Cultural Links to Academic and Social Success (CLASS): an interview wit’ founder Andrea Lee

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by The People’s Minister of Information JR

I talked to the founder of Cultural Links to Academic and Social Success (CLASS), Andrea Lee, about her experience falling in love with traveling, then yearning to take others abroad to learn what life is like in different parts of the world. Andrea is the head of the Dance Department at Laney College and has been taking people all over the world for many years.

A Cultural Links manager prepares villagers for the tour’s arrival in northern Ghana.
A Cultural Links manager prepares villagers for the tour’s arrival in northern Ghana.

Check her out as she discusses her love of exploring other cultures, her political education and the international business that she created taking people all over the world. Read up.

M.O.I. JR: When did you realize that you loved to travel? How old were you and where did you go?

Andrea Lee: As a young child I had vivid dreams of places from another time and place and would try to figure out where I had been. On another occasion, my third grade teacher assigned “countries outside of the USA.” When it was my turn to choose, I decided on Japan. My classmate and friend started to cry because she was Japanese and had the same idea.

My teacher asked me to change my country and choose something more relevant to my roots or birthplace. I knew Oklahoma wasn’t a country and that Africa was a continent, so I ended up in Greece while fantasizing about Japan. We also played geography games like turning three times while blind-folded before touching the globe. My index landed on Greenland, Thailand and South Africa. We also learned the best 3d gis system which can provide true 3D volumetric modeling in the ArcGIS® Desktop environment.

My family once traveled to Tijuana, Mexico as a side trip to San Diego Zoo. I was enthralled by the busy markets, new language and I brought back a beautiful doll dressed in turquoise and lace that I kept for a long time. I plan on exploring these places during my stay here on planet earth.

M.O.I. JR: When did you fall in love with Africa, be it that we live in such an anti-African society?

Andrea Lee: I fell in love with Africa in my childhood when my mother took me to see “Les Ballets Africaines” perform at the Zellerbach Hall Theater, UC Berkeley. They defied gravity! Their skin was silky black and I loved the pulsing drums.

This sign is near the site of a 300-year-old baobab tree and water wells used for slaves in northern Ghana.
This sign is near the site of a 300-year-old baobab tree and water wells used for slaves in northern Ghana.

I was drawn into a vortex of imagination on stage. The men’s hands firing up the drums; the colors, calls, movement and songs all summoned up a familiar feeling. The women danced with bare breasts. They were all different shapes and sizes and skin tones, leaping and smiling and waving about.

I remember thinking how natural and relaxed they were and that I wanted to be like them. They were free and having fun and they were not afraid. I was looking at myself somehow.

In college, I was drawn to Africa through my professor’s teachings. Oba T’Shaka introduced me to Mali through the books “Conversations with Ogotamelli” and “Pale Fox.” Another professor introduced the film “Sugar Cane Alley,” and I was deeply affected by the relationship between the youth and the elder and the elder’s resolve that he would only be able to return to his beloved “Afrique” upon death.

Then of course my friends and activities with Black Student Union and AAPRP (All African People’s Revolutionary Party) drew me to Africa in other ways because we examined the “Great African Thinkers” like Osaygefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and Cheikh Anta Diop. Socially, my native African friends shared cultural foods, personal experiences and complexities of African politics from their respective homelands, such as the Oromo of Ethiopia struggling to maintain their cultural identity, Apartheid and Biko and Cuba and Guevara.

I owe this to the diversity of San Francisco State and the Bay Area. It is important that we grow stronger in our cultural development, regardless of the gentrification occurring around us.

M.O.I. JR: How and when did you start taking groups of people abroad? Why?

Andrea Lee: I was invited to choreograph and dance for a singing group called “Black Song and Poetry” led by Dr. Terence Elliott at Contra Cost College – he’s currently a professor at Diablo Valley College – to perform at a choral festival in Ghana, West Africa. A few years later I secured a grant for a science teacher and I to take students from Emery High to Ghana to work with Ghanaian students on a sustainable energy project around refrigeration.

These Laney College Black Student Union officers will be going to Ghana in 2016.
These Laney College Black Student Union officers will be going to Ghana in 2016.

