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Announcing “This is Your Democracy”

Clemente Course students reflect on the meaning of civic engagement.

Mass Humanities is honored to announce the publication of This is Your Democracy, a new collection of writings from students in three special Clemente Course classes offered in spring 2021. Featuring essays by 29 writers, the essays focus on the writer’s experiences, and interpretations of civic engagement.

In spring 2021, fifty-five past Clemente participants enrolled in a special course exploring civic engagement. The focus of the course was apt for a nation grappling with political conflicts and a global pandemic; in fact, the first online classes began the day before the January 6 attack on the Capitol. That week, scholars hailing from seventeen Massachusetts communities read excerpts from the memoir of a civil rights legend, Congressman John Lewis. Over five weeks, the classes studied the movements for LGBTQ+ rights, rights for people with disabilities, Indigenous rights, criminal justice reform and other issues. Readings and class discussions required each scholar “to read widely, think critically, and write ethically about different movements” for equality and justice.”

“These essays connect personal histories to a fuller understanding of the history of our nation, the decisions of a family with the conditions in a city,” said Brian Boyles, Mass Humanities Executive Director. “Their embrace of our responsibilities to one another recalls the words of John Lewis, who said, ‘Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.’

Mass Humanities was fortunate to work with Lucia Knoles, Gina Ocasion and Ousmane Power-Greene, longtime members of the Clemente faculty who led three classes that took unique approaches to the subject of civic engagement. Journalist and editor Iris Adler also worked with students on their writings.

Clemente Courses take place in Brockton, Dorchester, Holyoke, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester. Mass Humanities continues to seek new opportunities for Clemente scholars across the commonwealth.

Massachusetts is complicated and evolving. Steeped in revolutionary traditions that shape our democracy, we live in a global capital of ideas enriched by generations of longtime residents and new arrivals who reimagine the possibilities of our neighborhoods and institutions. Systemic inequities and shifting demographics require new conversations about what it means to be part of the Massachusetts story. As we begin the recovery from the extraordinary challenges of the last year, a reckoning with our history can infuse new voices into our efforts to build a more equitable commonwealth.

At Mass Humanities, we believe in an inclusive society that recognizes all people’s perspectives, especially those that have been historically excluded. Launching on June 1, the Expand Massachusetts Stories initiative offers up to $20,000 for projects that collect, interpret and/or share narratives about the commonwealth, with an emphasis on the voices and experiences that have gone unrecognized, or have been excluded from public conversation.

The deadline for Letters of Inquiry is June 22.

Projects should employ the tools of the humanities—inquiry, contextualization, and reflection—to improve our shared understanding of the Bay State. Organizations are encouraged to explore and amplify previously unacknowledged voices from the past; make space for the lived experiences of Massachusetts residents from historically excluded communities; reconsider well-known stories from new perspectives; or provide opportunities for people to engage their understandings of their communities through the humanities. Successful proposals will demonstrate how the project contributes to a more inclusive story of Massachusetts. Mass Humanities is especially interested in projects based in the knowledge and wisdom that exists locally.

Questions? Email

Photo: Andrew Wang/Pao Arts Center

Mass Humanities is honored to award the 2021 Mass History Commendation to the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center’s Pao Arts Center. Selected annually as part of the Mass History Conference, the award recognizes excellence by a Mass Humanities grantee. The Mass History Conference takes place virtually on Monday, June 7, with additional workshops and networking events on six other dates in June.

Pao Arts Center was established in 2017 as a visionary program collaboration between Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) and Bunker Hill Community College. It is Chinatown’s first arts and cultural center. BCNC Pao Arts Center has been the recipient of many Mass Humanities grants, including two Project Grants, a Digital Capacity Grant, and CARES Act COVID response funding. Recently, their Mass Humanities-funded “Homeward Bound” exhibit explored narratives of home, community, and intergenerational resilience, drawing upon four years of ethnographic research and interviews with the Chinese diaspora in nine countries and 13 cities. The project included online community conversations on LGBTQ+ historical figures, housing, and healing. In response to anti-Asian violence arising during the COVID-19 outbreak, Pao Arts Center created “Love Letters to Chinatown,” which will soon be available via a digital StoryMap. Their work exemplifies the idea that history is a community activity. Learn more about the Pao Art Center here.  

“Our partners at BCNC’s Pao Arts Center exemplify the power of local humanities institutions to strengthen a neighborhood,” said Mass Humanities Executive Director Brian Boyles. “In project after project, they’ve created opportunities for residents to reflect on their surroundings, share their stories, and elevate the voices of Chinatown. We congratulate Pao Arts Center Director Cynthia Woo, BCNC Executive Director Ben Hires, and their colleagues on this well-deserved award.”

