My experiences working with writing and writers in a variety of contexts helps me approach relationships, opportunities, and projects with curiosity rather than an agenda. Just as every piece of writing ‘teaches’ a reader how to read it, every step of a community-driven process needs to come from the community rather than be imposed from the outside.
Fellows in Focus: Leading Edge Fellow Alison Turner Uncovers Oral History in Jackson, Mississippi Communities
When Alison Turner F’22 completed her PhD in English & Literary Arts at the University of Denver in 2020, she was faced with a difficult decision–to pursue academia or to consider another direction. After a year of working part-time for multiple organizations, including the Denver Public and Library and the Herstory Writers Network, Turner applied for an ACLS Leading Edge Fellowship. When she was awarded the 2022 Leading Edge Fellowship to work as the Research and Data Coordinator at Operation Shoestring in Jackson, MS, her path forward became clear.
“This fellowship felt like a buoy, an opportunity to find my sea legs while learning more about the systems that perpetuate inequity and the many ways that the humanities–in theory and practice–can respond and make change.”
Made possible by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the ACLS Leading Edge Fellowship Program offers recent humanities and interpretive social sciences PhDs two year positions at nonprofit organizations dedicated to social justice in their communities.
The organization Turner joined, Operation Shoestring, provides children in central Jackson from pre-school to fifth grade and their families with academic, social, and emotional resources and support.
This fellowship felt like a buoy, an opportunity to find my sea legs while learning more about the systems that perpetuate inequity and the many ways that the humanities–in theory and practice–can respond and make change. Alison Turner F’22
Leading Edge Fellow, Operation Shoestring
In her role as Research and Data Coordinator, Turner has worked to design, implement, and coordinate an oral history archival project that tells the stories of people living in central Jackson. The project will provide insight into how the narrators were raised and how they raise their own children, as well as how the community plays a role in a child’s upbringing.
Turner says her experience with Operation Shoestring thus far has been life changing.
“Working here has helped me better understand how an organization builds decades-long relationships with a community and how there will always be room to nuance and strengthen those relationships,” Turner said. “The more my work deepens into community literacy, oral history, and community-engaged projects, the better I understand the need for collaboration.”
The skills in literary studies she developed during her PhD, like analyzing archives and practicing community writing, have informed Turner’s work today. Her initial research for the oral history project involved reviewing archives at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, reading books by local authors, and gathering neighborhood census data.
Additionally, Turner devoted her early time in Jackson to establishing relationships with members of the community, which she felt was integral to capturing their stories.
“My experiences working with writing and writers in a variety of contexts helps me approach relationships, opportunities, and projects with curiosity rather than an agenda,” Turner said. “Just as every piece of writing ‘teaches’ a reader how to read it, every step of a community-driven process needs to come from the community rather than be imposed from the outside.”
Turner’s eight-person project committee completed training in oral history methods and has since conducted more than 30 interviews with Jackson’s community members, which will be archived in the Margaret Walker Center Oral History Collection at Jackson State University.
The interviews delve into topics like family traditions, racism, functioning with limited resources, nuanced ideas of how children should be cared for, and concerns about a changing community.
“I think, especially living in Jackson, that sense of community is lost,” one narrator said. “I think it starts with the mindset, and the people in contact with the child, or the parent, just instilling in them that you deserve it. instilling in the kids that we come in contact with that you are deserving of anything great, anything wonderful, if it comes your way, take advantage of it.”
Turner is now working to engage more community members to listen to and learn from the variety of community sentiments expressed in the narratives.
“Bringing academic research into spaces outside of academia has made me a much more curious, authentic, and I hope, thorough scholar,” Turner said. “Working with people who are familiar with poverty, stigma, and systemic injustice as daily, material experiences, more so than theoretical concepts scaffolded by jargon, puts me in the position of listener more so than speaker.”
Made possible through the support of the Mellon Foundation, ACLS Leading Edge Fellowships place recent humanities PhDs with nonprofit organizations committed to promoting social justice in their communities. Applications for the next fellowship competition will open in January 2024.