New endowed chair for African Diaspora Studies will be named after Dr. Kesho Scott

February 29, 2024 — As a faculty member for 38 years at Grinnell College, Kesho Scott DSS ’21 taught generations of Grinnellians about the lived experiences of Black people across the African diaspora. 

A driving force behind the creation of Grinnell’s new Department of African Diaspora Studies, Scott will become the namesake for the inaugural endowed chair in the department.

“It is very fitting that the department she spent her career building and fighting for would have a chair named after her,” says Trustee Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94. “Her legacy and connection to the area of study and the department deserve to be forever connected and visible at the College.”

Kesho Scott recognized the crowd at Commencement 2021.
Kesho Scott thanks the class of 2021 after giving the address at the 2021 Commencement ceremony. 

An award-winning writer and internationally renowned diversity trainer and consultant, Scott has taught at Grinnell since 1986. She was the first African American woman to receive tenure at the College. Scott, who served as an associate professor of American studies and sociology, moved into senior faculty status in 2020.

“One of my dreams is for one of my grandchildren to attend Grinnell College,” Scott says, noting she has six grandchildren. “To have something named for their grandmother will put an extra signature that I taught at Grinnell for more than 38 years. It’s a way of saying my grandmother became an institution, and she was respected. That’s very important to me. I’m honored. When I found out about this I started weeping.”

While the field of Black Studies is not new at Grinnell, it has experienced cyclical investment over the last 50 years, including an Africana Studies concentration offered from 1997 to 2005. The new department will offer a curriculum aligned with Grinnell’s commitment to social responsibility and human liberation. Course offerings will be highly interdisciplinary and focus on Black intellectual and cultural activity, drawing on past and present contributions from Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean.

“It was heartbreaking to be at an institution of our caliber and not have an African American studies program,” Scott says. “It’s equally heartfelt that the program has been reestablished and backed by so many components of the College. Not just the students, but the faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and city. To have it established in this moment when there are so many forms of anti-Blackness happening in our world is such a powerful statement of affirmation.”

Kesho Scott talks with Grinnell alums at a 2019 event in Washington D.C.
Scott talks with Grinnell alums at a 2019 event in Washington D.C. In addition to speaking at many College events, Scott has been an invited guest, keynote speaker, and conference presenter at more than 290 events across the country.

The new department will be led by this senior-level endowed chair and two additional tenure-track faculty members. With guidance from an African Diaspora Steering Committee, the chair will guide the design of the new curriculum and major as well as serve as the first department chair, providing administrative direction for the department.

The search for the inaugural Dr. Kesho Scott Chair is well underway with support from the firm Summit Search Solutions. The position attracted an incredible pool of candidates, whom the search committee is currently interviewing, says Caleb Elfenbein, associate dean for faculty development and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the search committee chair.

“The committee is focusing on candidates who bring a vision for the new department based on deep engagement with the field of African Diaspora Studies, experience in building a curriculum, a commitment to undergraduate education, and a history of scholarly and public engagement, among other qualifications,” he says. “The committee hopes to complete the search by the end of the spring semester.”

Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94
   Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94

For tenured faculty, endowed chairs are one of the most prestigious honors that the school may bestow upon them, Onwuachi-Willig says. Being appointed as an endowed chair signifies a faculty member’s exceptional accomplishments as a researcher, teacher, and community member. “When a faculty member achieves the extraordinarily rare honor of becoming the namesake for one of these esteemed endowed positions – as has Dr. Scott – it not only signals the enormity of her scholarly accomplishments; it also loudly proclaims and celebrates her significant value and contributions to the institution,” she says.  

Alumni support has been robust for the new department and for a fundraising effort to endow the named chair. Last year, two virtual alumni roundtables were held with Beronda Montgomery, dean and vice president of academic affairs, to introduce African Diaspora Studies as a fundraising priority for the College. Since then, there have been 110 gifts made for the African Diaspora Studies chair.   

Bernadine Douglas
   Bernadine Douglas

“It was wonderful to have such broad support among alums across a wide range of class years and degrees for this important effort,” says Bernadine Douglas, vice president of development and alumni relations. “We thank the alums for ensuring we can continue to help current and future Grinnellians learn, explore, and discover who they are, and just as importantly, who they want to become. This includes the honoring of Dr. Kesho Scott whose impact is far-reaching on and off campus and in our alumni base.”

Onwuachi-Willig, dean of the Boston University School of Law, says the strong alumni support not only reflects the deep impact of professors like Scott, Maria Mootry, Saadi Simawe, George Barlow, Katya Gibel Mevorach, Irma McClaurin ’73, and Thomas Hietala for generations of students who were influenced and shaped by the field for years, but it also reflects alums’ longstanding belief in the importance of the field and its belonging at Grinnell College.

For Onwuachi-Willig and her husband, Jacob Willig-Onwuachi ’95, a former Grinnell associate professor who is now a clinical professor of physics at Boston University, it was “important to give to this effort because of the impact that Dr. Scott had on our lives – as thinkers, as writers, as leaders, as Grinnellians, and as human beings,” Onwuachi-Willig says. “The multifaceted lessons we learn from her helped us grow in innumerable ways. Dr. Scott helped to inspire us to become educators and to become educators with courage who see and teach our students as whole human beings.”

Dean Beronda Montgomery
   Beronda Montgomery

In developing her unlearning-racism work, Scott has led hundreds of professional and community-based workshops, been a keynote speaker for national conferences, and been a participant on several dozen national and local radio debates, discussions, and public service announcements. She was awarded the Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice by the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women in 2008 and inducted into the Iowa African American Hall of Fame in 2016.

“Dr. Scott has had an immeasurable impact through her scholarly research and teaching, as well as broader community engagement and activism,” Dean Montgomery says. “Her vast contributions have greatly enhanced the experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff at Grinnell College and far beyond. It is especially appropriate that Dr. Scott’s name will forever be linked with Grinnell’s Department of African Diaspora Studies.” 

— by  Jeremy Shapiro

For your information

Read more about Dr. Scott and other amazing Grinnellians uplifting the Black experience at Grinnell:

Honoring Kesho Scott: Gift from Dianne Jones ’74 will support Black student leadership and community building

Leaving A Footprint: Dr. Irma McClaurin ’73 helps build an archive of the Black Experience at Grinnell 

American Journeys: The Quest. Students in the American Journeys class seek experience, identity, and the authentic self.

The Joy of Connecting: Black History Month events offered something for everyone at Grinnell

For more information about supporting the African Diaspora Studies endowed chair fund or the Dr. Kesho Scott Leadership and Community Development Fund, contact Susan Kriegel, at or 641-269-4955.

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