Mass Humanities provides major funding to the Mass History Alliance, host of the Mass History Conference. The theme of this year’s conference is “History: a Massachusetts Community Activity.”

Your donation will help us bring the stories of Clemente Course scholars to the world. Launched in the summer of 2020, the 6-week Clemente Writing Course is offered to the low-income, adult graduates of the Clemente Courses in Dorchester, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester, free of charge. The focus is on creating publishable opinion pieces, and all essays are included in print and online anthologies published by Mass Humanities. Through the Federation of State Humanities Councils, The Andrew W. Mellon funded the summer 2020 and spring 2021 courses. For the summer of 2021, we are looking to donors like you for support.

Our goal for the summer 2021 course: $35,000

Susi Ryan
Following In His Footsteps, Venture’s 26 Acres, 2016
Cotton, Dutch wax African fabric, stone, metal.
Photograph © ASHLEY GREEN via Imagn Content Services, LLC

More than $250,000 in funding supports humanities institutions, programs.

A new round of grants from Mass Humanities will give museums, historical societies and other cultural organizations the opportunity to reach their audiences digitally as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. From laptops to website upgrades, mobile walking tours to virtual exhibits, the Digital Capacity Grants announced today provide residents with access to their heritage despite social distancing.

Mass Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, awarded more than $250,000 to 59 non-profits in the state.

“These grants are part of our ongoing response to the pandemic, but there always provide a preview of the future of public humanities programming,” said Mass Humanities Executive Director Brian Boyles. “As we begin to rebuild from the impacts of this crisis, our communities deserve the chance to engage with each other and our cultural heritage. It’s also clear that the digital space offers organizations the chance to build their audiences.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have pivoted to offering creative, accessible, and free online humanities platforms and programs. In many cases, these programs have found audiences far beyond traditional in-person attendees. While digital divides remain, virtual and hybrid programs reach over entrenched barriers like accessibility of locations, neighborhood segregation, competing responsibilities for working people, and more. 

The funding is made possible through support from Mass Cultural Council.

Clemente found me in 2018 via a brochure at the Worcester Art Museum. I could not believe that there was a place to take college level classes for free, especially for a woman in my age group, too young to be a senior. I don’t have a degree, although I have completed many college classes. I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. Having my daughter, my husband and I focused all of our energy on her, on making sure she had the best education that we could afford.

Everyone was very happy for me when I decided to sign up for Clemente. I’m considering going back to school to get my degree, and Clemente has helped me narrow down the kind I want to pursue, likely art history or creative writing. I have a sister who is going back to get her doctorate and she is envious of the classes I’m taking. Since before my Clemente experience, I have traveled the country lecturing about my ancestors. Clemente has given me the extra boost and validation in knowing who I am and presenting myself with more confidence.

Clemente, for me, is the gift that keeps on giving. It truly is. Before taking the Clemente Course, I’d never taken a philosophy class. I love to read, but I never wanted to read philosophy. I couldn’t grasp what it had to do with anything going on in the world. It’s not like science; you never come out with a concrete answer. But as I worked with people from different backgrounds in Clemente, it started to make sense. By the end of the philosophy class, I realized it’s about how you perceive life. It’s about personal morals and what you believe in life. I will never shy away from another philosophy class.

Before COVID, I would go to the library to write my papers and would send them in from there. I really loved the library. I don’t have cable or internet at my house. So when the pandemic hit and we had to go online for classes, I was going to my mother’s home for the classes. I do have a hotspot now and can communicate better.

I’m African American. I’m German. I’m the first American-born citizen on my German mother’s side of the family. Over the years, my husband and I helped raise children from all around the world including students from foreign exchange programs. The children I’ve had in my daycare included the poorest of the poor and the affluent middle class. I feel honored that I have been able to take care of children from all walks of life.

I titled my essay in the We, Too, Are America anthology, “Cloth Has Given me a Voice,” because that is literally true. Years ago, I was a very shy person, focused on helping others and being in the background. Around 2007, my quilting guild was asked to give a presentation for MLK Day and to connect MLK to African American quilting at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield. I did a PowerPoint presentation, which surprised me as much as it surprised everyone who knows me. I’m an old fashioned person, not very good with computers and technology. Give me a typewriter and a pen and paper and I’m good to go. But a friend and I did the presentation and spoke in front of 400 people for a half hour. I found the power to do this because I was speaking about something I love, which is my family’s history, African American history, and quilting.

Susi Ryan (R) and Mallory Shelley (L), who contributed to a book published by Mass Humanities titled ‘We, Too, Are America,’ pictured outside the Worcester Art Museum on Saturday, January 16, 2021.

