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Salem State University is leading a new initiative aimed at providing more students from underrepresented backgrounds the ability to study and communicate through digital tools.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded Salem State a $3 million grant to fund the creation of the Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium, a national network of public universities that traditionally serve people of color and immigrant communities.

Led by Roopika Risam, chair and a professor in Salem State’s Department of Secondary and Higher Education, the consortium will help participating institutions develop programming in digital ethnic studies, which uses computerized data mining and visualization to broaden understanding of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color.


“At regional public universities, there is so much unacknowledged expertise about how to use digital tools to empower students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in higher education to tell their own stories,” said Risam, the Faculty Fellow for Digital Library Initiatives, and coordinator of the graduate certificate in Digital Studies at Salem State.

“DEFCon is an opportunity to bring practitioners together to collectively build up the field of digital ethnic studies,” added Risam, interviewed by email.

Salem State is partnering with New Jersey City University, Texas Southern University, and California State University, Fullerton in the initiative, which began Oct. 1. The four institutions are founding members of the consortium, which organizers hope will continue on as a permanent organization after the grant expires in three years.

Risam said the consortium will offer a virtual speaker series, networking opportunities, and a virtual annual meeting. It will also provide grants to support faculty and librarians at regional public universities in developing digital ethnic studies curriculum.

“It’s crucial for our students to be able to use technologies to tell their own stories and those of their communities,” Risam said. “With our focus on universities that are federally designated as ‘Minority Serving Institutions’ we’re funding the creation of courses that will help students tell these stories.”


Keja Valens, another Salem State faculty member involved in the initiative, said by email that “by guiding students, faculty, and programs at regional universities,” the consortium will allow for the “exploration and practice of social justice embedded in ethnic studies to join with the development of new technologies in the digital humanities.”

“One of the things often bemoaned in the discussion of equity in higher education is the limited pool of scholars,” added Valens, a professor of English and the Faculty Fellow for Diversion and Inclusion at Salem State. “This program brings in and develops a great diversity of scholars at all levels at the same time as it opens some of the barriers between scholars and communities at large by facilitating true exchange available through digital platforms.”

Risam first became interested in digital ethnic studies when she was exposed to the larger field of digital humanities as a Ph.D. student. While impressed with the many tools available to digital humanities scholars, she said she was struck by how they were relating stories “about people and events that were already well known.”

“This seemed like a missed opportunity to use digital humanities methods to tell stories about communities that have been marginalized — like Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities,” she said.

The idea for the consortium is rooted in a previous, federally funded initiative Risam undertook with Salem State archivist Susan Edwards in which faculty from Salem State and other public universities discussed ways to better share expertise.


More recently, in co-editing a collection of essays on Black digital humanities published earlier this year, Risam realized a consortium offered a good way for those working at universities with diverse student populations to pool their knowledge about digital ethnic studies and help advance the field. She said she is thrilled the project is now taking shape.

“Mellon’s investment in the consortium is a dream come true,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.