Category Archives: Scholar-Activist of the Month

Scholar-Activist of the Month: Catherine Fosl

Cate with Anne pic 2016
Cate Fosl at the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, sorting materials for an exhibit and framed by a photograph of activist namesake Anne Braden.

Catherine Fosl, Ph.D.

Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director, Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research

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.

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Cate Fosl with two graduate student assistants, Kelly Weaver (L) and Nia Holt, staffing a booth with children’s activities at a Spring 2017 street fair sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Youth Violence Prevention Research Center. Kids were invited to make Nobel peace prize badges explaining what they would do to make the world a better place.

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.

Lexington History Harvest
January 2016, Lexington KY:  one of several “history harvest” sessions in which LGBTQ Kentuckians convened to reflect on community histories and to contribute archival documents. Cate Fosl is speaking at rear of photo, with Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman at right.

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).

Adding Fuel to the Right Fires

JuravichToday we are initiating our Scholar-Activist of the Month series. Nick Juravich, defended his dissertation in U.S. History at Columbia University on Monday, and in September he will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society. Nick offers this reflection on the relationship between scholarship and activism.

I was honored and somewhat surprised when The Metropole asked me to contribute to their new “scholar-activist” feature, as I don’t think of myself as a particularly good activist. (My first thought, upon getting this request, was “all of the best scholar-activists must be out organizing people”). I do, however, think that scholars in general, and urban historians in particular, can and should contribute to movements for justice and equality. I believe, in fact, that we have an obligation to seek out ways to do this, particularly if our own research involves the study of activists and organizers as historical actors (as my own work does).

That said, activism is a broad and ill-defined term. In trying to make sense of the range of possible intersections of scholarship and activism, I’ve come to distinguish between activism as a vocation, activism within the academy, and scholarship as activism, while still recognizing that all of this work is connected. As a graduate student, I’ve been lucky to have great mentors, colleagues, and comrades who’ve modeled scholar-activism and who’ve pulled me into projects that have shaped my own thinking and practice. In what follows, I want to sketch out a range of possibilities for scholar-activism, and chart my own trajectory toward activism rooted in particular places and collaborative practices.

When I think of “activism,” the first thing that comes to my mind are the full-time activists and organizers I know who work in the labor movement, the environmental movement, and the like. I worked with friends to oppose the Iraq war and challenge on-campus labor practices in college who then went on to careers as organizers. When it comes to getting out into the streets today, I follow their lead, because they’re in the trenches every day and know a lot more than I do about how and where to apply pressure. Many scholars are, of course, themselves effective leaders in broader movements – I think here of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, or scholars who have worked extensively in and for the prison abolition movement – and I look forward to reading about their work on The Metropole down the line.

Scholar-activism also has an important role to play in making Universities live up to their putative ideals. Since this is a new blog of the Urban History Association, it seems appropriate here to cite the example of both the UHA’s Nathan Connolly and the bloggers at Black Perspectives (co-edited by Keisha Blain and Ibram X. Kendi), whose leadership in challenging institutional racism in the academy should inspire us all. On my home campus at Columbia, students have led many campaigns in the time that I’ve been here, from May Day gatherings to support the Occupy Movement to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and, most recently, our campaign to organize a Graduate Students’ Union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (UAW 2110). I haven’t been a lead organizer on any of these, but I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people as we’ve tried to make Columbia a more democratic and accountable place for its students and workers. Working on my dissertation, has, in fact, pushed me to be more involved in our unionization campaign. More specifically, the longtime union organizers who I’ve interviewed for the project are savvy folks who keep up on the labor movement, and they have pushed me to get involved. As one ninety-three-year old teacher unionist wrote when she read about the campaign, “I hope you are involved. If you are, right on!” As they understand it, I can’t study activism without doing at least some organizing myself. That’s a strong push to action.