The essay is about my ancestor, a man named Venture Smith, who was sold for 4 barrels of rum and a piece of calico. People assume slavery to be about the South, but Venture was a slave in Connecticut. His legacy continues to set an example for all to model. I have a very rich family history documented in slavery. Venture was from my paternal grandfather’s side of the family. My paternal great-great grandmother was a slave also, and the emancipation papers are still in my family.

My mother is a trained fashion designer from Germany, and by teaching me how to sew, she helped me appreciate all kinds of fabric and their history. She was born before World War 2 started and her family were war resisters, friends and allies of Jewish families. They were forced to flee Eastern Germany. Her country doesn’t exist anymore, because it’s now part of Poland.

As African Americans, we have much working against us in the United States that makes it hard to show our worth and make it in the world. Protests make the news, but that kind of activism is a part of our daily lives. Every day we wake up and have to face danger. We have no idea what’s going to happen that day because of being African American. Taking the Clemente Course, you realize we aren’t the only people going through this, but we are the only people who’ve been here for 400 years who are going through this. We are feeling the ramifications of slavery 400 years later.

I always say that you can’t complain unless you vote. I feel the same about Black Lives Matter and protest. I am a peaceful protester. I have collaborated with other artists to create two quilts that were made specifically to peacefully advocate against state sanctioned violence. The story quilts that I create are to protest against social injustices and to make people aware of the many BIPOC in the United States and the African diaspora who have yet to be acknowledged in the history textbooks in our public schools in America.


Susi Ryan is an author, lecturer, fiber artist and activist for social justice. She is the co-founder and current president of Sisters In Stitches Joined By The Cloth, Inc. She is an associate of Inspired By Courage founded by Regina Mason and a State Representative for HACSA, History and Cultural Society of Africa and it’s diaspora, founded by Johanna Svlankier, in Ghana. Susi is also a member of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and works as a farm share worker at Cotyledon organic vegetable farm.

Susi has been married to her husband, Robert, for 40 years this May. She has one daughter and one grandson. Susi was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but her family moved to Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1960’s and eventually to Worcester, MA. She graduated from Burncoat High School and has studied at UMASS Dartmouth, Quinsigamond Community College and Clark University. She is a 2019-2020 Clemente graduate and Worcester Clemente Advisory board member.

CJ Posk

C.J. Posk lives in Worcester, Massachusetts and is the proud mother of a daughter and son, and grandmother of five. She has a great interest in preserving and sharing history, especially with children. She is the author of Worcester Stacks Up: Firsts and Fun Facts, a full color book brimming with Worcester History. C.J.’s essay,  “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: A Call for a 21st Century New Deal” was featured in the We, Too, Are America anthology published in tandem with the 2020 Clemente Summer Writing and Media Literacy Class, funded by the Andrew M. Mellon Foundation. The following is an interview of C.J. conducted by Mass Humanities staff member Michelle Wilson.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you came to be involved with the Clemente Course?

I wrote the book, Worcester Stacks Up, ten years ago and I’ve been working on another. Elizabeth Bacon, Clemente Worcester’s Community Coordinator, ran into me often as I researched at the library, and twice she asked me about signing up for the Clemente Course. The second time, it worked. Going back to school sounded exciting.

How has your understanding of the humanities changed through the Clemente Course and writing program?

My understanding changed a lot. I really got educated, and learned about so many things, from American history to art and critical thinking. When it came to attending the poetry class, I thought, what the heck are we doing with poetry? But during COVID, I ended up having no cards to send people for special occasions, and I concocted my own poetry, which came in handy. I love learning.

Your essay “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste”, is about our country’s social safety net. Can you tell me why you chose this topic to write about?

I chose this topic because I’ve had personal experience throughout my life with Social Security, and I wanted the then-current administration, especially with COVID, to bring back another New Deal for the current generations.

How was your taking the course perceived by your friends and family?

At first, they questioned it because I always have so much to do, and because I am visually impaired. It was probably also because I am 78 years old and no one expected me to be a student again at my age. After I started, though, they supported me because they could see how much I enjoyed learning new information, and how the Clemente classes were teaching me so much and feeding my love of learning.

How have you been faring through the pandemic and social unrest of the past year?

It’s gone by so fast that it doesn’t seem real that we were in a pandemic in 2020 and still are. I think that staying inside for so long made me acutely aware of how my eyesight was continuing to diminish. I would pour water and miss the bowl, and I’d not be able to read papers I used to be able to read. My eyesight has gotten to the point where I used to wonder how it would feel to lose even more of my eyesight, and now I feel that I have lost more over the past year of COVID. It has been a trying time seeing that loss happening to me. The part that has been really trying is reading, but technology is now my best friend.

