The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has announced a $250,000 grant to The New School’s Humanities Action Lab (HAL), a coalition of 20 universities, including the University of New Orleans, collaborating to produce student- and community-curated public projects on pressing social issues.
The NEH funds will support public dialogues around HAL’s current project, States of Incarceration, a traveling exhibit, web platform, and curricula focusing on mass incarceration. Today, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world and at any other moment in its history, with deep racial disparities in the system enforcing inequalities in American society.
To tackle this pressing issue, HAL invited students and people directly affected by incarceration in 20 cities to explore their own communities’ experience with incarceration, how it evolved historically and what issues remain today. Each team created one local “chapter” of what will be compiled into a collective, multi-faceted portrait of incarceration, past and present, framed by the key questions these histories raise. The exhibition will open at The New School’s Sheila Johnson Galleries in April 2016 and, over the next three years, travel to each of the 20 communities that created it.
When it arrives in New Orleans, States of Incarceration will highlight the work of UNO students on the history of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, as well as a student postcard exchange with current inmates at Angola and historical photographs from the prison.
The exhibition will open at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in April 2017, alongside an exhibition of young people’s artwork reflecting on a future with fewer prisons created through a series of workshops facilitated by southern regional and local artists investigating the theme of incarceration. At this pivotal moment, the workshops will ask young people to envision a future with fewer people behind bars: What would a more just society look like? How might they express their vision? And whose voices still need to be heard on this vital issue facing our community?
The exhibition, designed by the firm Matter Practice, will coincide with a national public forum at The New School April 14-16. The forum will provide a space for students, stakeholders, scholars and policy experts who worked on the project to come together and engage in a national dialogue on incarceration. The forum will feature tactile interactives, digital polling, and face-to-face dialogues. As the exhibit travels, local partners will host dialogues in their communities, in exchange with partners in other cities working on related issues.
A web platform, designed by the studio Picture Projects, will expand on the travelling exhibition and provide a medium to connect communities across the country.
“The University of New Orleans is engaging in valuable scholarship, education and outreach on the topic of incarceration,” said John Nicklow, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The University is proud to be a member of this coalition and to play a key role in such an important national project.”
“This grant from National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the nation’s largest funders of humanities programs, will enable us to explore how Americans have grappled with incarceration in the past and how it has profoundly shaped generations of people in each of our communities.” said Liz Sevcenko, director of HAL. “We hope by coming together to exchange diverse local histories and collective memories, we can foster new national dialogue on how to move forward.”
“The pressing challenges facing our nation call for dialogue and understanding,” said NEH Chairman William D. Adams. “There is ample evidence that communities across the nation are eager to come together to discuss the critical issues that face them as citizens and neighbors. Using the unique insights of the humanities, the Humanities Action Lab project will bring new audiences and organizations together in ways that address compelling public concerns."
In addition to UNO, universities partnering in States of Incarceration are Arizona State University, Brown University, DePaul University, Duke University, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Northeastern University, Parsons Paris, Rutgers University-Newark, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Skidmore College, The New School, University of California, Riverside, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Miami, University of Minnesota, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, University of Texas at Austin, and Vanderbilt University.
UNO’s participation in the Humanities Action Lab is led by Mary Niall Mitchell, the Midlo Endowed Chair in New Orleans Studies and Benjamin D. Weber, Midlo scholar and visiting lecturer in history, and supported by the UNO Department of History’s Carl Muckley bequest and the Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.
The Humanities in the Public Square grant program is part of Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, a new initiative to foster innovative ways to make scholarship relevant to contemporary issues.