A $750,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation will help fund a collaborative humanities effort among the University of New Orleans’ Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, The Neighborhood Story Project and the Justice Studies Ph.D. Program.
The three-year grant comes through the Mellon Foundation’s Higher Learning program, which aims to broaden understanding of American history and culture.
“What’s most exciting is that the Mellon Foundation recognizes and values the spirit of collaboration we share with one other and with the community,” said history professor Mary Niall Mitchell, who is director of the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.
Engaging the rich history and culture of the city of New Orleans and its surrounding communities, the humanities collaborative project will include the development of public humanities programming both on and off campus. It will support courses that invite community-based scholars to co-teach with faculty, promote experiential learning and collaborative research in the field, and offer participants the opportunity to attend conferences and develop cultural exchanges. The collaboration will also build on UNO’s strong record of public-facing programming, exhibits and work in the digital humanities.
The Midlo Center, established in 1991, serves as an incubator and support system for new research on New Orleans, particularly work in the service of social justice and civil rights. It has developed a large network of community partners, among them, social justice organizations, local museums and universities, cultural institutions, archives, public libraries and educators.
The Mellon grant will fund the hiring of a full-time program manager for the Midlo Center who will also facilitate collaboration among Midlo, the Neighborhood Story Project, and Justice Studies. The program manager will support the work of student-community partnerships (including on-going work with Whitney Plantation Museum, The Descendants Project, The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, Plessy and Ferguson Initiative, and Grow Dat Youth Farm), promote the Center’s public humanities work citywide and connect projects from all three UNO entities.
In addition, the grant will fund a part-time digital specialist who will support digital humanities engagement and content, provide technical expertise and help link the Midlo Center with other campus units, particularly those working with associate director Ryan Gray on projects devoted to cultural heritage management and environmental justice.
“The Mellon grant will strengthen support for our community partnerships, which join UNO with the city it serves. And it will create more opportunities for our students to engage in experiential learning, to develop new bodies of public humanities scholarship alongside our partners, and to share that work with the public,” Mitchell said.
The Neighborhood Story Project, housed in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology since 2005, has a long track record of producing collaborative ethnographies with neighborhoods and community-based organizations of New Orleans and broader region.
Two of the goals of the Neighborhood Story Project, with support from the Mellon Grant, are to establish a residency program and support community-based scholars in the classroom and in the long-term ethnography, Botanica, said Rachel Breunlin, faculty member in the UNO Department of Anthropology and Sociology and director of the Neighborhood Story Project.
Through a three-year residency program, the Neighborhood Story Project will focus on developing a new collaborative ethnography with artist-scholar Monique Verdin and her organization, the Land Memory Bank and Seed Exchange. In 2019, the Neighborhood Story Project produced and published Verdin’s book, Return to Yakni Chitto: Houma Migrations.
“With Mellon’s support, we will collaborate on Botanica, a collaborative ethnography that will pull together storytellers, scholars, herbalists, artists and gardeners to cross-pollinate knowledge of historical and contemporary gardens and natural environments in south Louisiana,” Breunlin said. The research will lead to an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum’s Cabildo in the spring of 2024 and a book with the University of New Orleans Press.
Established in 2020, the Ph.D. program in Justice Studies fosters interdisciplinary, collaborative, community-engaged scholarship. The program’s creation offers UNO faculty and students the chance to explore innovative and vital humanities research at the doctoral level, in the service of social justice in New Orleans, said historian Max Krochmal, director of the doctoral justice studies program at UNO.
The Mellon Grant will fund the creation of a part-time program coordinator position, provide research and travel grants to students as well as collaborative teams of students, faculty members and community partners, and support a lecture series and other public programming, Krochmal said. In the final year of the grant, Mellon support will underwrite a post-doctoral fellowship with which Justice Studies can recruit a future UNO faculty member working in the fields of race, ethnicity and social justice.
“Mellon funding will expand the program’s capacity and impact, allowing Justice Studies to foster new collaborative community-engaged scholarship by bringing together students, faculty, nonprofit organizations and grassroots activists to co-create new humanities knowledge and public programming,” Krochmal said.
The first cohort of Justice Studies Ph.D. students are now completing their comprehensive examinations and proposing dissertation projects and collaborations with community partners in the fields of criminal justice, educational justice, environmental justice and social justice. Justice Studies students will also benefit from engaging with the Midlo Center and the Neighborhood Story Project, adding synergy among the three UNO units and extending the impact of the overall Mellon grant, Krochmal said.
“We are three entities at UNO, each engaged in justice-oriented humanities scholarship,” Mitchell said. “Mellon’s generous support will allow us to grow our programs, expand their reach throughout the city and do so in wonderfully collaborative ways.”