By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published November 29, 2022
When Alexis Harrell left her hometown of Albany to become a Presidential Scholar at UB, she didn’t know there was such a thing as racial discrimination research.
“I thought there was just chemistry and biology,” says Harrell, a senior psychology/sociology major who this summer became the first UB undergraduate chosen for the international Humanity in Action fellowship. The award brings together individuals to study minority rights and produce original research exploring how and why individuals and societies, past and present, have resisted intolerance and protected democratic values.
Harrell’s award, which included studying human rights violations in Poland, is the latest example of her commitment to social and racial injustice.
“Alexis is an exemplary honors scholar due to her devotion to scholarship and service,” says Darius Melvin, assistant director of UB’s Honors College, who Harrell calls her “life adviser.” “She’s obviously done extremely well academically. Incredibly, I believe Alexis’ character and passion for human dignity surpass her numerous academic achievements and accolades.”
Throughout her life, that passion has inspired Harrell to work. As a girl, she volunteered at a cookout at the elementary school where her mother taught.
“It was an amazing turnout,” Harrell recalls. “We were serving hamburgers, hot dogs and other typical cookout things. The kids were really excited. And I was wondering, why are they really so excited? Was it the food? Was it because of the entertainment?
“And my Mom said, ‘For some kids this is the first full meal — possibly the best meal — they get all week.’
“I come from a background where I was privileged to have access to food,” Harrell says. “For me hearing that was like, ‘Wow. If they have problems with access to food, how does that impact their academic performance? They are not going to focus in class if they are hungry.’”
Harrell saw other injustices, from microaggressions to larger issues such as food insecurity, access to health care, basic human rights. “I saw children go through these things. They would even see what their friends were wearing and compare themselves. They are just children. They don’t know why they are in these circumstances.
“I started seeing things happen and wondering about them,” she says. “But it wasn’t until college that I started to explore and research them.”
Harrell’s scientific awakening began with her initial experience in the Presidential Scholars’ Development Seminar, sponsored by the Honors College.
“It was called the ‘Impossible Project,’” she says. “Our goal was to solve global discrimination in 15 weeks. It was really cool. It brought together separate disciplines to work on the issues. That’s where my touchpoint with minoritized communities started.”
That touchpoint continued last summer when Harrell went to Poland as part of her Humanity in Action Fellowship. The Polish government is generous and forgiving when it comes to accepting Ukrainian refugees, she says. But that government is cruel and inhumane toward Middle Eastern refugees trying to enter the country from Belarus.
Harrell heard from humanitarian workers who had watched a pregnant woman being thrown — literally — back into Belarus as she tried to get into Poland.
Harrell’s work continues. As part of the fellowship, she must design and carry out an “action project” to address community needs. She had served as program coordinator at the Buffalo location of Gigi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers, a national network of playhouses that help people with Down syndrome learn, thrive, and breakthrough barriers.
Harrell had long noticed the disparity of programming for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) through work in her high school. Many schools offer generous support for the younger age groups, but there is a drop-off in programming for adults with IDD. In her position at GiGi’s Playhouse, she sought to increase programming for adults with Down syndrome.
“We have a large population of adults, and they were asking for more programming,” Harrell says. “I had the idea of a narrative photography workshop, because I am a photographer on the side. Art would be a great way for individuals with Down syndrome to express themselves and tell their stories.”
In January, Harrell will teach participants to take photos and understand the camera, and also guide them in telling their own stories — blending art with function.
“It’s narrative in being able to tell the story you want to tell from your own perspective,” she says. “Because they are the ones who are going to be taking these pictures, I am going to be teaching participants how to work with the camera, but also ‘What do you want to tell about your life? What do you want to show?’ There is a gallery at the end to showcase their images, which will include food, music and artwork from local artists to serve as a fundraiser for the playhouse.”
Harrell’s other credits include student program coordinator for the Generation Honors program in the Honors College, and research through Tufts University on the impact of racism on African Americans — more ways, Melvin points out, she has influenced the campus and beyond.
Harrell doesn’t hesitate when asked what advice she would give her UB peers.
“You can’t understand an issue from one discipline alone,” she says. “You have to understand it through multiple fields, like I have done through computer science and disability rights and other disciplines, and learning how those intersect.
“I do a lot of research, but I need to take that research and put it into practice. Which is what I am trying to do at Gigi’s: take the theories I’ve learned through workshops and put them into action to see what kind of change I can create. And just throwing yourself into it and seeing what happens.”
And Harrell sees reasons for hope.
“I think our generation is a lot more attuned to racial injustice and inequality, and how that plays out in our lives,” she says. “That gives me hope that future generations will be more engaged with social justice issues for years to come, which is what we need in our increasingly divided society.”