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Summer 01
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The Arts of Citizenship Program at the University of Michigan: A Campus/Community Experiment


In recent years, cultural and artistic expression has become a charged issue in American politics and public life. The culture wars of the past decade have shown how deeply Americans are divided about their civic values--and how much they endow the arts and humanities with public significance. Academics play a complex role in the politics of culture. They have pursued exciting research into popular culture, the media, and civic values; yet their work has often been framed in ways that are inaccessible to the publics that they study. Partly because of this distance, the arts and humanities have been lightning rods for conflicts over such topics as the teaching of American history, ethno-racial diversity, and public funding for the arts.

An innovative program at the University of Michigan (UM) in Ann Arbor was founded in 1998 to address these issues directly. The Arts of Citizenship Program seeks to integrate local projects with national cultural debates and ambitious research with community collaboration, across a variety of disciplines in the arts and humanities.

David Scobey, associate professor of architecture at UM and director of Arts of Citizenship, explains: "Arts of Citizenship builds new bridges between the university and the community. We believe that the work of scholars and artists can do much to enrich civic life in America. And we believe that community projects, created in dialogue with the public, can do much to enrich university research, teaching, and creative work."

Arts of Citizenship fosters cultural partnerships in which UM faculty and students work on local and regional projects with schools, museums, libraries, arts organizations, public agencies, and grassroots groups. In experimental courses launched by Arts of Citizenship, both undergraduate and graduate students combine rigorous classroom study with practical projects that contribute to community life. Some examples:

In the Underground Railroad project, Arts of Citizenship has collaborated with the local Washtenaw County African American Cultural and Historical Museum to research 19th-century antislavery activism and African American community life. UM students and community volunteers have assembled a traveling exhibit about county Underground Railroad stations and have joined regional networks doing similar work across Michigan and in other states.

UM students have worked with Detroit teens to create a musical drama, 2001 Hastings Street, in partnership with Detroit's acclaimed Mosaic Youth Theater (Director, Rick Sperling). This musical recalls the rich African American community life and music scene in mid-1940s Detroit and is based on interviews with senior citizens as well as more traditional research.

Arts of Citizenship research into coming-of-age in Detroit has also yielded fascinating oral histories about growing up in the 1960s. In collaboration with Michigan Radio, a public radio station that reaches much of the state, UM students created radio documentary pieces based on interviews with Detroiters who were teenagers during the 1967 Detroit riots. A series on Detroit's jazz history is now in the planning stages.

Students On Site is a local history partnership with Ann Arbor public schools and UM's Bentley Historical Library and Digital Library Initiative. A multi-week hands-on curriculum for 3rd graders about Ann Arbor's historic riverfront neighborhood is supplemented with field trips. An online archive on the program's web site offers over 250 documents (maps, photos, audio recordings, letters, and newspaper articles), plus a virtual bus tour of old Ann Arbor. UM students do research and assist in classrooms. Similar partnerships have evolved in poetry writing and in environmental history.

The Hallelujah Project is a collaboration with the internationally renowned Liz Lerman Dance Exchange (Washington, DC), the University Musical Society, and Detroit organizations to explore history and social issues in southeast Michigan through life-story narrative and dance performance. Over a period of two years, six faculty members and dozens of students at UM and Marygrove College in Detroit have been involved in work including performance pieces, afterschool programs, and video autobiographies.

Building on methods developed in the Mosaic Youth Theater project, the Homelands project joins Detroit's Matrix Theater with UM's Residential College and Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning. College students and community residents are producing dramatic materials from oral histories in the diverse neighborhoods of southwest Detroit.

Students and community members working on these projects produce tangible cultural products, such as exhibits, websites, curricula, theatrical works, or documentaries. Their response has been positive--most of these students, who traditionally cluster in the social sciences, are delighted to have found a way to work with the public in the arts and humanities. For graduate students, in particular, Arts of Citizenship opens up a realm of career possibilities other than college teaching, including jobs with museums, arts organizations, and government. The program complements service-learning initiatives on campus.

Arts of Citizenship is predicated on the belief that, "doing the arts and humanities in public" and in dialogue with the public can transform how the university defines research and teaching. In this spirit, the program holds forums to forge links on campus. Through its grant program for UM faculty and graduate students, the program supports work that often has difficulty securing funding, such as:

  • Intergroup community-building projects involving Mexican-American Detroiters and Spanish-language students at UM's Dearborn campus.

  • Visual art and creative writing workshops in juvenile detention centers throughout Michigan.

  • A pilot high school program on the importance of a cycle of ancient Pompeiian paintings to contemporary art and to an understanding of the women of the Roman Empire.

  • An analysis of the role of neighborhood associations in the urban planning process for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, economically diverse neighborhood in Ann Arbor.

  • A video documentary about women prisoners in Michigan seeking clemency.

  • A huge outdoor mural that depicts the history of Flint, Michigan, outlined by UM students and painted in by hundreds of community volunteers.

  • Workshops in clay art, led by UM students, for blind and visually impaired children and adults across the state of Michigan.

Arts of Citizenship is part of a growing movement nationwide to enhance both universities and their communities through collaborative work on meaningful cultural projects.

For more information about the Arts of Citizenship Program, visit http://www. artsofcitizenship.umich.edu.


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