Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Exploring Key Questions of Citizenship through the Humanities

Before delivering the 2015 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Anna Deavere Smith spoke with National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman William Adams about the role the humanities play in building “empathic imagination” and the specific role of theatrical performance in instilling empathy. In Smith’s own renowned dramatic monologues, through which she embodies the individuals she has interviewed, the project of empathy building has taken a specific form: “My lofty goal,” she said, “has been to try to become America word for word” (Smith 2015).

Gathering the words of others and translating them through performance, Smith has told intensely moving stories about the individuals who constitute America in all its diversity, person by person. The stories she tells connect with, and borrow context from, the narrative we as a nation often tell ourselves: a story of collective striving, of opportunity shared by those born within and beyond the borders of the United States. But that narrative is hotly contested—and temperatures have risen recently as the national dialogue intensifies around competing claims about America’s enduring or expired “greatness.” Beneath these claims are implied and explicit questions about citizenship—including the grand but deeply resonant question that John Frazier asks in this issue of Diversity & Democracy: “Who are ‘We the People of the United States’?”

In 2016, teams from seven community colleges attempted to address this question through participation in Citizenship Under Siege, a project organized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and The Democracy Commitment as part of NEH’s Humanities in the Public Square program. Participating institutions hosted public forums and other events to prompt students, faculty, staff, and community members to “explor[e] citizenship as a touchstone for many of the divisive issues that are fracturing America today,” in the words of Project Director Caryn McTighe Musil. Project activities prompted participants to examine inequities based on race and gender, economic stratification, religious difference, and immigration status, among others topics, and suggested models for bringing campus and community together around themes at the epicenter of many of 2016’s most troubling controversies.

In this issue of Diversity & Democracy, project participants describe their experiences and share models for engagement developed through Citizenship Under Siege. Providing context for this campus- and community-based work, Adams reflects on the role of diversity in American democracy, and on the need for an educational agenda that involves honest—and difficult—conversations across differences. Contributing authors also describe their efforts to help their students become “artivists” (John Frazier); practice “an ethics of reading” (Peter Brooks); experience the liberating potential of humanities education (Vivé Griffith); and interrogate pressing societal inequities, including those represented by the prison-industrial complex (Liz Ševčenko).

This last topic has resonated with Smith, too, and she has focused her energies in recent years on a theater project examining the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Describing that project to Adams, she said, “The kids that I’m interested in are the ones who aren’t getting a chance,” and she referred to what Lyndon B. Johnson called “the ‘fifth freedom’ … the freedom from ignorance”—an addition to Franklin Roosevelt’s original list of four. The liberation that this freedom represents lies at the heart of AAC&U’s advocacy for liberal education and inclusive excellence and forms the core of higher education’s mission as a public good.

Indeed, if citizenship is under siege, a key force behind that attack is ignorance—about others, and about our own shared and individual histories. The humanities offer one of the first lines of defense in deflecting the violence that ignorance can inflict on individuals and society. Anna Deavere Smith is realizing that potential by turning the theater into “a new type of civic center”; this issue’s authors are playing their part by creating new epicenters of civic engagement and humanities-based questioning in their own contexts.

—Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Editor, Diversity & Democracy


Smith, Anna Deavere. 2015. “America, Word for Word.” Interview by William Adams. Humanities 36 (2). https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/marchapril/conversation/america-word-word.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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