Change for the community: Fenda Akiwumi brings holistic worldview to IBL, research

Having lived around the globe, Fenda Akiwumi brings admirable multicultural perspectives to her work as the director of the Institute on Black Life. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF

This story is part of a continuing series that features Black leaders at USF during Black Heritage Month.

Growing up traveling the world with her parents, professor of the School of Geosciences and Director of the Institute on Black Life (IBL) Fenda Akiwumi leads with a holistic perspective of different cultures.

Akiwumi said having an ethnically African father and an African American mother helped her develop a cross-cultural perspective at a young age. Her parents impacted her life the most and she said her values and interests stemmed from their influence. 

Her parents were college professors, which allowed her to grow up on various university campuses around the world. 

Outside the U.S., Akiwumi lived in places such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, England and Russia. She felt that she grew up with a globally minded perspective.

“[My siblings and I] had friends from all over the world,” Akiwumi said. “That opportunity to grow up and understand different cultures and different people made me the person who I am today. I’m comfortable in any environment.”

When it comes to matters of justice and advocacy, Akiwumi said she has always been conscious of equity and fairness.

“Ever since I was a kid, I was always a bit of a ‘That’s not fair. You can’t do this,’ kind of person,” she said. 

She began working as a geologist and hydrogeologist after receiving a Bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Manchester. However, due to her background living among diverse groups of people, she realized her passion laid in highlighting the cultural and political perspectives of geological research.

“I have a science background,” Akiwumi said. “But somewhere along the line, I had this eureka moment and realized that no matter what field you’re in, the people piece is very important, and you have to understand where people fit into whatever it is that you do.”

Recognizing this fostered a desire to “understand where people fit” into her research, according to Akiwumi. She went on to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental geography in 1991 at Texas State University, where she had first begun incorporating a more humanistic perspective into her work. 

Teaching about Africa and the history of the African diaspora, empathy and open-mindedness are utilized frequently in her lectures, encouraging her students to approach cultural differences with sensitivity.

“I tell the students in my classes to ask the ‘why’ question first before you say anything about something you see,” she said. 

“So if you see something and [want to say] that it’s strange, weird or gross, just ask yourself the ‘why’ question first, and use it as a learning opportunity. You have to listen to people. Put yourself in their shoes and have empathy.”

Working as a professor has allowed her to be a mentor to her students, a valuable aspect of her teaching career, she said. Being a Black woman in the sciences, Akiwumi said she is sensitive to Black and female students being properly represented and supported.

“[Black and female students are] constantly under pressure to prove [themselves] and be the best in order just to be recognized and accepted in those spaces,” Akiwumi said. 

“So for me, it is very important to mentor those groups that are marginalized and to share my personal experiences and the things that I’ve learned along the way that have helped me.”

The passion for bridging the gap between the sciences and culture as well as being an advocate on Black experiences, recently placed her as the director of the IBL. 

After the previous director of the IBL, associate professor of Africana Studies Cheryl Rodriguez, stepped down from the position, she requested Akiwumi to fill the role due to her work ethic and professional and cultural background.

[Akiwumi] has a vision for the [IBL] and she was very receptive to the projects I was working on,” she said.

“I think that [her knowledge about Africa is not the only thing that] makes her excellent [for the role]. She’s also knowledgeable about the African American experience, so she can bring both of those components to the IBL.”

Carrying out the role is not a solitary effort, Akiwumi said. When she entered the role of director, she said she ran into difficulties due to the IBL having smaller numbers than it did in the past. Having a smaller office caused her to have fewer resources to work with, such as having less staff on board to assist her. 

Rodriguez and other colleagues were Akiwumi’s primary supporters during her first year, she said.

“I had a diverse faculty [who were] some of my biggest advocates and supporters,” Akiwumi said. “Their ideas, support in helping organize panels for conferences and bringing their classes to attend events … really helped me tremendously.”

The impact of Akiwumi’s work for the IBL has stretched outside of the university as well. The IBL recently hosted its annual conference, a yearly event meant to highlight the collaborative work of the IBL’s faculty, students and community partners.

The conferences are themed events discussing key research areas such as education and student success, economic and environmental impacts, Blackness and anti-Black racism education and research, heritage preservation and community-based research initiatives.

The 2022 conference, held on Feb. 1, was a hallmark event because it was the first time it was not held on the Tampa campus. Hosting the event on the St. Pete. campus was a very exciting opportunity, said Akiwumi.

“The African American community [at the St. Pete campus] was excited because the research was focused on their relationship with the university and the work that they’re doing in conjunction with partners from the university,” she said.

The event’s theme was “The African American Neighborhoods Project of Tampa Bay,” a project Christian Wells, professor of Anthropology and the director of the Center for Brownfields research and development, said was a valued project to Akiwumi.

“[The African American Neighborhoods Project of Tampa Bay is] such an amazing project that she’s done,” he said. “[I’m] so proud of that. It’s like a jewel in the crown of the College of Arts and Sciences.”

The project explored diverse perspectives on Tampa Bay’s African American neighborhoods. It features an online collection of data on demographics, history, mobility and economic conditions of African American communities that can be accessed by local residents and scholars. 

This year, it highlighted and featured communities in the city of St. Pete., an addition organized and led by Akiwumi.

Her impact stretches outside of her career as well. Roxanne Watson, associate professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications, felt that her passion and authenticity are some of her most admirable traits.

“She is very alive,” Watson said. “What you see in her is a genuine human being. There’s no ‘Oh, I wonder how she is in private’ … she’s a real McCoy [she is a real and genuine person].”

She applies these traits at USF and in her own life, said Akiwumi. In general, she said she does it to show respect and support to others, but for her personally, it is a rule of life.

“I think that [virtues] are an important thing to have. I believe there’s some sort of karma for that … If you put out positive, positive comes back to you,” Akiwumi said. 

“I try to bring happiness to other people in any way that I can. I tell my sons that the mantra of life should be to just be kind and respectful to people. That’s it. That’s all you need to do.”