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Interviews Staff Winter 2021

Shekinah Thornton on Cultivating Community in CMS, Chicago, and Abroad

By Amy Skjerseth / CMS PhD Candidate

Shekinah Thornton, department assistant for both Cinema and Media Studies and East Asian Languages and Civilizations, began working at UChicago in June 2019. She enjoys seeing the wide range of faculty and student research and events across two very different departments. Thornton handles many technical, behind-the-scenes procedures for CMS, including updating the department website, processing reimbursements, and course scheduling. During the pandemic, her role has become increasingly student-facing. She started “Weekly Words,” a bulletin for MAPH and Ph.D. students that communicates upcoming university and community events, resources for social advocacy, new recipes to try, shows to watch, and more. “It’s been so gratifying to get emails from people who loved a show I recommended or my ‘meme edition,’” she laughs. Thornton also was instrumental in making The Long Take a reality, as she designed the entire website. “My two favorite parts of my job have been getting to know people and helping in multiple capacities,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to keep things running smoothly.” 

The extremely personal nature of Thornton’s Weekly Words bulletins stems from her multiple passions, from social justice work to cooking for her roommate. “Food brings people together and has given me so many great memories. I’ve had more kitchen experiments during quarantine. I made tea cakes at the beginning, and later fig jam and homemade pop tarts. I miss Medici’s fancy beverages, though—and the atmosphere of being out and about with so many people.” Originally from Chicago, Thornton has wanted to live in Hyde Park since she went to Carnegie Elementary School at 61st and Dorchester. “I told my parents I wanted to live here someday, and it was so exciting to get a job in the neighborhood. Even in the pandemic, there is a sense of real community in Hyde Park. The Love Fridge in the alley behind 57th Street Books was a physical reminder of that, as well as the many places that have fostered community, such as Experimental Station and the café where I used to take knitting lessons.” 

While Thornton went to the Lab School for one and a half years and attended high school in Chicago, she wanted to go out of state for college. She attended USC from 2015-2018 and double majored in psychology and French. With several high school credits in French, she was able to graduate early. Afterwards, Thornton completed an internship at the Alliance Française de Chicago, a French cultural center downtown. She hopes to begin doctoral studies in French soon but wanted to get some work experience before applying. “I helped plan and run events and did a lot of accounting work. I actually met Allyson Nadia Field at an Alliance event, when she introduced a screening of Daughters of the Dust. I talked to her a little bit then and found out she worked at UChicago, so it was exciting to reconnect with her when I began working for the department.”  

Thornton delights in her work alongside faculty, students, and staff in the CMS and EALC departments because of how often they celebrate each other’s accomplishments. Moreover, she has always been interested in film. She enjoys watching several movies in a row and has watched more movies during quarantine than she had in recent months. That record may only be matched by the movie per day she saw using MoviePass one summer in LA. Her favorite then was a Sailor Moon musical, which brought back memories of a beloved childhood animation series and her dad’s love for musicals. “I still cry when I watch West Side Story,” she says. In 7th grade, she was stage manager for three different plays—her favorite was Snoopy! The Musical. Having loved theater for so long, Thornton notes that her appreciation for cinema has increased while working for CMS: as she remarks, “there is so much to learn and feel from cinema.” 

Her work with arts-focused departments has prepared her to apply to Ph.D. programs in French in the next year. Several factors have led her to pursue doctoral studies. In undergrad, she mixed her two majors in a study abroad program. She went to Senegal and talked to psychiatrists and mental health professionals to see how stigmas about mental health and illness in Senegal compared to other Francophone countries and the US. “Issues of accessibility will be at the heart of my doctoral research, whether they are for mental health, POC, or women. It isn’t just access in terms of services people can use, such as mental health facilities, but also in a more general way of how funding grants people accessibility.” Her interests in accessibility span a wide range; she was president of the Queer POC student organization at USC, where she also participated in a restoration project of translating original letters from Voltaire and his correspondents. “The goal was to make those letters more accessible. Besides having physical copies at USC, we digitized them so that other academics could read them. I’m very interested in accessibility where you can get your hands on texts like that. When I was kid, you couldn’t have told me I was going to touch a letter from Voltaire.”  

But Thornton is also interested in issues of accessibility that are closer to home, including homelessness, wage disparities, and food security issues. While Thornton is not sure which geographical region will be the focus of her research, she is interested in working with the Francophone community in Chicago. “The type of activities you are exposed to as a kid are crucial: trying things out broadens your horizons and helps you figure out what you want to do. I began French classes in kindergarten, but a third or fourth grade field trip to the Alliance really sparked my interest in French. The Alliance also teaches intensive classes for kids from CPS who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.” Thornton would enjoy returning to Senegal for research, but she also hopes to make a difference in her immediate community. “Accessibility encompasses so much; anywhere you look there’s an issue of who has access to resources. I’d love to see how much my career and studies can grow in Chicago, because its history and positive energy mean a lot to me.”  

Aspects of Chicago community such as the Love Fridge have been strong reminders for Thornton that people are caring for each other even while stress levels run high due to the pandemic, protests, and election. “If there’s one thing 2020 has taught me,” she says, “it’s that you can’t always be sure everything’s going to be okay, but you can keep doing the best you can for your communities. You don’t always have to see the light at the end of the tunnel to know that there is one.” Thornton practiced this attitude when she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do until college: “I always had this outlook that things will work out. Whatever is meant to happen will happen for you. During Covid, I’m reminding myself that you can only control so much. Therapy has been great this year to manage stress by letting go of things outside the realm of my control.” Thornton also recommends art journaling from taking a class on Zoom. Fittingly, October’s class theme was cultivating community and what community spaces look like. “I’ve been turning to art as a means of creativity and decompression in general these days,” she says. Thornton’s work and words are shining examples of the incredible impact art can have on communities. 

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