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Alumnae Stories

Human Rights Advocate Shani Jamila Travels the Globe in Pursuit of Change

February 2015

Spelman Alumnae Success StoriesShani Jamila, C'1997, is an artist, cultural worker and staunch human rights advocate. Her career and studies have taken her to thirty five countries and over five continents. This journey is reflected in her artistic production, community work and media commentary. Throughout her travels, Jamila has spoken about African-American culture and history at global gatherings like the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Switzerland, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Turkey, and the World Social Forum in India.

Using Art to Transform Lives

Jamila's international experiences and cosmopolitan perspective deeply inform her work as a collagist, fiber artist and creative writer. She has exhibited or performed at institutions including the Phillips Gallery, Rush Arts’ Corridor Gallery, Le Poisson Rouge, Busboys & Poets, Ohio University, Bohemian Caverns and the City College of New York. She is also one of the Bearden 100. Her work has been published in Race, Class and Gender; Black Renaissance Noire; Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues; Colonize This!; Words. Beats. Life: The Global Journal of Hip Hop Culture; Of Note magazine; Global Connections to a Cultural Democracy and The Encyclopedia of Sociology. 

Jamila believes in art’s power to transform lives and has devoted many years to providing the creative vision and content of programs that service that mission. She currently directs a human rights project in New York City where she is leading an innovative fusion of art and political education. 

Previously, she served as the director of the community based organization Justice for DC Youth where she coordinated The Prison to College Pipeline -- a cutting edge, culturally grounded mentorship program that supports the empowerment of incarcerated teens. Over the course of her visionary leadership, JDCY recruited and trained a corps of collegiate volunteers who joined her in tutoring and leading arts-based workshops inside a juvenile detention facility. Prior to accepting this position, she designed and directed The Art of Activism seminar series at Howard University -- building a model that utilized cultural work to examine domestic social justice issues in an international human rights frame.

Shaping and Creating Social Change


Jamila's social change work has been recognized here at Spelman as well. Her portrait and words are exhibited in a permanent exhibition entitled “A Choice to Change the World” alongside luminaries like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Michelle Obama. 

An avid supporter of initiatives that work to merge culture and social justice, she chaired a committee of esteemed professors and global experts consulted about effective arts education models for the National Cares Mentoring Movement. Jamila also played a senior role in developing the organization’s training materials and was the lead writer of the chapter on culture in the NCMM publication, "A New Way Forward: Healing What’s Hurting Black America."

She has worked in an advisory capacity with the District of Columbia's Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Jamila was the first alumni member to sit on the national selection committee for the New Voices fellowship which allocates resources to rebuild the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. 

Tackling Tough Subjects on Air

For six years, Jamila hosted and produced a weekly talk show on the Pacifica Radio network (WPFW). Her broadcasts, known for engaging the audience in provocative discussions about the arts and society, featured interviews with Susan L. Taylor, Iyanla Vanzant, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dick Gregory, Patricia Smith, Dead Prez and an array of other leading thinkers, artists and activists. 

In addition to her scheduled broadcasts, she co-anchored national coverage of special events like George W. Bush’s landmark speech to the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus convention and President Obama’s inauguration. She also co-hosted WPFW's Black Soul Mondays, a program that provided an outlet for underground music and rare grooves. Her incisive and inspirational voice has been featured on many other media outlets including C-SPAN and Hard Knock Radio. She is currently a regular contributor to The Spin on New York City’s WBAI 99.5FM. 

Jamila earned a master’s degree in African Cultural Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles and certification from the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. She has been awarded multiple grants for post-graduate study at institutions including Cornell University and the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and Trinidad-- where she spent a year as a Fulbright fellow. 

Her work has received international recognition in publications such as the Trinidad Guardian and Express newspapers, the London-based literary magazine Sable, and ESSENCE -- as "One of the 35 Most Remarkable Women in the World."

Proving That Black Lives Matter

Shani-JamilaA photograph Jamila captured during her time in Ferguson, Missouri -- currently featured in the Respond exhibit at the Smack Mellon Gallery -- was mentioned in the "New York Times" as emblematic of the take-away message of the show. The Times describes the exhibition as “a knockout group show” that “has produced a soundtrack of shouts, cries, chants and whispers to set against the wall of insulating white noise that enwraps the art world at large.” Read more in the NYTimes.
About The Exhibit: “After learning of the grand jury’s decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, Smack Mellon postponed a planned exhibition in order to respond to the continued failure of the United States to protect its black citizens from police discrimination and violence. In order to channel our outrage into actions that can facilitate systemic change, [the] gallery space will be used to present events, performances and artworks that affirm that black lives matter, express frustration and anger with the institutional racism that enables law enforcement to kill black members of the community with impunity, and imagine creative solutions and visionary alternatives to a broken justice system.”