From left to right: Michael Eric Dyson with James Peterson, Angela Davis, Every Tongue Confess with members of the Greater Shiloh Church.

In recognition of Lehigh University’s commitment to developing partnerships with the surrounding community, the Africana Studies program was awarded in December a prestigious $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency that funds high-quality research, education and public programs at colleges and universities, museums and other institutions across the United States.

The three-to-one matching grant will require Lehigh to raise $1.5 million over the next five years. The funds will be used to create an endowment to expand the Africana Studies program at Lehigh, through curriculum development, increasing public humanities initiatives and strengthening the program’s community partnerships in an effort to explore public concerns and a variety of social issues including race, politics, gender, and religion.

“Hearing the news that the Africana Studies program was awarded an NEH challenge grant was one of the most exciting moments in my professional career,” said James B. Peterson, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English. “The significance of the award acknowledges both the historical efforts of Africana Studies scholars at Lehigh—Bill Scott, Ted Morgan, Elizabeth Fifer, Kashi Johnson, Rick Matthews and many others—and the promising future that Africana Studies has as a public-facing program committed to the interface between university and community.”

Peterson is principal investigator of the challenge grant. Monica Miller, assistant professor of religion studies, and Susan Kart, assistant professor of art, architecture and design, are co-principal investigators.

The Way Forward

Africana Studies was born of the clamor of the 1960s, largely in response to demands from African American students and faculty that the experiences and history of African Americans be included in what was being taught and studied on college campuses. Lehigh has offered an Africana Studies program since 1992, when it was founded by William Scott, then professor of history. In 2007, the College of Arts and Sciences approved a two-year predoctoral/postdoc fellows program for Africana Studies. Scott, having steered the program to that point, felt it was a good time to return to his research in black religious history in 18th-century America, and Morgan stepped in to serve as interim director.

In 2011, Lehigh selected Africana Studies as its first academic “cluster,” bringing together faculty from English, history, political science, sociology and anthropology and theater. Five new faculty positions were added, and Peterson was named as director. Under his watch, community outreach intensified as faculty increasingly partnered with community organizations. On campus, the program has developed influential public conferences and lectures, including a live-streamed, four-day conference in February 2015 that drew scholars internationally to explore the life and legacy of Malcolm X.

“Our commitment has always been to be public facing in our programs— to engage and interact with our local schools, churches and community organizations in a deliberate effort to create programs, develop new initiatives, and build knowledge together,” says Peterson. We want to use our intellectual resources, our cultural resources, to engage the community in an edifying way. This is not new. It’s been the ethos of Africana Studies since it started. By being public facing, Africana Studies puts out a beacon to the community that says Lehigh University is interested in you. We’re invested in the community. Winning the NEH challenge means that we will be able to sustain and enhance this commitment well into the future.”

Setting the Direction

As part of this initiative, Peterson says a steering committee of Africana Studies faculty, students, staff and community partner leaders will meet regularly to implement the grant’s various elements. Public Humanities Programs include a new Community Visions Program in which faculty and students will join with Bethlehem, Pa., residents and other community partners in public meetings to deliberate on local concerns that they can address together. Areas of shared interest will produce formalized, co-created programming. Community discussions, research projects and conferences will take place in recreational centers, high schools and other places.

The grant also supports student workshops in which Africana Studies faculty will work to create classroom, curriculum and workshop events that regularly connect high school students with collegiate scholarship. The Africana Studies program will document and archive its efforts, allowing for broader dissemination to the public. A Visiting Fellows initiative will invite nationally and locally recognized public intellectuals, artists and activists working in the arts, humanities and social sciences to take up two-week residencies on the Lehigh campus. The fellows could provide public lectures or performances, conduct workshops or visit classrooms at area schools, among other activities.

A yearly tuition and stipend will be established for a graduate student pursuing work in Africana Studies and the public humanities. The emphasis will be on linking scholarship to public knowledge building through research activities directly related to community concerns. Fellows would be guided by public work and would engage with the community through teaching and learning, programming and mentoring. Grants will be awarded each semester for research and humanities initiatives. Eligible projects might include gallery exhibits, oral history projects, digital storytelling or public theater performances, among others.

The Africana Studies program will use endowed funding to expand partnerships into long-term collaborations and to begin working with new partners in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Currently, Africana Studies is cultivating local partnerships with the Greater Shiloh Church in Easton, Liberty High School in Bethlehem, and PBS-39.

“This grant offers a powerful opportunity to truly transform Africana Studies at Lehigh,” said Donald E. Hall, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “South Bethlehem is our home and this funding will continue to heighten our community engagement. Just over 75,000 people live in Bethlehem. Some 39% are Hispanic, Latino, Black or other underrepresented group and the majority of these residents live on the South Side. The Africana Studies program is a crucial connection as we work with the community on issues promoting mutual learning and growth.”

Each semester, Lehigh’s Africana Studies courses draw hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students from disciplines across the university to explore public concerns and social justice issues. Since the Africana Studies cluster was established, both course offerings and student enrollments have increased significantly. In academic year 2014-15, Africana Studies faculty and affiliate faculty taught 445 undergraduate and graduate students in 35 classes on a range of culturally diverse topics.

The program also welcomes the public to campus events, accepts invitations for faculty to speak at local high schools, facilitates programs at churches and works with community leaders in law enforcement, politics and education. A public lecture series developed with Lehigh’s Martin Luther King Jr. Committee also provides the program with a forum to interface with the community. Among those hosted by the MLK committee were scholar-activist Angela Davis, Grammy award winning artist Nasir “Nas” Jones, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, created in 1965, supports research and learning by funding high-quality projects in fields that include history, literature, philosophy and archeology. In announcing its latest grant recipients, the NEH said the projects that were chosen will strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric and identity. 

If you would like to learn more about the NEH Challenge Grant or become engaged with the Africana Studies Public Humanities Initiative at Lehigh University, contact Kelly Stazi, director of development, at or 610-758-2824.