Latinos in Rural America Fosters Student Research and Community Engagement

Clara Román-Odio

Earlier this month I attended the second of four exhibit launches for Kenyon professor Clara Román-Odio’s public humanities project, Latinos in Rural America (LiRA). The material exhibit, currently in the Mt. Vernon Public Library, also has a digital component that is held in Kenyon’s digital repository. As we read in the brief introduction to the project’s digital component,

This project pursues the goal of providing an intimate window into the lives, origins and aspirations of Latinos in Knox County, home to Kenyon College.

The exhibit in Mt. Vernon follows the project’s initial unveiling in December at Kenyon College and will be succeeded by exhibits at the Ohio State University (9 – 23 February) and Miami of Ohio (30 March – 12 April).

Román-Odio has folded LiRA into her Introduction to Chicano/a Cultural Studies as a platform for exemplifying the ways in which community-engaged learning (CEL) strengthens undergraduate research and civic engagement. You can read more about this important union of public humanities and CEL and the students’ work therein in Kenyon’s digital repository, and may I suggest a deeper dive to learn more about the student-led implementation of a program that will help Mt. Vernon Latino/a youth prepare for the college application process.

LiRA takes as its model a similar project by Kenyon professor Ric Shefield, the Knox County Black History Archives, digtized under the Ohio Five Libraries’ previous grant "Next Generation Library." Both LiRA and the Black History Archives are imagined as a part of a unified series of similar local oral history projects that would fall under the banner of The Community Within. In the coming year, Sheffield plans to share the concept of The Community Within with other liberal arts colleges, providing a framework for local oral history projects.

To my mind, one of the great foundational principles of The Community Within, a principle exemplified by both LiRA and the Black History Archives, is the necessity of presenting the projects’ research in a material exhibition within the community itself, in this case the public library. Such a presentation not only ties a Kenyon College research project to the local community, but it also gets to the core of accessibility and digital projects. Indeed, the community-based research is the guiding force here; digital preservation and dissemination are peripheral (though important) concerns. As pedagogical enterprises, projects like LiRA ask students to go beyond the simple reporting of archival material – of known histories – and asks them instead to create and curate an alternative archive of underrepreented cultural material.

Ohio Five Digital Scholarship is grateful to have been able to play a part in LiRA and the Knox County Black Archive, but both have come about with the generous support of a number of people and agencies. The LiRA exhibit provides an extensive list of credits and acknowledgements – including Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the NEH – but I will take this opportunity to underline the contributions of Jenna Nolt, Kenyon’s Digital Initiatives Librarian who has been creating these projects’ public faces in Kenyon’s digital repository.

What are some of the ways in which you are doing public and/or digital history with your liberal arts students? Let us know on Facebook or post a comment a below.

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