$1.5 Million Mellon Grant to Fund “Humanities for Just Communities” Initiative

Jim Tranquada Marc Campos/Occidental College

A $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will fund Occidental’s “Humanities for Just Communities” (HJC) program, a three-year collaborative teaching and community-engaged initiative that will introduce incoming and first-year students to the problem-solving power of the humanities to advance health equity, migrant justice and freedom struggles.

Beginning in fall 2022, the interdisciplinary HJC program “will expose first-years to a wide array of conceptual, methodological, epistemological and ethical tools from the humanities applicable to each year’s social justice theme and activated in their community-engaged project—an integral part of the program,” says Kristi Upson-Saia, David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor of Religious Studies and co-principal investigator.

“Ultimately, the program aims to produce social justice leaders who understand the value and power of leveraging humanistic approaches, setting students on a path to take more humanities courses,” says Alexandra Puerto, associate professor of history and co-principal investigator. “It’s a natural fit for Oxy and its mission, especially our long-standing commitment to social justice, our community-based learning opportunities, and our excellent humanities faculty and courses. We are building on existing strengths.”

Two-thirds of Oxy faculty in relevant fields have helped develop ideas for the HJC curriculum. “I wholeheartedly believe that the HJC program will have a transformational impact on Oxy students’ interest in the humanities,” says Occidental President Harry J. Elam, Jr. 

Occidental is one of 12 liberal arts colleges nationwide to receive grants totaling more than $16.1 million as part of the Mellon Foundation’s new “The Humanities for All Times” initiative. The dozen schools—which include Colorado College, Macalester, Skidmore and Wesleyan—were selected from a field of 76 applicants.

“The Humanities for All Times initiative underscores that it's not only critical to show students that the humanities improve the quality of their everyday lives, but also that they are a crucial tool in efforts to bring about meaningful progressive change in the world,” said Phillip Brian Harper, Mellon Foundation higher learning program director.

“We are thrilled to support this work at liberal arts colleges across the country, given their unequivocal commitment to humanities-based knowledge, and their close ties to the local communities in which such knowledge can be put to immediate productive use, we know that these schools are perfectly positioned to take on this important work.”

Mellon’s initiative seeks to address the decline in undergraduate humanities degree recipients and the rising undergraduate interest in social justice issues. At Occidental, the fate of the humanities has been mixed, with some programs experiencing a marginal drop in majors and enrollments and others seeing significant increases.

Occidental’s approach is a data-based one: on average, Oxy students take 67 percent more humanities courses if they take a class in the humanities during their first semester. “Our curriculum aims to attract students into humanities courses early, at a time when they are becoming aware of their curricular options, and when there is still sufficient time to take more electives or even choose a humanities major or minor,” says Upson-Saia. “And as we increase the number of students in the humanities, we also intend to increase the diversity of students in the humanities,” Puerto adds.

Each year’s program will be built around a specific social justice theme. This fall the theme will be “Health, Illness and Dignity,” followed by “Migration, Displacement and Cultural Resistance” in 2023 and “Protest, Abolition and Freedom” in 2024. For this fall, philosophy, religious studies, history, media arts and culture, music, theater, and English faculty will contribute HJC courses built around the health theme.

Every HJC course will ask students to engage in a project that makes a substantive intervention in the year’s social justice theme. Many of these projects will be designed in collaboration with a community partner and supported  by the Center for Community Based Learning.

Each year’s HJC program will culminate with a paid 10-week, full-time residential research experience for approximately 15 rising sophomores. Students underrepresented in the humanities, including first-generation college students, will be strongly encouraged to apply. The research fellows will present results of their research at an annual Summer Humanities Conference.

In addition, a celebratory two-day spring showcase event open to the entire community will feature the projects of students in HJC courses during the regular academic year. 

Incoming students will be able to enter the program the summer prior to their first semester through one of two programs. The first is the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI), one of Oxy’s signature programs, a four-week residential and writing-intensive experience for up to 40 incoming students from underrepresented backgrounds. MSI’s curriculum will be aligned with the annual social justice themes. All incoming students not enrolled in the MSI program will be able to enroll in a 1-unit HJC virtual summer course that will serve as an introduction to the year’s social justice theme and a teaser to fall offerings.

“Over the course of three years, we expect that the HJC curriculum will enroll over 500 students, involve at least two-thirds of the humanities faculty, and engage hundreds more Oxy students and community members through the Spring Showcase and the Summer Humanities Conference,” says Puerto.