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2017 Mellon Public Scholars Present Projects at Reunion Event

Where can a Ph.D. in the humanities take you, and how can it serve broader publics? At the 2017 Mellon Public Scholars Project Showcase on Thursday, Feb. 22, held at the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, scholars presented projects that took them as far as Cuba and as close as the Yolo County Food Bank.

With project highlights and outcomes offered in a series of lightning talks, the 10 scholars in the 2017 cohort demonstrated that humanities and social science training can be used to tell stories that form the basis of advocacy and community justice work. Four scholars were paired with existing community partners, and six scholars proposed their own projects, often drawing on pre-existing relationships.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the lightning-round presentations, the Public Scholars repeatedly returned to the ways in which the program changed their identity as scholars and how they understood their place in the world. Many of the projects were focused on preserving disappearing voices or making inequalities in a system visible, and public scholarship became a way to address these inequalities.

The Public Scholars also spoke about how performing public scholarship revealed the significance of their work in new ways. Crystal Richardson, for example, has been involved in her community’s Karuk language revitalization for a while. But once she became a Public Scholar, she noticed that her colleagues had clear pedagogical expectations of her, and that elder speaker-teachers allowed her to organize them, when typically they would receive the most respect. “When you attach the word ‘scholar’ to your identity, even in a community that raised you, that means something,” Richardson said. “And that something can be scary, both for you and for them.”

Of the projects with community partners, Alana Hayes-Stein (Sociology) worked with the Yolo County Food Bank to collect data about barriers that might prevent homeless patrons from accessing the Food Bank’s services and map the Bank’s community impact. Jeanelle Hope (Cultural Studies) worked with the California Department of Education to develop a model Ethnic Studies curriculum for K-12 schools, and collected feedback on the project from educators statewide in order to make recommendations to the CDE for the curriculum’s further development. Deepa Mahadevan (Performance Studies) evaluated the impact of two major grants run by the California Arts Council, and investigated how arts funding could be more effectively and equitably distributed. At California Humanities, Jennifer Tinonga-Valle (English) drafted maps of over 800 humanities organizations operating in California, to help California Humanities amplify their reach and increase humanities awareness.

The six independent projects centered around collecting and preserving the oral histories of marginalized populations, often with an eye to advocacy. Brittani Orona (Native American Studies) worked in the rapidly gentrifying Sacramento community of Oak Park to collect and create a digital database for the stories of longtime residents, whose memories are at risk of disappearing as Oak Park landmarks are redeveloped. Mayra Sanchez (Geography) traveled to the Salinas Valley to collect the stories of farmworkers from Mexico whose children have special needs, and helped build digital platforms to help the community increase their visibility and access to resources. Genesis Lara (History) returned to her hometown high school to collect the stories of Miami’s black community, and partnered with the Miami Lakes Educational Center to train local high school students to continue the project on their own. In Cuba, David Tenorio (Spanish and Portuguese) listened to the stories of transgender folk in order to create multimedia stories of their experience in post-Soviet Cuba. Roy Taggueg (Sociology) worked with the northern California chapter of Migrante to interview undocumented Filipino workers, whose stories support Migrante’s continued advocacy. And Crystal Richardson (Linguistics) returned to her Karuk community to develop a curriculum for the tribe’s language reclamation and revitalization project.

One of the missions of the Mellon Public Scholar program is to change the nature of scholarly research. To that end, the second half of the program began with a publication roundtable, in which Robyn Rodriguez, associate professor of Asian American Studies, and Erica Kohl-Arenas, faculty director of Imagining America and an associate professor of American Studies, discussed ways to make public scholarship visible to the public and in academia.

Rodriguez spoke about the relationship of personal experience and research interests to public scholarship, since her public scholarship work was inspired by efforts at her former middle school to develop an ethnic studies curriculum. Her efforts to include Filipino-American labor history in that curriculum inspired the creation of the Welga Digital Archive & Repository, which has since expanded its reach to Filipino-American history and activism more broadly.

Kohl-Arenas outlined her journey from nonprofit work to academia and public scholarship, providing advice about how to craft a career as a public intellectual by embracing non-traditional opportunities to talk about academic work. She advised attendees to find the right publication outlet for their research, rather than forcing their research to fit the interests of well-known journals. Online platforms with public audiences can be great ways for public scholars to bring their work to broader audiences, and Kohl-Arenas noted that those spaces can generate more opportunities for public engagement.

The evening closed with a brief update from three scholars from the original 2016 cohort. They have continued to develop and publicize their projects, in many cases turning their findings into conference presentations, special journal issues, and public speaking opportunities.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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