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Affordable classes on African-American topics for anyone who wants to take them — that’s the gist of Professor Zachery Williams’ vision.

Beginning in February, residents in Northeast Ohio will have the opportunity to take classes in spaces around the region as part of his CommUniversity, a grassroots effort to provide low-cost African-American history courses to the general public. Community organizations like the National Institute for Restorative Justice have signed on to lend their meeting spaces for classrooms, and professors from local colleges, as well as community members, have been invited to teach.

For Williams, an tenured professor of African-American history at the University of Akron, this is a project years in the making. Williams, 39, grew up in South Carolina, and ventured north for his doctorate at Bowling Green State University, where he studied W.E.B. DuBois’ origins as a black intellectual. His research culminated in his first book, In Search of the Talented Tenth: Howard University Public Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race, 1926-1970. While at Bowling Green, Williams and his colleagues formed the Africana Cultures and Policy Studies Institute, a think tank that applied African-American studies to long-standing social problems. It was, in essence, the incubator of CommUniversity.

“Too many people for far too long have been left to the margins,” Williams explains. “There’s this view that it’s us versus them. That’s the value of adult education. It’s proof that every day people can create something magnificent. ”

The model of a “community university” has existed in some forms for decades, Williams concedes, but he breaks new ground in two ways: His project is independently funded and he is focusing the courses. He’s particularly interested in the intersection of race and public policy and getting out of the “ivory tower” to find promising solutions.

“We’ve been grappling with income inequality, mass incarceration, and public housing for quite some time, so where these are viable solutions?” he said. “There’s a consensus that everyday people don’t know what’s best for them, but experiences matter in solving issues.”

Williams believes the answer to some of these pressing issues may germinate in a future CommUniversity classroom.

His current fund-raising continues until the end of January. More information at