How are things going with online learning? Did you take advantage of the offer for a free laptop?

I enjoyed every class I had, managing with my eyesight. It worked out with the teachers, as I would let them know if I needed anything extra. I did take advantage of the free computer and that helped with class.*

What is next for you? Any plans to take more college courses? What are your life, educational, career goals?

I would love eventually to take more classes. My next project, though, is writing a book about Worcester’s WooSox and I’ll need to focus exclusively on this project first.

What would you say to someone who is considering taking the Clemente Course? Tips for success?

Taking a Clemente Course is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. The classes were informative and entertaining, and I felt a real camaraderie with other students. My teachers were intelligent, fascinating and helpful. Being back in academia was challenging but well worth it. If you’re even considering it, like I was, I say go for it!

C.J. and three of her grandsons, Joey, Nicholas, and Zachary

*Mass Humanities launched a special fundraising initiative in the spring of 2020 to purchase laptops and internet access for Clemente students so they can continue their studies remotely.

March 2021

In March of 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boston Clemente Course had to go online with its classes. For twenty years, the course has been held in-person at Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester. This disruption could have spelled disaster, but the students and faculty persevered.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy serves as the Stanley Paterson Professor of American History (he is also the Academic Director Emeritus) in the Boston Clemente Course in the Humanities, a free college course for lower income adults in Dorchester which was a co-recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. Dr. McCarthy has taught the American History portion of the Boston Clemente Course since its founding in 2001. Mass Humanities operates the course in partnership with Codman Square Health Center and Bard College.

Dr. McCarthy is an award-winning historian, educator, and human rights and social justice activist who has taught at Harvard University since 1998. He currently holds a joint faculty appointment in the Graduate School of Education and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he is Core Faculty at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The adopted only son and grandson of public school teachers and factory workers, Dr. McCarthy graduated with honors in history and literature from Harvard College and earned his M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. A noted historian of politics and social movements, he is the author or editor of six books, including the forthcoming Reckoning with History: Unfinished Stories of American Freedom (Columbia UP) and Stonewall’s Children: Living Queer History in an Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love (New Press).

John Sieracki, Director of Development and Communications at Mass Humanities, interviewed Dr. McCarthy via Zoom.

John Sieracki: Tell me about the pandemic and going online. You must’ve had experience with online courses before.

Tim McCarthy: Never.

JS: So going online was a real learning experience, not just for the students, but for the faculty, too.

TM: It was a complete change. I had done webinars and those kinds of things, but I’d never taught an entire course online. Clemente was the first time in my teaching career where I had to turn one of my courses into an online experience. It was also the first teaching that was fully disrupted for me by the COVID pandemic. There was a lot lost last spring all across the board in education. I think it’s safe to say that very few of us fully knew what was happening or what would come of it.

Among our Clemente scholars are people who have all sorts of commitments and responsibilities with family, as well as serious concerns about their own health, some with comorbidities and preexisting conditions. Some of our students are essential workers on the front line whose work is precarious because it’s part of a gig or wage economy. Some have lost their jobs during the pandemic. At this point, we should all know about the different realities of housing precarity, food insecurity, economic inequality, and health disparity. Many of our students were already dealing with these things, but the COVID pandemic has exposed all of these inequities in our society and made them worse, including access to technology. The digital divide—which is also a racial and class divide–became very clear once we had to move Clemente online. We found out very quickly who had access to WiFi, who had a laptop, who only had a phone.

JS: I remember talking to one Clemente scholar at that time who was trying to do the reading and writing assignments through her phone, and in order to get WiFi, she had to go to a different part of her apartment building, which was dangerous because of COVID.

TM: I remember that student calling into class and not being able to directly reference the assigned reading, even though she had clearly done it, because she was participating in class from the phone and the readings were also on her phone. She couldn’t do both at the same time. Other students dropped off because they didn’t have reliable internet access, or they were overwhelmed with homeschooling their children, taking care of elders, working overtime shifts on the front lines, getting sick themselves, and lacking the necessary technology to access the online course.

All of the things that we have to contend with in Clemente without a pandemic were thrown into very sharp relief and disarray once COVID hit. And that includes the faculty. For instance, Jack Cheng (Clemente’s longtime Art History Professor and former Academic Director) has two teenage children whose learning also shifted online. His wife Julie is a doctor at Codman Square Health Center and Dorchester House. Jack found himself teaching his kids at home while she was on the front lines in the community caring for patients, some of whom include our Clemente students. In my case, my brother and niece and that side of my family experienced many disruptions and needs that had never existed before in quite this way. Last spring, we all had to step up to figure out how to deal with these challenges together. My parents are retired, in their late 70s, and they live in a different state, so we were concerned about them as well.

