Storytelling and Community-Building through Mellon Public Humanities Fellowships

By Christina LaRose, PhD Candidate, English & Women’s Studies

Christina LaRose
Christina LaRose

I discovered the power of storytelling in the early 1990s when Princeton historian Dr. Alixa Naff interviewed my Syrian great-grandmother, Najla Simon, for her book, Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Southern Illinois University Press, 1993). I became intrigued by Najla’s oral history, which Dr. Naff had recorded on several cassette tapes, and listened to them often while visiting my grandparents. By answering Dr. Naff’s thought-provoking questions, Najla traced her journey from a minority Christian community in Damascus to the United States, where she immigrated with her family in 1913. The oral history taught me the importance and power of individual narratives in building community. Years later, when I read Dr. Naff’s book, I learned more about the pre-World War I pio­neering generation of Arabic-speaking immigrants and their experiences and accomplishments in the United States. I was so fascinated by my family history that I decided to pursue an M.F.A. in Creative Writing to explore—through the genres of fiction and poetry—my great-grandmother’s journey. Now, as a Ph.D. candidate in English and Women’s Studies, I am currently writing a dissertation on Arab American women’s poetry that focuses on the philosophical contributions of several fascinating poets who have yet to receive adequate scholarly attention.

Along with my research, a crucial part of my work as a scholar has been to build and maintain community partnerships. As a public scholar, I am strongly committed to serving the needs of the communities to which I belong. The Mellon Public Humanities Fellowships gave me the opportunity to do just that. In the summer of 2015, I worked at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, Michigan—the only museum in the country dedicated to documenting, preserving, and presenting the history, culture, and contributions of Arab Americans. I assisted the museum by helping to strengthen educational presentations for a wide variety of audiences, including students, educators, corporations, and government agencies.

In this role, I surveyed the AANM’s existing educational presentations to evaluate the content. Then, working in collaboration with the museum’s educators, I updated the main educational presentation—“Arab American History & Culture”—with new research and gave it a fresh design. In addition, I created a two new presentations on Arab American women and on Arab diaspora communities in the U.S. Through my work on these projects, I developed the ability to work with a cultural organization and serve multiple audiences. Moreover, I explored how museums use digital humanities and increased my knowledge about the histories of Arab American communities.

After completing my work at the Arab American National Museum, the following summer I worked as a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow for the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School Office of Development and Alumni Relations. As the recipient of a Rackham Merit Fellowship, I have strongly benefited from the generous financial support and professional development opportunities provided by the Rackham Graduate School. I had been wanting to give back to Rackham, so I applied for a Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship focused on creating stories for the centennial anniversary of the Barbour Scholars Program.

Established in 1917, the Barbour Scholarships, which are among the oldest and most prestigious awards granted by the University of Michigan, provide funding to female students from what was then called the “Orient” (the large region extending from Turkey in the west to Japan and the Philippines in the east). The scholarships are named for their founder, Levi Barbour, who received both his undergraduate and law degrees from U-M in the 1860s. While traveling in Asia in 1913, Mr. Barbour visited with U-M alumni, including three women who had graduated from the U-M Medical School: Mary Stone (born Shi Meiyu), Ida Kahn (born Kang Cheng), and Tomo Inouye. Mr. Barbour was deeply impressed by the remarkable contributions being made by these women, who sometimes provided the only medical care available to citizens. Inspired by these women’s academic achievements and lengths to which they had gone to procure them, Mr. Barbour created an endowment to assist Asian women to prepare academically at U-M for positions of status and leadership in their own countries, and to facilitate a closer understanding between Eastern and Western cultures.

For this fellowship, I conducted archival research in the Bentley Historical Library to create a history of the Barbour Scholars Program for the upcoming program website and commemorative booklet. I also identified and crafted historical narratives of Barbour alumnae, working with existing information and undertaking original research on the Scholars. Additionally, I interviewed several recent Barbour Scholar alumna and wrote profiles of them. Researching and writing these contemporary and historical narratives fascinated me, and I believe that the writing I produced will create a culture of engagement and giving to support the Barbour Scholars Program.

As a Mellon Foundation Public Humanities Fellow for two different organizations, I felt grateful to be able to serve the communities to which I belong. These experiences enabled me to improve a wide range of skills including digital humanities production, data analysis, archival research, interviewing, and producing polished written content on tight deadlines. While the work of these organizations differs, my work for both involved a very similar process: researching and writing stories in order to strengthen communities. As a humanities scholar, I will continue to focus on the power of individual stories to enhance our understandings of the human experience, to advance individual and social welfare, to foster dialogue and reasoned debate in civic life, to promote peaceful relationships, and to develop appreciation for the complexity and beauty of the literary arts.

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