RWU’s Co-Lab Launches Community-Engaged Academic Program and Partnerships Focused on Public Humanities and Arts

A prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities grant assists with creation of new Public Humanities and Arts minor, supports faculty fellows and community partners to develop courses centered on community projects

By Melanie Thibeault
Jason Jacobs and Elaine Stiles outside the RWU library
Jason Jacobs, Associate Professor of Literature and one of the co-founders of the Co-Lab, and Elaine Stiles, Faculty Director of the Co-Lab and Associate Professor of Historic Preservation.

Updated on Sept. 12, 2023, with new information on PHA courses and community partners.

BRISTOL, R.I. – With a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Roger Williams University’s Public Humanities and Arts Collaborative (Co-Lab) is launching a community-engaged public humanities and arts center aimed at fostering inclusive narratives and making historically marginalized and ­­erased populations more audible and visible through research and projects in collaboration with community partners.

The $149,000 NEH grant – one of the largest of the 18 public humanities grants awarded to colleges and universities for 2023, and one of only two awarded in Rhode Island – has enabled the Co-Lab to develop a Public Humanities and Arts (PHA) curriculum and support an inaugural cohort of faculty fellows and community partner fellows to work in tandem to design community-engaged projects for PHA courses that serve and elevate community partnerships in new ways. Today, the Co-Lab announces the creation and launch of a Public Humanities and Arts minor to be offered in the 2023-2024 academic year and the appointment of an inaugural cohort of 10 faculty fellows who are establishing community partnerships with a range of nonprofit and community organizations across Rhode Island.

“This is a highly competitive grant that provides national recognition for our Co-Lab model, an innovative design in which our faculty will develop their courses with a community partner and project identified from the beginning,” said Elaine Stiles, Faculty Director of the Co-Lab and Associate Professor of Historic Preservation. “The grant supports the Co-Lab’s mission-driven approach to community-engaged public humanities through a justice and equity lens and its commitment to ethical, reciprocal, and authentic collaboration between scholars and community organizations.”

Students who minor in Public Humanities and Arts or take individual courses through the RWU Co-Lab will gain a deeper understanding of current debates about the ethics of working with communities through the lenses of racial and community justice, decolonization and equity across a broad range of constituencies and will learn intercultural competency skills.

“The mission of the Public Humanities and Arts Collaborative is truly unique in that it prioritizes our community partners as co-creators with our faculty in addressing a range of community issues and needs, with the focus on historically underrepresented and marginalized communities,” said RWU President Ioannis Miaoulis. “As one of Roger Williams University’s new centers of academic excellence, the Co-Lab celebrates the impact of public humanities and arts on a wide range of issues and ideas and reflects our institutional mission of community-engaged work that makes a difference in our communities and provides meaningful learning opportunities for our students.”

What Is the Co-Lab?

The interdisciplinary Co-Lab is a mission-driven research and teaching center that engages the public humanities and arts to share and foster inclusive narratives and make historically marginalized and ­­erased populations more audible and visible in the public realm. By focusing on community-engaged humanities and arts research, the Co-Lab, which is housed in the Feinstein School of Humanities, Arts, and Education, produces work that is socially relevant and impacts communities in the southern New England region.

The Co-Lab’s signature research projects engage with national and global issues related to marginalized and erased communities and their stories. By tackling pressing issues related to social equity, affordable housing, climate change, and cultural resiliency through a humanities and arts lens and in collaboration with other academic disciplines, their work ties into RWU’s strategic mission and leadership in these areas – and the State of Rhode Island’s similar initiatives.

“When the humanities and arts are missing from conversations about big issues, such as housing and climate change, it’s not just that there’s something nice that could be added. They are essential,” said Jason Jacobs, Associate Professor of Literature and one of the co-founders of the Co-Lab. “If they’re missing, solutions to these issues will be incomplete or harder to reach.” 

Through the Co-Lab and the new Public Humanities and Arts curriculum, students will have the opportunity to get advanced research training and experience in the public humanities through research projects and collaboration with faculty and community partners.

Academic disciplines at Roger typically considered in the public humanities and arts include Anthropology + Sociology, Architecture, Art and Architectural History, Communication & Media Studies, Dance, English Literary Studies, History, Journalism, Legal Studies, Modern Languages, Political Science, and Visual Arts.  

