Diversity and Democracy

The Humanities Action Lab: Mobilizing Civic Engagement through Mass Memory Projects

Two days after taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama “closed Guantánamo” with the stroke of a pen. Four senators saw an opportunity to help Americans come to terms with what had happened there, as governments from South Africa to South America had done with their own countries’ contested histories. “Justice also means to look into the past,” affirmed the United Nations’ torture investigator, Manfred Nowak, in response to Obama’s declaration (Tran 2009). In March of that year, the senators proposed a hearing with an extremely clumsy title, “Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry,” that would focus on post-9/11 counterterrorism practices. But Obama had made it clear he believed “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” (Johnston and Savage 2009). The proposal met with a swift and silent death.

In the absence of official government inquiry, other sectors have a particular societal obligation—and opportunity—to foster a reckoning with the past, and to make such practice a feature of democratic citizenship. To fulfill this obligation regarding Guantánamo, in 2011, nine universities came together to launch the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, in which over three hundred humanities students and people with direct experience at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay explored how the base had been opened, closed, and opened again from the Spanish-American-Cuban War through the War on Terror. Together, participants conducted over one hundred interviews and created a website, a curriculum, and a traveling exhibit. The exhibit visited twenty-two cities and reached an audience of more than 500 thousand people. As the project traveled around the country, organizers hosted public dialogues on why “remembering” Guantánamo matters in participants’ local communities today. Participants connected Guantánamo’s history to a host of other local concerns, such as immigrant detention and mass incarceration.

For participating universities, the project suggested new possibilities for the role university-based humanities projects—and specifically, public memory projects—can play in fostering civic engagement around urgent but contested issues. These nine universities came together with several other institutions, now totaling twenty colleges and universities, to form the Humanities Action Lab (HAL). HAL faculty and students work with local issue organizations in public spaces to create national public memory projects around contested social issues, taking on one focal issue for each three-year project. Through these shared projects, the collective explores and evaluates the power of public humanities for public engagement.

States of Incarceration

As the Humanities Action Lab was forming in 2014, the United States stood at the apex of the age of mass incarceration. After four decades of feverish imprisonment, a remarkable bipartisan consensus had emerged that mass incarceration had failed and must be dismantled (Chettiar and Waldman 2015). But growing numbers of people demanded that before planning a new future, leaders should account for the past. For example, protestors called on both Bill and Hillary Clinton to reckon with their role in constructing the carceral state before proposing new reforms. 

In this context, HAL partners decided that the first HAL project would invite as many Americans as possible to confront the memory of mass incarceration and the questions it poses for the future. In the fall of 2015, over six hundred students and scholars from twenty campuses in seventeen states collaborated with nearly thirty community organizations to create States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories (http://statesofincarceration.org/). Project elements included curricula, a digital platform, and a national traveling exhibit exploring the evolution and impact of the US correctional system. Partner colleges and universities simultaneously offered courses in which students worked with others directly affected by incarceration to curate a history of a local site of incarceration. All the pieces—each featuring combinations of historic images, audio interviews, videos, and artwork—were compiled by a designer into a single national physical and digital exhibit that launched in New York City in April 2016 and is traveling to each of the communities that contributed to it, accompanied by public dialogues at each stop, through at least early 2019.

This first national exhibit on the history of incarceration in America was thus created by the widest cross section of the incarceration generation we could manage: people directly involved in the criminal justice system, people who had never thought about it before, and everyone in between. Giving amateurs the responsibility for communicating such a serious—and seriously misunderstood—subject was tremendously risky. “I never thought much about this issue before,” admitted hundreds of participating students at the beginning of the three-month process. The project’s main experiment involved determining whether confronting the past, and then having the responsibility to help others confront it, could itself become a process of civic engagement for participants, while also catalyzing engagement among members of a larger public.

National Questions, Local Contexts

At the outset, HAL partners defined four goals for the process: development of knowledge, development of new perspectives and relationships, development of civic capacity, and development of action-orientation. Each local team was invited to identify one site or story of incarceration in the team’s state, and then explore that site’s history and memory from multiple perspectives. For the final project, each team identified one big question and provided a variety of “responses” from the past and the present. For instance, a team of University of Massachusetts Amherst students and formerly incarcerated women asked “What are women’s prisons for?” and explored women’s penitentiaries in the area from the nineteenth century to the present. Students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis partnered with the National Alliance of Mental Illness to ask, “Why are prisons the nation’s mental hospitals?” They then engaged in a three-month process of curation that became a public dialogue in and of itself, requiring discussion among students and between students and their partners outside the university.

Over the course of the semester, HAL used an online platform and video chats to facilitate exchange among students from different teams about their first impressions and the issues they struggled with. By sharing and processing with their peers what they themselves knew and didn’t know coming into the project, what stories and media most affected them, and what the critical fault lines were, local teams were able to identify how best to reach their audiences and what questions were most urgent—and productive—for them to discuss. Through dialogue, HAL sought to foster a national exchange of local experiences and make connections that are particularly important to build broader understanding of criminal justice practice, which is predominantly determined through state, not federal, policy.

Each team traced and shared distinct paths that different states took to mass incarceration. For example, examining the legacies of racial slavery, students in New Orleans traced the evolution of the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) from plantation to prison farm; students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro mapped the post-Reconstruction criminalization of black men onto the state’s convict-built roads. Woven in with these stories were others with very different roots: to understand high rates of incarceration in Indian Country today, the University of Minnesota team started with the Dakota Wars and the ideologies and technologies of settler colonialism. Four local teams—in New Jersey, Arizona, Florida, and Texas—focused on immigrant detention, as a new approach to criminalizing immigration has produced a massive detention apparatus. Looking at how local histories of incarceration intertwine and diverge over time suggests new national frameworks and solutions.

An Open Invitation

The map of States of Incarceration is missing huge swaths. It is meant as an invitation to add new stories, perspectives, questions, and conversations. The project offers a tool kit for colleges and universities wishing to engage their students and communities. Using our curricular resources, curatorial guidelines, exhibit design template, community collaboration models, and public program designs, your students and communities can conduct their own explorations of the era of mass incarceration to discover how it has shaped your community and how universities and communities can come together to address its legacies. For more information on how to participate, contact humanitiesactionlab@newschool.edu.


Chettiar, Inimai, and Michael Waldman, eds. 2015. Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice. New York: Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/solutions-american-leaders-speak-out-criminal-justice.

Johnston, David, and Charlie Savage. 2009. “Obama Reluctant to Look Into Bush Programs.” New York Times, January 11. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/12/us/politics/12inquire.html.

Tran, Mark. 2009. “Obama Signs Order to Close Guantánamo Bay.” The Guardian, January 22. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jan/22/hillary-clinton-diplomatic-foreign-policy.

Liz Ševčenko is Director of the Humanities Action Lab.

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