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Innovative U.Va. Center Will Use Local Communities As Lens For Bigger Picture Of Race, Gender And Nation

October 28, 2002-- Slices of a community’s “everyday life” story that reveal a larger picture will be the focus of a new University of Virginia research and teaching center devoted to new ways of understanding concepts of race, gender and nationhood.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies has received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to establish the interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Local Knowledge in the Construction of Race, Gender and Nation.

Including an innovative collaboration with independent, non-academic historians, the center “will investigate new methods of scholarship with the aim of illuminating – and potentially transforming – relationships of knowledge and power,” said history professor Reginald D. Butler, director of the Woodson Institute.

The complex world of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation provides one dramatic example of how race, gender, power and nation themes may be studied in microcosm at a local level, with civilizations of Africa, Europe and the Americas coming together.

The center has developed out of a previous Ford-funded project, “The Chesapeake Regional Scholars Summer Seminars in African-American and African Studies.” That program led to increased exchanges of ideas between academic and independent lay scholars in the region and to increased sharing of African-American Studies resources among large and small colleges and universities, Butler said.

He and Woodson Institute associate director Scot A. French developed a series of research questions about how concepts of race, gender and nation might be understood at the local, “everyday” level of experience. Among those questions:

  • What is the role of lay scholars – the many non-academic historians and genealogists who are often key resources for local communities?
  • How can new technologies – such as the Woodson Institute’s innovative digital-history archives — make new scholarship meaningful and widely accessible?
  • How can a new interpretive model, linking local knowledge to national discourses, transform teaching and research?

“Local knowledge” includes a community’s own “understanding of its social relations, past and present,” said Corey D.B. Walker, director of the new center. It also involves “how everyday people come to understand their position in the world and how national identities are constructed in local communities.”

Walker, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from the College of William and Mary and was a scholar-in-residence at the Woodson Institute last year, has, for example, researched the long history of African-American Masonic lodges in different communities.

The first African-American social organization to spread nationwide after the Civil War, Freemasons’ locally-based activities reveal a much larger picture about citizenship, race, gender and national belonging. A book Walker is finishing, “The Freemasonry of the Race: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America,” has been called a model for interdisciplinary research on the relationship between the local and the national.

The center has an ambitious research agenda, Walker said. “Instead of responding to intellectual and societal trends, we want to challenge existing intellectual boundaries and break new ground in developing new ways of knowing, new communities of scholars and fresh approaches to critical issues of public policy,” he said.

The center has invited a diverse group of U.Va. faculty to participate in its Faculty Fellows program. With research and teaching interests related to the mission of the center, the fellows represent a wide variety of fields including medicine, politics, anthropology, chemistry, history and law.

Along with its research program, the center will develop new courses that explore issues of gender, race and nation, sponsor research assistantships and fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students, and create new avenues for exchange and collaboration between academic and lay scholars, Walker said. The center is also taking an active role with the University’s partners in its new Southern African initiative and with other international research centers and institutes.

The center will officially mark its opening Nov. 14, when Duke University literature professor Walter D. Mignolo delivers an inaugural lecture on “Tomorrow’s Universities” at 7 p.m. in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. At 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 15, U.Va. French professor Kandioura Drame will join Mignolo in a public seminar on the theme “Regimes of Knowledge and the Academy in an Age of Globalization” in Newcomb Hall’s Commonwealth Room.

Clifford Geertz, Princeton University anthropologist and author of “Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Anthropology,” will speak at a center symposium in the spring.

For additional information, see the Center for the Study of Local Knowledge Web site at http://www.virginia.edu/cslk

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Reporters: For interviews or additional information, Corey D. B. Walker and Scot French may be reached at (434) 924-3109.

Media contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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