Learning and Teaching through Social Engagement

Prof. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

The Social Engagement Initiative teaches students to understand how and why academic study and ideas are challenged, often revised, and even refuted by the lived experiences and cultural proscriptions of communities whose traditions and values differ in significant ways from those of the larger American mainstream.

Free Topic, Professor Higginbotham FeaturedWhen I became chair of the Department of African and African American Studies (AAAS) in 2006, I launched the Social Engagement Initiative in order to encourage academically informed civic responsibility in the current generation of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom want to help solve problems related to poverty, educational disparities, disease, violence, racial injustice, and other manifestations of inequality. Social Engagement offers students creative opportunities for combining rigorous academic study and practical experience in communities of African-descended people.  For me, Social Engagement is also a way to claim the legacy of Black Studies as my generation of the late 1960s understood the founding of this academic field. During those years of tumultuous social change, I was among the many students nationwide who demanded courses “relevant” (an often-used term then) to the black community.

Well before I went to college, however, I recognized that the discipline of history had been an important tool in the struggle for racial equality in America. My father, Albert N.D. Brooks, worked closely with the scholar Carter G. Woodson, now known as the Father of Black History and of Black History Month, who became a visionary intellectual entrepreneur with his founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).  Because of my father’s work in this organization, historians were frequently in our home. One such historian was John Hope Franklin. In the 1940s and 1950s, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s legal team looked to Franklin for his scholarly expertise in crafting legal arguments against school segregation, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education. Franklin’s knowledge as a historian and especially his book From Slavery to Freedom (first published in 1947) served the cause of racial equality in an engaged way, since Marshall and his clerks would regularly look to it for historical information. I am the new co-author of the ninth-edition of this classic book. Another crucial role model for me was my late husband, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., who, as legal historian and federal judge, was an outstanding spokesman for civil rights.

Such models of scholar-activism informed my thinking when I became chair of the AAAS Department.  Although no longer chair, I continue to lead the Department’s Social Engagement Initiative. This pedagogical initiative teaches students to understand how and why academic study and ideas are challenged, often revised, and even refuted by the lived experiences and cultural proscriptions of communities whose traditions and values differ in significant ways from those of the larger American mainstream. Our Social Engagement courses create opportunities for collaborative activity-based learning, while the Social Engagement undergraduate senior thesis and the doctoral dissertation encourage social entrepreneurship through innovative projects designed by the students themselves.

Social Engagement is of necessity interdisciplinary. It emphasizes the relevance of problem-solving on multiple levels and from a range of interlocking fields of knowledge—anthropology, art history, history, history of science, public health, literature, religion, government, languages and linguistics, music, and philosophy—fields represented by the AAAS faculty.  In fall 2008 we launched the first Social Engagement course, “Delimiting Health Disparities in the African Diaspora.” Taught by Duana Fullwiley, now on the Stanford faculty, the course combined the study of medical anthropology and interview techniques along with training in language and culture, taught by the African language instructors of Twi, Haitian Creole, Wolof, and Dinka.  Knowledge of African languages and culture was crucial to the students as they did field research in African immigrant communities in the Boston-metropolitan area. The language instructors functioned as our ambassadors to the Ghanaian, Haitian, Senegalese, and Sudanese communities, and they worked closely with the students throughout the semester in various settings.

The arts play an important role in Social Engagement coursework and senior thesis writing. The course “Using Film for Social Change,” taught by visiting lecturer and award-winning filmmaker Joanna Lipper, teaches students to build websites and to make films for humanitarian purposes and to write analytical papers. For example, AAAS-concentrator Laura D’Asaro ’13 sought to educate the public and engender support for Kenyan orphans who suffered from HIV/AIDS. Based on her study-abroad in Kenya, Laura’s film departed from familiar images of abject starvation and victimization in order to capture the inspiring story of interaction between the children and local community members in an organization devoted to the support of the children.

