Growing Up in the Segregated South Inspires Senior University Professor
Dr. Faye Belgrave Urges Community Engagement Connections for Scholarship
Dr. Faye Belgrave grew up perplexed by the social dynamics of her rural southern community.
“I was just so fascinated to try to figure out how come there’s no diversity in this community. Why was it that Black people don’t talk to white people except in a work environment,” she said.
That fascination with life in Southampton County, Va. in the 1960s and 1970s led Belgrave to enroll in college at the age of 17 seeking a way to improve connections among individuals and groups, so she ended up studying social psychology.
“I grew up in an environment where it was just black and white. This was the state of Virginia. There were no Jews. There were no Asians. There were no LGBTQ+, at least not openly. It was very segregated and I wanted to understand how do we bring people together,” she said.
Belgrave, who earned her PhD in 1982 and began teaching at VCU in 1997, is a university professor in the VCU Psychology Department; the director of the VCU Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention; associate dean for Equity and Community Partnerships in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and an iCubed scholar in the Culture, Race and Health core.
She shared some of her academic journey as part of the My Life, My Scholarship Symposium series. The series features monthly speakers from the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed) and Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program examining how their lived experiences have impacted their research and scholarly interests. Belgrave is the second of seven scholars sharing their stories this academic year.
Belgrave’s pursuit of connection has inspired a career of award-winning research and scholarship in topics that include disease prevention, health equity, and African American identity.
Along the way, she became the primary author of the ground-breaking textbook “African American Psychology: From Africa to America,” which was first published in 2005. Belgrave said work is underway to publish the book’s fifth edition.
“It’s the most widely-used textbook on African American psychology abroad,” she said.
Belgrave said that book, like her teaching, explores how people of African descent integrate their indiginous and cultural values with their experience of living in contemporary American society. She said that is a common approach today though it wasn’t when she began her career.
“Everything about a person, the person brings their own strengths. No matter where the person lives, where the person originates from, there are some strengths. Let’s use these strengths to move forward,” she said.
Belgrave also recently wrote a workbook entitled, “Finding Her Voice: How Black Girls in White Spaces Can Speak Up and Live Their Truth,” with the help of her daughter, Ivy Belgrave and Angela Patton, an elementary school teacher and community partner who is the CEO of Girls for A Change. The workbook shares lessons taught in the classroom and by the organization. Belgrave likes the response she gets to the book from community members but said she could never have written that alone.
“I needed Angela and Ivy to put it in the voice of girls. That’s kind of challenging. I’m used to writing for college students,” Belgrave said.
Be a Good Citizen
Belgrave’s passion really shows when she discusses her community-engaged work and the tangible difference she believes it makes in the lives of real people.
“Most of my community partners, I learned a lot from them – probably more than they’ve learned from me and also it’s given me an opportunity to move outside of the academy, so to speak,” she said. “Be respectful and honestly try to learn from people within their space. I know it sounds really simplistic but it sort of works for me because I appreciate people outside of my domain opening their doors to me and I never let them forget that I appreciate them for what they’re doing.”
Belgrave said there are many ways for her fellow faculty, and staff members to engage in the community and she urges individuals to find their way to it.
“I think about community engagement broadly. You might not do community-engaged research but maybe you can judge a science fair. There’s the research. There’s the engagement. There’s the service-teaching. You want to be a good citizen in the space where you live,” she said.
As for students, Belgrave says if you never leave campus, you’ll miss out on the true VCU experience.
“It is so important to be connected to something in your community, and not just the restaurants, because you want to be a good citizen. And if you don’t venture beyond VCU, except for recreational activities, you’ll miss that. There are so many exciting opportunities, some with academic credit, some with pay, some with real experiences,” said Belgrave.
Working Toward Equity
Belgrave says VCU, like most universities, has yet to find ways to value community engagement work alongside more traditional activities when it comes to tenure and promotion decisions and she wants to keep pushing the institution in that direction.
“We are not an equitable university. We’re not an inclusive university. Have we made progress in inclusivity? Of course. But you know, I don’t know that in my lifetime we will see true inclusion. That’s just something we have to live with,” she said. “I want there to be equity for what people do. We know that oftentimes women and minority faculty do disproportional work and service and don’t get the pay or the recognition for it. I think we have a long way to go but I think we’re a lot better on that than we were 25 years ago when I came to VCU.”
Throughout her career, Belgrave has earned many awards for her teaching, research and service, including an American Psychological Association’s Psychology and AIDS Leadership Award, a Senior Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association, the Association of Black Psychologists’ Distinguished Faculty Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Leadership Award in Prevention, and VCU’s Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment, among many others. So, what’s next for her?
“I still have not figured out what I want to do with this next step. I continue to amaze myself about things that interest me, even though I am at the age I could have retired five years ago,” she said.
We invite you to join us at all future My Life, My Scholarship events for the 2022-23 academic year. Our next event is on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 12-1 p.m.* at VCU Barnes and Noble. Lunch will be provided.
Our November speaker is Chelsea Williams, Ph.D., an iCubed scholar with the Culture, Race and Health core, assistant professor in the VCU Department of Psychology and director of the EMPOWER Youth Lab.
*Note: This is a date change (previously Nov. 2).