The Center for Humanities Research (CHR) has been awarded a Virginia Humanities Planning Grant totaling $10,000 to launch a public humanities project, “Alienation and Belonging: Shifting Cultural Landscapes in Northern Virginia.” This project represents CHR’s first step in what it hopes will be a continued engagement with the wider public through public humanities outreach and scholarship.
Founded in September, 2020, the CHR supports the humanities and humanities-related research of faculty and doctoral students across the university and increases the visibility of Mason’s humanities research both on campus and beyond. “Public humanities are a really significant part of what the humanities research landscape looks like, across universities and beyond universities,” explained Alison Landsberg, CHR director and professor in the Department of History and Art History and the Cultural Studies program.
The project emerged from conversations with a group of Mason scholars interested in Northern Virginia, who were convened as the NOVA working group. The grant proposal was co-authored by Landsberg and the center’s associate director, Catherine Olien. Gabrielle Tayac (associate professor, history/art history) and Teri Edwards-Hewitt (PhD candidate, cultural studies) are co-PIs on the project. Katharina Hering (adjunct faculty, history/art history) will serve as oral history coordinator. Mason graduate students working on the teams include John Legg (history/art history), Janine Hubai (history/aArt history), Aparna Shastri (cultural studies), and Muna Al Taweel (cultural studies).
Landsberg emphasized the value of external support for the award and her hopes for the project’s local impact: “We are thrilled to have the support of Virginia Humanities as we embark on our first public humanities project, one that we hope will help to connect us, and Mason more generally, with those who live in our region but whose voices and histories have not yet become part of the story Northern Virginia tells about itself.”
“Alienation and Belonging” aims to use the voices of those left out of the narrative of Northern Virginia to weave together a fuller and more complex account of the region. Northern Virginia can feel like a place without history, an anyplace of generic suburban homes, corporate high-rises, and strip malls. Indeed, many who live here are unaware of the histories of violence, dispossession, and transplantation that shape the present. The very designation “Northern Virginia” works to distinguish the region from the rest of the state, erasing its connection to the U.S. South and to America’s troubled racial past. At the same time, the region has long been the destination of migrants and migrant communities. And yet the stories of these communities—communities that play a critical role in every aspect of life in the region—have not found their way into the image of, or narrative about, contemporary Northern Virginia. How might we work to build a more complex and inclusive picture of the region?
First and foremost, this project aims to use community voices to re-narrate the story of this complex region. Through oral histories and community-based archival research, carried out collaboratively with community partners, this project will weave together a new narrative about Northern Virgina, one that includes the many voices of those who live here, and who have faced—in different ways, and at different moments—experiences of both alienation and belonging.
A commitment to a shared, public good undergirds public humanities practice. Public humanities methodology encourages direct, sustained, and bilateral engagement with communities both within and beyond the university, including through knowledge- and skill- sharing, and we hope to do this kind of work with this project.
Over the course of summer 2022, two research teams will work in conjunction with these local partners to collect and make publicly available oral histories. The goal of this work is to highlight underrepresented voices—including immigrant and indigenous communities--from the Northern Virginia region.
Mason’s Institute for Immigration Research, including director James Witte (professor, sociology and anthropology) and program coordinator Michele Waslin, serve as internal partners for the project. External partners include the Office of Historic Alexandria, Tenants and Workers United (Arlington), and Barrios Unidos.
CHR anticipates a website and exhibitions showcasing the work to launch in the spring of 2023.
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