In Partnership: A Course Re-envisioned with the Northwest African American Museum

Ralina Joseph -

Ralina Joseph (Communication) received a Certificate in Public Scholarship (CPS) course development grant from the Simpson Center this year, to explore the possibilities for further project-based collaboration between her Black Cultural Studies classes and the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). Together with CPS graduate fellows Maurice Dolbery (Education) and Melanie Hernandez (English), and NAAM staff members Chieko Phillips, Leilani Lewis, and deputy director Brian Carter, she’ll be laying the foundations for a sustainable partnership between NAAM and the graduate and undergraduate sections of this course. She teaches the undergraduate class every Winter, and the graduate level course is taught in alternating years.

The Certificate in Public Scholarship is piloting course development grants to promote opportunities for its graduate fellows and faculty to collaborate with each other and with partner organizations. The Certificate currently enrolls 26 graduate students and draws on an advising network of 40 faculty across the humanities, social sciences, and professional schools. Joseph’s course development intends to create pathways for CPS graduate students and others to partner with NAAM through a community-based learning version of her graduate COM 563 course, and also as service-learning teaching mentors for the undergraduate version, COM 489.

“Black Cultural Studies is ideally suited for public scholarship,” says Joseph. “When I became a mentor in the Simpson Center’s Certificate in Public Scholarship program, I also began to expand my own public scholarship work in my classes. NAAM is a tremendous resource, regionally and nationally—it houses permanent exhibits like The Journey Gallery, a treasure-trove of narratives, photographs, and artifacts from African American communities of the Pacific Northwest. Yet few UW students know this. This past year I tied two Black Cultural Studies class assignments to NAAM engagement activities, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels: students’ responses showed that they wanted more opportunities to work with the museum.”

With guidance from the CPS fellows and NAAM staff, Joseph is designing her Winter 2013 undergraduate Black Cultural Studies class around project-based collaborations with NAAM. Students will be working on projects in the museum’s curatorial and education departments, as well as with community outreach and marketing efforts. As students investigate salient theories and topics in black studies, they will also see scholarship in action by engaging with the museum in one of four groups:

An internal service group, likely to interest communication students studying marketing and public relations, will help publicize museum events to community members. Another group will help develop education story trunks that present lessons on Jacob Lawrence and James Washington Jr. to students at Thurgood Marshall elementary school, adjacent to NAAM. A third group, for those that aspiring to graduate school, will conduct research modules for the museum. An outreach group will work on creating UW installations for NAAM traveling exhibitions, including Checking our Pulse, which addresses health disparities and education.

Phillips, curatorial assistant at NAAM, has been working closely with Joseph on this project. She hopes that students will gain practical application skills through their experience working with the museum. “It can be a challenge to translate the knowledge used to analyze cultural representations into the skills needed to create them, but the only way to influence the representations you see is to be a part of the creation process,” she says. “For these students, that can start at NAAM.”

Students will write weekly papers where they will connect their readings in Black Cultural Studies with their group’s activities at NAAM, and will be asked to read NAAM artifacts through a Black Cultural Studies lens for their final digital essays. NAAM hopes to be able to display this work once the class concludes.

This year NAAM will also be hosting an exhibition on the life and legacy of James Baldwin. Entitled Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey, the exhibition features the photographs of Sedat Pakay, a friend and artistic collaborator of Baldwin, which provide an intimate perspective on a highly public figure in America’s struggles for racial justice. The exhibition receives a preview on-campus, Monday, October 22, 7:00 pm, HUB 332, and will show at October 20, 2012-September 29, 2013, accompanied by a speaker series.