Catherine Fosl, Ph.D.
College of Arts & Sciences, University of Louisville
I entered the academy in the early 1990s after spending much of the 1980s working in journalism and community organizing. About the same time I graduated from college in 1979, I got involved in feminism and in southern peace and justice movements, so that is what inspired me to become a scholar. Nearly all of the research and writing I have done is related to some aspect of the search for social, racial, and gender justice.
What has animated and sustained me in those passions has way more to do with others’ activism than with my own, and as a young woman I found myself drawn to telling the stories of people and currents that weren’t otherwise getting told. My PhD is in history, which I got interested in through growing up in the South in the turbulent years of school desegregation and seeing the people I loved choosing what looked to me early on like the wrong side of the issue.
Today I write and teach oral history, an interest that originated with my interviewing people as a student reporter for my college newspaper in my original hometown of Atlanta. In fact I began writing history as a journalist, before I ever even heard of historiography.
For most of us who care deeply about social justice and who work in the academy, especially from the relatively privileged position of a tenured professor, thinking of oneself as an “activist” is complicated and does not feel quite right. As a scholar of social movements, I have chronicled people who made profound contributions to social change. I have also participated in some of those movements but only as one of many and in episodic, extremely modest ways.
I rarely call myself a scholar-activist, but I suppose that is mostly how others see me, particularly in the 11 years since I became founding director of a social justice research institute at the university where I teach. The Anne Braden Institute (ABI) is named after one of Louisville’s most committed anti-racist activists, one of six white southerners Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised as a dedicated ally in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We try to work in her tradition to bridge the gap between scholarship and action for social justice, especially in regards to racial justice and especially at the grassroots level. I had the good fortune of serving as Anne’s biographer, and that is what brought me to Louisville, Kentucky, and caused me to put down roots here and to begin to think deeply about justice and equity locally. I moved here in the midst of writing Anne’s biography, and although her activism covered the South and nation, she was an ardent lover of her native Louisville who had her finger on the pulse of virtually every local racial injustice. It was through her eyes that I began to really know this community. I also had family roots here, and the stories I had heard from my grandmother in my growing-up years were always set in this river city situated at the border of south and midwest.
Although we are a part of regional and national conversations, our work at the ABI is primarily local. It often (not always) involves a kind of public history deployed in service of illuminating contemporary inequities. With the help of a small team of student assistants, one phenomenal staffperson, and a handful of faculty pulled into various projects, we respond to requests from a variety of community partners and advisers drawn to us in part through our namesake. The result is a little bit of a lot of kinds of research and community engagement. As an oral history practitioner for more than 30 years now, I have put the method to many unconventional uses in the work of the Braden Institute. Who would have ever imagined that a fair housing action plan for metro Louisville funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could be oral history-based? Our partnership with the city’s human relations commission and a local affordable housing advocacy organization made that possible.
Another project involved partnering with several museums and the city’s visitors bureau to develop a local civil rights history tour, which now has more than 20,000 copies in circulation, along with a volunteer training guide made available to local educators and community groups. The tour introduces Louisville’s vibrant movement history and makes a start at bridging its tenacious racial divides, which are most savagely visible in its housing patterns. Right now I am working with colleagues in Public Health and in the mayor’s office on a youth violence prevention research project to develop a citywide social media campaign that challenges negative messaging aimed at African American youth in part by including positive accounts of their own community histories.
My work has a distinctly urban flavor. But Louisville is the largest and most diverse city in an overwhelmingly rural, white, and poor state. So addressing the urban-rural divide is also vital, and organizations we have worked with that enact that mission through activism include, for example, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalshop, an eastern Kentucky media collective with whom I served as a humanities adviser for a documentary film about Anne Braden’s life. My most recent project was a collaborative public history project to research LGBTQ historic sites both in Louisville and across the state and then to write a statewide historic context narrative documenting Kentucky’s LGBTQ heritage. Part of a recent initiative to better preserve our nation’s LGBTQ past, that research was supported by a small grant from the National Parks Service to the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based organization for LGBTQ equality, and to Kentucky’s state historic preservation office. The project centered in part on Louisville, which was home to the state’s first gay bar, Beaux Arts, established in 1947. Documenting that site for the National Register of Historic Places was one project outcome. Yet the research was also quite a departure for me because it got me out of Louisville and traveling the state with the Fairness Campaign’s director and a team of students. To identify sites and collect archival documents and oral histories connected to still relatively hidden histories required unconventional investigative research as well as cultivating new networks of allies, often in small rural communities.
I have written three books of history, and I loved writing them. I plan to write more! But I would have to say that over the past decade, the diverse collaborations I’ve discussed here have reshaped my own research agenda substantively. Historians traditionally have not worked collectively, but nearly all of my recent projects are interdisciplinary and typically unfold as part of teams that are also interprofessional and intergenerational. I have 2 books-in-progress now. Yet my individual research pursuits do not overlap much with the local community engagement work that also absorbs me, and I cannot seem to make substantial progress on a new book because of my accountability to the more immediate presses of community-engaged collaborations. Most recently I am a co-leader in creating a Transdisciplinary Social Justice Research Consortium that crosses 7 colleges and schools at my university to support–with the help of one major internal research grant dispersed to multiple small research teams–a broader spectrum of community-engaged research aimed at addressing structural inequities.
Scholar-activist work is powerfully important. I cannot even imagine an academic career without social justice at its center, especially in the neoliberal, retrenchment climate in public universities today. But I also think any early-career scholar contemplating doing it must be mindful of the time and energy commitments relative to the rewards structures for earning tenure at their particular home institution. Anne Braden used to speak of an “other America.” She referred not to the poverty culture described by political scientist Michael Harrington but to the generations of dissenters throughout U.S. history who have worked for a more just country since the first slave ships landed here. As 2016 demonstrated, we have an awfully long way to go and we need more social justice-minded scholars to be able to stick around.
Catherine Fosl is the author of three books: Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009, co-authored with Tracy E. K’Meyer); Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (2002; republished in paper 2006; winner of Oral History Association’s 2003 book award); and Women for All Seasons: The Story of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1989). Fosl’s recent community-engaged and collaborative scholarship completed with multiple community partners includes “Kentucky Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer Historic Context Narrative 2016,” a public history project that will become available digitally in 2017; “Black Freedom White Allies, Red Scare: Louisville, 1954,” a 2016 digital history exhibit; and “Making Louisville Home for us All: A 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing (2014).