Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars Virtual Concert

Nicolette Lecy, Graduate Student Researcher

This spring, UC Merced UpstART and the Center for the Humanities hosted a free virtual concert showcasing Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Attendees tuned in that afternoon from Minnesota to Vermont, and the concert was kicked off with a band introduction by UpstART director Dr. David Kaminsky.

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Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was formed by a small group of Sierra Leoneans displaced in Guinean refugee camps during the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991–2002). Since returning to Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown in 2004, they have toured internationally, produced several albums, and were the subject of a 2005 documentary. 

The one-hour performance was shot primarily in an intimate outdoor setting in Freetown. The concert was immediately followed by a live-streamed Q&A hosted by the University of Florida’s Dr. Sarah Politz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology focusing on creative practice in African and Afro-Diasporic Music. Politz moderated audience questions with guitarist, keyboardist, singer, and composer Jahson Bull and discussed the band’s influence from West-African baskeda rhythms to their ability to raise awareness about humanitarian causes through their lyrics. Bull ended by letting the audience know that Spotify was the best place to find their music. The recorded concert will also be shared on our “Critically Human” UCTV channel in the near future. For more information about the band, check out their website.


Shiraz Noorani, Graduate Student Researcher
Center for the Humanities, UC Merced

For the second year in a row, a two-day Summer Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship was hosted by the University of California Merced, with the support of the Center for the Humanities and with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation. The aim of both the Summer Institute and ongoing Luce funding is to develop an innovative graduate education initiative that fosters humanities research through community engagement. The program supports summer fellowships that allow graduate students to work in teams led by faculty with community partners.

Summer Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship Participants

Participating in this summer’s Institute were two teams of graduate students led by UC Merced professors. The team led by Yehuda Sharim is titled, “Talking Freedom: How State and For-Profit Prisons Impact Central Valley Communities,” and involves a full feature film and collaborative research project reflecting on facets of everyday life in Coalinga, Merced, and McFarland, California.  The other team led by Dalia Magaña is working on a project with Healthy House related to breast cancer narratives. Healthy House is a cultural and linguistic non-profit organization with a mission to promote the well-being and health of all people in a multi-ethnic community with a focus on Merced County. Regarding the impact of the Institute, Dalia said, “Our team…appreciated the space the institute provided to learn together and interact with each other. During our interactions, we shared personal stories about each other that gave us a glimpse of what drives our commitment to community-engaged scholarship.”

Yehuda Sharim’s team

The opening remarks for the program were delivered by Robin Delugan, associate professor, and Anne Zanzucchi, Associate Dean for Student Services and Academics in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, who are both leading the overarching Luce grant project over the coming years, which supports different faculty and graduate student teams each year. In their remarks, they mentioned the activities and achievements of the project since it started adding that each year’s summer institute creates training opportunities, space for teams, and networking across fields and communities. Workshops on the first day included:  “Community Engaged Scholarship Foundations,” “Telling Your Story,” and “Beyond The Archives.” The second day featured the remarks by Sean Buffington, Vice President at the Henry Luce Foundation. He talked about the beginning of UC Merced’s cooperation with the Luce Foundation and the Foundation’s commitment to continue working with UC Merced. The second day of the program featured workshops on Informed Consent and the Ethics of Community Research. 

In conclusion, during the Summer Institute, a total of six workshops were held for two teams of graduate students, faculty, and a community partner. Ekta Kandhway, a doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Humanities, shared her experience participating in the Summer Institute: “The workshops helped me situate our Luce summer project within the larger vision of UC Merced that is aspiring to become an R1 university through its special focus on community engaged scholarship.”  

Dalia Magaña and Healthy House team

Graphic History: COVID-19, Speculative Fiction, and Illustrating the Archive

By Ivan Gonzalez-Soto, Doctoral Student, UC Merced

Prior to COVID-19, I used critical race and ethnic studies, history, and environmental studies to frame my research on water, racialized labor, and agrarian capitalism in the 20th-century US west. Recently, I’ve added another lens through which to understand my research questions: the graphic novel. Allow me to illustrate.

During the Spring 2020 semester, I enrolled in a graduate seminar titled “Race, State, and Power” and met once a week with peers to discuss books on global insurgencies, racial capitalism, and the nation state. Unbeknownst to me then, our course readings—which paired critical history with speculative fiction—would set two creative projects in motion which helped me cope with the state of the world while pushing the limits of what I thought reflected a good/traditional dissertation project.

