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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Cultivating Public Knowledge and Community Well-Being

Graduate students from A&S and Maxwell use fellowships to develop and implement public humanities projects.

May 26, 2020, by Dan Bernardi

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Myriam Lacroix (left) and Alanna Louise Warner-Smith (Photos by Stephen Sartori)

When Myriam Lacroix set out to create a writing group for LGBTQ youth in the city of Syracuse, she had no idea what to expect. Would people be interested? Could such a group be sustainable? Through a Humanities New York Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship, Lacroix assembled a group of talented and enthusiastic writers, proving to her that no matter where you are living, you can make an impact in your community. “One of the most important things I learned in launching this group is that there is room for my ideas and ideals in the world,” she says.

Lacroix, an M.F.A. student in the creative writing program in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Alanna Louise Warner-Smith, a Ph.D. student in anthropology in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, were selected by a state-wide review panel for the year-long fellowship supported by the Syracuse University Humanities Center and the Central New York Humanities Corridor, in partnership with Humanities New York. The highly competitive award encourages emerging humanities scholars to explore the public application of their scholarly interests by designing and implementing a public humanities project in partnership with a community-based organization. Lacroix and Warner-Smith were among 18 graduate students from different universities in New York state to receive the fellowship.

Public humanities focuses on enriching and empowering individuals through community collaboration, and drawing on the humanities to address pressing social issues. Public humanities scholars spark important conversations about current and historical topics by partnering with cultural organizations to form groups that engage in art, music and writing; to curate exhibits at museums, libraries and online; and more. Projects are wide-ranging and can include youth mentoring networks, environmental policy, prison education partnerships, documenting hidden histories, tapping into the arts for social change, and more.

“The fellowship was an invaluable introduction to what the public humanities are and can do for communities,” says Warner-Smith, who is creating a digital database to map the histories of Irish immigration, labor and public health in New York City in the 19th century. “In academia, we often discuss the importance of communicating our research to the public or engaging with the public, but the public comprises many different individuals and communities, each with different histories, needs and interests.”

While Lacroix’s and Warner-Smith’s projects reach distinct audiences, their projects share in one common mission – cultivating public knowledge and community well-being.

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Out-Front poster illustration by Zoë Meighan.

Engaging LGBTQ Youth Through Writing

Myriam Lacroix arrived at Syracuse University in 2017 excited about the opportunity to study alongside accomplished writers and make a home in her new city. While she immediately built a strong bond with her campus colleagues, she found it difficult to make a connection with the queer community outside of the University setting. She wanted to change that, so, through the Humanities New York Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship and in partnership with the Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writers Center, Lacroix coordinated a writing group for LGBTQ youth called Out-Front, which aims to foster community through collaboration, experimentation and self-publishing.

The idea stemmed from a writing group Lacroix was a part of when she lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. “That group welcomed people from very different writing backgrounds – people wanting to give writing a try, or trying to make a career of it,” she says. “The most important part of the group, for me, was that it relied completely on members wanting to support each other and help each other grow.”

With Out-Front, Lacroix developed an environment of creative collaboration. The group worked together to create poetry collages using their works, illustrate each other’s stories, and practice dialogue by writing stories and role playing their different characters using Zoom. “Writing can be pretty solitary, so it's been a fun challenge to find different ways that we can create works of literature together,” Lacroix says.

When the pandemic halted all on-campus instruction, Lacroix feared the group might lose touch – instead, it made their new virtual meetings feel even more meaningful. While their meetings were supposed to end following the completion of the semester, Lacroix expects them to continue, perhaps indefinitely. “It feels so necessary to continue to connect over literature, over queerness, and as friends,” she says. “I'm sure the nature of the group will evolve, depending on our individual situations, but the test of a strong community seems to be in its adaptability.” Her next goal is to extend the reach of Out-Front to the LGBTQA+ community beyond Syracuse.

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This photo of a woman carrying a heavy load from the early 1900's shows how working conditions of the time impacted the human body. (Credit: National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Curating New York City History

As a bioarcheologist, Alanna Louise Warner-Smith studies human remains to understand what life was like for people in the past. Her research specifically involves studying the remains of individuals who died in New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Through physical and radiographic examination of bones, she looks at health, diet, lifestyle and trauma, answering important questions about living and working conditions of the past.

To connect the past to the present, Warner-Smith researched historic maps and photographs related to the history of New York City, so she could visit the sites of old hospitals and neighborhoods of immigrants and working-class New Yorkers. She found that many of these collections were spread across various institutions, so she became interested in creating a digital destination for people to view the historic documents in one place.

“I wanted to create an online exhibit that would explore histories of immigration, labor, and public health in the city, through maps and historic photos,” she says. Warner-Smith is working with the Museum of the City of New York and Urban Archive to curate photographs and documents on a map of New York City to create a digital exhibit.

The interactive map will provide thematic narratives on the history of immigration, labor, public health, and medicine in the city. Warner-Smith expects the resource will be a useful tool for high school and undergraduate students studying the history of immigration; users interested in engaging with archives beyond the space of a museum; and adults and families studying genealogy and histories of immigration.

“It is my hope that in bringing together documents and photographs from different collections relating to the histories of immigration, I can contribute to these families hoping to learn more about what life was like for their ancestors,” she says. The exhibit is currently in development but will soon be accessible online through Urban Archive.

In addition to the Graduate Student Public Humanities Fellowships, the Humanities Center supported the research of seven other faculty and students through Humanities Center Faculty Fellowships and Dissertation Fellowships.

2019-20 Humanities Center Faculty Fellows from A&S:

Amanda Brown, Associate Professor, Linguistics; Project: The Multicompetent Linguistic System in Development

Aja Y. Martinez, Assistant Professor of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition; Project: Counterstory: The Writing and Rhetoric of Critical Race Theory

Kathryn A. Everly, Professor of Spanish; Project: The Other Side of the Story: Salaria Kea and the Spanish Civil War

2019-20 Humanities Center Faculty Fellows from Maxwell:

Timur Hammond, Assistant Professor of Geography; Project: Placing Islam in Istanbul: Buildings, Stories, and Belonging in a Changing City

Audie Klotz, Professor of Political Science; Project: Gender and Nationality

2019-20 Humanities Center Dissertation Fellows:

Haejoo Kim, Ph.D. Candidate, English; Dissertation Title: Organic Victorians: Alternative Health Practices and Medical Liberty in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Ashley O'Mara, Ph.D. Candidate, English; Humanities Center Dissertation Fellow. Dissertation Title: “Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither:” Celibacy and Asexuality After the English Reformation

The Humanities Center has revealed the list of 2020-21 fellows. Read about their upcoming projects.