As Sara Clarke Kaplan begins her tenure as the new executive director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARPC), she sees great opportunities ahead to build a nationally renowned interdisciplinary center, which will serve as an intellectual hub for all individuals, on campus and beyond.
“Dr. Kaplan is a force of nature. Her extraordinary energy and sheer brilliance arrive at American University at just the right moment to take the ARPC to the next level,” said CAS Interim Dean Max Paul Friedman. “Everyone on the search committee admired her accomplishments combining institution-building with activism, and she is a wonderful scholar. We are truly fortunate that she is determined to put her considerable talents to the work of fostering a collective intellectual community at AU while helping us contribute to addressing the racist injustice that permeates American society on so many levels.”
Building Intellectual Centers of Gravity
Kaplan comes to AU from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she served as an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Critical Gender Studies Program. As a scholar of feminist and queer theory and African Diaspora literary and cultural production, her work has appeared in American Quarterly, American Literary History, Callaloo, the Journal of Black Women, Gender, and Families, and other respected journals. She is the author of the recently published The Black Reproductive: Feminism and the Politics of Freedom (University of Minnesota Press), and she is working on her second book, Sites of Slavery: Black Feminist Geographies of Chatteldom.
At UCSD, Kaplan co-founded and served as associate director of the Black Studies Project (BSP), which she helped to grow from a small speaker series to a $2.5 million cross-departmental center. BSP emerged in 2013 in the wake of a campus-wide racial crisis following a series of racially charged events. Kaplan and her colleagues began by bringing in speakers and hosting panels, seminars, and even reading groups to increase campus dialogue about Black history, Black cultural expression, and Black social formations.
Today, the Black Studies Project is a national model for groundbreaking research, cross-campus intellectual community, Black Studies scholarship, and collaborations with communities beyond campus.
A Generatively Important Moment
Kaplan recognizes the similarities between the Black Studies Project and American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, which was established in 2017 under the leadership of Ibram X. Kendi after a series of racist incidents on AU’s campus. During the past year, the Center has been led by Malini Ranganathan, SIS associate professor, and advocate and award-winning author Christine Platt.
Kaplan says that Ranganathan and Platt have laid a similar type of foundation to the Black Studies Project in terms of robust programming and events, as well as the creation of an active intellectual community of scholars. Under Ranganathan and Platt’s leadership, the ARPC formed a cross-campus team of faculty affiliates—more than 50 and growing—several of whom serve as the Center’s advisors.
“I have been handed something that is already incredible at a generatively important moment,” she says. “For me, the next step is to think about how to build on this remarkable base of faculty, staff, and students, and how to build on the robust conversations about race, power, and difference that have been happening on campus over the past year.”
What Does Our Community Need?
As she begins her leadership role, Kaplan knows that her first task is to listen. She wants to know how ARPC can better support research, provide more opportunities for collaboration and innovation, and help build stronger connections to community organizations working for racial justice.
One of Kaplan’s goals is to use the ARPC as a “collaboratory”—an experimental site where faculty with similar interests can come together across divisions and schools to conduct innovative research that could not be easily housed in any one unit. Kaplan believes that pulling together experts from all different fields to examine a problem from different angles has the potential to create powerful change in the world.
She uses abolition as an example, pointing out that AU faculty right now are working independently on issues of prisons, policing, and critical race theory. “I would love to be able to bring them together—from CAS, the law school, SPA, education, SOC, SIS—around questions of abolition. What would an interdisciplinary research project have to say about the relationship between racial justice and abolition? Would it develop a new mindset that could be applied not only to prisons, but to climate change, to thinking about our education system, to broader public affairs questions?” she asks.
Kaplan envisions ARPC as facilitating the broad work of analyzing why policy exists the way it does and then creating new thought frameworks for reimagining policy.
Integrated Intellectual Community
While Kaplan envisions ARPC supporting innovative collective research, she simultaneously wants to focus on giving individual faculty members and graduate students more time and financial resources to conduct research.
Funding for antiracist research can be difficult to find, she explains. “The first part is to convince people reading the applications that the problem you’re trying to resolve actually exists. So, it is important for us to find creative ways as a research center to make it possible for people doing the research we support to find funding.”
Kaplan also stresses the importance of creating a place that convenes, supports, and enables people at all stages of their academic careers, from first-year students to full professors, who share a commitment to antiracist scholarship and social change.
“We believe that shared commitment can bring together people from different disciplines, approaches, and experiences—from activists to artists to students to scholars,” she says.
Across American University, from the Public Health Program to the Humanities Truck Project, faculty members have built existing relationships with community-based organizations working for social justice. Kaplan’s first goals are to support and strengthen these existing relationships, and to do this in a way that continues to prioritize mutual benefit and mutual respect.
Often community-based organizations approach university collaborations with suspicion, she explains, worried that they might be being mined for research. “My goal is to support collaborations that are equal partnerships, where all parties benefit by the work we do together and where the collaborations are sustainable, respectful, and reciprocal,” Kaplan explains.
Collaboration is a theme that runs through Kaplan’s plans for the Center. She is hosting a series of student-focused First Fridays events — an opportunity for students to learn and share ideas about antiracism work at AU and beyond our campus. All students are welcome.
For more information about the ARPC and how you can get involved, visit the Center’s website. To support the work of the Center, please visit its donation website.