Washington’s headlines are filled with stories of politics and power. But this isn’t the whole picture of the city. Our nation’s capital is also filled with untold stories about people far removed from the hallways of power.
For nearly five years, American University’s Humanities Truck has been on the road, collecting the diverse experiences and perspectives of these residents: people facing the effects of drug criminalization, living in homeless camps, struggling to find healthy groceries in “food deserts,” fighting to improve Black women’s healthcare, and more.
"The truck is a mash-up of old-school people's history projects with the latest tools and techniques that inform the digital humanities today," says Dan Kerr, AU associate professor of history and director of the Humanities Truck Project. Kerr is an active oral historian, the past president of the Oral History Association, and American University's Public History Program director. He is spearheading the truck's Mobilizing Against Homelessness project, which has developed a team of unhoused interviewers who ask other unhoused people about the causes of homelessness and what they think should be done.
"What makes the truck project unique is that scholars and city residents work together to interpret and co-curate these stories — to co-create exhibits and a digital repository," he explains. "These end products can then be exhibited and circulated within and beyond the communities where they were created."
A High-Tech Humanities Lab on Wheels
The Humanities Truck was built in 2018 with a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, and a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports its ongoing projects. It is a high-tech humanities lab that can drive to street corners, sidewalks, parks, and parking lots across the city. The interior and exterior of the truck can be transformed and used as a mobile recording studio, workshop and maker space, exhibit gallery, outdoor movie theater, and performance venue.
The truck, painted bright red-and-blue, is a recognized and much-loved fixture in DC neighborhoods. During the first four years of its work, it engaged with more than 20,000 participants at more than 185 events. At the fall 2019 Adams Morgan Day Festival in northwest DC, for example, 7,680 people interacted with the truck, including 3,560 who lined up to crowd inside to view its exhibition on the neighborhood's history.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and people across the DC region struggled to put food on their tables, the truck's team devised an innovative way to help. They partnered with local non-profits and began delivering food to their most vulnerable community partners, helping to feed hundreds of hundreds of people each week.
The humanities work also continued, and fellows kept collecting stories during the pandemic, Kerr says. "We delivered over 2,500 meals, conducted approximately 150 interviews, held numerous community forums, and produced several documentaries. In 2020-2021 we were more active taking the truck out than any other year, going out 53 times. In 2021-2022, we have continued this momentum and increased our number of events to 68."
The Momentum Continues
This year, the project is funding the work of seven Humanities Truck Fellows, an impressive multi-disciplinary array of scholars (both faculty and graduate students) committed to community-based research. They are funded for one year for their work to engage with a community in DC and produce scholarship and exhibits, often with a strong advocacy angle.
Read on for just a few stories about the fellow's latest projects:
Giving Youth a Voice
Associate Professor Jane Palmer (Justice, Law, and Criminology) is collaborating with the non-profit DC Action to use the Humanities Truck to collect stories from DC youth. Young people will have the opportunity to share their experiences living in the District of Columbia — what they love, what they want to see changed, and what changes they would make if they were in charge. The project aims to amplify young people's stories and ideas to impact laws and policies. Thanks to this project, DC Council members and other decisionmakers will hear directly from youth about the issues that affect their daily lives in crucial policy areas such as arts and culture, sports and entertainment, out-of-school learning, environment, jobs, housing, health, and safety.
Palmer first took on this project because she believed that the people affected by social issues should be the ones informing the solutions. "I think this is especially true for young people," she says. "Policymakers consistently say that hearing directly from young people helps them better understand what young people want and need, so we have partnered with nine local youth organizations and our youth advisory board to collect stories on issues that matter to young people and to make the District a place where all young people can grow up powerful and heard."
Indigenous DC: Stories and Places
In 2019, Assistant Professor Elizabeth Rule (Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies) launched an award-winning app. It is named Indigenous DC, and it brings users on a guided tour of 17 DC-area sites filled with Indigenous history and importance, from the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial to the National Native American Veterans Memorial.
As a Humanities Truck fellow, Rule is collecting oral history videos that correlate to these sites. She is embedding the videos into the app so that users can learn more about the sites as they use the app for touring DC. Rule's team will also create an exhibit within the Humanities Truck and officially present it this summer on the National Mall across Washington, DC.
What's Best for Unhoused Residents?
Shannon Clark and Aaron Howe are PhD Candidates in AU's Department of Anthropology and co-founders of Remora House, which provides aid and advocacy for unhoused residents of Washington, DC. For their Humanities Truck project, they are examining how displacement – being removed from a camp for unhoused people – impacts people's lives.
Clark and Howe are focusing on a homeless camp eviction that was part of the DC Health and Human Services CARE Pilot Program. The program is working to move people experiencing homelessness into safe housing. But is it working? Clark and Howe conducted interviews and discovered an array of outcomes for former camp residents: some received adequate housing, others had one-year bridge housing funded by the city, and others were forced to pack up and find a new place to camp. Their project is documenting where people are one year out from the eviction.
Post-pandemic, the truck project is flourishing as it engages local communities. Kerr notes that these communities don't typically interact with museums, universities, and other cultural institutions.
"We have carved out a vibrant space for the humanities working with people who are typically viewed solely as recipients of social services," he explains. "By creating spaces for community reflection on street corners, sidewalks, parks, and parking lots, we are not only seeking to democratize the means through which knowledge is produced and acknowledged, but we are also seeking to value those who are devalued and embolden those who are disillusioned. This is how I believe we can mobilize for a better world that we come together to co-envision."