As far as Clemente is concerned, last spring was incredibly disappointing. We felt like COVID stole the semester from us. I only had two class meetings before we went online, and then things started to fizzle out. We managed to keep a number of students in the course, and we were flexible and worked with Bard College to make sure that students could get their credits. We dialed back what we expected of them for final papers. We were able to get through and stumble to the finish line, but I don’t think anyone was fully satisfied with the experience. As a result, all of us were yearning to figure out how we could do this in a different way that would be more successful and satisfying.

I have been teaching in the Boston Clemente Course for 20 years, and I love it! Jack and I are the founding Art History and American History professors here. I served as Academic Director for most of the first ten years, Jack for the last ten, and now Ann Murphy and Julia Legas, our dear friends and longtime colleagues, are leading us. Over the summer and early fall, I did a lot of reflecting about these two decades. I get choked up when I think about it. It’s wonderful that Jack and I have had these 20 years together, and we really love and respect each other. We’re different, as you know, but that’s what makes it work. I’m going to be 50 this year, and I’ve spent twenty of those fifty years teaching Clemente. That’s 40% of my entire life, 80% of my professional academic life. My origin and evolution—as a scholar, teacher, and citizen—is deeply intertwined with Clemente and Codman Square.

Dr. McCarthy’s view of class in 2020

None of us wanted 2020 to be the end of Clemente. We didn’t want to stumble to the finish line ever again. We wanted to reinvent ourselves, reimagine what this could look like, and that’s precisely what we did. The four of us—Jack, Ann, Julia, and me—have worked together for many years. We love each other. We have deep affection and admiration for one another as people and colleagues. Last summer we said to each other: “You know what? Let’s do this. Let’s figure this out, and let’s do it right.” And we’ve been “all in” ever since!

In the fall of 2020, instead of recruiting for and starting a new academic year as we usually do, we switched gears. We took stock and decided to use this historical moment—the contentious national election and perilous global pandemic—as an opportunity to talk about the Declaration of Independence with alumni and prospective new students. Our theme was “Community and Responsibility: What Do We Owe Each Another?” Over the course of ten two-hour sessions in October and November, we analyzed that founding document and related materials through the lenses of history, literature, philosophy, and art. In the first week, everyone read different parts of the Declaration, and then we discussed and wrestled with it. The fifteen or so participants were a mix of alumni from the Clemente Course for veterans, the standard Course, and a few potential new enrollees.

For my part, when we got to the American History week, I assigned materials from the 1793 Yellow Fever pandemic in Philadelphia and the 1955-56 bus boycott in Montgomery. We used the former as a case study to discuss the anti-Black racism, socioeconomic inequities, and public health issues that emerged during a time when Philadelphia was the largest, most racially diverse city in the United States, and also the capital of the United States. For the latter, we focused on the often overlooked role that Black women played in organizing one of the most successful boycotts in American history, also one of the first great “democratic dramas” of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Every one of the 15 or so people who signed up came to all ten sessions. It was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had. The students were highly energized and engaged, given the state of the world. For faculty members, it was a beacon, a sign that an online version of the Clemente Course could not only work but soar.

JS: What’s in store for spring 2021?

TM: We’ve reimagined the Clemente Course this winter and spring to four four-week sections, with two two-hour classes each week on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Jack Cheng will teach Art History, then Ann Murphy will teach Literature, then Julia Legas will teach Moral Philosophy, and then I will teach American History. I have completely reworked my syllabus for this year’s class, which I’m calling “Reckonings,” centering our work on the long Black freedom struggle from the American Revolution to the present day.

JS: Tell me a little bit more about that. What’s an example?

TM: We will focus on what I’m calling “democratic dramas,” centered around crucial conflicts involving race and racism at four major inflection points in American history. It’s more focused than my usual Clemente syllabus. Each of the weeks will have its own theme, running chronologically.

In the first week, “Race and Revolution,” we will look at Phillis Wheatley and Thomas Jefferson, the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever pandemic, and 1790 Naturalization Act, which is the first time that U.S. citizenship was racialized as “white” and therefore restricted in “racial” terms.

Then we’ll pivot to “Slavery and Freedom,” diving into the abolitionist writings of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and David Walker, and then moving to the Civil War and Reconstruction to look at Abraham Lincoln, more Douglass, and the Reconstruction (13th, 14th, 15th) Amendments.

The third week is “Reaction and Renaissance.” The “Reaction” part covers the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the “nadir.” We will look at the work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the “Renaissance” section, we will discuss W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem written by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson.

The final week, “Protest and Power,” includes the women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the Black Panther Party.

