College of Education and Human Development

Connect Magazine

Advancing black intellectualism

Essie Johnson leading a meeting

The Common Ground Consortium carries on a 400-year tradition.

Among Dr. Josie R. Johnson’s greatest achievements at the University of Minnesota was the founding of the Common Ground Consortium (CGC). Through the guidance of Dr. Johnson, then-dean William Gardner, and Professor Jean King, the CGC was established in 1989 initially to recruit and support Black graduate education students through their advanced academic journey. In recent years, under Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Diversity, and International Initiatives Nicola Alexander’s leadership, the CGC has expanded its impact through an annual Advancing Black Intellectualism conference, promoting and honoring Black scholarship throughout the world.

For the past 35 years, the CGC has taken a leading role in carrying on the tradition of Black intellectualism through supporting scholars and sharing perspectives and ideas across space and context.

What is black intellectualism?

“Black intellectualism is fundamentally transgressive,” says Tabitha Grier-Reed, CGC alum and CEHD’s current associate dean for graduate education and faculty development. “Black intellectualism, to me, represents a transgression that is liberating and liberatory, even under the most oppressive conditions.

In their book, The Black Intellectual Tradition: African American Thought in the Twentieth Century, authors Derrick P. Alridge, Cornelius L. Bynum, and James B. Stewart note that Black people have viewed education as a form of resistance and liberation since enslaved Africans first came to the Americas in the 1600s. They strived to learn to read and write in the language of their oppressors, which was considered a criminal act at the time, Grier-Reed notes.

After emancipation, Black people began building their own schools, setting in motion a tradition of reaching for societal advancement through educational attainment. “Throughout the twentieth century, they made great strides in education,” Alridge, Bynum, and Stewart write, adding that Black colleges and universities were established, education as a profession provided a solid foundation for the rise of a Black middle class, and Black people reaffirmed the value of education as a form of liberation.

Along with the foundation of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), thousands of Black literary societies sprang up, following in the footsteps of similar societies begun in the 1830s by free Black people in the North. No matter their location, however, they all had a similar purpose, a place for Black people to read and to discuss and debate the prominent issues affecting their community.

At its core, Black intellectualism seeks to hold the country accountable to her highest and aspirational values. “It is a critical perspective that calls on us to reckon with ways we fall short and insist we do better in our quest for freedom and justice for all,” Grier-Reed says. “This is the legacy and struggle that Josie Johnson tapped into and advanced via her civil rights work. Black intellectualism leans into, rather than mythologizes the contradictory realities of the lived experiences of Black people, reconciling American aspirations with the realities of life in America.”

Black Intellectualism & American Ideals

RECENTLY, Tabitha Grier-Reed, Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Faculty Development, visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It was a powerful visit that underscored for her the underrecognized contributions of Black intellectualism to American ideals. A tradition that must not be forgotten or erased, Black intellectualism can be traced to the very foundations of this great nation, providing a North Star for the struggle toward freedom and human development.

Read more about Tabitha Grier-Reed’s reflection on Black intellectualism

A generous gift to Minnesota

Initially, the CGC was a Bush Foundation-funded program with strong ties with HBCUs where both students and faculty were exchanged. “The CGC originally linked 10 HBCUs with the University of Minnesota to provide support to HBCU alumni pursuing graduate degrees in CEHD,” Alexander says.

The initial design of the CGC has evolved over time, but what has never changed is the power of centering and striving for common ground amongst us. Na’im Madyun, a CGC alumni, and former CEHD faculty member, associate dean, and CGC coordinator framed it as, “She [Josie Johnson] made it clear that I understood why the Common Ground Consortium was not a service endeavor or even a reparations-type of project, but in some ways a generous gift to the state of Minnesota.”

And what a gift it was. Since its inception, the CGC has supported hundreds of scholars and their work. Many of these CGC Scholars have gone on to become top leaders in education as teachers, guidance counselors, principals, superintendents, and deans.

One such CGC Scholar was Curriculum and Instruction Assistant Professor Justin Grinage, who found comradeship within the consortium. “I embraced the opportunity to share a space with other Black graduate students,” he says. “We vented, strategized, and celebrated one another. We supported each other in our journeys to obtain our PhDs, which was an invaluable resource in my advancement as a graduate student. We need supports such as the CGC to bolster racial diversity and assist us in obtaining advanced degrees which will no doubt contribute to improving education for all.”

