Last week, we exhibited one portion of the Underground Freedom Galleries in the SOAR offices here at SIUE. The SOAR program offers tutoring and advising services for large numbers of "underrepresented" students, many of whom are African American. Hosting this academic-related event for a primarily black audience allowed us to gain more practical information regarding two of our program's developing concerns:
How can humanities programs focusing on African American thought and literary art enhance the cultural and intellectual life of the university? And, what can be done to address the lack of extracurricular academic programs featuring African American ideas or addressing black audiences?
So far, we've learned that extending or re-framing familiar gathering spaces by presenting new concepts can be vital to addressing those kinds of questions. But we’re also discovering that it takes the implementation of series of projects or continuous programs over a period of time in order to increase and deepen participation.
We had a large turnout at the Freedom Galleries exhibit, which included several display panels featuring photographic images and student responses to materials relating to slavery and struggles for freedom. Despite the turnout, I got the sense that several students still needed assistance in order to really engage and absorb the content of the materials.
More specifically, it's not enough that audiences simply view representations of African American culture. Instead, we must also consider approaches to building audiences' capacity to appreciate what's presented. That way, the experience of participating in humanities projects might be even more enriching.
So, we still have work to do. Fortunately, we considered the Underground Freedom Galleries as a continuing project in a larger series of interrelated programs that we are implementing.