Mellon Foundation Awards $500K to HAL to Use Public Humanities and Engagement to Confront COVID

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), headquartered at Rutgers University–Newark, a $500,000 grant over three years to establish and support Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis: Building Leadership at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). This national initiative comprises a cohort of minority-serving colleges and universities charged with confronting COVID, and its racially disproportionate impacts, through public humanities and public engagement. 

Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor believes this initiative comes at a pivotal moment. “As we stand at the intersection of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resurgent awareness of the need to eradicate systemic racism, it is critically important to address the persistently disparate impacts of environmental degradation facing communities of color,” said Cantor. “We are profoundly grateful for the Mellon Foundation’s continued support of the Humanities Action Lab to amplify the voices of these frontline communities as they grapple with significant environmental challenges that are now compounded by the disparate public health challenges presented by COVID-19.” 

“Climate change disproportionately affects people of color and low-income earners,” noted HAL Director Liz Ševčenko. “The COVID crisis has exacerbated those inequalities, disproportionately impacting communities whose health has already been compromised by environmental degradation, or whose public health infrastructure has been weakened by climate disasters,” Ševčenko continued. “This demands leadership and radical revisioning from those “front-line” communities, building on generations of knowledge, experience, and connecting local knowledges across the country. We are thrilled for the Mellon Foundation's support for frontline universities and communities to reimagine public humanities for public engagement in social justice.”

Focusing on the interrelated environmental inequalities of COVID and the climate crisis, over the next three years, the initiative will provide fellowships to students, faculty, and community organizations to:

  • foster frontline community youth leaders to use public humanities to address the pandemic's severe inequalities, 
  • reimagine public humanities pedagogy and practice centering the experience and assets of MSI students, 
  • collect and share stories of how the pandemic layers onto histories of environmental racism and climate injustice that also celebrate traditions of resistance and resilience, and
  • develop new multi-media exhibitions and web-based platforms (e.g., graphic panels, videos, audio recordings, story maps, and virtual reality/360° videos), and humanities-based public events to cultivate community engagement locally and across localities.

In year one, HAL will lead a cohort of five MSIs in an evaluation and planning process to determine criteria for successful participation by an MSI in the second cohort of Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis in year two. The second cohort will identify criteria for selection of the third cohort in year three. The first cohort includes:

  • Rutgers University–Newark -- partnering with Ironbound Community Corporation,
  • Shaw University -- partnering with North Carolina Environmental Justice Network,
  • University of California, Santa Barbara/Cal State University Northridge/University of California, Riverside -- partnering with Padres Pioneros,
  • University of Illinois at Chicago -- partnering with Alianza Americas & Little Village Environmental Organization (LVEJO), and 
  • University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez -- partnering with Fundación Surfrider Rincón.

One faculty member from each participating MSI will be selected to plan project-based courses, engage with participating colleges in other localities, collaborate with issue organizations, host public events around the Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis traveling exhibition, and ultimately embed climate justice public humanities courses and collaborations into their institutions. One student from each participating MSI will be awarded a stipend for the summer and one semester to support the respective MSI’s faculty fellow, intern at either the partnering community organization or cultural institution to prepare for public engagement when Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis comes to their locality, and engage in a weeklong “domestic study abroad” experience with partner institutions in another participating city. One community organization in each participating locality will partner with the locality’s respective faculty fellow to design an ongoing collaboration that could include courses, internships, leadership development, and public events.

Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis will develop a faculty toolkit and resources around public humanities for climate justice in a world changed by COVID-19. Resources will provide guidance in community co-creation, training students in accessible media, facilitating dialogue among students personally impacted by climate inequality, working in a diverse coalition on contested issues, and confronting issues of power and inequality in the classroom. Moreover, Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis will offer mentoring opportunities among undergraduates, graduate students, junior faculty, and tenured faculty within the MSI group and the larger HAL network. All fellows will collaborate through regular video conferencing.  

For more information about the Climates of Inequality and the COVID Crisis initiative, visit

About the Humanities Action Lab
The Humanities Action Lab (HAL) is a coalition of universities, issue organizations, and exhibiting spaces in more than 40 cities, led from Rutgers University-Newark, that collaborates to produce community-curated public projects on urgent social issues. Through courses offered simultaneously across multiple campuses, local teams of students and stakeholders explore a single issue of shared concern from different local perspectives, exploring the deep roots, long legacies, and potential futures of the issue in their own communities. After a three-to-six-month creation process, involving dialogue and exchange among diverse local participants, teams engage a broader local and international public by producing multimedia local stories that HAL combines into a single collective physical and digital exhibition. This collective public project travels for years to museums, public libraries, cultural centers, and other spaces in each of the communities that helped create it, with public dialogues and events at each stop. New campuses and communities join and add local “chapters” along the way. This collaborative process -- engaging more than 1,000 people across more than 20 cities in a common endeavor -- approaches public memory as a social movement, training public humanists as civic leaders and change agents.