, so a potential collaboration with the College of Business would be a logical next step.

Thinking about the possibility of growth for the conference and for the AAAD Studies Center as a research center, Phillips said, “the R2 energy collided with the sensibility of amplifying what AAAD was already doing … [becoming a center provided the chance] to have resources and energies coalesce around [AAAD] in a way that is familiar to the institutions.” “We were already doing the work of an R2 institution … now that’s validated,” Babcock added.

JMU students sitting in the audience and asking questions at a panel at the 2024 AAAD Conference
JMU political science students
participating in a Q-&-A 

The experiential education possibilities the accountability conference offered excited Muzata, especially the student networking opportunities with faculty, diplomats and other government officials from U.S. and international agencies. This led Phillips to emphasize the educational importance of those moments because “in Euro-American academic cultures … you have these levels of experience and authority that are sometimes three, four or five times removed, [which causes students to] fall into a certain kind of single story about the continent.” By removing barriers that could lead students into that single story, the conference and the center both provide members of the JMU community with access to practitioners who have both training and lived experience in African scholarship and policy.

When asked about what the university and its offices can do to facilitate access, relationship-building and growth for centers and offices looking to bolster their research infrastructure and government connections, Phillips quickly replied: “Listen to the faculty, enable the faculty, support the faculty.” She went on to say, “If [the university] wants to build this … let [the faculty] take the lead and then support them.” Part of being a research university is acknowledging the intellectual productivity of the faculty, Phillips expanded, and that “really ought to engender a certain trust in us.”

Support for the 14th Annual Interdisciplinary AAAD Studies Conference was provided by JMU Political Science, the University of Pretoria's Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation, the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship, JMU Libraries, the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence, the division of Research, Economic Development and Innovation, and the Ole School Alumni Scholarship Group. Special thanks go to Michelle Krone and Jeremiah Spencer, the frontline staff who made the event possible.

To see what’s next for the Annual Interdisciplinary AAAD Studies Conference and the Accountability in African Public Policy and Administration Conference, follow the AAAD conference page for more information.

Photo credit: Zachary Kulzer, Communications Specialist, Center for Global Engagement

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by Erin Phillippi (’08M)

Published: Thursday, April 25, 2024

Last Updated: Thursday, May 2, 2024

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