In addition to the interdisciplinary curriculum development and collaborations with community partners, the Co-Lab plans to do outreach and connect beyond the university borders to develop a larger network of institutions and organizations doing humanities- and arts-driven work in the region. In one of the first steps toward that, and as part of the NEH grant, the Co-Lab will partner with regional public humanities groups to host symposium on telling stories of race and place in New England. These events will create space for regional scholars and humanities organizations to have constructive conversations around engaging public humanities to foster racial equity and to cultivate new partnerships and collaborations.

Partnering with Community Groups, Faculty Fellows Create New PHA Courses 

The NEH grant will fund Public Humanities Curriculum Development Fellowships for 10 RWU faculty members and 10 community fellows this spring and summer to create community-engaged courses for the Public Humanities and Arts curriculum, including the new minor.

Professor of Cultural Studies Laura D’Amore, who helped create the Public Humanities and Arts minor, is crafting the introductory course, PHA 100: Foundations of Public Humanities and Arts. The course is aligned with the Co-Lab’s mission of telling untold and forgotten stories about the region through an antiracist and equity-centered lens. The class will partner with Kristin Gallas, a historian and educator who designs and facilitates workshops for museums and historic sites on how to develop comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery, including for the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery.

“Anyone can take the 100-level course and complete the minor. We made it deeply interdisciplinary in the hopes that anyone in any discipline would be interested in adding these kinds of courses to their studies,” D’Amore said. “Learning Public Humanities and Arts and being able to tell stories is as impactful for a Marketing major as it is for someone who’s in construction or working with preservation. It’s not just for humanities students.”

The following list are the 10 inaugural faculty fellows and their proposed courses:

  • Cory Alix, Adjunct Professor in Humanities, is partnering with The Thoreau Society to have students research environmental topics within their disciplines and contribute to conversations about climate change-related challenges facing all life on Earth.
  • Diane Beltran, Adjunct Professor of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition, is partnering with the Rhode Island Collections at the Providence Public Library to teach students how to analyze and interpret memory texts – including building and street names, monuments and memorials – in the public realm.
  • Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, Associate Professor of History, will have students research sites associated with enslaved peoples in Rhode Island in support of placement of Slave History Medallion markers, in collaboration with community partner the Rhode Island Slave Histories Medallions Project.
  • Alexander Castro, Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts, will teach a course on curatorial strategies where students will plan, install, and promote a visual art exhibit.
  • Laura D’Amore, Professor of Cultural Studies, will introduce students to the Public Humanities and Arts in a foundations course that highlights the Co-Lab’s mission of telling hidden and untold stories through a reciprocal, ethical, equity-centered lens.
  • Brian Hendrickson, Associate Professor of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition, will teach a course focused on how the public humanities and arts can contribute to the advancement of cultural tourism initiatives, in collaboration with community partner the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative.
  • Liliya Krys-Burhoe, Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts, will instruct students in how to develop a visual arts curriculum for incarcerated people as a form of art therapy and rehabilitation.
  • Bernardo Motta, Associate Professor of Journalism, will teach students a graduate-level methodologies course to research, plan, fund, execute, and evaluate community engagement projects in public humanities and the arts.
  • Fernanda Righi, Lecturer in Spanish, Latin American and Latino Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies, will lead a course focused on Spanish speaking people in Rhode Island, allowing students to enhance their proficiency in the language and immerse themselves in the culture and history of the state, in collaboration with community partner Rhode Island Latino Arts.
  • Elizabeth Rosner, Adjunct Professor of Music, will teach a course about storytelling in the arts and culture nonprofit sector in partnership with The Avenue Concept

Having each course housed within the faculty member’s department will embed the Public Humanities and Arts into various academic disciplines, helping to build the university’s interdisciplinary curriculum offerings and highlighting community-engaged work within the new general education curriculum launching this fall, Stiles said. These courses are expected to be offered in the beginning of the Spring 2024 semester.

For example, Stiles said, a student majoring in Aquaculture and Aquarium Science who minors in PHA would learn how to manage public-facing projects, programming, and interpretation and nonprofit management, and an Environmental Science major would learn how to go beyond data to communicate the human impacts, associations, and implications of empirical findings.

“The support from the National Endowment for the Humanities is a catalyst for RWU faculty and students to collaborate with communities in exploring the ways that the humanities can address the pressing problems and fundamental questions we face today,” Stiles said. “The support for our curriculum development, faculty and student engagement, and bringing scholars and community organizations together enables RWU to showcase the value of the humanities and interdisciplinary, community-engaged inquiry in fostering student success and greater civic health.”