When Endings are Also Beginnings: Fare thee well Annie Valk!
At the end of the July, Deputy Director, Anne Valk will be leaving Brown and the Center for Public Humanities for Williams College, where she will be leading public humanities initiatives through a multi-disciplinary appointment. Annie has shaped the Brown Center in the most profound ways. Outgoing director, Steve Lubar hired Annie seven years ago and he vividly remembers a quality Annie mentioned during her interview: “I am a collaborator. I believe in collaboration.”
Collaboration for Annie is both a personal style and a philosophy of public humanities, and it’s a philosophy that has come to shape not just our Master’s program, but also the entire field of public humanities. Annie has made collaboration the central feature of all of our work here — with community groups, with groups at Brown, with students, and between students and faculty and staff. Though we will all miss Annie greatly, we are happy for her new beginning. We asked her to reflect on her time at Brown and knowing Annie, it’s not surprising that she spoke of her work with the community and students.
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On a blustery night in early May, about a dozen former residents of Providence’s West Elmwood neighborhood gathered near the area they used to call home. Crowded around a large map, the men excitedly located their families’ houses and soberly reflected on the homes that were lost fifty years ago when the city demolished the community to build an industrial park. Seemingly oblivious to the cold, they reveled in each other’s company, laughing at memories of “the cat lady,” the impromptu groups that sang doo wop on the corners, and their own adventures along the banks of Mashapaug Pond. Overhead, an audio soundtrack played more stories about West Elmwood recorded through earlier oral history interviews. Over two hours of listening and laughter, the group rekindled their connections before joining students for impromptu speeches, posing for photos, and then dispersing to find dinner.
The program that brought people to the Huntington Business Park (formerly West Elmwood), was Shadows and Sounds: Memories from a Forgotten Neighborhood, organized by students in AMST1903g, Oral History and Community Memory, and with the support of the Urban Pond Procession and its artistic director, Holly Ewald. The gathering was part of the class’ presentation of its final project, an installation and exhibit intended to restore the community’s voices to a place transformed by urban development and overlooked by history. Returning people and stories to West Elmwood, the installation aimed to spur conversation about civic engagement in urban and housing policy and to encourage visitors to think differently about the area’s past, present, and future.
At this moment of transition between academic years and between leadership at the public humanities center, my mind keeps returning to this event as evidence of the impact of public engagement with, and through, art and history. Specifically, Shadows and Sounds showed the hunger of people to find themselves in history and the power of oral history and other forms of stories to both document community and to build community. As producers of content and eager listeners, representatives from the public humanities program and UPP played an important role in creating opportunities for community engagement at the West Elmwood site, even when the proceedings didn’t follow the plans we had designed.
Like so many public humanities programs, Shadows and Sounds also marked both a beginning and an end. A culminating event for the semester-long class, the installation gave students a chance to demonstrate skills and share their work with a public audience. At the same time, by connecting people to each other and connecting people to a place, the installation inspired future initiatives for the public humanities center and its collaborators. Already, the gathering has prompted inquiries from other organizations interested in hosting the Shadows and Sounds installation, including the downtown Providence Public Library and Alvarez High School which sits across Mashapaug Pond from the West Elmwood site. Who knows what else might happen?
Of the many things I have learned during the past seven years at the public humanities center, one of the most important lessons has been the importance of coordinating projects that can grow over time and evolve in unexpected directions. Planning for unanticipated outcomes, especially when working within the context of semester-long courses, can be challenging but the rewards are immense. In expecting the unexpected and seeing programs like Shadows and Sounds as catalysts, not conclusions, public humanities work builds on a foundation of optimism and a deep belief in the transformative power of public engagement with and through arts and culture. Even when the topics explored are dark and unsettling – such as massive displacement of people from West Elmwood due to the Mashapaug renewal project in 1962 – public humanities proceeds with the conviction that social benefit comes from the sustained collective exploration of history and culture.
Regretfully, my departure from the public humanities center this summer means I won’t be in Providence to build on this moment of promise. But finding beginnings in endings serves as an appropriate metaphor for this moment of transition in my own career. The move from doing public humanities work at Brown University to stimulating such work at Williams College marks a sad good-bye and a beginning that is ripe with possibility. As I get ready to depart, I want to express my sincere appreciation for everyone who made my time in Providence so full and rewarding. I look forward to hearing how the work of the public humanities center continues and its impact on people and places in and around Providence. Soon, I hope to have my own stories to share of new projects in a new place.