Grinage’s dissertation, “The Melancholy of Schooling: A Critical Ethnographic Study of Race, Trauma, and Learning in a High School English Classroom,” has made a significant contribution to education by showing the possibilities of designing curriculum that centers on understanding racial trauma.

Courtney Bell-Duncan, ’14 MEd, ’20 PhD, who was profiled in the Spring 2023 issue of Connect (, is another CGC success story. She is a first-generation college student and the first in her family to earn a PhD. She has been in leadership roles across the education spectrum. Currently, she is a highly sought-after consultant for education equity. Her dissertation (, “We Ain’t Going Nowhere: An In-Depth Look at a Community’s Successful Opposition to a School Closure Recommendation,” is a contribution to a growing body of work that critically assesses the institutionalized elements of racism in school closure decisions in the United States.

Bell-Duncan recognizes the CGC for what it has done for its scholars and for Black intellectualism. “I have to give credit to the CGC program—having a community where I was amongst my peers, support from faculty and administration—I literally had everything I needed. They were the greatest advocates for students that I’ve ever met in my life,” she says. “I would tell those who are really looking to make an impact on society and looking to invest in a program that epitomizes true educational excellence, then they should invest in CGC. Invest in the bright minds of the future, invest in the scholars of tomorrow, invest in those who go on in the world and make a difference for the disenfranchised.”

On the world stage

In 2021, the CGC launched the first of its annual Advancing Black Intellectualism conferences, which are virtual multi-continent and multilingual events. The theme of the 2023 conference was “Navigating the Black Atlantic,” a celebration and promotion of the connection of Black intellectualism throughout the African diaspora. In 2022, the conference theme was “Lifting as We Climb,” a quote from a famous speech given by Mary Church Terrell in 1898. The inaugural conference, “Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the First Black Women to Achieve a PhD Degree in the United States,” is available to watch online.

“The conferences are an opportunity for CGC scholars to acquire the skills and experience in planning and participating in an international conference and to take their place as a contributing member of academe by constructing and discovering knowledge,” Alexander says. “It is a welcoming space and opportunity for CGC students to engage with other scholars across continents and diasporas to have a medium by which their voices, research, and experiences can be explored, interrogated, and seen.”

Conference attendees get to grapple with the complexities of what it even means to advance Black intellectualism and to do so while communicating across languages, continents, disciplines, and perspectives. CGC scholars, and all conference presenters, get to showcase their research and learn from fellow scholars on a wide variety of issues, disciplines, and perspectives.

All three conferences focused on milestones in the intellectual discourse surrounding Black intellectualism. In her opening remarks in 2022, Alexander described the event thusly: “This conference with its several themes, all grounded in the advancement of society through the celebration of ideas. This conference, which advances knowledge, encourages debate, and challenges conventional wisdom and the status quo. This conference that celebrates and advances Black intellectualism as an essential means of discovering, constructing, sharing knowledge, of interrogating the very meaning of the word…”

One scholar’s journey

Asha Omar, who served as an equity teacher in Brooklyn Center Community Schools for two years and now as a first grade teacher, is working to complete her PhD in Culture and Teaching and Elementary Education in the Department Curriculum and Instruction. It’s safe to say that her journey would have been many times harder, if not impossible, without the CGC.

Read more about Asha Omar’s journey

A future large with promise and hope

When she thinks about the future of the CGC, Alexander says she envisions a program grounded in the richness of Black intellectualism, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Elder El-Kati to Dr. Josie R. Johnson. “I want a program that builds on this rich legacy and grows beyond that,” she says. “I want the program to have deep roots and soaring branches that reach across disciplines and institutions and to nourish scholars who care deeply about their communities, are curious about ideas, and passionate about justice.”

In her 1898 speech, Mary Church Terrell covered themes such as morality, injustice, poverty, and education. She touted the excellent work that had been done and work that still needed to be done. She concluded her address:

And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.

“Her words resonated in 1898 and they resonate now,” Alexander says. “I want the CGC to be a fulfillment of that promise.”