Storytelling school

Faculty Feature: CFA San Diego Member Uses Storytelling to Elevate Previously Suppressed Black Stories and Experiences

Dr. Sureshi M. Jayawardene recalls his first encounter with storytelling: the letters his great-grandmother Muriel de Silva wrote to a baby Jayawardene, the matriarch’s first great-grandchild.

The personal messages urged Jayawardene to think about his future beyond individual achievement, to work to improve the lives of his community and his people. Jayawardene grew up in a suburb of Sri Lanka during the civil war. A childhood marked by news flashes and images of what war does to people, families, communities, Jayawardene’s family – like many Sri Lankans – was always afraid of a suicide bombing.

“His letters told me to bring peace and equality to my community. She told me that I was destined for greatness, that I could be anyone, anyone I wanted to be. Some of these letters are framed in my home, to remind me of my ancestral past, my ancestral task. I have always felt a spiritual connection with my great-grandmother. As an adult, these letters are a way to claim my African ancestry, how we form rootedness, and the purpose of family.

Much of this struggle grounds Jayawardene’s teaching, research, and service at San Diego State University and its African Studies department, where she is a newly promoted associate professor with tenure.

“My research is culturally relevant and culturally grounded. The aim is to adopt an applied approach to the study of Afrodiasporic communities in South Asia and to consider the data concerning them in a way that is faithful to their history, their culture, their philosophies of life. And oral histories; I want to make sure these are treated as valid and true stories of African history and agency,” she said.

“I don’t do research just to do research. I don’t have that luxury – my people are dying; they are beaten.

Jayawardene works with students and other faculty to bring black stories and contributions to light that have been ignored or suppressed. Students in her Black Urban Experience class choose a city in the United States or abroad and design and tell an immersive story of the black experience with videos, images, maps and other multimedia. His black geography students are developing podcasts to tell the stories of black people and place-making.

“Storytelling has been at the heart of how African communities have passed on stories. Some of these stories have never been told to a wider audience. Most research and writing relies on written records and oral histories have been ignored. It is a change that is important. We need to find unique ways to tell these stories, to spread them,” the CFA San Diego member said. “Storytelling projects stay with students in a different way – being able to tell stories outside of the classroom or the university.”

Combined with other teachings, story mapping pushes students to think critically, research, and then form their own conclusions and opinions, said Akilah Wayne, a 2022 African studies graduate who enrolled at many Jayawardene courses.

“For example, the story-mapping project assigned in Dr. Jayawardene’s Black Urban Experience initially intimidated me. It was a tool I was unfamiliar with, I had a newborn and the device had so many features to offer,” recalls Wayne. “The Story Maps project has not only become engaging and fun, but it’s also the project I’m most proud of today. I did black history in San Diego and learned so many things I didn’t know. For example, how the San Diego Padres signed the first black baseball player on the West Coast, or how the famous Hotel Julian was originally black-owned.

Wayne’s StoryMaps project tells the repressed stories of San Diego County’s Black founders and activists, from former California Governor Don Pío Pico in 1820 to the formation of the San Diego Black Lives Matter Chapter in 2016.

“Telling people’s stories is essential because they reflect a variety of experiences and perspectives. Without telling the stories of individuals, we risk or become misinformed and influenced by one-sided ideas, opinions and representations. It’s dangerous because it can lead to a critical misunderstanding about other people and the world around us,” Wayne said.

Recently appointed Associate Director of the SDSU Digital Humanities Initiative, Jayawardene’s research and publications bring together Afrodiasporic areas or communities in South Asia; the humanities and digital technologies in the pedagogy of Africana Studies; black student mothers; and inclusion and diversity in the academy for students, faculty and staff. She is also one of the professors of SDSU or Equity.

“Dr. Jayawardene provides exceptional teaching, scholarship, and service that has a major impact at SDSU and in the discipline of African Studies. discipline,” said Charles Toombs, Jayawardene’s colleague and president of the CFA. “She participated in a panel at Comic-Con this summer, demonstrating the importance of digital technologies in telling the story of the African diaspora. Her service to the department, college, and university is outstanding.She sits or chairs all department committees, department programs, such as the MLK Luncheon, Black Baccalaureate, and 50th Anniversary Committees, and others.

Serie McDougal, III, says Jayawardene is one of the most important scholars to enter African studies in the modern era.

“His scholarship, pan-African and culturally nuanced, will allow us to better understand how people of African descent around the world respond to the question of what it means to be African. It will leave us better prepared to establish lasting pan-African unity and launch a campaign of liberation based on knowing our unique and collective identities as African people,” said McDougal, former teacher of Jayawardene, current professor at CSU Los Angeles. and CFA Los Angeles Member.

Although a young Jayawardene set up a blackboard and led class discussions while “playing teacher,” she did not see herself growing up to be an educator. She is grateful to teachers and mentors like McDougal who encouraged her passion for studying migration from East and Southern Africa across the Indian Ocean to South Asia and supported her schedule as a single mother at the time so she could help educate California’s next generation and eliminate systemic racism. .

“I deliberately chose CSU because of the type of students I would teach and work with, and their diversity.”