I will assign them an archive of primary texts every week and then we’ll try to make sense of it all together. This approach allows the students and me to really “dig in” and work hard to understand these pivotal moments in American history.

JS: That approach puts them into the role of being historians. “Here are the documents; here are the archives. How would you interpret this?”

TM: Yes, that’s the intention. This approach also centers race and racism, African-American history, and the long Black freedom struggle in a way that is especially appropriate right now, something that I find students are really yearning for.

Dr. McCarthy and his fellow faculty members are included in A Reckoning in Boston, a new film by James Rutenbeck featuring Clemente Scholars Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler.

JS: What do you think will happen next year?

TM: That’s the million-dollar question. I think if we can be back at Codman Square safely in person, then we’ll do that. But it’s complicated. Many in our Clemente community have real health concerns related to various preexisting conditions. That includes members of the faculty, but I’m thinking principally of our students and their family members. It’s hard to get out of the house and get to school if you still have people at home for whom you are responsible. Everything is still up in the air right now.

JS: Maybe a hybrid of in-person and online classes?

TM: There are issues of access from various angles. Once you meet the challenges of the digital divide—which is also, as I said, a race and class divide—it becomes easier to “attend” class. It is imperative that we bridge this gap, and we are grateful to Mass Humanities for raising the funds we need to help us do just that. But in the case of in-person classes, there are also different barriers, like access to transportation. Many things have changed as a result of COVID. For instance, picking kids up from school is not something our students have had to do during the pandemic, and in some cases, our students are either working from home or out of work. In this current landscape, once you meet the technological access needs, academic access becomes a bit easier. But getting from home to school in a physical sense is still a challenge, for so many reasons. Everything is constantly changing right now, uncertain and up for grabs, so we have to remain as responsive as we can. There are so many challenges.

That said, across the board in my teaching during the past year, I have found that people are extending each other an enormous amount of grace in this moment. I am trying to model that as a teacher. The regard that people are demonstrating for one another during this crisis is deeply moving, and I was struck by how generously the students and faculty engaged with one another throughout the fall. The moments of contention that sometimes surface in our in-person classes—where people roll their eyes, look at each other dismissively, go on the attack, or get self-righteous—are vastly diminished now. The community is kinder and more intentional, has deep regard and broad grace for one another. I’m not sure if it’s because of the online format, or the pandemic, or just a combination of so many things, but it’s beautiful to witness. I have long defined the humanities as the shared study of what it means to be human so we can become more humane. If Clemente is a gauge and a guide, I actually think we’re becoming better people in this time. As the Indian writer Arundhati Roy has suggested, this pandemic could become a “portal” to a vastly different and more just world.

That said, I think the ways in which we hold each other to account and regard each other in real space, in real time, with real people, in the physical presence of others, is also the stuff of community. But I’ve been rethinking the limitations of that truth. I have come to believe that we can create real and intentional communities in these virtual, online spaces. All of this comes with the crucial caveat, again, that we must close the digital divide. But once we meet the challenges of providing reliable, affordable, universal access to the internet, a new world of education is possible.

For instance, this fall, we had people Zooming in from Hawaii, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, and parts of Massachusetts outside Boston. We had people in the Zoom classroom who would not have been able to access our physical classroom in Dorchester. And that was a great thing. It built on our diversity.

JS: It’s interesting that you have “regulars,” alumni who come back to participate or who take multiple Clemente Courses like the one for veterans. One told me he was taking a Clemente Course in Seattle. That alumni connection is something to build on.

TM: The fall 2020 group was very special, in part, because they shared our disappointment in the way the last academic year had to end. We were all unsatisfied, but we were also determined. The students led a kind of rebirth. Together, we stuck with it, committed to it, and held each other accountable. It was really beautiful. In some ways, that community of faculty, alumni, and prospective students saved Clemente in Dorchester.

JS: The power of the alumni group to do that, to stay in and grow the program, to be part of it, is inspiring. Let’s take a step back. Tell me about your approach to teaching, in particular in the Clemente Course.

TM: I came of age as a scholar and teacher within the intellectual revolutions of social history and multiculturalism that were sweeping the academy during the 1980s and 1990s. Entering Harvard College, I hadn’t had a lot of that in my public high school curriculum other than what I was able to create with some exceptional teachers. But in college I was awakened to different ways of thinking about the past and its connection to the present.

Harvard had just done a “cluster hire” of leading scholars in African-American Studies, which experienced a kind of “renaissance” during my time there. I ended up taking courses in African-American history and literature and politics. I took a course on southern Africa, which was crucial for me, since I was becoming active in the student divestment movement against apartheid in South Africa.

