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2014 Dean's Medalist: Rose Brewer

November 24, 2014

Rose M. Brewer became a public speaker when she was five years old.

A self-described “little bitty skinny girl” then, she was thrilled when her kindergarten teacher selected her to speak to her classmates about her impressions of some familiar fairy tales. “I took to it with gusto,” she laughs. It’s been gusto ever since. Brewer, a professor of African American & African studies, is the 2014 recipient of the College of Liberal Arts Dean’s Medal, awarded annually to a faculty member who exemplifies scholarship, teaching, creativity and community service.

Portrait: Rose Brewer
Rose M. Brewer

Although that kindergarten performance is not on Brewer’s official list of achievements, it may have foretold a life story that has taken her from the segregated north Tulsa neighborhood of her childhood to national prominence in the study of racial, gender, and class inequality.

Born and raised in an area once known as “Black Wall Street,” Brewer was two generations removed from the vicious, Klan-inspired bombings that decimated her family’s prosperous, 35-block neighborhood in 1921, leaving thousands injured, dead, or homeless. Although it was rarely mentioned as she was growing up, Brewer says the attack created “a cloud, an ongoing legacy.”

That legacy was double-edged. On one hand, by the 1960s the rebuilt, still-segregated neighborhood closed tightly into itself, its school children celebrating the contributions of black Americans “in a much broader and deeper sense than did white kids,” Brewer says. “Although formal African American studies were not part of the curriculum, teachers taught them to us in a kind of informal education milieu.”

On the other hand, “Segregation did close out all kinds of choices and possibilities, like science labs and top-quality resources,” she says.

A gifted intellect, hunger for learning, supportive family and teachers, and her experience as a black American in a segregated enclave drove Brewer’s professional passion, one that has evolved over the years. Since joining the University of Minnesota faculty in 1986, she has extended her initial scholarship on the African American experience to include issues of gender and class as well. In short, she wants to see the whole picture of inequality, and says it’s much more complicated than civil rights or the very visible segregation of her childhood.

“Racism is about bigger issues and how they are filtered through the experience of black life,” she says. “How do economic and social structures interrelate to issues of racial inequality? Can we disconnect what’s happening to black youth achievement from economic inequality? How do we understand this potent image of a black president while seeing the wealth inequality gap increasing by billions of dollars as a result of this last recession? I’d like to lift up these issues and see them as part of a bigger puzzle.

“We have plenty of data. But that doesn’t provide insight into issues like who gets listened to, who gets read, or how we articulate an ongoing legacy in very subtle ways. Failure to dismantle social structures that have institutionalized inequality has big consequences. These are complicated stories, hard conversations to have.”

Brewer is right in the middle of these conversations, and has been widely honored for her scholarship. Most recently, for example, she won the American Sociological Association’s 2013 Distinguished Teaching Award for, among other things, her leadership in the movement to create multicultural curricula. She’s a nationally recognized speaker on issues of race, gender, and class. She and her colleagues won national acclaim for their 2006 book The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth, which argued that government policies since the founding of the country have contributed to shocking disparities—which still exist today—in the accumulation of wealth between white people and people of color.

Scholar that she is, though, Brewer means it when she describes herself as a public intellectual. Her community work “keeps me grounded,” she says.

Among her local community efforts—and symbolic of her deep commitment to education—was her work on behalf of saving Minneapolis’s predominantly black North High School when it was threatened with closure in 2010. And in her work with Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM) she is engaged with issues of environmental racism, made manifest where toxic waste is dumped in poor communities with consequences for health and learning. Her list of community involvements is endless.

It’s no surprise that Brewer’s role models include Black radical activist Ella Baker, a civil rights advocate of the 1960s who, says Brewer, always believed in “the extraordinary potential of ordinary people.”

“That undercuts the idea that folks just can’t get it,” says Brewer. “They can.”

The CLA Dean’s Medal is given annually to an outstanding member of the faculty on the basis of excellence in scholarship or creative activity.