Humanities Action Lab Founder Writes Book on Combatting Denial Through Public Memory Projects

Liz Ševčenko remembers growing up as a child of historians in Cambridge, Ma., with parents who were steeped in knowledge but remained silent about much of their own past, including her father, who rarely discussed his childhood in Warsaw during WWII. She noticed a similar dynamic among white liberals in her town: They deplored Southern racism but kept quiet about the kind in their own backyard. That pattern of denial, which Ševčenko has wrestled with her entire life, led her to what she calls a “cacophonous” way of doing history known as participatory public memory projects, bringing people together to talk out loud about past events and their consequences, and collaborating on solutions that address inequities tied to those histories.

Ševčenko’s journey, which encompasses several large and well-known efforts over three decades, includes the Humanities Action Lab (HAL) at Rutgers University–Newark, of which she is Founding Director. Started in 2015 at The New School, in New York City, and housed at RU-N since 2017, HAL is a coalition of more than 30 universities nationwide that coordinate with nonprofit organizations to develop student- and community-curated public memory projects on important social issues. 

HAL’s first effort was States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories, which brought together 600 students from 20 universities and 30 community organizations to explore the evolution and impact of the U.S. correctional system via a digital platform and traveling exhibition. That inspired a related effort, the Rikers Public Memory Project, a collaboration with Just Leadership USA and Create Forward focused on the conditions in NYC’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex. HAL’s latest project is Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice, a traveling exhibit and web platform combined with activism addressing histories of environmental racism and the climate crisis, created by more than 500 students and community organizers.

Recently, Ševčenko leveraged her vast experience in “cacophonous” history and published a book, Public History for a Post-Truth Era: Fighting Denial Through Memory Movements (Routledge, 2022), which uses many of her public memory projects as case studies to show how, by bringing together people from different fields (history, public policy, transitional justice, historic preservation, human rights, museums and movement organizing), they can be effective tools not only in confronting the past but also activating social change.

“Participatory public memory mobilizes thousands of people from disparate locations and perspectives to grapple with historical denial together, exploring the deep roots of current crises and shaping solutions,” said Ševčenko. “This pursues public history as movement building, solidarity and its own form of social change.”

As the book’s title indicates, the task facing public memory projects—already daunting—has become even harder in the Trump post-truth era, where disinformation flourishes; observable reality is routinely denied; and the truth-evidence-accountability connection has been ruptured almost beyond repair.

To frame the problem, Ševčenko begins her book by retelling a historic moment, when during his inaugural speech, Trump actually denied that it was raining, despite attendees at the Capitol huddling under umbrellas. Journalists and fact-checkers were aghast, with some simply dismissing it as typical “Donald” lunacy, but according to Ševčenko, New Yorker magazine writer Masha Gessen understood what eluded most Americans at the time. Gessen, who had fled Putin’s Russia, had been demystifying Trump’s disinformation strategies during the 2016 campaign. Her point: “Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they assert power over truth itself.” She added: Trump “is not making easily disprovable factual claims: He is claiming control over reality itself.” 

Ševčenko asked at the time: If Trump could make the rain go away, what else could he minimize, deny and make disappear? 

Her reply: his sexual-assault tape, climate change, police brutality of Black men like Eric Garner, the January 6 Capitol insurrection. She also noted—and this is key—that in a time of growing polarization, this denialism is split heavily by party, with responses by Trump’s base and the GOP standing in stark contrast to those of Democrats, and attempts to hold Trump and other perpetrators accountable varied at best. In other words partisanship has become the dominant force in our politics, unmoored from evidence and facts. And Trump’s innovation has been to openly make claims easily punctured by a quick Google search or, in the case of the rain, one’s own eyes, and nevertheless bring millions of followers along with him, rendering truth obsolete and allegiance the primary driver.

Amid this backdrop, Ševčenko walks readers through not only her HAL projects but others she’s launched as well, including the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a network of historic sites that foster public dialogue on pressing contemporary issues, and the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, an international collaboration of universities and organizations building a global conversation about the past, present and future of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay.

While acknowledging the enormity of the challenge, Ševčenko shows how such public memory projects can combat historical denialism by fusing education and the collective action of social movements to harness the energies of potentially a wide swath of people. Since facts alone won’t change people's minds in this current climate—at least not folks who have a “possessive investment” in Trump and the GOP-enabled MAGA movement—new tactics are needed that meet people where they are emotionally so they can reflect on how their life experience has shaped their understanding of current issues and how that understanding has worked for and against them.

In bringing her life’s work together in this volume, Ševčenko charts a path for activists, scholars, policy makers, elected officials and the public at-large.

“In so many different contexts—from Russia to Argentina to my own country—I witnessed how historical denial was a serious force to be reckoned with, one that couldn’t be stopped just by speaking the truth. But staring our history full in the face shouldn’t be paralyzing. Instead, we can draw energy from where real change is happening, in the dynamic, collective action of social movements,” said Ševčenko. “I hope this book will be useful for people who are thinking about how to do this kind of work.”