Hear from Bundles Scholars About Their Work on Women's History, Community Building, and Harlem

Neighbors spoke to three current and past Bundles Scholars for Women’s History Month. 

Maggie Barrows
March 29, 2022

Every year, five members of the Upper Manhattan community are chosen to become A’Lelia Bundles Community Scholars at Columbia University. As Bundles Scholars, they can access Columbia libraries, audit classes, and use other academic resources at the university for three years. The work that Bundles Scholars do during their tenures varies wildly, with current scholars tackling projects from historical research to creating businesses that address community health to providing comprehensive support for educators of color.

Neighbors spoke to three current and past Bundles Scholars for Women’s History Month. 

Vivian Kurutz

Kurutz, a local business owner, spent her time as a Bundles Scholar working on growing the Harlem Wellness Center. Since finishing her tenure as a scholar in 2019, Kurutz has stayed engaged with the Bundles Scholars program and continued to build connections throughout the Columbia community to nurture a relationship between the university and Harlem’s arts, wellness, and faith communities. She has also continued to build out the Harlem Wellness Center’s programming, including incorporating the arts into her focus on racial healing and the racial health gap. 

What made you want to work on the Harlem Wellness Center? 

The arts are my first love, and I have an extensive background in various disciplines. Over the years, I grew deeply passionate about social justice through my work to address health inequity. By integrating the arts in my social justice work, it feels really synergistic and exciting.

How have your experiences as a resident of Upper Manhattan and as a woman shaped your work?

My work to close the racial health gap was birthed out of a heart for the Upper Manhattan community. By looking at health statistics, and living, working and playing in Upper Manhattan, I can see with my own eyes, the need for solutions that disrupt the longstanding trend of adult-onset diseases and major causes of death. In 2003, I came to my work in health equity when friends in Harlem asked me to start a yoga program. Saying yes to this call to action was one of the best decisions of my life.

As a natural community builder, I’m interested in bridging divides and creating spaces where all are welcome and can belong. It so happens that many women of color are drawn to our program. The intersectionality of being a woman and a woman of color comes with unique stressors. With mothers, daughters, and grandmothers at the nucleus of homes, women have the potential to be major influencers. When health awareness, education, self-care, and community care are at the forefront of women’s lives, it impacts the family and generations to come.

The 2022 Winter Olympics just ended. Watching, I got to celebrate women crushing it. Tearing down stereotypes and proving the unlimited possibilities we hold. Across the board, women are catalyzing, shaping, and transforming neighborhoods, communities, and the world.

What are you looking forward to in your work? 

Professionally, I’m looking forward to Harlem Wellness Center programs returning to in-person gatherings where we can see each other’s faces and feel each other’s energy. I’m also excited about upcoming events for the Racial Healing Hub, developing new programs, and collaborations. On a personal level, I’m planning to devote more time to my fiction and non-fiction writing projects.

Deidre B. Flowers

Flowers is an alumna of The Modern School in Harlem, a progressive private school founded by Mildred L. Johnson that operated for more than 60 years in Sugar Hill. Flowers is using her time as a Bundles Scholar to research and develop a book about Johnson and her school, including doing archival research at Columbia and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

What made you want to write a book on Mildred L. Johnson?

In 2013, while enrolled in my last course for the doctoral program at Teachers College, I mentioned The Modern School in one of my assignments. History professor Ansley Erickson put me in contact with another scholar completing research that included a TMS reference. He tried to convince me to write my dissertation on the school; however, I resisted because I had already invested years of research on the activism and engagement in civil rights protests of students and administrators at Bennett College for Women. As fate would have it, in 2018, the History of Education Society (HES) extended its proposal deadline for the annual conference. I took this as an opportunity to explore The Modern School’s history. I knew of Johnson’s family; she is the daughter of J. Rosamond Johnson and the niece of James Weldon Johnson. However, I did not know the full scope of her desire to become a teacher at a private school; nor that she founded TMS because she was excluded from employment opportunities in New York City’s white private schools because of her race. Johnson created and led her private school for close to seventy years and enrolled a predominantly Black student population.

What’s something you’ve been able to do as a Bundles Scholar?

