‘Cause daughter’ leads premiere USC Dornsife academic program
I was among the millions glued to their TV on Nov. 3, 2020, as election returns dribbled in. As midnight approached, I switched to KNBC, where Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, Dean’s Professor of Gender Studies and professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies, was providing in-studio analysis.
Her judicious insight and poise were refreshing — a stark contrast to political wonks pecking at touchscreens like children learning “Chopsticks” on piano. Alfaro reminded anxious viewers that, in spite of the horse race coverage, it was Election Day — not election results day — and we should probably get some sleep.
As a media personality, Alfaro is a natural. It’s a role she takes on frequently. Whether she’s heading up a major initiative with the L.A. Homeless Services Agency, exploring ways to ensure minorities receive quality treatment for COVID-19 in hospitals or breaking down social issues on National Public Radio, she exemplifies the best of a modern public intellectual.
“My mom and dad used to call me their ‘cause daughter,’” Alfaro said.
As a teenager, she recalls boycotting Nestlé Crunch candy bars because of the company’s alleged strongarm-marketing tactics used to hook mothers in developing countries on infant formula. Through most of her 20s, she was an activist for women’s rights and social justice — work that she continues today. And she recently taught a course on the #MeToo movement that included an interview with Anita Hill.
Now, one of Alfaro’s causes is to build the strength of an academic unit that is larger than 56 four-year colleges in the United States. In July, she was appointed chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations (POIR) at USC Dornsife.
A model merger
Following a 3-year planning process, the School of International Relations (SIR) and the Department of Political Science merged in August 2019, though the Ph.D. program had already been shared between the two.
The combined POIR department is strategically designed to enhance the student experience and facilitate closer working relationships among scholars, while leveraging existing strengths and maintaining the School of International Relations. Alfaro says this fully integrated department heightens USC Dornsife’s academic leadership on pressing issues such as immigration, health care, social justice, gender and race, and economic development.
“I think our department needs to be the model for the rest of the country,” she said.
But the merger hasn’t been without its hiccups. Alfaro and some of her colleagues recently had to correct misconceptions among some students and alumni that SIR had closed, when in fact it’s not only open but has added faculty and a new major.“I think our department needs to be the model for the rest of the country.”
She is quick to acknowledge that she is not interested in setting her own agenda.
“My job as chair is to get excited about what our faculty get excited about. I want to champion the kinds of things that faculty — who are the heart of the institution — bring to our students,” she says. “To the degree I make that easier for them, that’s when I feel like I’ve succeeded.”
The merger has already illuminated areas of academic excellence that had not been obvious. In comparative politics, for example, the School of International Relations is known for having prolific expertise in Europe and Asia. But when Alfaro noticed that two international relations faculty members conduct research on Latin America while two others in political science do the same, it became clear that the combined department could consider this region another area of academic strength.
“We’re also very committed to building a vision of inclusive excellence,” she said.
For Alfaro, diversity, equity and inclusion are much more than boilerplate talking points. Indeed, as the first Black woman to become a full professor at USC Dornsife, in 2016, she knows that decisive action on these issues is long overdue. Her priority became all the more urgent when, just before her chair appointment, current and past students detailed their frustration with the two previous departments’ diversity and antiracism initiatives on social media.
Recruiting and retaining faculty of color will make an obvious difference, and Alfaro is excited to launch a search for a new tenure-track position in Black and Indigenous politics. But she’s also exploring creative ways to make inroads, such as a department-wide book initiative launched in fall 2020. Alfaro has invited the nearly 1,400 faculty, students and staff in POIR to read Jessica Blatt’s Race and the Making of American Political Science, which highlights ways that race, racism and colonialism have shaped the discipline.
The department will hold a series of group discussions about the book to create a shared experience and sense of communal responsibility. “Once we know the history, we can begin to change the future,” Alfaro said.
Changing the future is a refrain that has followed Alfaro throughout her life. She recalls that attentiveness to others in need was very much a part of her upbringing in Columbia, Maryland. Built in the 1960s, the planned community was designed to eliminate segregation and empower the growth of a diverse population.
“The person who has had the most influence on me was probably my dad,” Alfaro said. “He always cared about justice.”
Alfaro surely made him proud when the gift she asked for in honor of her 14th birthday was to attend the 20th-anniversary March on Washington. And she would go on to make an impact through a variety of efforts.“We’re also very committed to building a vision of inclusive excellence.”
Before attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Alfaro created the original business model for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) — the only professional women’s basketball league to succeed. She is also among the pioneers of intersectionality theory, a framework for analyzing and resolving inequality.
“Empirical social science likes to parse people into certain boxes — gender, race, class, etcetera,” Alfaro said, describing intersectionality. “But that’s not how we live our lives. We don’t walk around as our gender on one day, our race on another and our class on another.”
Perhaps no one better reflects the truth of this concept than Alfaro herself. How could you ever even begin to singularly define a scholar-teacher-author-activist-Black-Christian woman (who’s also a sports nut and an unapologetic Barry Manilow fan)?
Even during her ephemeral downtime, Alfaro finds ways to combine threads. “My pandemic guilty pleasure is that I crochet,” she says, noting that she is working on her second blanket.
With so much on her plate, you might assume you’ll find a Type A personality, intent to carry the world on her shoulders — to write the songs that make the whole world sing. But Alfaro knows that the real change needed to achieve a more just world is incumbent on a collective effort.
“It takes all of us,” she said. “Part of the frustration I see in young people is the feeling like ‘if I don’t do it no one else will do it, no one else is going to be that bridge.’”
More than that, Alfaro believes that we should never count out anyone who is willing to advance a good cause.
“That’s what I constantly try to do with my students and with the people I work with,” she said. “To help them remember that there is something in everyone that is of value, and we need to find how to get to that and find the beauty in it.”