Gilbert Doho's students in his "Oral Performances and Ethnic Identities" course at Case Western Reserve University learn more about ethnic history and identity than what's in a book. They have to see it first hand.
Doho, the founding director of the Ethnic Studies Program, began sending his students into Cleveland neighborhoods in the spring with questions and a video camera to record African American contributions to Cleveland and then return the gift of the knowledge they received by performing a community service project.
After learning about the formation of ethnic identities and African American history in class, Doho's eight students focused on Karamu House, founded by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe as the settlement house in 1915 at East 38th Street and Central Avenue and now an arts center in the Fairfax neighborhood on East 89th Street.
"African American marks of identity within the Cleveland are in great danger of extinction," said Doho.
The associate professor in the department of modern languages and literatures, has particular concerns about the long-term survival and preservation of Karamu Theater, this year's class project; the Cozad-Bates House, a pre-Civil War home that harbored fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad and one of the few remaining historical homes in University Circle, and the African American Museum in the old Carnegie library on Crawford Road in the Hough area.
"This array of activities will bring more visibility to the institutions and serve as a campaign for their salvation," added Doho.
Students formed a research team to produce the first of three DVDs on the histories of these three Cleveland institutions.
When completed, Doho will give the DVDs to local libraries, schools and cultural institutions for their use.
The documentaries also will be a component in experiential learning classes for high school students that Doho plans to offer and have ethnic studies students assist in teaching when the students visit campus and then tour these sites.
"Learning in this class was hands on. We had to actually go out and search for information on our own and come to our own conclusions," said Christina Billy, a third-year nursing student from Chicago and president of Case's African American Society.
Before starting the project, she knew very little about Karamu.
"My concept of ethnic studies is that both the students and instructors should remove the idea they can learn about minorities in books. It is out of the question. I encourage students to give back to minorities while taking knowledge from them," said Doho, who originally comes to Case from Cameroon.
Doho launched this course with a focus on African Americans, but he readily points out that more than 300 different ethnic groups live in Cleveland.
After Doho completes the projects for the course over the next two years, he plans to pass the course to another instructor who is well versed in a different culture and can carry on the class tradition of combining studies and community service.
Classes like Doho's new course are part of a new minor in the Case Ethnic Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. Through courses on ethnicity and race, students examine relationships among different groups, learn how ethnic identities form, foster research project and skills in the humanities and contribute to knowledge about different cultures.
John Poirier, a 2006 graduate in biology from Albany, N.Y., did not know when he started the course project with his classmates that his grandfather had taught sculpture at Karamu. "The lack of awareness of Karamu was a large problem that we identified," he said.
Poirier primarily manned the camera and used his editing skills to piece together interviews with people associated with Karamu and photographs gleaned from the archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
One of the most amazing things he discovered during the project was that many of the cast members hold jobs in the community as bankers and teachers; "the sense of professionalism at the performances is incredible," Poirier said.
Although Twinsburg resident and Case graduate, Diane Zellner, attended a summer arts program at Karamu when she was nine, she knew little about Karamu and that it had some historical merit.
"This project helped me understand just how important and special this theater is—the first African American settlement house in the United States, the Gilpin players—all invaluable elements in Karamu's and Cleveland's history," said Zellner, a 2006 graduate in history and medical anthropology.
"I would not have known about any of this without making this documentary," she added.
"We hope that in distributing over 100 copies of the DVD to libraries, historical societies, local newspapers and philanthropic groups that we might do a service to Karamu by raising awareness in the community about the challenges that it is facing as an institution," said Poirier.
Doho is planning the Cozad-Bates House project for the next time the course is offered in spring semester of next year. He is serving on the education committee for the preservation and restoration of the house.
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