Appending the Rules of (Civic) Engagement
USC College’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity faculty and students examine racial issues through work in the community.By Pamela J. Johnson
July 27, 2009
Lady Bird Johnson said the clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.
For USC College's Department of American Studies and Ethnicity (ASE), diverse ideas are also the gateway to research and scholarship that can create societal change.
Civic engagement and scholarship with impact are the hallmarks of ASE. Faculty, students and staff work together for social justice and equal opportunity in all aspects of their teaching, research and everyday lives, said John Carlos Rowe, USC Associates Chair in Humanities and ASE chair.
“Whatever our different interests, we share common causes that shape our community,” said Rowe, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and English.
The election of President Barack Obama and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court underscore the value of departments such as ASE, he said.
“It’s important to understand the backgrounds behind their extraordinary achievements,” Rowe said of Obama, the nation’s first African American president and Sotomayor, the country’s first Latina nominated for the High Court. “American studies and ethnicity offers an education that clarifies the struggle for social change leading to these impressive accomplishments.”
Partnerships with Panache
ASE often collaborates with the USC Center of Diversity and Democracy (CDD), housed in the College, on events. Last year, they organized a three-day conference called, “Imagining America: Public Engagement in a Diverse America.”
The conference included For All Time, a play produced by the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Co. The play probes violent crime and its aftermath from diverse viewpoints — social, familiar and economic.
The cast was comprised mostly of former convicts, crime victims, defenders, prosecutors, inmates and guards, many of whom provided material for the script.
During a performance rehearsal, a few hundred students watched and listened as the unusual cast told firsthand tales of the effects of crime and incarceration.
Afterward, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, associate professor and former chair of ASE who holds a joint appointment in geography, spoke to the students.
A leading anti-prison advocate, Gilmore wrote the award-winning Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007).
“Prisons create more problems than they solve,” Gilmore said. “Human creativity is enormous, and I have had the fortune to work with people in the U.S. and around the world whose focus is how, creatively, to intervene and prevent terrible things.”
The performance dovetailed with ASE curriculum when students were asked to attend the play, read Golden Gulag then write reviews.
George Sánchez, director of CDD and former chair of ASE, said both the center and department use civic engagement as a tool to cultivate multicultural and ethnic scholarship that can create societal change.
He called engaged community work “education for democracy.”
“The key to this form of education,” Sánchez said, “is the fact that both community members and those from the institutions of higher education could dream of a multiracial democracy within their midst.”
A Phoenix From the Ashes
Now becoming the nation’s nerve center for race and ethnicity research, ASE was launched in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, when thousands of people took to the streets for six days protesting the acquittal of four white police officers videotaped beating a black man. More than 50 people were killed and thousands were injured.
ASE was conceived as a new way to examine the complexity of race and diversity in the U.S. Its students blend the subjects of race and ethnicity into their research about the American condition.
In 2005, ASE became national headquarters for American Quarterly, the American Studies Association’s esteemed 60-year-old journal compiled of essays by leading scholars in the field.
A past president of the association, Sánchez co-edited the first special edition produced at ASE, Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). In July, Gilmore was elected association president, a three-year term.
For each edition, an ASE doctoral candidate acts as managing editor and several of those students’ essays are published in the Quarterly.
USC marks the first West Coast home for the journal, which chose the College’s American studies program because of its ethnic emphasis.
“For us to get the journal and to use it as a training ground for our Ph.D. students, and to set it up so that our faculty is heavily involved in its creation, is critical,” Sánchez said. “We’re leading the charge in the nationwide diversity discussion. And we’re contributing to a much wider intellectual community.”
Jeb Middlebrook, a doctoral student, was managing editor of American Quarterly in 2007. Middlebrook was a minority among the 52 multiethnic doctoral students.
“So why is a white guy studying race?” he asked. “For me, it’s about the integrity of the justice systems at work in this country. If systems are allowed to discriminate against anyone based on any reason, it erodes my faith in those systems and my pride in being part of this country.”
He said being managing editor taught him the value of putting race in the center of American studies.
“The journal is helping to not only bolster what USC is doing here on campus,” he said, “but it’s really shaping the discipline nationally.”
As managing editor, he organized national editorial meetings where scholars discussed current societal issues such as immigration.
“It’s been amazing to witness the discussions among senior scholars in the field,” said Middlebrook, who cofounded a hip-hop group dedicated to racial justice, AntiRacist 15. “It’s an incredible opportunity for a grad student, particularly one who’s on the job market.”
On Local Race Relations
Shana Redmond joined ASE faculty as an assistant professor in the fall of 2008 after earning her Ph.D. from Yale University and receiving offers from other prestigious institutions.
“As far as nationwide American studies programs go, this department is incredibly unique,” she said.
What makes it rare is its emphasis on race and ethnicity and its research-based commitment to the community, she said.
Her research focuses on African diaspora, which examines how Africans during and after the trans-Atlantic slave trade managed to retain their traditions and identities.
For Redmond, a major draw to the College’s ASE was the opportunity to work with Gilmore and Robin D.G. Kelley, both distinguished scholars whose research is deeply rooted in community work.
“I was raised to think that it was completely normal that no matter what one did, what one should be doing at the same time is changing the world, fighting against racism, fighting against sexism and fighting against poverty,” said Gilmore, who in 1969 was among the first women to attend the then-newly coeducational Yale University.
Gilmore’s Golden Gulag was also required reading in a new course examining African American and Latino race relations in Southern California.
The doctoral course is part of an ASE and CDD proposed $2.5 million, five-year project involving original research, graduate training, undergraduate instruction and community engagement — all surrounding the complex issue of Latino and African American interaction.
The fastest growing population groups in the nation, the two ethnicities already comprise the population majority in 35 of the nation’s largest 50 cities — including Los Angeles.
Relations between the two groups will determine the future of urban life in 21st century America, Sánchez said.
“USC is in the middle of a community that’s radically changing from heavily African American to heavily Latino,” he said.
The university is situated to take a lead role in creating a new generation of scholars who understand the complex relationship and can influence positive societal change.
“We have faculty who are the country’s preeminent experts in African American and Latino studies,” he said. “We want to work together on this, to understand the history of the relationship, to develop new approaches to improve relations and deal with the issue in schools.”
Each academic year, a different theme based on Latino and African American relations will be introduced, led by two tenured faculty members — a humanist and social scientist. At least one book of original research will be produced annually. Laura Pulido, professor of ASE, and Kelley, professor of ASE and history, taught the initial course.
Doctoral Graduates Excel
The Ph.D. program’s creation at ASE nearly a decade ago attracted more students and faculty of color. Sánchez, who led the effort, centered the entire interdisciplinary program on questions of multiculturalism. The doctoral students’ research focuses on real-world problems.
“It’s really taken off,” Sánchez said. “We’ve been able to recruit new minority faculty and students because we’re offering them something that isn’t available anywhere else in the country.”
The program has shown great success with students who have earned their ASE doctorates hired in tenure-track positions at major universities except one who became a visiting professor.
ASE believes the more diverse the faculty and student population, the better the research.
“There’s no one group or discipline that has a claim to truth,” Middlebrook said. “The truth is in the dialogue.”