Meet Kamaria Gye Nyame Excell
February is National Black History Month. Here at CSSW, we reflect on the multitude of achievements, contributions to culture, and resounding impact that Black Columbians have made in every corner of our society, and all over the world. Celebrating Black History Month also serves as an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable in unlearning harmful and oppressive versions of history, wholeheartedly resisting their modern day manifestations, and continuously uplifting the work, art, and personal experiences of Black individuals.
Throughout the 125 years that CSSW has been a leader in social work education, there have been countless Black social workers who have paved the way for faculty, staff and students to realize their full potential at the School. This year, we had the privilege of connecting with MSW student, Kamaria Gye Nyame Excell, to delve deeper into the legacy of Winona Cargile Alexander, the first Black woman and person of color to graduate from Columbia School of Social Work, then known as the New York School of Philanthropy. Kamaria’s research, conducted in her class, “Advocacy in Social Work Practice,” led by Dr. John Robertson, inspired CSSW faculty and administration to launch the Winona Cargile Alexander Scholarship Fund, designed to alleviate the financial burden for prospective CSSW students who have graduated from HBCUs.
Kamaria is responsible for reintroducing us all to a historical figure who worked tirelessly to support her community. Ms. Alexander, a social worker, teacher, volunteer, and so much more, focused many of her efforts on social welfare and poverty alleviation. She also founded the Jacksonville chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., the second sorority to be founded for, and by, Black women. Kamaria, “taken aback by the lack of information,” on Ms. Alexander in the Columbia archives, sought to “create the first harm reduction in color archive databases” by bringing her story to light.
When asked to share a bit more about how her project came into fruition, Kamaria reflected on her personal experiences with her family: “I am a first generation [graduate school] Black woman, social worker, and that is really important to me.” She went on to explain that “[she] is always thinking about what is lost with the erasure of Black women’s knowledge making or knowledge production” in her studies, and how that shows up in the real world. She takes inspiration from her mother, who was a social worker in Inglewood, California, and her great grandmother, a valued community member during a time when oppressive policies and racially charged social norms were meant to keep people isolated.
Mary Montgomery, Kamaria’s great grandmother, had deep, southern roots in her mobile Alabama community. “Everything in her bones was social work, was harm reduction, was making space for communities.” During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Ms. Montgomery was extremely hands-on by providing physical and emotional support to those affected by the crisis, particularly Black queer individuals. At a time when too many were turning their backs on this demographic, Ms. Montgomery was still showing up to prepare meals and assist with medical affairs, regardless of identity. She was “really adamant about humanity,” Kamaria shared. It is clear that this sentiment transcended generations; today, still in the midst of much turmoil and uncertainty, Kamaria reminds us of the necessity of social work, and its true essence: “connectedness, and communicating with folks who sit on different sides of the margins than you. Social work, and social justice, is harmony.”
Antiracism and harm reduction happens when we hold ourselves accountable in what stories are being told, and recognize that Black individuals in all sectors of our society have been historically marginalized, thus lacking in accounts of our country’s history. We are deeply grateful for Kamaria and her willingness to uncover just one of many forgotten Black historical figures, leading to the creation of a scholarship that will continuously support Black students who share the same passion for social work. While Black History Month is coming to a close, the commitment to antiracism and unlearning conscious/subconscious biases must always remain. Only then can we begin to question dominant, white-centric narratives, and lift the stories that still need to be heard.