Those years were at once an awakening and crucible, coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall, AIDS activism, the first U.S. war on Iraq, Mandela walking out of prison, the L.A. riots, and the political shift from Reagan-Bush to Clinton. All of those things led me to think about the dynamics of social change on the global scale: the tanks in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the twilight of the long Reagan era.

This profoundly shaped the way I think about history. At its core, history is a contested set of stories about change over time, a way for us to understand not just the origins and evolution of society, but also the various motivations that spur these changes. Social history and multiculturalism opened up new pathways to knowledge and understanding about the diverse groups of people who have been agents of change throughout history. History could now be told from the “bottom up” as opposed to top-down.

In college, I was introduced to Howard Zinn, and I read A People’s History of the United States before I went to graduate school at Columbia University. When I got to Columbia, I studied with Eric Foner and the late Manning Marable, two of the scholars who led that revolutionary turn in African-American Studies and social and political history. My approach to teaching history has always been centered on “the people,” a multicultural approach to understanding the complex dynamics of social change in any given country, culture, and context.

JS: It’s interesting to think of that period in the late ‘80s and early ’90s as revolutionary, compared with the ‘60s, and then compared with what’s happening right now.

TM: In many ways, the ‘60s and ‘70s produced the context for that transformation within the academy, a series of social, political, and cultural revolutions, which then inspired a kind of intellectual revolution. My generation, “Gen X,” was educated—or more precisely, saved from our mis-education—in a deeply political academic and intellectual environment that was made possible by the revolutions, the turbulent insurgencies, of previous generations.

I love to hear my current students, whether Clemente students or Harvard students, talk about “intersectionality.” I like to tell them that I was studying intersectionality when Kimberlé Crenshaw first published her trailblazing law review articles and coined the term. They talk about “respectability politics,” and I tell them that I first read Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s amazing book, Righteous Discontent, decades ago. My students now talk all the time about “identity politics,” “respectability politics,” “intersectionality,” “de-centering whiteness” and “interrogating systemic oppression.” We were doing all of that over a generation ago. I’m glad to see the beat goes on.

My career began with researching slavery and abolitionism, the period between the American Revolution and Civil War and Reconstruction. I then became interested more broadly in histories of American radicalism over time in the United States, thinking comparatively about social movements and protest cultures. This led to my first book, The Radical Reader, and then the development of a course, “American Protest Literature,” that I taught at Harvard for near two decades. More recently, I’ve become interested in the LGBTQ movement, in part, because there’s still a real void in the curriculum but also because of my own evolving personal identities and political interests living through this particular era in history. I believe that everyone can make history and that everyone should study history. At the core of my fervent, almost evangelical love of the humanities is the idea that history is at the root of it all. It’s the core of who we are and how we understand our place in the world. We all have the opportunity to make our place in history. I like to remind my students that every history book has an index, which catalogues all the people, places, and events that have taken place in history. I ask them: where will you be in the index of the history books written 100 years from now? We should all answer that question.

JS: You mentioned that you’ve just finished a book…?

TM: Yes, it’s called Reckoning with History: Unfinished Stories of American Freedom, which will be published by Columbia University Press this summer. The book is a tribute to Eric Foner, my Columbia Ph.D. advisor. A group of us decided at his retirement party several years ago that we wanted to do a book to honor him. It’s a series of public-facing essays written by former Foner students who represent a new generation of American historians who write history in a more political way. Some of the essays meditate on how we use archives to craft counter-narratives, and some are original reinterpretations of major themes and topics. Mine is about the twists and turns of writing history and teaching history while living history at the same time.

JS: You have a lot to look forward to this year, and I can’t wait to read your book.

TM: Indeed. Slowly but surely, things seem to be looking up!

Order Reckoning with History at this link.

Mass Humanities will sponsor online events hosted by history organizations. 

Every Massachusetts resident deserves the opportunity to learn, question, and contribute to the histories of their communities. As we confront the challenges of the pandemic, racial injustice, and political polarization, we feel more than ever the need to reconnect with the events and people that shaped the places we call home.

A new opportunity from Mass Humanities supports local history organizations in their efforts to reach audiences near and far through online programs and events.

Bridge Street sponsorships will fund free online programs hosted by Massachusetts historical societies, centers, museums, or historic sites, helping these institutions recover lost income, and enabling free access to the humanities.

Organizations can apply for sponsorships for up to three online programs per eligible applicant, at $500 per program ($1500 maximum). Programs must be open to the general public and must be free to attend.


Applications open March 1, at noon. Sponsorships awarded will be announced every 3-4 weeks (see guidelines for a full calendar). Applications must be submitted at least three weeks before the upcoming award date to be considered for that cycle.

