By Grace Osaba
Undergraduate English major
Department of Geography
UB geography doctoral student Naiima Khahaifa is one of 36 students in the U.S. to win the Ford Dissertation Fellowship, an award that provides support for doctoral students completing and defending their dissertation.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — on behalf of the Ford Foundation — administers the competition to award individuals from underrepresented backgrounds who demonstrate superior academic achievement, are pursuing a career in teaching and research on a college or university level, and use diversity as an educational resource when engaging with different social and ethnic communities.
It offers a $28,000 stipend, an invitation to the Conference of Ford Fellows, and access to networking resources such as the Ford Fellow Regional Liaisons, who provide mentoring and support.
“As a 2022 Ford Dissertation Fellow I look forward to further developing my research and promoting diversity within the professoriate,” Khahaifa said.
Khahaifa’s research is framed by the modern criminal justice system enforcing racial control, despite the principle that justice should be colorblind. Currently, millions of Black Americans are imprisoned, stripped of their basic human rights and denied access to resources. These resources include public benefits, withheld because of the permanent stain of a criminal record.
Khahaifa seeks to address the ingrained discrimination in the judicial and legislative systems, envisioning a future where minorities are freed from societal oppression. While improvements are easy to pinpoint in this new era of change, racism has only become more covert in administrative and societal operations, Khahaifa says.
In 2020, Khahaifa joined the faculty at SUNY Empire State College as its first SUNY PRODiG Fellow in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. During this two-year teaching-centered fellowship, she continued to develop her dissertation research, which asks “How did the mass incarceration of African Americans come to depend on the labor of Black correctional officers?”
“To address this question, I conducted an extensive qualitative analysis of life history interviews with African American correctional officers,” said Khahaifa. “They are key stakeholders in both the prison state and also the communities targeted by mass incarceration. My research draws on and seeks to contribute to Black and feminist theories in critical human geography, with a focus on mass incarceration and critical urban studies.”
Her objective is to explore the perspectives that have been historically and systemically excluded from scholarship and public discourse. Her experiences as a Black-feminist geographer are what led her to become interested in the restructuring of prisons and its relationship to urban neglect toward communities of minorities. They were the focus of her graduate studies and led to her personal and academic development.
“Much of this theoretical work suggests that penal state restructuring poses various challenges for residents of Buffalo, predominantly African Americans on the East Side, where I grew up and currently live,” Khahaifa said.
“Although I'm the daughter of a correctional superintendent and an officer, I've lost close family, friends and neighbors to violence and the prison system,” she says.
“Using the space and resources provided to me by my parents, I was able to accomplish my goal of becoming a scholar, and have in turn used my academic platform to research and help address injustices faced by my community."
Published May 13, 2022