Published January 13, 2021

By Amy Vames

A new grant-funded initiative will help central New Jerseyans share their stories about how COVID-19 threatened one of their most fundamental needs: a home.

Individuals and families in central New Jersey who faced homelessness because of the COVID-19 pandemic will be able to share their experiences and stories in a podcast and other venues, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

The grant will support The Shelter Project, a collaborative effort by Rutgers University–New Brunswick, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and coLAB Arts, a New Brunswick-based organization that connects artists with community partners.

The project will comprise a six-episode podcast, several virtual or live events in spring 2021, and new curricula at Rutgers and the seminary. The collaboration grew out of a spring 2020 grant of $150,000 from the Luce Foundation that provided direct financial assistance to more than 120 people in 32 households, helping them secure housing. The grant also assisted some of the individuals with obtaining legal and social services related to domestic violence, early release from prison, and immigration.

Going through the process of helping community members enabled Rutgers and the seminary, with assistance from the Affordable Housing Corporation of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey, to identify people in central New Jersey threatened with homelessness because of the pandemic.

The collaborators realized that others in the community could benefit from hearing the stories of people helped by the grant. The Luce Foundation agreed and provided the second grant to fund the recording and dissemination of those stories by students at Rutgers and the seminary, assisted by the Rutgers Oral History Archives.

“It’s an attempt to turn the work that humanities scholars do in a more public-facing direction,” says Colin Jager, a professor of English at the School of Arts and Sciences and director of Rutgers’ Center for Cultural Analysis. The project “will include folks who usually are just talked about by humanities scholars and make them part of the actual production of knowledge,” he adds.

The project, according to the partners’ grant application to the Luce Foundation, will provide “a space for rich multi-theological and multi-religious reflections on the stories and experiences that are being narrated and represented.” The participants’ reflections on faith and religion as an element of their lives will also be an important element of new curricula to be created by Rutgers and the theological seminary.

Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, assistant teaching professor and coordinator of public history at the School of Arts and Sciences, worked with the Oral History Archives to train students in collecting, recording, and transcribing oral histories. The Shelter Project, she says, is a good example of “public humanities,” a concept in higher education that aims to make the humanities—which includes such disciplines as literature, history, philosophy, and the arts—more relatable and relevant to people outside of academia.

Knowledge and scholarship “should not be just a one-way street coming from the academy out to the general public,” O’Brassill-Kulfan says. The goal of the Shelter Project is to “create a record of pandemic experience that showcases the whole story and allows people to speak for themselves,” she adds.

The project is “an opportunity for self-reflection on the part of an academic institution like Rutgers,” Jager says. “Who is our public? What does it mean to be the state university of New Jersey? What does it mean for us to pay attention to the experiences of our most vulnerable neighbors? We don’t have any easy answers but we’re hoping we will get a more sophisticated sense of who we are talking to and how we talk to them.”

The knowledge created by the people telling their stories will come back to the university in the form of curriculum at Rutgers and the seminary and could help humanities students decide what direction they want their careers to take. Nathan Jérémie-Brink, the L. Russell Feakes Assistant Professor of the History of Global Christianity at the seminary, says, “For some students, these are experiences that will offer them a new way of thinking about their own vocation. What do they want to invest their life in doing?”

“I hope that people will hear these stories as the voices of their neighbors and have a sense that housing insecurity and food insecurity are not inevitable, that there are structural reasons they exist,” O’Brassill-Kulfan says. She also hopes that initiatives like The Shelter Project will help the public understand that the humanities are not a “frivolous” discipline with little application to individuals’ daily lives. “The humanities,” she adds, “offer us tools to document and share human experience across communities in order to increase empathy.”

The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. The foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy. It was established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor in chief of Time, Inc.

“In conjunction with the Henry Luce Foundation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are very pleased to support this ongoing collaboration between Rutgers University’s Center for Cultural Analysis and New Brunswick Theological Seminary,” says Luce Foundation program director Jonathan VanAntwerpen.

Support in Crisis

Support student emergency funds and COVID-19 research at Rutgers.