Looking for support for a different type of grant? More updated grant opportunities for Reading Frederick Douglass Together, Local History and more coming soon!

Why Bridge Street?

Shepherd House, circa 1932. Courtesy of Historic Northampton.
Shepherd House, circa 1932. Courtesy of Historic Northampton.

Mass Humanities is headquartered in the Pomeroy-Shepherd House, a historic home on Bridge Street in Northampton. Our location embodies our belief in the power of local history to strengthen the fabric of our communities. We believe these shared spaces will be crucial to the rebuilding process.


The Bridge Street Fund is made possible through support from individuals and by Mass Cultural Council. Donate to the Fund today to keep local history alive in Massachusetts.

Mass Humanities announces two grants for organizations bringing the humanities to the public through digital programs and platforms. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have pivoted to offering creative, accessible, and free online humanities platforms and programs. In many cases, these programs have found audiences far beyond traditional in-person attendees. While digital divides remain, virtual and hybrid programs reach over entrenched barriers like accessibility of locations, neighborhood segregation, competing responsibilities for working people, and more. 

Mass Humanities anuncia dos subvenciones para las organizaciones que hagan llegar las humanidades al público mediante programas y plataformas digitales. Para saber más, lea nuestras pautas y las preguntas claves de la solicitud en español a continuación.

Organizations may apply to both opportunities, but not for the same programs or projects. See each grants’ guidelines for details. 

Digital Capacity Grants of up to $5000 will support organizations undertaking projects that make the humanities digitally accessible to the public and increase the applicants’ skills and capacity to continue digital humanities programs in the future. Funding for Digital Capacity Grants is provided by the Mass Cultural Council. For details, read our grant guidelines, FAQ, and key application questions.

Timeline: Applications open January 14th, 2021 at noon and close February 7th at 11:59pm. Recipients will be notified of their awards the week of March 29th.

Resources: View slides from our recent Digital Capacity Grant Webinar. Sample answers to application questions are included in the webinar slides.

Consultations: Want to speak with a Mass Humanities Program Officer about answering the application questions? Sign up for 10-minute consultations with:

Jennifer Hall-Witt:

Katherine Stevens:

Note: questions about application eligibility are best answered by emailing

Bridge Street Sponsorships: Mass Humanities’ Bridge Street Fund supports history organizations across our state. Through the generosity of donors, Mass Humanities will sponsor up to 3 free, public online programs by historical societies, centers, museums, or historic sites, at $500 per-program. For details, read our guidelines and key application questions.

Timeline: Applications open March 1, at noon. Sponsorships awarded will be announced every 3-4 weeks (see guidelines for a full calendar). Applications must be submitted at least three weeks before the upcoming award date to be considered for that cycle.

Looking for support for a different type of grant? More updated grant opportunities for Reading Frederick Douglass Together, Local History and more coming soon!

Mellon Foundation, Federation of State Humanities Councils support new opportunity for Clemente graduates.

Mass Humanities recently received funding through “Why It Matters,” a special initiative of the Mellon Foundation and the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The grant will make possible “This is Your Democracy:  A Clemente Course on Civic Engagement in America,” online seminars that will bring together Clemente graduates from around Massachusetts to consider how civic engagement has shaped the nation.   

John Lewis (l) and Martin Luther King, Jr. Courtesy of wikimedia.

This marks the fourth grant awarded to Mass Humanities through the Mellon-FSHC partnership. Thanks to a grant awarded in 2020, Clemente graduates participated in writing and media literacy courses that resulted in We, Too, Are America, an anthology of essays now available from Harvard Book Store.

The new courses begin in January 2021. More than 50 past Clemente students enrolled for classes led by Clemente faculty Gina Ocasion, Lucia Knowles, and Ousmane Power-Greene. Graduates of the course will earn 1 credit from Bard College. Classes begin with a discussion with a look at the career of John Lewis. Participants will study some of the many forms engagement can take, from volunteering, to demonstrating, to writing op-eds and letters, to running for office. Mass Humanities will publish writing by the students in a special section of

Click here to learn more about the Clemente Course.

Mass Humanities thanks Governor Baker and our allies in the House of Representatives and Massachusetts State Senate for their continued support for the humanities. This month Governor Baker signed the FY21 state budget, with $18.1 million allocated for Mass Cultural Council, which provides major funding for Mass Humanities. We’re grateful to our elected officials for  protecting the cultural sector as the commonwealth combats the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mass Humanities is especially grateful to our partners at Mass Cultural Council and MASSCreative, and to the many residents who advocate for the humanities’ place in public life. In 2020 Mass Humanities awarded $1.2 million to 207 organizations in Massachusetts.

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