Center for Arab American Studies raises $100k in four months, meets NEH challenge match

May 23, 2017

University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Center for Arab American Studies was awarded a prestigious $100,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support student research on and community engagement with Arab Americans.

A maize yellow varsity-style letter M on a navy blue background. Underneath the M is "Dearborn" and "CASL" in all capital, white lettering.

To receive full federal support, a 100 percent match was needed from external gifts.

Center Director Sally Howell thought she had two years, according to the NEH terms, to raise the $100,000 needed.

But instead—due to overwhelming support in the community— the center met their goal in under four months.

“We plan to use the money to encourage undergraduate students to consider careers in public cultural work,” said Howell, who said the community rallied around meeting the center’s challenge grant goal due to possible budget cuts to the NEH. “Many of our students are first-generation college students and have a more utilitarian understanding of what education is. It’s good that they realize education will open professional doors, but I want them to know that college can provide even more.”

For Howell, “more” includes community-engaged research and opportunities to share their findings with public audiences.

Howell, associate professor of history, said the NEH grant will be used to create a class that introduces students to a variety of research methodologies, gives them hands on research experience, and aids then in interpreting and analyzing data patterns. The class also will assist undergraduates in bringing their gathered information to the public through exhibits, documentaries, the web or other methods.

The 300-level Arab American studies course—which will begin in the winter semester and be tied to a summer research project—will prepare and encourage students to identify ways to make the cultural history of the area, along with their own place within this history, more transparent.

“We want to introduce the value and excitement of doing public cultural work, and the importance of doing it in your own community. We are fortunate to have such a rich history and culture right here with our Arab and Muslim communities,” said Howell, who notes that both Arab and Muslim communities have been in the area for more than 100 years and that their histories are deeply embedded within those of Detroit and the auto industry since the early 1900s.

Not only is the history important for students to explore, but also how the area continues to be shaped by new migrations. For example, the Iraqi population continues to grow in the Detroit area.

For the inaugural class, Howell said they’ll explore the Iraqi refugee experience. She said it’s important to document the experiences of refugees so that their struggles can be shared and learned from.

“They are a very important part of our community and not much is written about them,” said Howell, who noted the class will conduct oral histories as part of their research. “They are right here and we can learn so much from them and their experience. We can ask what advice they would give to Syrian families today and also address the many misconceptions about refugees that currently dominate news headlines about them.”

For students to have a well-rounded approach to their research, Howell said the course will bring leading scholars on public history into the classroom and partner with a community organization, like the Detroit Historical Society or the Arab American National Museum.

She said she’s looking forward to working with students on this new endeavor for the center. And she’s grateful for the people who helped make it happen.

“This was our first effort to go out into the community in this way and we were met by genuine support. It was very encouraging to see how much our work is valued,” said Howell of the center’s new $200,000 endowment.  “Because of this, we met our fundraising goal in a fraction of the time. It makes you think that the sky is the limit.”

Visit the Center for Arab American Studies website for more information and ways to give.