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Spotlight: Anastasia Curwood, Member of DEI Leadership Team

By George Wright

One of the most rewarding parts of my role as chair of the diversity, equity and inclusion implementation plan, is that I continue to meet outstanding individuals from UK who are devoted to their community – Dr. Anastasia Curwood is one of those leaders.

Where are you from and what is your background?

I am from Cambridge, Massachusetts and grew up going to the Cambridge public schools until I went to college, which was at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania – an all-women’s institution. That was where I became devoted to scholarship.

When I went to graduate school at Princeton for history, what was important to me was having a vibrant community of Black scholars. My advisor was Nell Irvin Painter, the great historian, and she had a very talented group of students, many of whom were Black and others who were allies. I felt like I had a really strong community there to pursue inquiry – not just inquiry in Black history but also to learn the profession in an affirming community.

Why did you study history?

I had always enjoyed and done well in history classes before college, but it was in my history courses in college where I realized the contingency of the past. What’s so amazing is that human beings made decisions in the past that then had real consequences on the daily lives of my fellow humans. I became really interested in contingencies – why people made the decisions they made and how we got here. It still is a touchstone for me, not only in my academic work but in my life; I think about who has come before and who has had these struggles. In DEI work, I find it indispensable to know where we are coming from and why.

As a Black woman, one of those contingencies and implications that I came to right away was race and racism. It was at that moment when I understood that this academic discipline had resonance and relevance in my own life, in my ancestor’s lives and in the lives of my family in the future. This work is no mere abstraction or academic exercise. It’s really determining and solving the huge problems that we have of racism in the lives of all of us.

I feel the same way but have never heard or anyone articulate it like you. History is my discipline, but it’s also my life. I want to make people aware of the past, but I also want to help make the future better at the same time. I think your scholarship can and does do that.

Why did you come to Lexington and the University of Kentucky?

I started out my career at Vanderbilt University – our neighbor to the south. I would visit Lexington for equestrian events because I’m an avid amateur equestrian. I remember thinking the first time I drove into downtown Lexington, “I wish I worked at the University of Kentucky.”

I had the opportunity to decide where to go in 2014, and I was lucky enough that Kentucky had a job open. I instantly wrote to a friend who was a faculty member here asking about the position – it was my dream job. What I discovered in the process of applying for that job is that the history department and African American and Africana Studies (AAAS) were two units that made me feel instantly at home. I had the sense that I could pursue my particular scholarship with other researchers who would support it, and I knew that I would have what my soul needs in the area, which is horses.

At that time the AAAS was in a period of expansion. We still are, but it was the beginning of a wonderful opportunity. I could see that the college was deeply committed to AAAS, and it just felt like home right away.

As a member of the DEI Leadership Team, how would you describe our role?

I see us as an oversight body where we are filtering the work that the 17 projects have undertaken. We are talking about it, evaluating the solutions that those teams propose, and we are bringing our own expertise in DEI work to that. We ask tough questions about what goals and solutions are, and we are that final layer before the president in terms of deciding how and when to implement the proposals.

You have been committed to increasing the number of underrepresented faculty members. Can you speak to that and talk about why that is so important?

Kentucky has been a place that has encouraged me to develop my leadership skills and has really believed in me as a leader. Initially, when I became director of AAAS, my first step was to get a major for the program so students could get a bachelor’s degree in African American and Africana Studies. While I was doing that, I had the opportunity to recruit faculty. I remember articulating to the hiring committee that what we really needed was a scholar who placed Black experiences at the center.

That central endeavor of hiring scholars who center Black experiences was a common denominator in the hiring process of several fields. What we got was a really exciting group of seven faculty who came in as a cluster hire. When we started doing that, we got attention from across the country from scholars who began to look at us with new eyes and see that we are prioritizing what scholars of color do – looking at real-life implications of this scholarship. This made us more attractive to candidates because we had done this cluster hire and had major support from administration. They could see that we were really working from a Black studies ethic of centering Black experiences; it was an instrumental decision.

What is the Commonwealth Institute? Why is it important, and what do you hope to accomplish?

We started the Commonwealth Institute because I knew that if we wanted to continue to be excellent in Black studies, our research area needed some attention. We have accumulated some truly stellar scholars and we want to build on our strengths. The Institute supports those scholars and showcases their incredible talent.

In five years, I want us to be fairly indispensable to the institution. I want us to become part of UK’s identity. When scholars and researchers think about the University of Kentucky, I want them to understand that we are experts in slavery and emancipation, in race and sports. We are experts in studying Black futures – where are we going? How does our understanding of the past change affect our understanding, our decisions about the future?

I also want them to understand that we are intersectional. We are weaving gender and sexuality studies throughout our studies of Blackness. We are leaders in that field, and I want the university to see us as a resource and as something the university is very proud of having. We will share our work publicly, and we will have public events such as the one with Henry Louis Gates Jr. that is coming up in March. Those are open to the public so that we engage with the central Kentucky community on studies of Blackness and on concerns of the Black communities here. From without, we will be known for our stellar work; from within, we will be known as a resource and source.