What We Do

The Social Engagement Initiative in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University promotes academically informed civic responsibility among undergraduate and graduate students. Begun in academic year 2006-2007, the Social Engagement Initiative combines rigorous academic study with practical experience, such that students come to understand how and why academic study and ideas are challenged, often remade or even refuted, by the lived experiences and values of communities whose cultural traditions differ in significant ways from those of the larger American mainstream. Social Engagement courses create opportunities for students to work in those communities, while the senior thesis encourages social entrepreneurship through innovative and collaborative projects designed by the students themselves. Social Engagement is of necessity interdisciplinary, emphasizing that informed civic responsibility requires problem-solving on multiple levels and thus spans a range of distinct, yet interlocking, fields of knowledge.

What is Social Engagement? 

Social Engagement is first and foremost a method of learning that foregrounds empirical, practical elements of real world issues that are of scholarly interest to our faculty and students. By focusing on specific problems (poverty, educational disparities, health, etc.) faced by people of African descent within the United States and globally, Social Engagement courses and the Social Engagement thesis seek to wed academic study with practical experience. Through coordinated interdisciplinary coursework, student research-symposia, summer abroad, and interaction with different AAAS faculty as well as faculty in other schools at Harvard (for example, the School of Public Health, Medical School, and the School of Education), students explore and reflect upon an on-the-ground perspective to intellectual work.

What are Social Portraits?

Social Portraits are short video documentaries created by individual students as well as students grouped into “documentation teams.”  The electronic archive of the portraits includes a diverse group of persons of African descent in the Greater Boston area.  Through the creation of the social portrait, students learn to conduct ethnographic and digital research along with reflecting upon and writing about the significance of the work and contribution of the chosen “community leader,” in regard to academic questions discussed in class. Such questions involve themes of multilingualism and social acculturation, diasporic identities and different ethnic cultures, and global awareness of local issues through humanitarian filmmaking.  The “Social Portraits” project was initiated in 2012-2013 by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and John Mugane through the competitive HILT grant (Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching).  The three courses—AAAS 20 [Introduction to African Languages and Cultures], AAAS 97 [The Sophomore Tutorial: The Other African Americans], and AAAS 109 [Using Film for Social Change]—continue to utilize the project.