Most of my activism as a graduate student, if it is fair to call it that, has primarily been doing what I like doing most and know how to do best: history. It’s something of a truism, at least since the rise of the new social history half a century ago, that historical study can itself be a powerful means of challenging the status quo (or, as Herbert Gutman put it, “revealing the contingency of the settled order”). The challenge is finding ways to connect historical studies to particular movements and publics in ways that are responsible, relevant, and accountable to people beyond the academy. It’s not enough just to write a great academic monograph about a movement (though we should, absolutely, do that). We have to challenge ourselves to work with people as producers and interpreters of history, not just in the bounded space of an interview that becomes raw material for our articles, but in every context and space where history matters.

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Educating Harlem

I’ve learned a lot by watching great mentors whose own work has been an inspiration to me, from undergraduate advisors including George Chauncey and Susan Gzesh at Chicago to Mae Ngai, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Samuel Roberts at Columbia. As a doctoral student, my scholar-activism began in earnest when I joined two projects: the Educating Harlem project at Teachers College, directed by Ansley Erickson and Ernest Morrell, and the South El Monte Arts Posse’s “East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte,” directed by Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza. These are very different projects in terms of their origins and positions in relation to the University, but they share a set of commitments that have taught me a lot. In both cases, we are building open-access digital archives of documents, photos and oral histories, and we are circulating them on social media to build a wide audience that “talks back” (in Claire Bond Potter’s formulation). Even as we make use of digital tools, both projects are also rooted in particular urban places, and we host local events that bring scholars, activists, and community members together. This forces scholars to put aside our “expertise” and hear from people who’ve shared their histories with us, and it challenges us to learn from them whether our interpretations ring true. Finally, each project has engaged local youth as historians, generating narratives and ideas with them and contributing material to high school history curriculum that challenges popular narratives of Harlem and the San Gabriel Valley. These three strategies reinforce each other. Building digital, accessible archives helps us connect them to particular people and places. Making these connections helps us generate new questions, content, and perspectives. Working with youth helps us build the next generation of these archives and create new narratives from them. These aren’t the only ways to turn scholarship to the service of activism, but they’ve all inspired me.

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Leading an oral history workshop with high school students, January 2015

My own dissertation is a study of community-based educators – people we know today as “paraprofessionals” or “teacher aides” – in public schools, freedom struggles and the labor movement from the 1960s through the 1980s. I worked alongside “paras” as a student teacher in Chicago and an after-school educator in New York City, where their labor proved vital, but was often invisible. While the folks I’ve interviewed for the project are nearly all retired today, they keep in close contact with people working in these jobs now, and they’ve pushed me to do the same

As I’ve come into these spaces – workshops and professional development sessions for paraprofessional educators in New York City – I’ve tried to deploy strategies I’ve learned from Educating Harlem and SEMAP. After some trial and error, I now try to walk in not as an expert bringing history to non-historians, but as a fellow educator with shared commitments. When I started out, I’d bring long presentations; now, I’ll bring a few documents, and use them to start a discussion, which opens up space for the folks who do this work now to connect past and present. These educators make use and sense of this history in ways that serve their work in the here and now, and listening to them do so informs my own research questions and practice as I study the evolution of programs and movements for community-based education in an earlier era.

I’ve also tried to create and contribute to digital projects that live in the world far beyond my own academic writing. I contributed research and commentary to the AFT’s 100th Anniversary Documentary, and I put together a blog post and lesson plan for the “Teacher/Public Sector” initiative of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. This last one has come back to me in unexpected but exciting ways; last fall, I got a call from a union organizer who was fighting for a contract for paraprofessional educators and was using a Bayard Rustin editorial that I had linked in the post. We had a long conversation, I sent her more materials, and they used them in the next phase of their campaign. It felt like a good way to honor the organizing efforts of fifty years ago that my interviewees had shared with me.

In doing all of this, I think of something Colin Prescod, a Black British scholar-activist, told me years ago, quoting his own mentor, A. Sivanandan: “We are not at the front. We are putting gas in the tanks of the trucks that are going to the front.” I’m not a full-time activist, and I can’t and shouldn’t speak for those who are. As scholar-activists, however, if historians can add some fuel to the right fires, I think we’re contributing.