The Obermann Center has long tried to be sensitive to current events and the needs of those we most immediately serve: faculty and other University of Iowa scholars, researchers, and artists. In midst of a pandemic and with the country’s racial history under intense scrutiny, we knew that we needed to be bold. We offered free training in Liberating Structures to support people’s online teaching and digital meetings, special funding opportunities in support of the digital classroom, and several events specific to the history and contemporary experience of Black Americans.
Liberating Structures: Workshops & Mini-Grants
Through the Humanities for the Public Good program, we had worked with two outside consultants, Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua, who use facilitation practices collectively known as Liberating Structures (LS) to help groups learn and discover together in unexpected ways. Although LS was not created with the virtual world in mind, Jackson and Qua cleverly adapted many of their methods to the pandemic world, making Zoom meetings more interesting, humane, and—most importantly—inclusive and equitable. In Summer 2020, we invited them to lead a series of virtual workshops in LS that users could adapt to classrooms, departmental meetings, and other online gatherings.
These workshops attracted more than 200 participants from across the university and the country. We’ve been thrilled to learn of the various ways that LS strategies have been translated into various UI units, community organizations, and a wide variety of classrooms as a result.
I was looking for new things that I could bring to my team. I had to be invited to the LS workshops. I was really excited to get to be a participant, to be frank. I was pleasantly surprised by the facilitators and the way the workshops were structured, mostly because it was all about application…take a piece and apply it immediately into something really purposeful.… The principles [of Liberating Structures] are really rooted in this element of how to include more individuals in a way that they are both part of the process and moving toward something.
—Bria Marcelo reflects on learning and using Liberating Structures
Invite a Guest to Class: Mini-Grants
Stepping outside our usual role of research incubator, Obermann offered one-time small grants of $150 to anyone teaching a UI undergraduate or graduate course that could benefit from the addition of an outside expert. We were so impressed by the range of speakers that these grants helped share with UI students—38 total, over both fall and spring semesters. Meeting with students in the College of Education was Chris Luzniak, an LA-based high school math teacher. Marisa Miakonda Cummings, President and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, presented to students in the School of Social Work’s Discrimination, Oppression, and Diversity class. And Eric Blackmon, who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder and now works with the MacArthur Justice Center, met with College of Law students.
About Blackmon’s visit, one student wrote: “It goes without saying that his story is inspiring—it would inspire anybody, whether they were a law student or not. But because I am a law student, being trained for a career where my professional actions, inactions, attention, or inattention will so intimately affect others’ lives, hearing from people with experiences like Mr. Blackmon’s is actually an integral part of my education.”
In November, we hosted a book talk with Rhondda Robinson Thomas, author of the most recent book in the Obermann-sponsored Humanities and Public Life book series. Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black Experience in an American University Community is Thomas’s account of her public history project that helped convince Clemson University, which sits on the land of a former plantation, to reexamine and reconceptualize its complete and complex story from the origins of its land as Cherokee territory to its transformation into an increasingly diverse higher-education institution in the twenty-first century. Thomas, a professor of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American literature at Clemson, was joined by Hilary Green, director of the Hallowed Grounds Project: Race, Slavery, and Memory and professor of History and Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. They were joined by three collaborators from the Call My Name project: Eric Young, a descendant of Thomas and Frances Fruster, enslaved persons who labored on the Fort Hill Plantation; Thomas Marshall, Clemson alumnus and Educational Policy Fellow of Color at the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio; and Monica Williams-Hudgens, a community organizer and scholar of domestic violence and the granddaughter of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. More than a hundred attendees watched the live-streamed conversation.
Call My Name, Clemson is the fifth book in the Humanities and Public Life Series, of which Teresa Mangum, director of the Obermann Center, is co-editor with Annie Valk, Professor in the Department of History and Director of the Center for Media and Learning/American Social History Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY. A partnership with the University of Iowa Press, the series aims to create a collection of excellent books that document the exciting publicly engaged projects in which artists and humanities scholars, especially in college and university settings, are working with community partners and cultural institutions to produce new knowledge while also contributing to the public good. Series books describe various forms of the humanities in practice and help illuminate how a project or projects challenge and potentially expand both public and academic audiences’ assumptions about the humanities.
Graphic Histories: A Conversation with Rachel Williams, Karlos Hill, & Julian Chambliss
Last year saw the publication of two books by Rachel Williams (GWSS and Art & Art History, CLAS) that she had worked on as an Obermann Fellow-in-Residence: Run Home If You Don’t Want to Be Killed: The Detroit Uprising of 1943 (University of North Carolina Press) and Elegy for Mary Turner (Penguin Random House). Both books were distressingly relevant to the omnipresent issues concerning the death of Black Americans at the hands of police, institutional racism, and Americans’ reaction to race-related protest and violence. We wanted to explore how the medium of the graphic history can take on these issues in ways different from a more scholarly work. At Rachel’s suggestion, we invited University of Oklahoma historian Karlos Hill to discuss his book The Murder of Emmett Till (Oxford University Press) and noted comics critic and historian Julian Chambliss (Michigan State) to discuss the strengths of this emerging medium.
Spelman-Rockefeller Community Scholar
A new theory-to-practice graduate student position was initiated in Fall 2019 in response to the needs of local schools. Peggy Schwab, a second-year master’s candidate in the UI College of Education’s School Counseling program, was competitively selected for the quarter-time position. She served as program manager for Nurturing Every Student Together Safely, or NESTS, a community collaborative initiative created in summer 2020 to address gaps in the Iowa City Community School District’s Return to Learn Plan. A group of local non-profit leaders from organizations including 4Cs, Dream City, United Action for Youth, and Open Heartland, developed NESTS in response to the needs of families who reported that their K-12 students were falling behind in their learning and social-emotional development as a result of haphazard schooling.
The Obermann Spelman Rockefeller Community Scholar position is supported via the Center’s Spelman Rockefeller funds, which are earmarked—per the original donor, Laura Spelman Rockefeller—toward research and training in “child studies” with an emphasis on interdisciplinary research. The position was also created in the spirit of the Obermann Center’s dedication to community engagement and is informed by its Humanities for the Public Good Summer Internship Program, in which UI graduate students work with local nonprofits.
Black Lives on Screen
The Obermann Center co-sponsored the Department of Cinematic Arts semester-long series Black Lives on Screen, which showcased the work of a diverse range of acclaimed African American and Black filmmakers, artists, and scholars. In particular, Center supported UI Writers’ Workshop faculty member Tracie Morris‘s Black Spring (in Five Parts), a short filmic work with voiceover. Premiered on May 6, nearly a year after the murder of George Floyd, Morris said of the work, “This is my first performative foray since that event. When this commission came up, I saw it as a chance to say something helpful. And it has a different texture now since the jury’s decision.”