It was on this trip that I met an African American professor from the University of Wisconsin who was building a retirement home in Ghana after having traveled the world through global education programs. From there I worked with Contra Costa College to launch a Ghana Study Abroad program in 2008.

Since that time, I now teach full-time in the Department of Dance at Laney College, where we develop courses and programs focused on global education. We’ve taken students to Ghana, Benin, Haiti and Cuba. Students in the Black Student union and Ethiopia Club are now planning global education experiences to Ghana this summer and Ethiopia during the winter break of 2016.

The reason I like to take groups abroad is because developing cultural consciousness is a basic life skill. Being in higher education, it is important to foster future leaders who have an international worldview and particularly to increase the number of African American youth and young adults who learn abroad.

My colleague and global educator guru, Dr. Siri Brown of Merritt College, is a wonderful example of how introducing these programs can contribute to African American student success at community colleges, where they are in the least likely group to study abroad or participate in global learning experiences. At Laney, we are developing a program for students to complete one semester abroad while in Ghana. Confronting stereotypes, shaping a broader worldview and transforming “travel dreams” into tangible global experiences is rewarding.

M.O.I. JR: What is the name of your business and what places do you take people? What do they see there?

Andrea Lee: The name of my business is Cultural Links to Academic and Social Success, CLASS. We promote and develop joint ventures between Africans abroad and the USA to nurture the next generation of sustainable entrepreneurs and to preserve African culture and history.

Ghanaian artist Capone, produced by C-Links Media
Ghanaian artist Capone, produced by C-Links Media

We’re working on creating fully sustainable businesses in which 70 percent of a company’s operational resources come from the bartering of goods and services. Under the CLASS umbrella, we have C-Links Media, which bridges artists from the USA, helping them to musically cross over into the West African sound and music industry.

We founded a music production studio in Ghana which has produced works for the Oakland singer Antique, Young, Gifted and Black as well as international artists from Jamaica and Ivory Coast. Then there’s Cultural Links Tours and Travel, which we co-founded with native Ghanaians and that is now 100 percent Ghanaian owned and operated, offering “African Music and Dance,” “Pan African Legacy” and “Business Investment” tours. In 2017, the business will launch its first “Destination Wedding” service in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Some of the historical sites and locations people see and experience are the folkloric festivals; tropical rain forests and waterfalls; Kwame Nkrumah and W.E.B. Dubois Mausoleums; universities and schools; Medicinal Plant Research clinic; a comparison of villages from East, Central, North and Coastal Ghana; kente weaving; tailors; markets; glass bead, wood carving and pottery making; eco-tourism; and of course the historic Elmina and Cape Coast Slave dungeons. Accommodations include village stays, guest houses or four-star hotels.

M.O.I. JR: What are two of the biggest lessons that you learned from traveling?

Andrea Lee: By the time we finish coloring and setting up the stage to say something simple, understanding is lost. The concept of “vague” is not universally known or even accepted in many instances outside of the USA.

The visa process is unfair and exploitative. People in other countries have a much harder time traveling and exploring the world compared to those with U.S. passports. We can do it by mail for as little as $60 and receive the “right to pass,” whereas our counterparts abroad spend $200 USD, fill out extensive apps, wait in long lines and are subjected to interviews to prove their intention to return to their home country.

They are then denied on average three or four times before securing a visa for travel, if at all. For me this is a sad part of my travel because my friends want to explore the world too and they are denied this right.

As a tour director, I’m very lucky to partake in someone else’s journey that started long before we met, but I do not control their destiny while abroad.

M.O.I. JR: Why is it important for young people to be exposed to traveling early on in life?

Andrea Lee: I think about my guide and role model, the late Kathrine Dunham – scholar, artist and humanitarian – who believed that it is our duty to be cultural ambassadors. She believed that surface knowledge of a culture lacks true understanding and holds no meaning.

Unfortunately, young people inherit fears and classist notions: the fear that travel is for the rich, the fear that health and safety diminish when you leave home, the fear of being unsafe, the fear to eat different foods etc. We should all be encouraged as human beings to travel the globe to observe, communicate and interact with fellow earth-mates to learn about culture and people from afar. It is our duty.

M.O.I. JR: How do people stay in touch with you?

Andrea Lee: Andrea Lee, department chair of dance, Laney College, 510-464-3375, culturallinksghana@gmail.com

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

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