Over the past months, I’ve used art and speculative fiction to cope with declension narratives and doom and gloom statistics that envelope the present moment. Fiction by Octavia E. Butler, Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, and Fernando Flores have shown me how to interpret the past, present, and future in ways I had never imagined. Their stories, albeit odd, offered respite when I needed it most. Most importantly, their novels helped me hang on to a future in which things eventually do get better. I imagined I could be, as the non-profit online magazine Grist eloquently writes, “working toward a planet that doesn’t burn, a future that doesn’t suck.” 

The closure of archives during the pandemic resulted in unexpected changes that challenged me to brainstorm other research methods for my work. All the while, I searched for opportunities to broaden the scope of my work through creative perspectives. This has manifested as a creative outlet wherein I illustrate scenes from the archive. Examples, like my illustrations below, merged mid-twentieth century black and white archival photographs in the public domain with colorful renditions that brought the archive to life. The sample illustrations below are creative drafts in which I incorporated storyboards, dialogue, and historical references to emphasize key elements in the histories I’m exploring for my dissertation. 

I will still write my dissertation in the academic prose expected of doctoral research. However, the graphic novel component I’ve envisioned has the potential to reach an entirely new audience that may not have an interest in reading standard, double-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman, linear text. Together, the traditional dissertation and artistic renditions offer an innovative form of storytelling. 

In line with the creative aspect of this work, I’m using graphic history to share my work while imagining alternatives for a better future through speculative fiction. That is, I’m blending history with imaginative fiction to think of how problems of the past can be addressed and abolished in the future. In this way, I am able to explain past issues while imagining alternative futures in which things get better. Themes such as labor exploitation in agricultural fields, environmental degradation due to toxic pesticides, and the expansion of prisons and militarized border walls can be written out in the speculative futures I’m writing about. This helps me find hope through abolitionist alternatives to get to the world I want to be a part of. And while it may seem idealist, the pandemic has reminded me that I must imagine alternatives with a better future to stay hopeful.

By Ivan, spring 2021. Digital drawing over an online Library of Congress photograph.

Unlike the archival photographs that captured Imperial Valley farmworkers as nameless and faceless subjects (see original photograph here), my illustrations help breathe new life to the workers’ struggle by centering their lives in local history. This approach speaks against dominant discourse and regional histories which alienate and render workers invisible to the land. This erasure is a trend in mainstream history, but I believe the workers’ stories in the Imperial Valley are out there—even if their stories aren’t necessarily preserved in the traditional archive. As a creative project, I’m formulating the past through speculative historical fiction to center the agency of Imperial Valley’s working class alongside a brighter future. Indeed, the workers have a story to tell; they’re there—even though the archive suggests otherwise.

Other illustrations, like the special collections box below, have the potential to communicate the research behind my work. While I couldn’t take my readers to the archive reading rooms, I can illustrate what and how I saw the archive in ways that a footnote simply could not. There’s hope in the dissertation-research-turned-graphic-novel approach because it helps the public visualize the past to shape a better and more just future. In the process, the speculative approaches in this work might help speak more just futures into existence.

By Ivan, fall 2020. Digital drawing over personal photograph taken at UCLA archives in 2019.

Because many archives closed temporarily or were shuttered completely, I was forced to adapt my research into something more accessible. And to cope with declension narratives that enveloped this last year, I’ve turned to art and speculative fiction to make sense of my research through new angles. I’ve since collaborated on a reader-friendly environmental justice comic book on the right to clean drinking water based on a fictional town in California’s Central Valley. It explores my research through fictional characters in ways that bar graphs, charts, and conference presentations could not. That little comic book is now a resource for rural communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley and it’s publicly available through eScholarship.   Projects like these are the result of finding ways to cope with the pandemic while getting creative in the process, and I hope to connect with others out there interested in similar work.

By Ivan, 2020. Early draft of a storyline I was crafting for a comic book based on a segment of my research.
By Ivan. Graphic rendition of my dissertation: “Water is King—Here is its Kingdom: Race, Labor, and the Environment in the Making of California’s Imperial Valley, 1900-2000.”
By Ivan. Graphic rendition of my dissertation: “Water is King—Here is its Kingdom: Race, Labor, and the Environment in the Making of California’s Imperial Valley, 1900-2000.”