Dr. Sureshi M. Jayawardene remembers her first encounter with storytelling: the letters her great grandmother Muriel de Silva wrote to an infant Jayawardene, the matriarch’s first great-grandchild.
The personal messages urged Jayawardene to think about her future beyond individual achievement, to work to improve the lives of her community and people. Jayawardene grew up in a suburb in Sri Lanka during civil war. A childhood marred by news flashes and images of what war does to people, families, communities, Jayawardene’s family – like many Sri Lankans – was always in fear of a suicide bombing.
“Her letters told me to bring peace and equality to my community. She told me I was destined for greatness, that I could be somebody, anybody that I wanted to be. Some of these letters are framed in my home, to remind myself of my ancestral past, my ancestral task. I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to my great grandmother. In adulthood, these letters are a way of reclaiming my African ancestry, how we form family rootedness and purpose.”
Much of this struggle grounds Jayawardene’s teaching, research, and service at San Diego State University and its Department of Africana Studies, where she is a newly promoted associate professor with tenure.
“My research is culturally relevant and culturally grounded. The goal is to take an applied approach to the study of Afrodiasporic communities in South Asia and consider the data about them in a way that is true to their history, culture, their philosophies of life. And oral histories; I want to make sure these are treated as valid and true stories of African history and agency,” she said.
“I don’t do research just for the sake of doing research. I don’t have that luxury – my people are dying; they are being beaten down.”
Jayawardene works with students and other faculty to bring to light Black stories and contributions that have gone ignored or repressed. Students in her Black Urban Experience class choose a city in the U.S. or abroad and design and narrate an immersive account of the Black experience with video, images, maps, and other multimedia. Her Black Geographies students develop podcasts to narrate the stories of Black people and place-making.
“Storytelling has been at the core of how African communities have passed down histories. Some of these stories have never been told to broader audiences. Most research and writing rely on the written record and oral histories have been ignored. This is change that is important. We need to find unique ways of telling these stories, getting these stories out there,” the CFA San Diego member said. “The storytelling projects stay with students in a different way – being able to tell stories outside of the classroom or college.”
Combined with other instruction, the story mapping pushes students to think critically, research, and then form their own conclusions and opinions, said 2022 Africana Studies graduate Akilah Wayne, who enrolled in many of Jayawardene’s classes.
“For example, the story mapping project assigned in Dr. Jayawardene’s Black Urban Experience initially intimidated me. It was a tool I was unfamiliar with, I had a newborn baby, and the device had so many features to offer,” Wayne remembers. “The story maps project not only became engaging and fun, but it is also the project I am most proud of today. I did the Black history of San Diego and learned so many facts that I was unaware of. For instance, how the San Diego Padres signed the first Black baseball player on the West Coast, or how the famous Julian Hotel was Black-owned initially.”
Wayne’s StoryMaps Project tells the repressed histories of San Diego County’s Black founders and activists, from former California Governor Don Pío Pico in 1820 to the formation of San Diego’s Black Lives Matter chapter in 2016.
“It is essential to tell people’s stories because they render a variety of experiences and perspectives. Without the narration of individuals’ stories, we risk or become misinformed and influenced by one-sided ideas, views, and depictions. This is dangerous because it can lead to a critical misunderstanding about others and the world around us,” Wayne said.
Recently appointed associate director of the SDSU Digital Humanities Initiative, Jayawardene’s research and publications bring together the areas or Afrodiasporic communities in South Asia; digital humanities and technologies in Africana Studies pedagogy; Black student mothers; and inclusion and diversity in the academy for students, faculty, and staff. She also serves as one of SDSU’s Professors or Equity.
“Dr. Jayawardene is doing exceptional teaching, scholarship and service that is making a major impact at SDSU and in the discipline of Africana Studies. Her work in using Digital Humanities in her courses and in her research is expanding possibilities for knowledge in the discipline,” said Charles Toombs, Jayawardene’s colleague and CFA President. “She presented on a panel at this summer’s Comic-Con demonstrating the importance of digital technologies in telling the African Diaspora story. Her service to the department, college and university is outstanding. She serves or chairs on every department committee, department programming, such as the MLK Luncheon, Black Baccalaureate, and 50th Anniversary committees, and others.”
Serie McDougal, III, asserts that Jayawardene is one of the most significant scholars to enter Africana Studies in the modern era.
“Her scholarship, Pan African and culturally nuanced, will give us a far greater understanding of how people of African ancestry across the globe answer the question of what it means to be African. She will leave us better poised to establish a lasting Pan African unity and initiate a drive toward liberation grounded in a knowledge of our unique and collective identities as African people,” said McDougal, Jayawardene’s former professor, current CSU Los Angeles professor, and CFA Los Angeles member.
Though a younger Jayawardene set up a chalkboard and led classroom discussions while “playing teacher,” she didn’t see herself growing up to be an educator. She’s thankful for teachers and mentors like McDougal who encouraged her passion for studying East and South African migration across the Indian Ocean to South Asia and supported her schedule as a single mother at the time so she could help educate California’s next generation and tear down systemic racism.
“I purposefully chose the CSU because of the type of students I’d be teaching and working with, and their diversity.”