Summer institute empowers high schoolers to confront historical, contemporary injustices

With a deeper telling of Indigenous and African American histories, a pilot summer institute led by Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice aimed to both teach and inspire students.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Clam diggers are familiar summer sights on New England shores, but a group of young adults at Rhode Island’s Misquamicut State Beach in July may have stood out for their rather distinctive approach. The troop of local high school students spent the sunny afternoon learning how to dig for quahogs — using only their feet.

“We practiced using our toes to feel for the quahogs in the sand and would then try to lift them with our feet,” said Lily Aspen, one of 17 students on the Westerly, R.I., beach. “It reflects the traditional way Indigenous natives would harvest for shellfish.”

Wet and muddy at least in that moment, the students immersed themselves in the culture of the region’s Indigenous peoples, including the Narragansett, Niantic, Wampanoag and Manissean tribes. Maryann Gobern Mathews, a Manissean descendant and founder of the Manissean Tribal Council, explained that many Native Block Islanders migrated between forest and coastal areas to hunt, fish and clam, and she shared the history of the community’s challenge to remain good stewards of the land while maintaining traditional practices that promote food sovereignty.

The day’s visit was one of many outings planned for the inaugural cohort of students to participate in the Reimagining New England Histories High School Summer Institute. Held on Brown University’s campus from July 10 to 22 — and led jointly by the University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown, and the Tomaquag Museum — the two-week residential program invited young scholars to study and think critically about the histories and experiences of Indigenous and African American people in the Northeast.

“The summer institute employs an experiential learning model that allows students to explore and comprehend — in a deep and meaningful way — the challenges of equity and inclusion faced by communities of color throughout New England,” said Mack Scott, a visiting assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

Students attended college-level seminars and engaged in group discussions led by scholars and community leaders. They traveled to historic sites and museums, including landmarks on and around Providence’s College Hill, such the John Brown House Museum and sites on CSSJ’s Slavery and Legacy Walking Tour. Other trips included the Museum of African American History in Boston, Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and the Aquinnah Cultural Center on Martha’s Vineyard, home of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum.

CSSJ leaders said the pilot program was created to expand on the broader Reimagining New England Histories project, a grant-funded partnership between CSSJ, Williams College and the Mystic Seaport Museum to use maritime history as a basis for studying historical injustices and generating new insights on the relationship between European colonization in North America, the dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery in New England. And beyond extending the grant work, the launch of the new annual program for high schoolers stemmed from CSSJ’s dedication to public engagement.

“We are committed to creating a stream of activities directed at high schoolers because we think it’s important that the history we are researching and teaching be made available to young students,” said Anthony Bogues, a professor of Africana studies and humanities who directs CSSJ. “The relationship between Native dispossession and racial slavery is important. We’re following our commitment to teaching history but from the perspective of those persons who were marginalized in the making of America. This kind of history is not taught in high school, and it’s barely taught at some universities.”

Lorén M. Spears, a citizen of the Narragansett Nation and executive director of Tomaquag Museum, agreed that educational programs for young people are critical in preserving Native American history and culture today.

“All of our staff at the museum are Indigenous, and it’s important that students have the opportunity to hear that first-person voice to understand our views on history and to be exposed to the vibrancy of our Native communities today,” Spears said.

The two-week program’s design carved out time each day for students to reflect, discuss and write to deepen not just their own knowledge and comprehension of the many legacies of slavery and injustice, but to inspire confidence to speak authoritatively in their efforts to create change.

As one of the only Native students in her school, Cate McDonough, a rising junior from Cranston, R.I., and a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, said she enrolled in the summer institute to build the knowledge needed to challenge traditional historical narratives.

“By learning and being here, I hope to speak up more and not feel like I’m a bother or that my existence is difficult or an extra step for people,” she said. “Black and Indigenous histories should be a bigger part of our curriculum, and I hope to have the strength and knowledge to stand up and advocate for it.”

For Lily Aspen, a rising senior from Manasquan, N.J., and an Alaska Native who belongs to the Ninilchik Village Tribe, the program has provided new knowledge, tools and strategies that they can use to champion efforts to expand diversity and inclusion. “We have a number of diversity initiatives that we’re trying to implement at my school, and now I can go back with new knowledge and help make more informed decisions.”

Aspen runs an Indigenous Peoples Club, raises funds for various Indigenous organizations, hosts events, and creates informational bulletin boards and newsletters to help dismantle historical stereotypes and myths in the community. They also sit on the school’s board of trustees diversity committee to weigh in on everything from student representation and faculty hiring to the curriculum.

“The best part is being with people, like me, who care about diversity issues and want to do something about it,” they said of the summer institute. “We’re learning how to solve these issues together as a group.”