Studying institutionalized racism has been the focus of Senior Advisor to the President and Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman’s career, but when a Black Ph.D. student was detained by a police officer on his way to her class for no apparent reason, she knew she needed to advocate for changes at USF.
Hordge-Freeman was born and raised in Tampa, and after studying racism in family structures internationally, she returned home to her own family to be a sociology professor at USF. Her current title came about from the situation with her student coupled with societal tensions that had developed after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
This led Hordge-Freeman to take on a new position advising President Steven Currall and Provost Ralph Wilcox on ways to implement or improve university programs to promote equity.
“[My student] called me really upset, it really bothered me,” she said. “That was the impetus for me to send an email out to my colleagues and say, ‘Look, we need to organize and create some type of document or letter to talk about the connections between what’s happening at the national level and what’s happening locally.’”
She came together with some colleagues to craft a letter to the administration which discussed such encounters that had occurred in their community and how they have negatively affected students.
The letter resulted in an immediate response from Currall and Wilcox. They met with her on Zoom and talked for more than two hours about plans that could enhance equity and inclusion practices at USF, according to Hordge-Freeman.
She said even though she may have led the project, it was important to emphasize that it was a group effort.
“People typically like to have a leader, they like to have one person, but this process was always a collaborative process,” she said. “I think anything what I’ve achieved up to this point has been the product of working with a team of brilliant individuals.”
Ultimately, their meeting led to the creation of Hordge-Freeman’s position as well as the Report of Interlocking Priorities, which described objectives to ensure equity in the USF community. Some of the items include training human resources staff to facilitate a more racially equitable hiring process and developing an annual speaker series focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion across the USF campuses.
Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies and a member of the Black Employee Steering Committee, said Hordge-Freeman is incredibly dedicated to her position.
“Dr. Hordge-Freeman is a scholar, servant leader, visionary and activist,” Cobb-Roberts said. “Working with her is a collaborative experience built upon mutual respect, transparency and a synergistic vision that is focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and, most importantly, accountability.”
Thus far, the committee has developed the Diversity, Anti-Racism and Equity Dashboard which allows administration to monitor data regarding enrollment and success of minority students, as well as the anti-racism website which provides a virtual hub for discussions of race at USF.
Her efforts to increase inclusivity and diversity across the university are not only noticed by her colleagues, but her loved ones as well.
McArthur Freeman, Hordge-Freeman’s husband and associate professor of animation and digital modeling, said he was not surprised his wife took on her new role so effortlessly, as she has always had a knack for bringing people together.
“She is someone who’s a great facilitator,” he said. “Bringing people together, moderating things, getting people to talk to each other and being a bridge, I think is a really important aspect of what she’s done.”
Hordge-Freeman said she’s used to working with people, as she is the middle child of six siblings. Her mom had 11 siblings, most of whom lived in Tampa, which meant Hordge-Freeman grew up with over 50 first cousins.
“Many of us lived on the same street or in the same neighborhood, and so I was really excited when I got [a professorship in the sociology department] to come back to Tampa, because for me it meant that my son would have the opportunity to grow up around his cousins in the way that I did,” she said.
“We still have dinners at my grandmother’s house, my son’s great-grandmother’s house, and so that was really important for me to be able to give him that rooting in the family.”
Aside from growing up in a large family, her childhood directly influenced her choice of career. Her family lived in West Tampa, a neighborhood that’s largely Black and Latino. She said most of her friends spoke Spanish, and so she began taking Spanish in a free summer program offered to her at the time she was 9 years old.
She ended up majoring in Spanish at Cornell University and double majoring in biomedical sciences, but she never ended up using that degree because of the opportunities her Spanish degree offered her.
She was able to study abroad in Spain where she realized she could pursue a career in sociology. She knew she wanted to investigate social institutions instead of being a doctor like she originally intended and so she began taking more courses in Spanish and sociology.
In one course about race in Brazil, she learned that 10 times as many enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil than to America. She said in part of their study she made a comparison between racism in Brazil and racism in America, but her professor told her the comparison she made was not correct.
“I thought, ‘No, she’s wrong. There’s a connection here and she can’t see it, but I can see it,’” she said. “I couldn’t articulate it then but I knew that there was something and so in some ways, my whole career has also been about showing that that teacher was wrong and really developing a research agenda that has at its core the interest in bringing these threads of connectivity between [Brazilian and American] groups, families and populations.”
Her research resulted in a book titled “The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families,” which was published in 2015.
While developing her first book, her research into different family structures in Brazil led her to discovering a phenomenon within adoption processes in the country that was perpetuating modern forms of slavery. She wrote a second book about these adopted women which she finished this school year.
“I just heard back from the press last week about it being published soon. It is about Black women in Brazil who were informally adopted by wealthy families with no transfer of paper,” she said. “They’re called daughters, but they’re treated as slaves.”
While Hordge-Freeman was writing the book, she had her daughter, who is now 2 years old. Writing about children treated like slaves while nursing her own daughter emphasized to her how important it was to advocate for a world in which racist institutions are removed, especially from family structures.
“I didn’t plan to go to Brazil to study this, but as I was collecting data from that previous book I kept finding women who were living in these situations and so this next book really highlights the ways that these families use the guise of family as a way to exploit these overwhelmingly Black women.”
The second book is set to be published by the end of 2021, and Hordge-Freeman hopes its release sheds some light on forms of structural racism in other countries.
In the meantime, she is balancing teaching, researching, writing academic journal publications, maintaining a YouTube channel with her husband educating viewers about anti-racism and tending to her two children, a 2-year-old and a 9-year-old, the latter of whom is doing virtual school from home due to the pandemic.
Hordge-Freeman said juggling so many obligations can be difficult at times, but she is getting the hang of it.
“I think one of the challenges of a position like [advising the president and advocating for change] is that people who take on these roles have to be able to balance who they are as a person and not just the work that they do,” she said. “I think that there’s a way that advocacy can take over your life, and I have to be very intentional about carving out time for my husband and my children and for the other roles in my life that are important like being a sister, friend and daughter.”
Despite her many interests, her husband said all of Hordge-Freeman’s work and interests revolve around family bonds and advocacy for anti-racism, and he knows her position at USF allows her to make real differences in those areas.
“It’s great to see the role she’s played in terms of helping to organize and interact with a larger community of Black faculty and staff but also be able to communicate and bring so many people together,” he said.
Anti-racism advocacy takes time, according to Hordge-Freeman, and it also takes an entire community of people working at advocating for diversity to make a difference.
“The work that I’m doing now is about my son, but it’s also about Black boys and Black girls around the country who have to face this fear of what’s going to happen to them when they leave the house every day,” she said.
“The value of this work, if it’s done right, will be that it will have a reverberating impact across USF, across the region, across our nation and across the world, and that’s the goal.”