Thousands Attend Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series on Revolutionary Visions, Past and Present
Made possible through the generosity of alumnus Kenneth R. Feinberg ’67 and associates, the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series is one of the History Department’s signature offerings. The series explores contemporary social and policy issues in historical perspective. Each iteration hones in on a topic of pressing interest to faculty, students, and community members, using sustained and critical historical analysis to deepen our collective understandings.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the mass movements of 1968, last year’s series explored the theme “Another World Is Possible: Revolutionary Visions, Past and Present.” Sigrid Schmalzer, who co-chaired the series with Kevin Young and Jess Johnson, explained, “From climate change to white supremacism to the threat of nuclear war, the future of our society feels increasingly uncertain. But history is filled with precarious situations and uphill battles, and social movements around the world have faced those challenges and dared to envision new worlds based on equity and justice. We focused on this theme so that we might learn from how such movements imagined the future—and how they have worked to create it.”
In order to foster critical conversation on the history of mass social movements and their visions for political transformation, many of the events brought together historians and movement leaders or featured presenters whose work straddles both worlds. The series kicked off in September with a conversation on the reemergence of the black radical imagination, putting organizers Mary Hooks (Southerners on New Ground) and Kali Akuno (Cooperation Jackson) in conversation with historians Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Princeton) and Toussaint Losier (UMass Amherst). The following week featured a panel with Carlos Henríquez Consalvi and Rosa Rivera, two participants in the Salvadoran Revolution who now lead community-based public memory projects in El Salvador.
Later that month, Rev Dr. William J. Barber II delivered the keynote address and inaugural James Baldwin Lecture, established by Allen J. Davis ’68. In an event that drew some 1300 people to the Fine Arts Center, Barber, who is co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign and a MacArthur Genius Award winner, discussed the history of Reconstruction that followed Emancipation and the “second” Reconstruction of the 1960s. He then made the case for a “third” Reconstruction in the twenty-first century, entailing “a profoundly moral awakening of justice-loving people united in a fusion coalition powerful enough to reclaim the possibility of democracy.”
Throughout the fall, events continued to demonstrate the significance of historical inquiry for understanding current political movements. In “Imagining Community, Living in Community,” panelists found connections between the Socialist-Zionist kibbutzim of the early twentieth century and 1970s back-to-the-land communities in Vermont, and between Sojourner Truth’s 1840s abolitionist society in Florence, MA, and a current anti-racist intentional community in New York state. A panel titled “Dreams and Nightmares” juxtaposed leftist and rightist movements from around the world (including Nazi Germany, Maoist China, the Salvadoran revolution, and Modi-era India) to ask tough questions about why fundamentally oppressive visions have appeared liberatory to some people, and how movements for liberation have often resulted in maintaining or creating new forms of oppression.
Another panel showcased the ways in which historians are collaborating with activists to explore how historical perspectives can be harnessed in movements for social change, and what historians can learn from today’s activists; Smith College historian Jennifer Guglielmo together with incoming UMass Amherst faculty member Diana Sierra Becerra spoke alongside Linda Burnham (National Domestic Workers Alliance), and Monique Tú Nguyen (Matahari Women Workers’ Center), about (among other things) the powerful ways in which digital timelines of visionary domestic worker organizing to build feminist economies are being used to support domestic workers as they learn about, and engage, the long history of their struggle. Other events included a lecture on the history of science fiction and social change; a zine-making workshop for high school students on sparking historical creativity; an event exploring Venezuela’s communes in historical perspective; and a dialogue between two historians on the ways enslaved and formerly enslaved African American women conceived and experienced freedom.
“As a 2018 UMass Amherst alum, the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series was one of my main connections back to campus last year. The richly contextual histories presented on subjects ranging from Salvadoran revolutionaries, to domestic worker organizing, to the experiences of enslaved African American women, brought new insights and understandings to the underpinnings of this current political moment. Coupled with more participatory events, I was elated that this series brought politically relevant histories and the critical questions of our time to community members and students throughout the Pioneer Valley.”
Most of the fall semester events were panels and lectures. In the spring term, the focus shifted to hands-on workshops. For example, participants aged 8 to 80 explored Mesoamérica Resiste, a narrative poster depicting 500 years of colonialism and resistance, created in part through a nine-year oral history project. The series capstone in Holyoke turned the tables, featuring community members as workshop facilitators.
