Raised by the Rust Belt: The Power of Emplaced Humanities

By Katharine G. Trostel and Valentino L. Zullo

The work of the Rust Belt Humanities Institute at Ursuline College is rooted in imagining and co-creating new futures. As two native Clevelanders (raised by the Rust Belt) teaching at a local institution—the majority of our students are firmly anchored in the greater Cleveland region—we occupy a unique position: we live in, work in, think about, grew up in, and invest in our collective community.

Our students remain here too, for the most part, after graduation. And yet, when asked about the region in which they live, they self-define their home first and foremost as a place to leave. As a word cloud generated in one of our English classes in the fall of 2021 revealed, the Rust Belt was both a place they called home but also a label associated with words like “abandoned”; “bad”; and “condemned.” It was clear to us, as educators and believers in the power of the humanities lenses, that we needed to center our teaching practices in place by embedding them in the physical site of Cleveland and the Rust Belt—forging new paths forward and re-envisioning space in ways that were both hopeful and future oriented.

The term Rust Belt can be difficult to define; what do we mean when we say “The Rust Belt”? What territory does the region encompass? In fact, our community partner Belt magazine went so far as to publish an article in 2013 entitled, “Where is the Rust Belt?”—eventually landing on the definition: “any city in the northern Midwest that was built on late 19th/early 20th century manufacturing.”

We continued the experiment on our institute’s webpage, generating an interactive map that polled visitors: “Which states contain the Rust Belt?” While we are far from reaching a consensus about which states belong in the region, one thing is clear: Ohio is at the heart of it all. Of all individuals who submitted responses, 96 percent agreed that our state firmly anchors the region. Cleveland serves as a lab—standing in as the prototypical Rust Belt city—and allows our students to think through a region that has been largely overlooked and neglected in the national sphere. We uplift their voices and push them to see value and meaning in a regional identity that has long been disparaged.

“But most centrally, Rust Belt Chic is about home, or that perpetual inner fire longing to be comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s community. This longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through history. The best revitalization efforts occur by bringing the past into the present—or by seeing what was there, understanding how it failed, and then integrating mistakes into a plan for the future. This is how individuals revitalize broken lives. It is a way for communities to revitalize broken cities, too.” [1]

The Cleveland Anthology (2014)

First and foremost, the work of our institute is the work of crafting new narratives—creating an identity from the ground up, defining for ourselves what it means to be from the Rust Belt. Our mission statement best defines this project:

For too long, the narrative of the Rust Belt has been one of emptiness, decay, decline, and vacancy—and often our stories are neglected in the national sphere or controlled by cultural outsiders. Through the act of storytelling, we’ll pull the Rust Belt into the dynamic present. This seminar will emphasize the power of regionally-based storytelling and the importance of uplifting local voices. The faculty working group will think collectively about what it means to read, teach, and think from a rooted positionality.

How do we leverage civically and publicly engaged humanities practices to equip our students to shape the future of the Rust Belt, identify and contribute to social solutions, and to reimagine the role of the humanities within this sphere? How do we read, interpret, and create the texts that define and map our regional experience?

We aim for this to be the start of a larger effort to create a Rust Belt humanities hub—the only of its kind—telling our stories and imagining solutions from within this region, a metonym for the interconnected issues of class, race, justice, and education facing this country. Because so much of the United States’ problems and promise converge on the Rust Belt, our work can be a model for ways to use the humanities to find new solutions, tell better stories, and empower our students to imagine themselves as productive citizens within their rooted context.

To model this work, as co-directors of the institute, we will describe below what binds us to the region and the powerful pull of the narratives that drew us home.

Valentino: I was raised by the Rust Belt. I never left the region, unlike my parents who left their home countries, Iran and Italy respectively, for a new life. I grew up here and was educated here, and I return what was given to me as a teacher and social worker in the communities that formed me. When I see that many of our students at Ursuline College stay here after graduation, I recognize my own story, but I also think it’s a reflection of a service-oriented school.

When we stay as teachers, social workers, nurses, librarians, or journalists, we return to our region what we received from it with gratitude. It’s a story we might recognize as well in the figure of Superman, who was sent to Earth by his parents when their world was dying. He found a new life on our world, and though he might be the most powerful being on the planet, he continues to give back not only through feats of superhuman strength but through local journalism. He represents an ideal of investing in our local communities and honoring what we were given, making it better for the next generation to continue. That is my goal for this Rust Belt Institute: to celebrate the institutions that made me and continue to make me and give back to them.

Katie: While I did leave Cleveland, I returned, like so many others, to be close to family and to start my career at Ursuline College. A year into teaching, I discovered something new about my city—a hidden gem: The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The award was founded in 1935 by Edith Anisfield Wolf—a visionary woman and philanthropic leader—in order to recognize books that center themes of racism and diversity. Teaching at a women-focused college—an institution that for 150 years has continuously been led by women—I am inspired by Anisfield Wolf’s vision; literature can be the vehicle for social justice.

When I teach from this impressive canon—early winners included individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and Zora Neale Hurston—I think about the legacy of this luminous figure and also ask the question: “Why Cleveland?” What did Anisfield Wolf want the future inhabitants of the city to do with the award? What does it mean to read these works from within the space of Cleveland and to think through the power of language and words within its urban folds? These are some of the questions I bring to the institute—and this example illustrates for me the beauty of thinking through the Rust Belt. On the one hand, this award (and its founder) recognizes the profound inequities and injustices that shape—and continue to shape—our region. On the other hand, it embodies the hope for radical change.

While politicians call for Rust Belt dwellers to redefine themselves as inhabitants of the “Silicon Heartland,” we as educators take a step back and advocate first for the careful unpacking of the Rust Belt label before adopting yet another term imposed from the outside. Please consider joining our work and apply to be a part of our institute at www.rustbeltlab.org. Help us to create a network—a regional humanities ecosystem—invested in the powerful and transformational work of emplaced humanities methods. Let’s inspire our students to invent new Rust Belt futures. Join the conversation @RustBeltLab.

Katie Trostel is assistant professor and chair of English and Humanities at Ursuline College. She is a teacher-scholar dedicated to building the College’s capacity in the public humanities and its connection to the Rust Belt region since 2018.

Valentino L. Zullo is the Anisfield-Wolf Postdoctoral Fellow in English and Public Humanities at Ursuline College. He is the former Scholar-in-Residence at the Ohio Center for the Book, where he continues to co-lead the Get Graphic program and is the American editor of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. He is also a licensed independent social worker training to be a psychoanalyst at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center.

Featured image (at top): “Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio” (1906), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek, eds., The Cleveland Anthology, 2nd ed. (Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2014), 20.

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