Last year, St. John’s University celebrated New York’s African-American history and the diversity of Staten Island with “Sandy Ground at St. John’s: Faces of the Underground Railroad,” a public humanities and educational outreach program which brings the community into the history of the first free black community in New York State. Funded by a HNY Action grant, the installation, series of four public lectures, and K-12 school visits engaged audiences in the past, present, and future of the borough’s black communities. Read more about the program here.
HNY: How did you put the Sandy Ground project together?
Robert: I am a professor of African-American studies, and my classes had done research projects at the Sandy Ground Historical Society. But I learned from my long career in community organizing and civic work some lessons about how to turn scholarship into something more. First, I learned that listening is paramount. Second, that everyone has a share in what you are doing, especially if that involves the humanities. Arts, culture and history are a fundamentally democratic media that allow experts and non-experts to work alongside each other So that’s what started this project. I listened to my partner, Sylvia D’Allessandro, the Executive Director of Sandy Ground Historical Society, about her ambitions for the exhibit. I listened to Staten Islanders’ experiences and desires for what they wanted from social justice and black history. From listening, I was able to find that whatever people were experiencing today had deep resonance with the scholarship I knew—the story of African American life in the United States and particularly the story of Staten Island’s Sandy Ground. So when I started curating the public lectures, I wanted to create this feedback loop. One program, called “Liberia/America: Shared Stories” featured a distinguished literary scholar presenting his research on the emigration of free African-Americans to Liberia in the 19th century but it also became an active dialogue with the leaders of Staten Island’s Liberian community, the largest in North America. Liberians started arriving in large numbers here after the 1980s civil war, so past and present came together for one night, complete with dancing. That was only possible because I took seriously what community members were telling me about my project and area of expertise.
HNY: In addition to the panel discussions, what were the other components that made it successful?
Robert: I tried to make sure that every program had an afterlife. I made sure to invite teachers so we could schedule a high school visit in return. In the example of the Liberian-themed program, the lecture wasn’t supposed to airdrop a bunch of information on a non-Liberian community; it was supposed to open the door to further collaboration, and it has. We are now pursuing educational partnerships with our Liberian neighbors, planning lectures, musical programs, and student exchanges. The other example I would give is the finale program, which featured Tia Powell Harris, Executive Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. Preserving Brooklyn’s black history had been a key part of neighborhood community development since the 1960s, and we built the program around the same challenges in Staten Island. I wanted the finale program to inspire Staten Islanders to see the possibilities for their black history, particularly with the North Shore of Staten Island on the verge of redevelopment, and that’s what has happened. I’m now working with panelists from that finale program on arts and educational programs that continue what we started.
As I look back now, community organizing was great experience for building a public humanities program. You realize what your talents are and your resources are and you don’t discriminate. Maybe you don’t have the million dollar museum and the million dollar archive, but maybe you have culture spread out among smaller groups. You can stitch together what you have, and I found that we had a ton of cultural resources right in our neighborhood that just needed a stage and a project.
HNY: How do you see your mission at the university?
Robert: It’s an interesting story. The Sandy Ground project might have started with my classes but it really grew out of my interest in making the humanities more important to communities and citizens. That commitment came from my decades of involvement, over 30 years now, in civic activism in NYC. As a dissertation student way back when, I participated in research projects with the Municipal Arts Society in the South Bronx and had been active in civic issues in my neighborhood. I even became chair of my local community board of the northwest Bronx. I continue to serve on arts and environmental organization boards. To my surprise and delight, as most of this work involves art, design, and humanities scholarship. Believe me, it draws on every ounce of my scholarly training.
The humanities became more even important to me through this new evolving paradigm that is changing in the way universities interact with their neighborhoods. They help to bridge the gap between communities and universities, which is a very important thing for both. As a faculty member, I had developed a full portfolio of teaching projects that utilized campus community partnerships; some of them involved urban planning and design while others involved food studies and urban farming. But I realized I didn’t want these to be seen as faculty pet projects–like when you read about that cool guy who is doing this neat stuff with students and then gets grants and goes off and you say, good for him. What good does that do? I wanted to see how far I could apply the humanities as a business plan and strategy within the university. So from my experience, I developed a vision for campus community partnerships that made Staten Island and its underserved neighborhoods part of our learning and mission. St. John’s is a Catholic university with a social justice mission so it was a good fit.
HNY: That turned into your title, Director of Civic Engagement?
Robert: Yes. I had been tasked with leading larger-scale educational outreach initiatives focused on college readiness in Staten Island high schools, but my goals for that position evolved out directly from my humanities scholarship. We needed to be more intentional and structural about how the university interacted with communities. We had to show the relevance of academic life within the locality where we did business. I think it would be unfair to the public not to do that. So with the Vice Provost James O’Keefe, we created that position and together implemented a distinctive civic engagement strategy for the campus.
I knew that St. John’s had to make that mark in Staten Island, and to succeed, it needed support of the civic community. For our part, we really believed in the teaching, learning, and research opportunities on Staten Island that would make a St. John’s education distinctive and special. The Sandy Ground project brought us together on a consistent and workable basis, and helped to crystallize what we were doing. That fact that our civic engagement was underwritten by this grant really sent a message about the value of the humanities, especially when universities are looking for constructive ways to demonstrate their contribution to society. I laugh, and cry, when I hear that we must save the humanities because it’s really the humanities that save us.
HNY: A lot of what the humanities bring to the table are the intangible things that make peoples’ lives matter. How have you conveyed that when you talk to community organizations?