To facilitate engagement on our campus, 34 UMass and Five College departments and programs co-sponsored the series. Taught by co-chair Kevin Young, the Department of History’s official Feinberg course, “New Approaches to History: Revolutionary Visions, Past and Present,” provided an opportunity for students to deepen their learning while earning General Education credit in history. The course examined when and how revolutionaries have improved society, where they have failed, and why some radical projects have been emancipatory and others oppressive. “I really enjoyed the fact that this course surveyed a lot of different revolutionary movements,” noted an undergraduate enrolled in the class. “Most History majors don’t get exposure to revolutionary movements outside their particular region or theme of interest. This unique course was really valuable in that aspect.” Twenty-two additional UMass and Five College courses — including ten history department classes — were officially affiliated with the series, and numerous others incorporated class field trips to Feinberg Series events into their course syllabi.
Building on the successful 2016 series on mass incarceration and taking up the charge of the UMass Amherst Campus Strategic Plan, the series prioritized community engagement and outreach. We are proud that upwards of 20 community organizations collaborated with the history department as official co-sponsors of the series!
Alongside members of the history department, community members were involved at every stage: as part of the team that envisioned the series and helped us choose specific event themes; as tablers at events; as panelists on stage alongside nationally and internationally renowned scholars; as the designers and artists who created the series mailer and posters; and as active partners in promoting local engagement with the series. Multiple community groups even organized buses of local K-12 students, community members, and retirement community residents to the various events.
“Since moving to Massachusetts, the Feinberg Series has been one of the most incredible, engaging, and stimulating events in the area — and, frankly — that I have stumbled upon anywhere. Being able to learn from such dynamic thinkers on the most important issues that we face today was an incredible opportunity that has not only deepened my understanding of the world we live in, but also contributed to my work as a coordinator and researcher on a local and international level. The Feinberg Series is truly the nexus for leading intellectual discussions and debate that are crucial for our time. As it came to an end, I was saddened to learn that the theme changes every year, and I hope to be able to attend similar events this coming year and beyond.”
To facilitate attendance by diverse audiences, the series hosted events not only at UMass but also in community venues, offered family-friendly accommodations, conducted several events in Spanish with simultaneous English interpretation, and provided transportation to and from UMass. Audio of the events (soundcloud.com/umass-history) has extended the series into podcast feeds across the U.S. and world. Through a collaboration with the regional library system’s initiative, All Hamptons Read, more than 450 local residents read Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge and attended the associated Feinberg Series event that placed the author, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, in dialogue with UMass historian Barbara Krauthamer.
The series also reached into K-12 classrooms through our annual History Institute, in which 45 local K-12 educators attended Feinberg events and worked together to incorporate the material into their curricula. Participating teachers received professional development points or graduate credit and built lesson plans for students based on the events; all reported that they applied insights from the series in their schools and classrooms. We were grateful to partner with Safire DeJong (the Collaborative for Educational Services) and historian and former teacher Ousmane Power-Greene (Clark University and David Ruggles Center for History & Education) in developing this offering.
As a testament to the series’ success, each event brought together between 200 and 450 students, faculty, and community members. Astoundingly, more than 1,300 people attended the keynote lecture by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. In total, an estimated 4,000 people participated in series events. An additional 1,450 people (and counting) listened to the series podcast, and countless more viewed the Facebook livestream, making it one of the most well-attended academic series ever offered by the UMass Amherst.
“This series sparked my interest in history. I left each event with more books I want to read and with historical insights that changed the way I understand the world.”
Beyond the numbers, feedback from participants underscored the impact the series made on their lives and on UMass-community relations. Community members who had not often come to campus for events attended this series regularly, and have since begun attending other university events. “This series sparked my interest in history. I left each event with more books I want to read and with historical insights that changed the way I understand the world,” remarked a local educator who attended all but two events. Participants made new connections, leading to exciting collaborations and projects, including a local history teacher who is proposing a new high school class based on what she learned in the series. Many community members reached out to us to share how the histories presented in the events transformed their understanding of the world. Several went so far as to say that the series changed their life. The history department is honored to have offered such a meaningful series of opportunities for people throughout Western Massachusetts to gather in critical conversation and community collaboration.
— Jess Johnson, Sigrid Schmalzer, and Kevin Young, Co-chairs of the 2018 Feinberg Series
We invite you to tune in. Audio of select Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series events is available at www.soundcloud.com/umass-history.