PhD candidate in sociology wins national fellowship to research travel programs that teach young people about the African diaspora

Theresa Hess-Fromel, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was recently one of the top five researchers selected nationally for the American Sociological Association’s 2022-2023 Minority Fellowship Program. Funding will support her thesis research on black women-led travel abroad programs focused on educating young people about the African diaspora.

Hice-Fromille has won multiple awards in recognition of the importance of this research, including an American Association of Universities Thesis Fellowship and a University of California President’s Thesis Fellowship. She also received support from the Institute for the Humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She said she looks forward to the focus time for her research that the fellowships will allow. Currently, she is preparing for the final stage of her fieldwork, a trip to Costa Rica with a group of young black men and mentors from Baltimore.

Hice-Fromille conducts community research, which means that her work is designed in partnership with and at the service of community organizations. She initially became interested in studying travel abroad when she volunteered as a guide with an organization in Auckland that was planning trips for local black youth. After traveling to South Africa with the group, she was so inspired by the unique mentorship and learning she saw taking place among black women and girls that this became the focus of her research.

She later reached out to a similar organization in Baltimore and has since been working with youth and leaders of both programs to understand how to develop meaningful overseas travel experiences and the impacts it can have on black youth and their communities. Hice-Fromille addresses these questions through a queer black feminist framework that acknowledges the long history of black women’s leadership in building society across the African diaspora. It also documents how curriculum design differs from school settings by being grounded in the collaborative networks and cultural traditions of black communities.

In particular, she says, the process of planning travel programs usually begins with knowing the leaders and the particular interests of the young participants. From there, program leaders connect with their friends, family, and community leaders—in the United States and abroad—to connect with youth and share knowledge and skills.

“A large part of this curriculum building process is ‘youth work,’ a legacy in black communities of sharing parenting responsibilities and sharing youth care,” Hesse-Fromeli said. “Travel abroad shows how this is a diaspora practice, because the women you lead rely on international ‘mother’ networks and the support of these young blacks.”

Through international travel, young people see connections among blacks in their cities and throughout the African diaspora and begin to develop a sense of a global black community, says Hesse Fromel. But differences in lifestyles and ways of coping across black communities are also teaching young people to imagine a new future for themselves.

“Young people often begin to think that a better future means leaving the city they belong to, and leaders on these trips work hard to show that the problems they face in their communities are in fact systemic and global, but there are other ways that people encounter and resist in other societies.” Hess-Fromel explained. “This expands their imaginations of what it means to be black as a politician and extends across the globe.”

Young participants often return from their trips with ideas about changes they would like to make in their lives, based on their experiences abroad, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, for example. But they return to the same material conditions in their communities, including major barriers, such as unequal access to healthy, fresh and affordable food. Group leaders help young people find ways to struggle against these realities and bring about change by getting involved in local politics and other community service organizations. And lessons from travel can help.

“What they learn about survival, resistance and struggle in solidarity is the real impact when they return,” Hesse-Fromeli said. “And that’s important to me because it has a lot to do with what diaspora is as a political project.”

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