For over 50 years, the Department of Africana Studies has provided a foundation for students across all majors to understand the historical, political, and cultural impact of the Black Diaspora. One alumna from the program, Mandisa Routheni, is a distinguished educator, scholar, and artist fervently committed to fostering positive change and empowerment within the Black community.

Routheni graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2015 with a double minor in Sociology and Peace & Justice Studies. As a student, she was a McNair Scholar, a member of the Ankh Maat Wedjau Honor Society, and a Truman Scholar Finalist. Her commitment to public service was also recognized with the Ella Baker Leadership & Service Award and the Sara Belle Brown Community Service Award.

These achievements resulted from her passion for creating change through community to empower peoples of African descent and contribute to a people- and planet-first world.

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UNM alumna Mandisa Routheni. Photo: Engaging Media Marketing

As an alumna, Routheni’s commitment to justice and peace has never wavered. She is a US News Opinion Contributor, the 2016 New Mexico Fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), and an active member of the City of Albuquerque’s Office of Black Community Engagement’s Community Stakeholder Team and Black Homeownership Initiative.

She is also a member of the Home Circle Club (the oldest Black women's club in New Mexico) and the Greater Albuquerque Association of Realtors. Routheni has also participated in the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Affiliate Advisory Council, Friends of Africana Studies Advisory Team, Forward Together’s Echoing Ida cohort, and the New Mexico Women of Color Nonprofit Leadership Initiative.

Routheni's journey in education and scholarship began in her childhood, fueled by a deep-seated desire to impact the world positively. Growing up in an interracial household in New Mexico during the '90s and 2000s, she was exposed to the complexities of race and injustice from a young age.

Her grandfather, James George Bradley, a civil rights advocate at UNM and beyond, played a pivotal role in shaping her worldview. Despite facing a debilitating disease that took his sight, Bradley earned a Ph.D. and continued his activism, becoming a source of inspiration for Routheni.

After entering UNM, Routheni became heavily involved with the Community Engagement Center, where she quickly realized her affinity for “the bigger picture” in community involvement. Despite all of this, she still felt that something was missing.

Her experience as a McNair scholar helped create a pathway to discovering that Africana Studies was the missing component. “The McNair program did not fail in its objective; it actually gave me the space to find my true passion and area of study (Africana Studies), which led me down a different path," said Routheni.

Africana Studies soon shifted to being the central focus and passion of Routheni’s academic pursuits. She joined the first and only chartered small student group under Africana Studies, the Africana Leadership Opportunity Team (ALOT,) which was the most formative experience for her leadership skills.

Routheni credits her success and inspiration to Africana Studies Lecturer Jamal Martin, who was also the ALOT student advisor, and the amazing leadership within the ALOT group itself. She also appreciates former Assistant Professor of English Language & Literature Kadeshia Mathews, Assistant Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies Natasha Howard, her JRI co-founders, community, ancestors, and loved ones.

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ALOT Leadership (l. to r.): Karena Washington, Zero Aakil-Bey, Dr. Jamal Martin, Mandisa Routheni, Dr. Glenda Lewis. Photo: Africana Leadership Opportunity Team (ALOT).

“I cannot overemphasize the role of ALOT – which could not have existed without Africana Studies –and the UNM Community Engagement Center in instilling in me the integral place of community in any and every facet of scholarship that will actually change the world for good,” Routheni said.

In 2022, Routheni turned this vision into a reality by co-founding the Juneteenth Renaissance Institute (JRI) with her husband, Ahdohny Routheni, and father-in-law, Iirtes Routheni.

The JRI is a non-profit dedicated to their passion for mentoring and economic empowerment for youth and the black community. Their mission is to “foster economic parity and unity in the Black Community.”

With Routheni serving as the secretary and a board director, JRI seeks to promote economic equality and unity by leveraging culture, public scholarship, and community programs. Rooted in the legacy of Juneteenth, with a mission centered on creating lasting positive change, volunteers and community partners play a crucial role. The JRI board boasts over a century of collective experience in mentorship, leadership, research, and nonprofit management to aid in their mission.

“The black community of New Mexico is incredibly diverse, dynamic, and distinguished. Making it a central truth that every New Mexican knows and sees this fueled the creation of JRI,” Routheni said. “A vibrant eco-system of Black children, adults, organizations, and businesses nurtured the flame. I co-founded JRI to make those things a reality, not just the focus of one month or point in our New Mexico history. I co-founded JRI so every New Mexican could win by ending the racial wealth gap, starting with the Black community.”

Routheni is involved in every creative aspect of her nonprofit and real estate business. Her free time is dedicated to volunteering and raising her family.

“All of my journey has inspired me to start this nonprofit and to bring economic justice through wealth building in real estate,” she said. “Africana Studies at UNM has been a major milestone in my engagement with myself, the black community, my ancestors, and the soul of this country.”

Coming full circle, Routheni is ecstatic to have also gotten back into touch with Martin, who will be joining the JRI advisory board and proceeding to support the community initiatives of his former student. “He really just cares. He does the work... his academic brain is off the charts.”

From here, Routheni looks forward to enrolling in UNM’s future Africana Studies Master’s program. “A Master’s in Africana Studies will contribute to my future goals of becoming a better mother, researcher, public scholar, nonprofit administrator, businesswoman, and activist. It’s all about timing, as seen from the way I have done things differently than expected and prioritized things often not valued. If it’s not right for my family or community, then I will wait until the right time.”

Furthering her education will allow Routheni to embark on her longstanding dream eventually: writing a public-friendly book about the historical culture and values of the black community in New Mexico. By sharing stories and history in an accessible and useful way, she hopes to give people something they will read, remember, and utilize to engage with history and the present. She also hopes to exceed the City of Albuquerque’s goal of more than 41 new black homeowners through volunteering with programs and her role as a realtor.

As Routheni continues to make significant strides in her career and community work, she remains dedicated to delivering services for the betterment of her community and raising her children. Routheni emphasizes the need for tangible support for Black communities, urging individuals to donate to organizations promoting economic empowerment, self-determination, and culture. She promotes looking at the “road less traveled” and putting self and family first. She encourages active participation in Black businesses and the building of ecosystems to address systemic barriers.

“Everyone has power in their stories and their ancestors. There is power there,” she said.

Learn more about JRI at MyJune19th.org.