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Legacy of Trailblazer Shirley Chisholm ’46 Highlighted at Annual Speaker Series

Nov. 16, 2015

Shirley Chisholm ’46 (center) announced her groundbreaking presidential candidacy, supported by celebrities like actor Ossie Davis (right).

“What would it mean if President Obama or Hillary Clinton evoked Shirley Chisholm’s name?” asks Zinga A. Fraser Ph.D., the new director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism, “because, in many ways, she not only paves the way for them, she provides a trajectory and strategy on how to create political coalitions that cross boundaries.”

Fraser, a former endowed post-doctoral fellow in women’s and gender studies and recipient of the American Political Science Association‘s 2014 Byran Jackson Dissertation Research on Minority Politics Award, has organized this year’s Shirley Chisholm Day talk, held on Nov. 17 in the Penthouse of the Brooklyn College Student Center. The keynote address will be delivered by Robin Kelley, the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California-Los Angeles. The annual event celebrates the legacy of Shirley Chisholm ’46, who became the first major-party black candidate for president of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“She provides what Professor Kelley identifies as ‘the freedom dream’—that is, how we can reimagine and understand freedom, despite the outcome,” adds Fraser.

Chisholm’s memoir Unbought and Unbossed details her grassroots, community-building efforts among a wide variety of constituencies, including blacks, whites, Latinos, lower-income and middle-class families, women across demographics, and the LGBT community. Her work with the last group, Fraser says, was ahead of its time and often overlooked by scholars. It also illustrates how difficult forging these alliances can be, even in a place like Brooklyn, which, according to Fraser, has one of the highest numbers of black women elected to public office in the country.

Chief among her responsibilities, Zinga A. Fraser, Ph.D., the new director of the Brooklyn College Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism, is looking forward to promoting Chisholm’s continued importance to Brooklyn and beyond.

“Chisholm also tells us a great deal about the possibility and importance of learning from political failures,” says Fraser. “As much as her story is about the aspirational, groundbreaking work that she did, it’s also about the constraints in coalition building. In the end, it wasn’t her ability to connect these groups, but the inability of these groups to work together for a common cause. But even in her failure to get various coalitions to work collectively, she provides us with some of the playbook that would later be utilized by our current president.”

This semester is Fraser’s first as director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism, whose archive, housed at the Brooklyn College Library, is the world’s largest for Chisholm-related artifacts. Fraser took over the role from Barbara Winslow and is very excited about the efforts to raise Chisholm’s profile as a central and influential figure in the contemporary political landscape.

“The goal is to connect Chisholm’s legacy to present-day conversations around race, gender, politics and social and economic inequality. Moreover, I hope to place Chisholm and her legacy in context with current issues that impact the Brooklyn communities she supported,” says Fraser. “That is why we have had a wide array of speakers both national and local. So part of her legacy is the political empowerment of marginalized communities, as well as providing a model for political accountability. She advocated for those considered invisible by politicians and the media.”

Fraser is currently writing a book that is a comparative study of Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, as well as other black women political figures, in the context of examining their political genius, the different strategies they used to affect change, and how they negotiated the intersections of racism, misogyny, and sexism. Fraser also hopes to raise awareness and funds to accomplish things like bolstering the archive, creating paid internships that will allow students to work on Chisholm-related projects and conferences and perhaps even financing scholarships in Chisholm’s name.

To learn more about Shirley Chisholm and the work of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism, please visit the project’s website. See the Brooklyn College calendar for details about the Shirley Chisholm Day event.


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