~ Shiame Okunor
AAS director to be honored by Alumni
By Laurie Mellas Ramirez
Teachers who touch lives nourish minds and souls. At once quiet and thunderous, pensive and pushy, gifted educators reach outside themselves to identify and validate the wondrous traits of others.
UNM African American Studies Director Shiame Okunor is that kind of educator. The Alumni Association will recognize Okunor with the Faculty Teaching Award for his nearly 30 years of outstanding service on Feb. 26.
“Shiame Okunor is a person in the UNM community who sees himself as here to assist people in their growth and movement through life, not just intellect,” said Director of Alumni Karen Abraham.
Okunor began his own journey in Ghana, Africa, nearly a half century ago. He left for the U.S. in his 20s to pursue an education in television production. After earning a diploma in broadcasting at NYU and an associate degree at Grahm Junior College in Boston, he inquired of a professor friend, “Where can I go to really learn about America?” Go to New Mexico, he was told, where you will find beauty and multiculturalism.
Okunor enrolled at UNM and earned his B.A. in speech communications in 1973, the same year he was named director of UNM’s International Center. He was also accepted into UNM’s public administration master’s program and earned his M.P.A. in 1975. Recognizing need and potential at Afro-American Studies, he accepted an administrative assistant position. Two years later, he was acting assistant director. He earned his Ph.D. from the College of Education in 1981 and has led AAS since 1982. In 1986, he served as the university’s first black dean of the Universitry College and the General College, and later in numerous academic leadership roles.
He founded and directed many AAS initiatives, including the Charlie Morrisey Research Hall, New Mexico’s leading repository of documents on the contributions of African Americans in the Southwest.
Since 1994, UNM students and others have accompanied Okunor on three-week educational visits to his homeland. In 2001, he officially founded the African Field History Project for that purpose.
Okunor’s groups travel to many cities, towns and remote villages, a few privy to electricity only in the past five years. In the city of Accra, historians lead students through the W.E.B. Dubois Research Center, where the leader’s colorful regalia, books and publications are preserved. Although people from all backgrounds make the trip, for black youth, it can be especially emotional, Okunor said. “Among the sites we visit is a slave castle located on Cape Coast. The government preserved this place where African people were imprisoned prior to being shipped to America.”
“We are working to establish an exchange program between universities in Ghana and UNM,” Okunor said. “Multiculturalism is the only way to world peace and harmony. Establishing Black presence and building a multicultural society for New Mexico and the nation, that’s what we foster at African American Studies.”
Barriers have diminished, he said, noting that students of all ethnicities attend the more than 40 courses offered through the department. Some major and other minor in the discipline. “We are a vibrant, small, academic unit ready to explode if we gain financial support and an increase in faculty,” Okunor said.
Teacher of fact and faith, Okunor was ordained by The African Methodist Episcopal Church while attending Yale Divinity School where he earned a degree in divinity in 1995.