Kurz Family Foundation Gift Supports BLMI Inaugural Cultural Immersion Trip to Jamaica

Students in the Brooklyn College Black and Latino Male Initiative (BLMI) took part in a cultural immersion program in Jamaica that took them to prominent historic and cultural sites on the island.

Thanks to the generosity of the family of Herbert Kurz ’41, 17 students of the Brooklyn College Black and Latino Male Initiative (BLMI) participated in the program’s first-ever cultural immersion trip abroad this past summer to the beautiful island of Jamaica. The Jamaica Cultural Immersion Program took place from June 7–14 and included a great many activities designed to expose students to the culture, history, and politics of the Caribbean nation. This included touring museums and art galleries, attending history lectures and film screenings, visiting sites of slavery and emancipation, stopping at the home of music legend Bob Marley, and staying overnight in Jamaica’s Maroon community–all of which students were required to write about in reflective research papers due upon their return to the United States.

Financial constrictions often prevent students from participating in international education programs, but with support from the $1 million endowment from the Kurz Family Foundation, directed by Brooklyn College Foundation Trustee Leonard Kurz, the vast majority of the $2,100 (including airfare) per student cost was paid for by the grant, leaving students to cover a nominal $12 insurance fee.

“Research has proven that study abroad opportunities are beneficial to college students, particularly students of color, for many reasons—enabling them to see the world and improve their career opportunities, which leads to personal development and the enhancement of graduate school admission opportunities,” says BLMI program director Nicole St. Clair ’04, ’08 M.A.

St. Clair spearheaded the trip, created its curriculum, and partnered with Our Story Tours and PanaCarib Business Solutions to make the experience possible.

“BLMI is designed to support students academically and professionally throughout their college career, and increase the number of men of African and Latino descent, and other historically underrepresented groups, who enroll in and graduate from college,” adds St. Clair. “This opportunity is in alignment with that mission and supports Brooklyn College’s overarching goal of its educational experience: To provide students with the knowledge and skills to live in a globally interdependent world.”

This trip was senior Gabrielle Powell’s first visit to Jamaica. Powell, who majors in anthropology and minors in children’s and youth studies, says that her classroom learning was made more concrete by the experience.

“Not everyone is an auditory learner,” Powell says. “Seeing everything, being immersed in everything—not only the culture, but the information—was really key. I learned more about social justice leaders like Marcus Garvey. I learned more about black liberation. I learned more about heritage and what it means to be proud and black during that week in Jamaica than I’ve learned in all of the time that I spent in academia.”

Particularly interesting to Powell was her interaction with the Maroon community, to whom she felt a special connection. The Maroon people are descended from the indigenous Jamaican population and the enslaved Africans who escaped their captivity to live in the country’s mountainous regions. Under the leadership of their matriarch, Queen Nanny, the Maroons managed to permanently resist re-enslavement.

“Coming from anthropological and historical standpoints, and thinking about ourselves as American citizens, I think it’s been so beat into us that every society outside of our own is scary, and anyone who is indigenous resides ‘in the past,’ that the rest of us are modern and people who don’t live like us are ‘primitive,'” Powell says. “The Maroon community proved these to be fallacious perspectives and embraced us in ways that I don’t think they embrace other tourists. Look, I was in the kitchen, they showed us different recipes, taught us how to make medicine, we went swimming, hung out and played with the kids, ate amazing food, learned so much about nature and how well it works and how silly we are as ‘modern people’ to not be utilizing and working in harmony with it rather than always against it.”

Powell’s Brooklyn College roots go deep. She is a third-generation Brooklyn College student. Her mother and grandmother both received degrees in English education from the college. Powell’s mother once taught at Brooklyn College and Powell was once a student in the college’s Early Childhood Center.

“I’m interested in not becoming an educator, but in improving the quality of education—specifically for black and brown students. I’m interested in the ways that different communities, especially black communities of the diaspora, use education to promote a healthy growth, development, and pride,” she says. “So I’m asking: ‘What is the best way?’ because I don’t feel that our public education system is the best way. I feel that academia is one of those spaces where you’re groomed to become an academic, to leave the community you’ve come from rather than use what you’ve learned to improve it and the lives of those who inhabit it.”

The Chief of the Charlestown Maroon Community shows the BLMI group the cemetery where the Maroon ancestors are buried.

Powell, a BLMI ambassador and president of the Brooklyn College Women of Color Club, says that through BLMI, she encountered the works of Associate Professor Haroon Kharem of the Department of Childhood, Bilingual, and Special Education, which detail African Free Schools, a system pre-dating the American public school system. Powell argues that the African system better educated black children and wants to use the strategies and curricula involved as a template for transformative practices in the present. She sees her work, particularly her sociopolitical liberation work, as intersectional—that is, tied to everyone else.

“As someone who is black, woman, and queer, I always think about how we can connect struggles across the board, keeping in mind people around the world, but black people in particular,” said Powell. “So I’m fighting for disabled black people, cisgender and transgender black people, working class or poor black people, and really considering how our lives are intersecting to ensure everyone has freedom and equity in the world.”

The Brooklyn College Black and Latino Male Initiative provides students like Gabrielle Powell with the assistance, skills, values, and opportunities essential to fulfilling their academic and career aspirations thanks to the generous support of alumni and friends received through the Brooklyn College Foundation. To make a charitable donation to the college, please visit the Foundation’s website.


Contact: Ernesto Mora | 212.662.9939 | emora@brooklyn.cuny.edu