Santa Cruz Commons: Activist Research and the Public Humanities

Increasingly, members of the working and middle classes feel excluded as economic agents in a society shaped by globalization and technological innovation, by massive unemployment and a devastated housing market, by deepening social inequities and the truncation of public resources. In social, political and psychological terms, those who are unemployed experience themselves as marginal to an economy that rests on waged labor, commodity markets, and capitalist enterprise. For these reasons, citizens, community activists and activist academics around the country have begun to seek solutions at the local level to economic and social problems that seem intransigent in a national context. Their goal is the conceptualization and mobilization of alternative economies that can support forms of work that are creative, innovative, productive, collaborative–and committed to social justice. Strategies and forms of knowledge that humanists have defined can be particularly effective in helping to advance this kind of effort. They are pivotal in the conception of “Santa Cruz Commons: Activist Research and the Public Humanities.” The project’s Working Group considers how humanists can help to create such an alternative economy by redefining the meaning of work.

The Year in Review:

Santa Cruz Commons had an exceptionally vibrant year of programming. The Working Group undertook a mapping project of community organizations in Santa Cruz to aid in the planning and facilitation of university-community dialogues. They also administered surveys of community interests and faculty research foci in order to develop shared topics for exploration. Through their conversations, the Working Group, in collaboration with other community partners, identified housing and homelessness, criminal justice, health, education, and art and democracy as areas of particular interest.

Outgrowths of initial funding:

  • In collaboration with the local Santa Cruz chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Helene Moglen (UCSC, Emerita) and Sheila Namir (a local psychologist and psychoanalyst) co-taught a writing workshop for veterans entitled “Fighting for Words.”
  • Sharon Daniel (UCSC) taught advanced undergraduates a course on community documentation. In the advanced digital media class students developed interactive, narrative maps of progressive community groups, conducted interviews, assembled oral histories, and designed prototypes for an interactive web interface for recorded interviews and research.
  • Created a website to feature their work..
  • Held a webinar with Grace Lee Boggs, author and activist, around the topic of community engagement.
  • Gave three community mini grants to local organizations that (1) assist women to successfully reintegrate and become contributing members of society after incarceration, (2) provide low-income rural Californians with free legal assistance, and (3) provide after-school arts and music programs for at-risk youth.
  • Faculty continued research and organized meetings regarding the work of the Working Group. For example, George Lipsitz continued his work with community organizations in Watsonville regarding housing and the foreclosure crisis and Moglen and Nancy Chen organized a dialogue at the Museum of Art and History entitled “Realizing a progressive vision of Santa Cruz.” 

Principal Investigator:

Nancy Chen is Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz. As a medical anthropologist, she focuses on healing practices and health institutions. Her early ethnographic project compared how psychiatry and mental health become national agendas for social integration in Asia while, simultaneously, alternative forms of healing resurged. She has conducted fieldwork in mainland China, primarily, with comparative research in the United States. Her interests include the study of healing narratives, chronic and infectious diseases, traditional medical knowledge, and intersections between the body politic, gender, ethnicity, and medicine.

Participants:

Regina Day Langhout is at an associate professor of psychology and co-director of Santa Cruz Commons at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her commitment to issues and concerns of social justice stems from her working class background and informs her study of empowerment and conscientización in educational and neighborhood settings. Her primary research takes place in an elementary school, where she directs an arts-centered youth Participatory Action Research program. So far, students in the program have created two community-based murals, a book on how to make a community-based mural, and a documentary film. One mural has won the Santa Cruz County Gold Award for best public art. She has published approximately 30 articles in community psychology, education, international, and interdisciplinary journals, with some work being translated into Italian. She is also an active member of her local community.

Helene Moglen is Research Professor of Literature and Co-Director of Santa Cruz Commons. For fifty years, as scholar, writer, teacher and administrator, she has worked for social justice in educational institutions and local communities. She has practiced an experimental pedagogy in undergraduate, graduate and community classrooms, helping students to find their voices and commitments. Although a literary critic, she has written extensively in cultural and feminist theory and about education and literacy. As Dean of Humanities, Provost of Kresge College and Chair of the Academic Senate, she advocated with administrators for policies and programs that are socially responsible and aware. Directing a Feminist Studies Research Group while chairing Women’s Studies and directing the UCSC Women’s Center, she established collaborative structures for academic feminists and community activists. Now, with Santa Cruz Commons, she can put the skills she has achieved at the service of the community’s shared social vision.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time Mayor of the City of Santa Cruz and was elected six times to the Santa Cruz City Council. Dr. Rotkin recently retired from teaching in the Community Studies Program at UCSC after 42 years. He currently works part-time as a union organizer within the UC system statewide and is engaged in a wide variety of political and community building efforts in Santa Cruz County.

Kyle McKinley is a lecturer in the Art Department, coordinator of the Social Practice Arts Research Center and an alumni of UCSC. He is the designer of the interactive interface of the Santa Cruz Commons website, which seeks to visualize the network of connections between the individuals and organizations that, taken as a whole, constitute a commons in Santa Cruz. When not teaching, parenting or making art, Kyle helps run Bike Church Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets, and the Building Collective.

Martin Garcia is a PhD student in the Literature Department at UCSC and an analyst for Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, District 4 office. He has worked on issues around drug prevention and reform, immigration and youth violence. He shares a particular desire to focus on collaborative activities between North and South County and the disjunctures therein.

Read more about the working group

Santa Cruz Commons website

Redefining the Public Humanities
UC Humanities Forum, January 2013.