In 2010, the first student senior theses were written. Sangu Delle ’10 won Harvard’s prestigious Hoopes Prize for his excellent thesis, which told the story of his collaboration with other Harvard students to bring clean water to a village in Ghana. Sangu and AAAS secondary concentrator Darryl Finkton ’10 (subsequently a Rhodes Scholar) developed the project Access to Clean Water in Agyementi (ACWA), through which they brought fresh water and installed latrines in the village. In addition to his thesis advisor Emmanuel Akyeampong, Sangu worked with other AAAS professors and with professors in the Economics Department and the School of Public Health, as well as a professor at MIT.  In the same year, Oluwadara Johnson’s commitment to social entrepreneurship served as the basis for a well-crafted senior thesis that explored the enhancement of Nigerian girls’ education by means of local folklore and “Nollywood” film.  Johnson’s analysis of the positive role of drama in the education of impoverished Nigerian girls was based on the summer program that she founded in Ibadan, Nigeria.

In the academic year 2011-2012, Naseemah Mohamed (selected as a Rhodes Scholar for 2013-2014) wrote her senior thesis under the guidance of Doris Sommers on the importance of the arts to the development of critical thinking skills.  Naseemah established an innovative summer project in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe that brought together teachers, students, and artists. Yet another AAAS student Iman Taylor ‘12, working with me, focused her thesis research on a summer educational program for high school students in Detroit. Iman studied the racial achievement gap in education and the detrimental impact of the summer gap for black, low-income students.  She explored and analyzed the literature on this subject in a traditional academic fashion, but her research was also based on the Motorcity Urban Summer Enrichment (MUSE) program—a nonprofit corporation that she co-founded.  The program’s three founders and incorporators are native Detroiters, who endeavor to raise their city’s woefully low high-school graduation rate. Today, Iman is back in Detroit, continuing to expand this program while working at a public school.

Social Engagement is not simply for undergraduates, however. In 2012, AAAS graduated the first PhD students to incorporate this pedagogy into their doctoral dissertations. Carla Martin produced a transnational study of linguistic anthropology, based on the problem of Portuguese being the official language of Cape Verde, while the great majority of Cape Verdeans speak not Portuguese but Cape Verdean Creole. Carla did more than write a critical study of language and culture.  She was actively engaged in reforming social and educational policy in the United States, Cape Verde, and Europe. To increase access to Creole resources, Carla created the website funana.org. The site serves as a directory to the Cape Verdean web and to Cape Verdean scholarship, hosting lists of institutes and scholars important to Cape Verdean studies and links to related literary and cultural sites. Carla is currently a College Fellow at Harvard, teaching courses in the Department of African and African American Studies.

The second PhD to do a Social Engagement dissertation is Cherie Rivers.  She wrote a groundbreaking study of aesthetics and ideology in the conflict-zone of Goma in the Congo.  She identifies the fight for control of media as a primary locus for understanding post-independence Africa and for transformational projects for social good. Cherie co-produced the documentary film “Jazz Mama,” which incorporates local voices—from Congolese filmmakers to Goma residents.  The film gives voice to gender-based violence in Congo without reducing the women, some of whom are rape victims, to powerless subjects. Cherie also launched and directed a choir for women and girls in Goma. The choir performs songs with inspiring messages of women’s empowerment despite gender-based violence in their war-torn communities. Some of the choir’s songs were written and scored by Cherie herself. Cherie, now Cherie Rivers-Ndaliko, is an assistant professor in the Music Department of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Kay Shelemay was the primary dissertation advisor for both Carla and Cherie.

Students who choose to take Social Engagement courses, either as classes or as independent tutorials, have been especially enthusiastic about our latest project—“Social Portraits in Multimedia.” This ambitious oral history project was utilized very successfully in three courses in 2012-2013 and will continue in the current academic year. Social Portraits has gained attention because of its multimedia and social media training, and its building of an electronic archive of video interviews from persons in the African diaspora and in Africa itself.  This electronic archive will serve multiple purposes: language learning; preservation of knowledge of local activities; studies of leadership; immigrant socialization, history, music, customs, and organizations; and interactive teaching and learning with students and faculty in other locales inside and outside the United States.

As can be seen, my colleagues and I perceive on-the-ground work in local communities to be a laboratory for Social Engagement. Ultimately, this pedagogical initiative teaches students how to learn through immersion and collaboration in projects relevant to communities’ needs. Building working relationships that span cultural divides, our students integrate academic knowledge and inquiry with practical goals and with attention to presenting the outcome of their work in a research paper, thesis, and multimedia product (film, photo essay, archive, etc.) to a larger audience.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.