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Blog Post

Community Partners Weigh In at DePaul

By Deborah Siegel-Acevedo
May 24, 2022
Community Partners Weigh In at DePaul

HumanitiesX Community Fellow Saira Chambers shares her knowledge with other fellows in a visit to Chicago’s Japanese Garden. Image courtesy of Lisa Dush.

DePaul University’s experiential humanities collaborative, HumanitiesX (HX), joins faculty and students from DePaul University with community partners from Chicago-area nonprofit organizations. Paused in 2020, HX is finally in full swing, running three popular interdisciplinary, project-based courses that explore this year’s theme: Immigration & Migration. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, HX is currently slated for a three-year run, with a new trio of Community Fellows, six Faculty Fellows, and six Student Fellows selected each year.

For the inaugural cohort of Community Partner Fellows who joined HX just before the pandemic, the collaboration is turning out to be thought-provoking and energizing. How do such partnerships come about? What makes for a meaningful public humanities project, from the nonprofit partner’s perspective? To learn more, I sat down with our first three community partners: Andrea Ortiz of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Saira Chambers of the Japanese Arts Foundation, and Minal Giri of the Midwestern Human Rights Consortium.

Andrea Ortiz, Director of Organizing at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), began a fruitful partnership with two DePaul University professors—a historian and a creative writing instructor—when they approached her about the opportunities and importance of oral histories for immigrants living in Chicago. Now, she’s partnering with them in a course, Sharing Their Stories: Latinx Immigrant Activists' Oral Histories, in which students will create a digital anthology featuring the voices of the activists she works with on Chicago’s Southwest side.

Saira Chambers already had a deep relationship with DePaul. In her current role as Director of the Japanese Arts Foundation (JAF), she’s collaborating with two professors she knew as an undergrad. The course they’ve created, Geographies of Displacement: Migration and Immigration in Atomic-Age Art, explores how people and communities affected by the trauma of migration, war, and discrimination in Japan and the United States communicate experiences and negotiate identity through art.

Minal Giri, a pediatrician and chair of the Midwestern Human Rights Consortium (MHRC), was well practiced in working collaboratively with institutions. MHRC is a referral network of multi-institutional and interdisciplinary professionals who perform trauma-informed forensic evaluations for individuals seeking asylum. For her, partnering with a university added a new dimension. In the course she’s partnered on, Children Seeking Asylum: Creating Digital Media to Support Human Rights, students are creating short films for a new MHRC website. These films depict, with thoughtful artistry and ethical consideration, the work evaluators do with asylum seekers (children in particular).

As our pilot external partners, Ortiz, Chambers, and Giri are finding that the skills and methods taught in humanities classes yield valuable deliverables to their organizations while helping students grapple with an urgent issue of our time.

According to BPNC’s Ortiz, the university collaboration is “a great opportunity for our [immigrant activist] leaders to own their personal narratives and have control over telling their stories to the world.” In addition to thinking of ways they can use the oral histories in their immigrant rights campaign, BPNC plans to quote snippets on their social media channels to lift up the voices of immigrant community members.

Across HX courses this year, owning the narrative and lifting community voices with nuance and depth seem to be common themes. “So often you see things depicted around the issue [of asylum seekers] in mainstream media in ways that are really biased or one-dimensional,” noted Giri, who had been poised to go to graduate school in Comparative Literature when she diverted, while studying sub-Saharan African history and theater, to medicine. From her perspective, the films that students are generating in class are “more layered and meaningful,” an addition to MHRC’s platform that will inform the public about these issues more authentically by centering the subjects’ humanity. “We’re telling our story to the students and they’re retelling it, mirroring it, reflecting it back to us as an organization,” she said.

Giri was impressed with the students’ understanding and skill. “These students know what they’re doing. The work is so sensitive. It’s trauma. So how do you convey that in a way that’s ethical and respectful, that draws people in but still offers hope?”

Chambers, who double majored in Art History and Japanese Studies and holds a MA in Arts Leadership, spoke to the way the humanities continue to inform her work at JAF. “To be able to talk critically about the exhibits we see on a field trip to the Art Institute, about who’s seen and who’s not seen, it’s allowed me to talk about the humanities in a far more sincere way than I’ve been able to from within any organization,” she said.

In addition to the concrete deliverables—in Chambers’ course, students are preparing an exhibit at Rotofugi Gallery and a ceremony to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—there’s an intangible gain for community partners as well: public awareness. “The students will come out [to the JAF], and tell their family about it, and the community grows,” said Chambers. “To have students advocating on our behalf is something you can’t buy.” Ortiz said of her HumanitiesX experience, “We would definitely love to continue to collaborate together.”

As part of the year-long fellowship, each partnering organization receives a significant pass-through grant of $17,600, free of stipulations about how funds should be used. It’s “a unicorn of a grant,” explained Chambers, who noted that while nonprofits can get projects funded, it’s impossible to get people paid. “Being able to have this as a pass-through fund is a real gift and opportunity for any nonprofit and I hope the Mellon Foundation continues to do that.”

While the unstipulated funds provide a boost for the organizations, the partnerships with faculty and students provide something equally sustaining. Said Giri, “It’s been refreshing, seeing things through the students’ perspective. For me, this is old. I’m constantly replaying this; we’re used to the everyday abuses of people. The students’ questions and comments—‘Are you serious? That’s allowed? How is that ok?’—bring that fresh consternation.”

Chambers shared Giri’s sentiment. “Listening to the students’ shock at things I take for granted, seeing their engagement at learning history they’ve never learned before bolsters for me that this is such an important endeavor we’re all doing. That this work is really imperative.”

The second cohort of Community Fellows begin their partnerships this fall. They’ll be collaborating on three new HX courses that explore another defining issue of our times—The Environment: Crisis & Action. The HX team looks forward to learning with and from them as the relationships unfold.

Deborah Siegel-Acevedo coordinates HumanitiesX. She holds a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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