Mellon Foundation grants address inequities of vulnerable, marginalized communities

Vulnerable communities are often disproportionately impacted by disasters such as hurricanes, floods and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, these same communities’ voices have been silenced or marginalized when history is preserved.  

Now, thanks to major grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Florida International University is addressing these inequities through two innovative programs that draw upon the talent and expertise of multiple academic areas and community partners. 

The Commons for Justice (CfJ) project, funded by a $4.63 million grant through 2023, is looking for solutions to address disparities in preparing for a disaster and increasing the ability of vulnerable communities, including Black and Hispanic populations, to survive and recover. The project was funded as part of the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative, in collaboration with 10 community organizations and two FIU museums.  

The Community Data Curation: Preserving, Creating, and Narrating Everyday Stories project, funded by a $1 million Mellon grant, will leverage FIU’s Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab’s (WPHL) strong community partnerships with eight South Florida archives, nonprofits, community centers and museums, and help digitize and preserve the stories of South Floridians. The WPHL will work with student interns to record oral histories and provide the necessary training and technical equipment so that these projects are sustainable and remain accessible to all in the community. 

Preparing for and recovering from disasters 

“Disaster research shows consistently that the poor are hit harder than the better-off, and in the U.S., that often means populations of color,” said Professor Richard Olson, the CfJ’s principal investigator and director of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute and International Hurricane Research Center. “We are seeing that again with this pandemic, with our vulnerable populations taking disproportionate losses. We have to openly admit, detail and honestly address the problem. Our Commons for Justice project will do exactly that.”        

The CfJ brings together a cross-disciplinary team of FIU faculty, led by FIU’s Extreme Events Institute and the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab. It also includes the Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center, the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, and the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. Team members have longstanding and extensive experience with community organizations and stakeholders, who will be key partners in the project’s design and implementation. 

Among the CfJ’s activities, faculty will research the most pressing disaster risk and resilience problems in particularly vulnerable neighborhoods – from the perspective of the neighborhoods themselves – and how these problems are layered on top of other racial and ethnic injustices. Throughout the project, there will be “solution sessions” where FIU faculty and local community leaders will come together to discuss measures that can reduce disaster risk and improve resilience and advocacy for the vulnerable communities. 

Amplifying history’s lost voices 

The Community Data Curation project’s goal is to ensure voices that have been historically silenced or marginalized are heard and recorded on their own terms and made available for and by the community for generations to come. This approach goes along with the WPHL’s mission of bridging the divide between scholars and the public. 

WPHL is working with communities that span South Florida, including eight confirmed community partners: Sant La Haitian Neighborhood CenterHistoric Hampton House, Museum of GraffitiBroward County Library’s African American Research Library and Cultural CenterJewish Museum of Florida–FIUVizcaya Museum and GardensWorld AIDS Museum and Educational Center, and Stonewall National Museum and Archives

“We are honored to receive this grant from The Mellon Foundation,” said Rebecca Friedman, founding director of the WPHL. “This award will be transformative in the lives of so many, from individuals to communities to institutions. Thanks to the generosity of The Mellon Foundation, our FIU public humanities lab, in partnership with eight South Florida institutions, will participate in the preservation and creation of community stories. We are simply thrilled and honored to be part of this work.” 

The WPHL, FIU’s only humanities-oriented Emerging Preeminent Program, serves as the university’s hub for the humanities and public-facing research, teaching, and engagement. It seeks to coordinate and oversee the arts and humanities at FIU.