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Scholarship and Art as Sites of Belonging

By Imagining America | September 14, 2017

By Yesenia Navarrete Hunter, a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Southern California, and a 2017-2018 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 12-14, 2017, in Davis, California.

I came to academia through someone’s bold public scholarship. At the time I met her, Martha Gonzalez was a PhD student at the University of Washington, now she is a professor at Scripps College. Dr. Gonzalez’s practice of fusing her scholarship with art and activism is an example of successful public engagement. As a mother of four young children, I was surprised to find a community place for me- where this mother could learn and practice music. Dr. Gonzalez was sharing the tradition of the fandango, and the musical tradition of son jarocho, the community music practice of Veracruz, Mexico. Through this I met other mothers engaged in scholarship and I felt inspired to use the spirit of making art and music with others for creating spaces for dialogue and building deliberate communities. A successful public scholarship creates these spaces of inclusion and inspiration.

Fingerprints and Landscapes, 1 Created by numerous individuals at the Pacific Coast Branch American Historical Association Conference, 2017 and at the Hunter Residence, 2017. Acrylics, tape, on canvas

I’ve experienced challenges in my public scholarship that have shaped the way I approach communities and spaces. My aim is to blur the distinction between audience and presenter to create an opportunity for sharing an art experience. Therefore, I typically combine a discussion with an invitation to making art or music together as a group. In one venue, the lighting and distance in the beautiful theatre made me feel like I was lecturing versus facilitating a discussion. Rather than remain on stage, I used the space in front to limit the physical distance with participants. It forced me to think more critically about how place is created through space, separation, and lighting. Another challenge I face each time I facilitate a workshop is to be aware of my own positioning and privilege. For example, when I held a plática with immigrant farmworkers, I had to place myself in context to their experience. Though I experienced being a migrant farmworker as a child, I know occupy a place of privilege as a scholar and community member. I approach these spaces respectfully, with a listening heart and as a facilitator of dialogue. I keep this at the forefront when I’m working in any communities, and especially when I am working in spaces alongside Native American women on tribal land. These experiences have shaped how I approach communities and how to best use place as a site for belonging.

I’ve been most surprised when people of different backgrounds and generations connect to my work. At one event, a grandmother who attended was hesitant to use a paintbrush because she believed she was not “artistic” and had never painted before. She gave in when her grandson invited her to paint alongside him. After he left, she invited others to join in and later expressed that she was surprised at how much she enjoyed it. At another event, a woman caught my hand after my talk. She told me she was 80 years old and remembered as a child her grandmother’s voice who had come as an immigrant from Sweden in the early 1900’s. With sentimiento in her voice that only comes from memory and nostalgia that as a little girl she felt a deep connection to her grandmother’s voice, even though she did not understand her words. It was the poetry of the rich tradition of the fandango that evoked a memory of her grandmother’s voice. But, I’ve been most surprised at mothers who attend a children’s event and find themselves participating. One woman brought her child to a book event at a library to hear music, make clay creations, and receive a book. She pushed through her hesitation and joined me in on the tarima (the percussive dance box) to move her body and make a beat with her feet.

People daring to try something new, allowing a memory to flood their hearts, and having fun in art and music are surprises that keep me going in my work. As a historian, I explore place and meaning making, specifically in communities where space is contested. As an artist, I attempt to create spaces for experience and memory. What I see as a creative potential that emerges from my public scholarship is one of stirring others to consider making with others, evoking memory, and creating place for belonging and inclusion.