By Rachel Morrison
Sophomore Tselot Aklilu’s interest in community building and social justice began when she was just nine years old, when she moved from her native Ethiopia to Washington, D.C. She describes D.C. as a hub for immigrants, and she engaged deeply with immigrant advocacy throughout her high school years through Many Languages One Voice (MLOV), a D.C.-focused organization that works to empower limited- and non-English-proficient communities to equitably access public benefits.
“It was a pure instinct to go from that experience to Scripps, someplace that encourages and supports those types of community-building efforts,” says Aklilu, who is pursuing a dual major in politics and Africana studies.
Aklilu began her Scripps journey by participating in DIVE, a two-day immersive program for students of color and first-generation students and families. “I saw that people like me were succeeding here. There was a community and collective identity that I didn’t see at any other colleges I visited,” she recalls. From that point on, she passionately immersed herself in campus life, joining the black student affinity group Watu Weusi and becoming active in the Chiapas Support Committee, a transnational collective rooted in Africanist principles that engages in liberation struggles. The group holds delegations, brings speakers and grassroots leaders on campus, and facilitates dialogues about freedom and liberation.
It was through Chiapas that Aklilu learned about a group of people whose struggle for liberation would potentially inform the rest of her life.
Over spring break in 2018, she traveled to Cuba with students from the 5Cs and across the nation on a trip organized by Witness for Peace, a grassroots organization whose mission is to change the U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. She spent 10 days learning with community leaders about the Cuban political process and its liberation struggles, including histories of the nation’s Maroons—enslaved Africans in the period of chattel slavery who engaged in acts of truancy by escaping and establishing self-sufficient communities. Isolated from the dominant culture, they developed new creole cultures synthesized from the diversity of traditions they encountered among the enslaved.
When Aklilu returned stateside, she enrolled in Professor of History Cindy Forster’s course Haiti/Columbia/Para-Military/Maroons, which focused on the revolutionary processes undertaken in these places. “I was struck by the resilience of the Maroons,” Aklilu says. In fact, she was so moved by this history that she knew she had to keep learning.
This spring, she was awarded a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) to do just that. The MMUF is designed support students from groups underrepresented in academia to pursue doctoral education and eventually join the professoriate. The two-year program begins this summer, when Aklilu will take part in a six-week summer intensive research and writing program at UCLA with other MMUF fellows. In the fall, she will take a seminar with the fellows focused exclusively on preparing to apply for graduate school and will spend the following year pursuing an independent research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
“I plan to engage the idea of “marronage”—the strategy of resistance employed by the Maroons—as it relates to the Black body under surveillance and exile,” Aklilu explains. “The first part will explore how Maroon resistance has identified flight as an avenue through which Black folk can move from bondage towards liberation, and in so doing, established a process that affirms the unbounded agency of the African diaspora. I will be looking at Black radical leaders like Assata Shakur and Angela Davis to study how they have contemporarily engaged Maroon strategies in their liberation struggles by way of their fugitive and exiled identities so as to claim a reimagined Black existence grounded in self-determination. In the second part of the project, I want to focus on the cultural production and identity formation of Maroon communities through a focus on creolization—the process by which cultures come together and create a new culture—and map out the legacies of resistance it has left behind against colonial violence and all systems of domination.”
Aklilu has harmonized her activist, academic, and personal life admirably. As she tells it, “Freedom and liberation means equal access to a dignified life with no domination. So, what I do doesn’t feel like work or service. It’s what sustains me.”