Robert: One of things I like to say is that in universities we take the torrent, the Niagara falls of the humanities, and tend to stop it up into little rivulets called teaching degrees or a fine arts degree or web designer certification…
Robert: Yes. It’s a terrible mistake that really sells short the collective impact of the humanities across the public and private sectors. There is no part of our economy, no business, that is not touched by the humanities and it is a mistake to try to aggregate that expertise into the all-important index of the number of English or History or Art majors. I really fight against that because then we can’t take credit for the amount of humanities-trained folks within government, just to name one unlikely job sector. One of the stories I like to tell is that when I was a community board chair, I had oversight of a four billion dollar water filtration plant in the Bronx but when I had to do an audit of all that spending, I spoke to historians – crucial decision-makers who were able to justify costs and construction over time and explain engineering terms in plain English. My experience has shown me that there is a terrible disconnect between the way that universities measure the impact of the humanities and the way that communities are actually feeling the impact of humanities because universities are fixated by majors. In actuality, humanities credits are being spread through environmental degrees, sustainability degrees, social justice degrees, and public policy degrees. All of these degrees are interdisciplinary, not traditionally defined or tagged as humanities per se, but there is a definite through line of applied humanities scholarship to them all. One of the things that hurts me is when you follow up with a graduate of a humanities program and ask what are you doing with your degree? And they say sheepishly that they are researching an investment portfolio, and you say, “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s amazing because you’re clearly doing a better job than anyone else with your humanities training!”
Of course we have to create new employment opportunities for humanities grads but we should also colonize more of the jobs that grads already have and plant our flags so we can see the impact that the humanities actually have within the non-traditional workforce. In a very small way, that’s what I wanted to accomplish with my opportunities at St. John’s and the Sandy Ground project. No one who develops business strategies or strategic plans for institutions or universities says, let’s ask an English professor about his African-American scholarship. You would bring in consultants, and master planners—the experts. But a scholar who believed that deep down everyone truly loves literature and history and the humanities especially as applied to their own community might be the one to say that the plan to reconnect the university to our community and local schools is staring us in the face. It’s funny. STEM and big data are our lingua franca. But time and time again I’ve found that answers to what institutions, organizations, or communities really need come from the humanities, or from people who learn things from the humanities.
That’s an important takeaway for me from the Sandy Ground project. Black history, and in particular Sandy Ground’s history, could be our center of gravity. It pulled our own offices within the university together and brought the community closer to us. Yes, there are gentrification issues in New York City that are dividing communities even as we speak. There are educational disparities; there are racial inequality and economic opportunity issues. You could get pulled in a million directions. But the thing everyone cherished was our black history. That was the touchstone. It’s been the most heartening thing for me working in this area, which is only about a half mile from the site of Eric Garner’s death. People from every background saw that a working knowledge of the humanities was really key to addressing social and public policy problems. That continues to be a revelation to me. Every day the humanities are called upon to build civic life, they becomes more integral to our lives and more needed than ever.
We should look at the humanities as project-based, always with a purpose. The more that people in universities feel that way, the more that community organizations will feel that way, and then there will be partners who can work together. The humanities then can be another way of collaboratively working together to better our society.
HNY: How important is involving local government for projects?
Robert: Essential. City governments are much more receptive to the role of arts because they know they can measure economic development and small business growth through arts and cultural programming. There isn’t a business district or plan in New York City that hasn’t leveraged the role of arts. So the challenge for universities is to catch up with the local public sphere. Finding neighborhood projects which show the humanities at work will draw more people to humanities classes and programs as a way of job training and leadership preparation in whatever sector they choose to work in.
HNY: What was the role of local government in the Sandy Ground project?
Robert: Many elected officials support Sandy Ground Historical Society so by definition, they were partners. I constantly called their offices and made sure they knew about the events. I wanted them to know that this program was for their constituents, that we had a shared interest. Our local councilperson took a special interest. By the end of the lecture series, she had started a petition vote to name the next Staten Island Ferry after Sandy Ground, and she was successful.
I really think that the humanities should be like roads and schools; they should be part of people’s civic experience and every local official should be responsible for them. A lot of elected officials do give money to cultural institutions, so public humanities programs give them a chance to appear and stand up for the institutions they support. We could all benefit from looking at how elected officials fund their smaller local institutions. It was really essential for them to see the return on their investment. At every event, they had the chance to stand up and explain for themselves why they felt that the humanities were essential to civic life. Everybody needs a chance to speak from their humanities heart. Local officials are always grateful for that chance but really they are the ones doing us a favor. We have a Sandy Ground ferry now.
HNY: Why do the humanities matter?
Robert: The humanities are the common language that we have forgotten to speak together. It provides a number of different dialects for people to speak to one another. Sometimes it’s dance, sometimes it’s lecture and discussion, other times it’s family genealogy and digital humanities. The medium of the humanities is so varied, it serves as the universal language that everyone has a piece of. For this project I tried to make use of local history and community partnerships to present the humanities as our common work.
Interview conducted by Nicholas MacDonald, Humanities New York
Special thanks to the Collection of Historic Richmond Town for the photo of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hicks of Sandy Ground, ca. 1893
Robert Fanuzzi, Ph. D. is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and Director of Civic Engagement for the St. John’s University Staten Island campus. He develops research initiatives and academic programs in partnership with high schools, non-profit community organizations, local government, connecting St. John’s University to its community. He serves as St. John’s University lead in the borough-wide college-readiness initiative, 30000 Degrees: College Readiness for a Stronger Staten Island.