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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 subawards 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. 


Salem State University 

Salem State University, established in 1854, is a comprehensive, public institution of higher learning located approximately 15 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. One of the largest state universities in the Commonwealth, Salem State enrolls about 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It offers 32 undergraduate programs and graduate programs that offer degrees in 24 fields. The university also has a continuing education division that offers both credit and non-credit programs. Known for the academic strength of its faculty, Salem State was named a Top Producer of U.S. Fulbright Scholars in 2011 and for the 2016-2017 academic year. The university is designated a Top College and University by Military Advanced Education and a Best for Vets College by Military Times. Salem State proudly participates in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement and has shown a student voting rate well above the national average, earning the university a gold seal from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.

New Jersey City University 

New Jersey City University is an institution of higher learning with an audacious goal: the development of our students, our city, our communities, our state, and the world beyond. We are a game-changing force for our students and their families. Whether our students are enrolled in one of our 50 undergraduate, 28 graduate or three doctoral programs, NJCU provides an affordable, diverse environment, and an exceptionally supportive faculty—all of which prepares them to be critical thinkers in a global landscape. 

We’re also changing the game for our city, our communities, and our state. As the educational anchor institution in Jersey City, we’ve established partnerships to ensure the area’s growth directly benefits our students and community members. We seek to improve the lives of everyone in the Garden State, whether creating a home for the arts, bringing educational programs to K-12 students, offering bachelor’s degrees in partnership with community colleges, or providing professional development opportunities for adults.  

At NJCU, we’re not just educating minds, we’re nourishing souls and lifting communities. We’re changing the game.  

Texas Southern University 

Texas Southern University (TSU) honors our designation as a special-purpose institution for urban programming and research. TSU is a comprehensive university providing higher education access to the nation’s underserved communities. TSU’s academic and research programs address critical urban issues and prepares its diverse student population to become a force for positive change in a global society. TSU offers more than 100 undergraduate and graduate programs and concentrations – bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional degrees – organized into 10 colleges and schools on a 150-acre campus nestled in the heart of Houston’s historic Third Ward. Texas Southern has been a distinguished educational pioneer since 1927, and the University has become one of the most diverse and respected institutions in Texas. TSU has positioned itself as a proactive leader in educating underserved students and many who are the first in their family to attend college.  

California State University, Fullerton 

The largest university in the CSU and the only campus in Orange County, Cal State Fullerton offers110 degree programs, and Division 1 athletics. Recognized as a national model for supporting student success, CSUF excels with innovative, high-impact educational practices, including faculty-student collaborative research, study abroad, and competitive internships. Our vibrant and diverse campus is a primary driver of workforce and economic development in the region. CSUF is a top public university known for its success in supporting first-generation and underrepresented students and preparing all students to become leaders in the global marketplace. Our It Takes a Titan campaign, a five-year $200 million comprehensive fundraising initiative, prioritizes investments in academic innovation, student empowerment, campus transformation, and community enrichment. Visit

About the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom to be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.

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