Flores Forbes, AVP of Community Affairs, Shares 5 Things He’s Excited About in Columbia’s Antiracism Work

"There has to be a degree of honesty and focus," said Forbes. "We’re still pushing forward."

Maggie Barrows
March 22, 2022

“There’s no such thing as a community affairs professional,” might be an odd thing to first hear when speaking with Columbia’s Associate Vice President of Community Affairs, but it explains something important that you should know about the man who has filled that role since 2008: Flores Forbes views his work connecting with the community surrounding Columbia as informed by his lived and professional experience, not solely defined by what his title suggests. That means a heavy focus on criminal justice and antiracism work. 

“I’m an urban planner and I use my skills to interact with the community around economic development, criminal justice change,” Forbes said in a recent conversation with Neighbors. “I’m organizing this marketplace of ideas and taking that intellectual capital into the community. A lot of times, it is troubleshooting. When we have really serious issues, it is my job to find out what’s going on: interacting with law enforcement agencies, dispelling rumors in the community. Sometimes we even have fun.”

Forbes was born in Hawaii and raised in California, where he was deeply affected by the civil rights and Black liberation movements of the 1960s. He joined the Black Panther Party at age 16 after witnessing, and being a victim of, police brutality and corruption. For ten years, he participated in the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program for school children and the Sickle Cell Anemia Research program. He was later recruited into the military arm of the Panthers and participated in a variety of operations with its leader Huey P. Newton. After spending three years on the run from police, Forbes chose to turn himself in and subsequently served five years in prison on a charge of second-degree felony murder.

Forbes received a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University in 1989. While consulting for the New York State Urban Development Corporation, he crossed paths with Maxine Griffith, the former executive vice president for Government and Community Affairs. In 2007, she invited him to apply for a position as her associate vice president.

When Forbes started working at Columbia in 2008, he hit the ground running, launching a Small Business Development Center with ​​Jack McGourty. Originally housed at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, but now part of the Columbia Business School, the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center has now supported more than 3,000 local businesses. Over the 14 years since then, Forbes has worked with virtually every department across the university and every community organization in the surrounding neighborhood.  

In his role with the Office of Government and Community Affairs, he works to build connections between Columbia and the communities around the campus, especially those in Manhattanville, Harlem, and Morningside Heights. 

Forbes spoke with Neighbors about five areas of racial justice, criminal justice reform, and antiracism work that he’s excited to be working on at Columbia right now.

#1 - The Antiracism Task Force

Heartened by how quickly the university’s Emergency Loan Fund came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, Forbes has turned his attention to tackling inequality and racism at Columbia and improving relationships with the community. 

“People want to get deeper into the community. Well, this is getting deeper,” he said about the task force that’s tackling everything from programs for justice-involved people to developing communication channels that encourage employees of color to share their experiences.

“It’s complicated to try and do that,” Forbes said of picking apart the historical connections between Columbia and slave-holders, and the profits they made from slavery. “But you have enlightened administrators.” 

One of the Task Force’s key achievements so far is the development of the Community Advisory Council, which will support and expand community programs through partnerships across the university and with Harlem and Upper Manhattan community leaders and organizations. The council will work to support a prosperous and equitable ecosystem in Harlem and Upper Manhattan through the efficient use of technical assistance, health-equity programming, loans, grants, education, training, and other community-based programming.

#2 — Partnering with HBCUs

On February 24, 2022, the virtual summit "Columbia and HBCU Partnership Diversifying the Research and Economic Development Model: A First Conversation" provided an opportunity for intellectuals from around the university and the country to come together and work on some of the key issues facing HBCUs. Set up with years of work by Forbes and partners around the university including Columbia Business School, Desmond Patton at the School of Social Work, Columbia Finance, the Data Science Institute, and the EVP of Research, Jeannette Wing, the attendees addressed issues of community and economic development, research engagement, and innovation.

#3 — Amend the 13th

The focus of Forbes’ work on amending the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution—which currently permits slavery as long as the enslaved person has been convicted of a crime—is on education. He and Kendall Thomas, the Nash Professor of Law, have already taught a class at Columbia Law School focused on critical race theory and are teaching another in the fall of 2022. While other movements are focused on the legal aspects of changing the amendment, Forbes and his colleagues are more interested in helping introduce into the legal system new professionals who are familiar with critical race theory and the exception clause of the 13th Amendment.

#4 — Changing the Criminal Justice System

Forbes is focused on justice-in-education work, including expanding education opportunities in prisons and providing education and support for reentry reintegration for the large numbers of people released from prison every year. 

His focus on changing the criminal justice system and supporting formerly incarcerated people is closely related to both the Amend the 13th work, and projects across the university, which help the formerly incarcerated access and thrive in a higher education environment. Examples of those include the Business School’s Reentry Acceleration Program, the Justice Lab, and the Center for Justice’s Prison Education Project.

#5 — CRT Podcasts 2

Keep an ear out this spring for a new podcast focused entirely on critical race theory. Put together by students in Forbes’ and Thomas’ law school class, the podcast will have eight episodes, each focused on a separate area of critical race theory. The topics span from women returning from prison to colorblindness in France. The podcasts will be available soon, pending a few final touches from Forbes and Thomas. Watch this space!

Looking Forward

“I’m always optimistic. I’m optimistic for myself about many things,” Forbes said. “I survived a very difficult time in this country, and I think I will continue to survive without compromising what I really believe.” He pointed to the cycle of backlash to Black success that’s occurred throughout American history, from post-Reconstruction Jim Crow to the response to Barack Obama’s presidency, but emphasized that “I’m optimistic about myself. I can’t be about anything I don’t have any control over.”

Regarding the work going on at Columbia, Forbes said, “There has to be a degree of honesty and focus. We’re still pushing forward. I think that we’re gonna do some things. We have done some, but we haven’t gotten to the finish line yet.” 

To Forbes, the key point is that “It’s not about owing something to the community. I think you enhance your value if you’re able to do something to grow the community around you.”

Flores Forbes, a resident of New York since 1987, is the author of two books: Will You Die With Me? My Life in the Black Panther Party (Simon & Schuster, 2006) and Invisible Men (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017). You can reach out to him at [email protected].