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Salem State University Receives $3 Million Grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Establish National University Network for Digital Ethnic Studies

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $3 million grant to Salem State University in an effort to ensure that the voices and stories of underrepresented populations are heard in an increasingly digital world.

The grant allows for the creation of the Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium (DEFCon), a national network of regional public universities that traditionally serve underrepresented student populations. The consortium will support these institutions in creating digital humanities courses that public institutions often lack. These courses will prepare students to communicate with multiple audiences through digital exhibits, data visualization and digital archives. Participating universities will specifically work to develop programming in digital ethnic studies, which uses data visualization to highlight the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

DEFCon will be led by Roopika Risam, PhD, of Salem State University, where she serves as chair of secondary and higher education, professor of English and higher education, faculty fellow for Digital Library Initiatives, and coordinator of the graduate certificate in Digital Studies. Partner institutions include New Jersey City University (NJCU), Texas Southern University and California State University, Fullerton.

“The Mellon Foundation’s landmark support comes at an opportune time—and for this, we are so grateful,” said Risam. “The way we understand our past, present, and future will be greatly influenced by who is doing the storytelling, and that increasingly comes down to who is prepared to use these digital tools effectively. While many private universities have digital humanities courses, recent research shows that less than a quarter of public universities offer these opportunities despite high interest on campus. In a digital world, we are risking a deepening divide when it comes to the stories we hear and who is telling them.”

In addition to preparing underrepresented student populations to communicate through a variety of digital tools, digital ethnic studies programs are designed to turn public attention to issues such as anti-Black racism, settler-colonialism, and xenophobia.

Risam continued, “Digital ethnic studies scholars can mobilize public engagement on these issues by collaborating with community partners, attracting minoritized students to humanities disciplines, and preparing students to combat injustice and steward the humanities beyond universities.”

Over the next three years, DEFCon’s national consortium will work to build digital ethnic studies programs, develop and share models for embedding digital ethnic studies programs into other universities, and regrant funds to 85 digital ethnic studies faculty members across the country. DEFCon will focus on Hispanic Serving Institutions, Minority Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and other institutions of higher education that are close to receiving such a designation.

According to Phillip Brian Harper, program director of the Mellon Foundation’s Higher Learning area, “The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation champions inclusive humanities education. We are honored to help Salem State University and its partners deepen equity in higher learning. DEFCon will elevate the scholarship and stories of historically underrepresented students through the innovative use of computational technologies, platforms, and new media.”

In leading DEFCon, Risam will be joined by co-principal investigators that include: Keja Valens, PhD, professor of English at Salem State University; Sonya Donaldson, PhD, professor of English at New Jersey City University; Toniesha Taylor, PhD, chair and professor of communication at Texas Southern University; and Jamila Moore Pewu, PhD, professor of digital humanities and new media at California State University ,Fullerton.

“Professor Risam is widely recognized for her leadership in advancing racial equity and social justice through digital scholarship,” said Salem State University President John D. Keenan. “We are extraordinarily grateful to the Mellon Foundation for its generous commitment, which reflects the core attributes that define a Salem State education: engagement, inclusion, and the importance of the liberal arts. This investment in digital ethnic studies allows Professor Risam to further the impact of her talent and vision, along with the expertise of her colleague at Salem State, Professor Keja Valens, and their partners across the country.” 

DEFCon’s multifaceted activities will include convening the DEFCon Steering Committee, a virtual annual meeting, and virtual speaker series; establishing its governance and business model; facilitating a regranting program to support course and curriculum development at regional comprehensive universities that are not yet part of DEFCon; and providing sub-awards to the three collaborating universities to support the development of coursework, research fellowships for students and professional development for faculty.  

Sue Henderson, PhD, president of New Jersey City University (NJCU) said, “We are appreciative of the opportunities this grant will provide and are eager to partner with similar regional comprehensive universities as part of the Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium to expand the fields of digital humanities and digital ethnic studies. NJCU is committed to providing our students with culturally relevant, experiential learning experiences that align with our mission of providing a diverse population with an excellent education. This prestigious grant will help NJCU continue to transform the lives of those students we serve.” 

Lesia L. Crumpton-Young, PhD, president of Texas Southern University said, “Texas Southern University is proud to be included in such an innovative consortium that is paving the way for the fields of digital humanities and digital ethnic studies. The university has and continues to be at the forefront of transformative moments in history.” 

Jamila Moore Pewu, PhD, assistant professor of history specializing in digital humanities and new media in history at California State University, Fullerton said, “This award is a gamechanger for us. As part of the Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium, we will develop more sustainable digital humanities projects, fellowships, curriculum, and campus infrastructure that centers our largely minority and largely first-generation student populations and the communities they call home. The consortium offers us a more effective way to accomplish this because it allows us to explore capacity-building models that reflect our unique strengths and potential challenges as a regional comprehensive institution. Also, the consortium’s multi-institutional structure automatically places us as teachers and scholars invested in the intersections between ethnic studies, digital practice and community engagement into a productive space where we can share our experiences and grow alongside one another, thereby creating a much-needed DEFCon community within the larger field of digital humanities.”

This grant marks the second time that the Mellon Foundation has supported a digital humanities effort led by Risam. Last year, the newly launched journal Reviews in Digital Humanities, which Risam is piloting with fellow editor Jennifer Guiliano, PhD, associate professor of history at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), received a $66,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to support its growth as the only publication dedicated to peer-reviewing digital scholarship.

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