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2020 Alumni Scholarship Award Winner: Alicia Ajayi

"Being able to experiment in a controlled environment alongside my peers has been a privilege"

May 11, 2020
An image of a map of Brooklyn, IL, and its surrounding area in 1903

A page from MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism student Alicia Ajayi's thesis project, "Freedom Villages," depicting a map of Brooklyn, Illinois, and its surrounding area in 1903.

Over the past few weeks, SVA has been highlighting some of the many outstanding projects by its 2020 Alumni Scholarship Award winners. Today's featured thesis project is by MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism student Alicia Ajayi, whose self-published book, Freedom Villages: Uncovering the History of Black Settlements in Pursuit of the American Ideal, studies Black American settlements throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ajayi recently answered some questions about the work.


Tell us about your project. What inspired the idea?

I went to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis for architecture. While I was grateful for my education, I often felt disconnected from the issues that affected the Black community. My work—framed by the story of Brooklyn, Illinois—seeks to explore the radical act of establishing a Black space like Brooklyn during the early 19th century. By unpacking America's history of owning Blackness as property, I hope to contribute to a dialogue of this country's present-day relationship with property ownership and how it continues to impact Black bodies and lives today. 

An image of a group of people in the background with the question, "How did the American ideal of space, property and ownership historically manifest and impact the network of Freedom Villages and helped define the Black identity today?" printed above the image.

A page from MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism student Alicia Ajayi's thesis project, Freedom Villages: Uncovering the History of Black Settlements in Pursuit of the American Ideal.

What most surprised you once you started working on the project?

The history and story of Brooklyn, Illinois, have stayed with me for several years now. I am always surprised, humbled and invigorated by how much support the work has received during my time at SVA and feel committed to ensuring it somehow benefits the community. 


What was a highlight of living and studying in New York City?

NYC is a great testing ground to try a lot of different careers. My research has benefited explicitly from being in proximity to the vibrant NYC network of research and cultural resources like the Bard Graduate Center lecture series or Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture archival materials. 


What is something you learned at SVA that you'll always take with you?

My classmates have opened my eyes to so many diverging topics to ponder, so being able to experiment in a controlled environment alongside my peers has been a privilege. 

A black-and-white photograph of slaves on a cotton field.

A historical photo from MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism student Alicia Ajayi's thesis project, Freedom Villages: Uncovering the History of Black Settlements in Pursuit of the American Ideal.

Was there a teacher or course that was essential for you?

I have instructors that have been so incredibly generous with their time and intellect. They go above and beyond to not only invest in my success as a student but invest in the integrity of the work as well. Sometimes the really good ones will respond to a panicked 4:00am email with a one-line response reminding me of the fundamental human function by stating, "Take a deep breath." This is also much appreciated. 


What was your favorite piece of advice that a teacher or student shared with you?

First, accept that writing/learning is a lifelong process. Be gracious with your time and energy to the work and to yourself, most importantly. Commit to learning about yourself through the process. Free yourself of judgment so you can keep experimenting. Stop apologizing!


What advice do you have for next year's students going through your program?

Honor the process and make stuff for you. 


For this year's SVA Alumni Scholarship Awards, a record 74 students were chosen from a pool of over 212 applicants and were granted scholarships worth more than $60,000 for projects as varied as design products, animation, painting and photography. For more information about the Alumni Scholarship Awards and to see a complete list of this year's recipients, click here.


For more information about SVA's MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism program, click here.