As a historian, much of our writing is based on archival materials. I first conducted oral histories in my last class as a graduate student in 2013. As I have poured through the materials at the Schomburg Center, I realized the story of TMS will not be complete without the inclusion of the reminiscences of students, teachers, administrators, and parents’ perspectives. I am now planning a schedule for conducting new oral history interviews with people associated with the school. I’m also beginning to think beyond my initial goal of writing a book on Johnson and TMS, which can be used in education and history programs. I am thinking of ways to introduce Johnson and her work to a broader audience.

What do you have coming up next? 

Next month, I present at the American Educational and Research Association. The paper I am presenting will discuss the work of three African American educators in New York City. In researching Johnson, I located two additional Black women who also started private schools, one of whom also ran a summer camp like Johnson. The panel is scheduled for Saturday, April 23, 2022, and is entitled “Black Educators and the Struggle for Educational Justice.” Once I complete the book on Johnson, I plan to explore writing a children’s book on her life and work; and I am exploring mounting an exhibit on Johnson and TMS. My future work will likely include further research on the two other women educators who founded and led schools for Black children in New York City and writing articles and a book based on my dissertation. Additionally, there is an organizational history I would like to update, but I have not yet begun those discussions.

Yhane Smith

Smith, who moved to New York to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in Harlem, creates audio dramas featuring and highlighting Black women throughout American history. She recently produced Harlem Queen about the life of Madame Stephanie St. Clair during the Harlem Renaissance and is currently working on an audio drama juxtaposing Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign with Angela Davis’s trial in 1972.

What inspired you to choose Black women as the subjects of audio dramas?

I’m struck by the dichotomy of having a very respected Black woman in the upper echelon of government-run for the highest office in the land, while another greatly admired Black woman is fighting for her basic right to have a jury of her peers and a fair trial in a biased and racist judicial system.

I only recently realized how the timeline of Chisholm’s campaign and Davis’s trial lined up. In January and February, Chisholm announced her run while Davis was finally released on bail after being in jail for sixteen months. In March, Davis’s trial begins, while Chisholm’s campaign takes off in Miami. April through June we have Davis’s trial and the Chisholm trial. Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners was a massive international movement. The events culminate in June when Davis was finally found not guilty and July when Chisholm’s campaign ends after she did not receive the Democratic nomination. 

I also admire how Chisholm supported Davis, through telegrams of support, opposition to Davis’s extradition to California, and by raising funds for bail. And there were so many other Black women’s powerful voices; Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, who offered to pay Davis’s bail, Charlene Mitchell, Kathleen Cleaver, the list goes on and I included as many as I could in the audio drama series.

How have your experiences as a resident of Upper Manhattan and as a woman shaped your work as a Bundles Scholar?

I grew up in South Jersey and always wanted to live in Harlem. I wanted to be like Zora Neale Hurston, who also attended Columbia, so now I feel like I’ve come a little close to following in her footsteps. I used to ride my bike to work, which is in East Harlem, and I enjoyed seeing the vestiges of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved riding down Lenox Avenue past James Van Der Zee’s photography studio and so many other places. I really wanted to see how these places used to exist during the Harlem Renaissance, so I wrote a script. Then I turned that script into an audio drama. I’ve been working with an Oscar-nominated, Emmy award-winning writer and producer to develop the audio drama into a television series. Perhaps my dream will come true and we will be able to see the Harlem Renaissance on television someday!

As a Bundles Scholar, I’ve really enjoyed being able to research American history. My stories feature and highlight Black women throughout American history. I show them in unexpected, yet historically accurate, roles and places — as a cowgirl in the 1870s, or as a “gangster” in the 1920s. I enjoy learning extraordinary historical facts and crafting them into stories about extraordinary Black women. And I especially enjoy making the stories and the women relevant and entertaining to my audience. 

What will you be working on next? 

My next project will be the second season of another audio drama that I created titled The Courtship of Mona Mae. It’s a western that features a Black, female protagonist and it takes place during the Reconstruction Era. I never really liked westerns because I never saw a Black woman in a western. So I wrote one. I’ve since learned about Ruby Dee, Vonetta McGee, and other Black actresses who starred in westerns.

The A’Lelia Bundles Community Scholars Program, administered by the Office of Government and Community Affairs, the School of Professional Studies, and the Office of the Provost, enables members of the Upper Manhattan community to pursue their aspirations and projects through a three-year affiliation with Columbia.

Applications are currently open for the 10th cohort of scholars. Apply by April 29.