Humanities Redefined

Sawyer Kemp, UC Davis, English, public scholar
Sawyer Kemp, right, with cast of "Hidden: A Gender" at rehearsal

Graduate Students Bring Research and Action to Communities

Through the Mellon Public Scholars program, UC Davis graduate students combine their scholarship and passions to make a tangible difference in communities across the region, nation, and world. Working with community organizations and individuals, the scholars examine real-world problems and offer creative solutions.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded the UC Davis Humanities Institute $600,000 for the next three-year round of the Public Scholars program, up from $400,000 in the 2015–18 round. Since the program started in 2015, 30 public scholar fellowships have been awarded. The new funding will allow the number of fellowships to increase from 10 to 12 annually.

“The Mellon Public Scholars program is one of the marquee programs of the UC Davis Humanities Institute, not least because it is part of a national project to redefine the humanities and arts,” said Jaimey Fisher, director of the Humanities Institute and professor of German and cinema and digital media. “This project, really a movement, is rethinking and remaking the relationship of community organizations and individuals, the scholars examine real-world problems and offer creative solutions.”

Projects have included:

  • Multiethnic publishing in the San Francisco Bay Area by Simon Abramowitsch (English)
  • The role of human behavior in energy conservation by Bridget Clark (sociology)
  • Transgender life in post-Soviet Cuba by David Tenorio (Spanish and Portuguese)
  • Digital storytelling/mapping in Sacramento by Brittani Orona (Native American studies)

“The program has been popular beyond our expectations,” said Molly McCarthy, associate director of the Humanities Institute. “We get 60 or more applications every year and that cuts across nearly every discipline. We’ve aimed for more diversity and including more underrepresented groups and projects.”

Here we take a deeper look at three of the projects.

Zach Psick, public scholars, UC Davis
Zach Psick

We Are All Students

Zachary Psick cut right to the heart of his topic in the opening words of his Public Scholars proposal: “My probation officer wanted me to go to prison, not college. He told me. Repeatedly. It was because a risk assessment predicted I would reoffend.”

We Are All Students brings together Psick’s research as a doctoral student in sociology, his work in marketing and communications, and his own background to change perceptions of those who have been incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system. After collecting the stories of dozens of people who fit into these categories, he’ll launch a yearlong social media campaign early next year.

“Having them tell their stories, to talk about their day to day lives humanizes them,” he said. “It’s about reframing the narratives.”

After being arrested numerous times during his teen years, Psick was able to go to college and found he was good at it. But when he looked into having his record expunged, his public defender, Emily Baxter, told him, “This will be an uphill battle.”

She was right, but their meeting led to something bigger. Baxter went on to found We Are All Criminals, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire empathy and ignite social change by telling the stories of people who committed crimes, but escaped arrest or conviction. Her project is a model for Psick’s.

Their aims and findings overlap in many areas, especially in understanding how the criminal justice system treats people differently for reasons that have nothing to do with the crime committed.

“My research highlights how most measures of ‘risk’ more commonly indicate material inequality,” Psick said. “Those who are considered high risk are also people who have a lot of needs; they come from low-income backgrounds, broken homes, are minorities, and have learning disabilities. They are most likely to get the harshest sentences.”

Sawyer Kemp, public scholar, UC Davis
Sawyer Kemp

Hidden: A Gender

Sawyer Kemp had been brainstorming ways to get more transgendered people onto stage, then found out that a center that provides counseling for transgendered people wanted to develop an arts outreach program.

The result was creation of the theatre group Skip Theory and a performance of “Hidden: A Gender” by Kate Bornstein which sold out its two-week run. Skip Theory is now the official arts arm of the Gender Health Center in Sacramento.

Kemp, a doctoral student in English with a background in theater, was originally motivated to do a play about and by transgendered people because there were few opportunities or those being done had stereotypical portrayals.

“It probably seems counterintuitive because we think of the arts as being fairly liberal, but theater is a notoriously unfriendly space for gender nonconforming bodies — so the play itself is a pretty significant venture,” Kemp said. “Many of the people in our play have been excluded from participating in theatre for their race, gender and ability.”

In organizing meetings, Kemp found that trans people also needed theater training and assistance in how to market themselves. These overlap with employment and health issues they face that mesh with the GHC mission. And all of it overlaps with Kemp’s research on accessibility for trans people and gender definitions in theater.

“When I started this, I thought about the play as something that was a completely separate part of my life from my studies,” Kemp said. “Applying for the fellowship clarified how to bring all of the parts together. This is very much about the community and a way to continue putting into back into the community.”

Cinthya Ammerman, UC Davis public scholar
Cinthya Ammerman

Mayan Social Media

The indigenous people of Guatemala — and other places — are attempting to reclaim their heritage, which includes the land, language, spiritual practices, medicine and cosmology. The cyberworld can help. To that end, Cinthya Ammerman, a Native American studies doctoral student, developed a website and social media platforms for the Association of Indigenous Peasant Communities for the Integral Development of Peténan that works with the Q’eqchi’ Maya people.

What she learned there and the contacts she made are part of her ongoing research and work on “cyber autonomy” for indigenous people throughout the Western Hemisphere.

“I don’t want to just be an academic,” Ammerman said. “I want to work with communities on the ground to bring resources and support to them.”

The Association of Indigenous Peasant Communities organizes a widely dispersed population in northern Guatemala. Having an online presence provides outreach and communication within the community, but also gives the group wider visibility, allowing it to garner support around the world.

A native of Chile, Ammerman is the granddaughter of peasant farmers much like the people she worked with in Guatemala. After growing up in in Mexico, the U.S. and Peru, Ammerman was shocked when she returned to Chile. Rivers were drying up and forests were being decimated by logging. The same ecological issues confront people in Guatemala, along with high levels of poverty, isolation, violence and suppression of activism.

“Many indigenous peoples are at the front lines of an intensifying battle against environmental degradation,” she said. “It’s a battle we are all part of, because if they lose, we all lose. I’m not advocating for a return to an idyllic, ‘uncontaminated’ past, I’m simply suggesting that we become alert to the struggles of indigenous peoples.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science