The South Side Initiative (SSI) brings together Lehigh University faculty, students and staff with the people of Bethlehem in order to share knowledge, foster democracy, and improve the quality of life in our city.
Lehigh is a mid-sized, private research university located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Both the university and the surrounding South Side neighborhoods grew up around the vast Bethlehem Steel plant. These neighborhoods have been remade by generations of immigrant workers, who have brought many languages and varied cultures to the city over the last 150 years. As in many industrial communities, residents possess an unusually rich body of historical memory because many steelworker families lived in the same houses and neighborhoods for generations. The end of steelmaking in Bethlehem in the 1990s was a traumatic process that led to the loss of thousands of jobs, pensions, health plans and an entire way of life. Ninety percent of children in the South Bethlehem public schools today live in poverty. Despite close proximity, the relationship between Lehigh and its South Side community has been marred, for generations, by class and racial segregation of a kind that is pervasive in university towns and cities across the United States.
SSI promotes sustained research collaborations among Lehigh faculty, staff and students, residents from all walks of life, local artists, activists, community leaders and public officials. We cultivate long-term community partnerships, developing projects over years. We believe that these collaborations can have positive, transformative effects for both the university and the community. We believe that these partnerships can enhance the university’s core research and teaching mission and can, at the same time, empower residents and local institutions. We believe that by sharing knowledge, we can work together to create a stronger and more vibrant city and a more democratic society.
We design and support projects that enable faculty members and students to share specialized academic expertise with our neighbors and enable community members to share their many forms of knowledge, historical memory, and cultural practice with those in the university. All of our work begins by bringing multiple partners to the table to identify urgent challenges and productive areas for collaboration. Together, we then generate research that our communities can use to address problems of pressing concern and to develop and implement inspiring visions for our future. SSI has developed varied strategies for inclusive and collaborative project design and the reciprocal exchange of knowledge. Our projects provide examples of these strategies.
SSI promotes democracy. We believe that our city – and our nation – suffers from a democracy deficit. Too much power rests in the hands of a few. Most people in our society do not vote regularly and have never had the opportunity to participate in making decisions about the future of their communities. Many feel marginalized and unheard. Our communities need more effective processes for sustained, informed democratic deliberation and action. SSI promotes democracy by creating opportunities for everyone in the community, including those whose voices are often drowned out in the public sphere, to identify problems, study and implement possible solutions, explore our histories and articulate aspirations for the future. SSI promotes democracy by creating structures to ensure that community voices influence public debate, commanding the attention of elected officials and the media. All of our projects promote the practices of knowledge-sharing, collaboration and deliberation and seek to honor the insights and skills of all participants.
What We Do
SSI sponsors multi-year working-groups, research projects, public events, and courses that promote knowledge-sharing and democratic community building. Since 2007, thousands of Bethlehem residents have participated in our work, speaking at community forums, collaborating on public history and public art projects, creating community gardens and other public amenities, and meeting with elected officials. Through multi-year working-groups, community members have partnered with Lehigh faculty, staff and students to develop dozens of projects to explore our history, analyze pressing challenges, pursue democratic solutions, and share visions for our future. These projects have, for example, promoted food security, free speech, clean air, racial and gender equality, and affordable housing. SSI has sponsored more than a hundred courses focused on the past, present and possible futures of our city, in which many community members have participated as teachers, experts or students. Every course, project, event and working-group contributes to an expanding ecosystem of democratic collaboration and knowledge-exchange.
Public Humanities and Civic Life
SSI was launched by the Lehigh Humanities Center and the American Studies program, and we remain rooted in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, although we collaborate with faculty and students across the College of Arts & Sciences, as well as the Colleges of Engineering, Education, Health, and Business.
We are rooted in the humanities, because all of our work emerges from the question of how we can create a community in which all can flourish and in which all have a voice in shaping our future. Even our most technical projects – on clean air or a pedestrian bridge, for example – are animated by these underlying ethical, philosophical, political and aesthetic questions. We create space, on campus and across the city, for people to share their contending visions of what constitutes a good life, a vibrant city, a just society, or a beautiful neighborhood.
We are committed to the public humanities, because humanistic knowledge is too precious to be confined to the university alone. It should circulate as widely as possible in our communities and should be produced by the most diverse possible contributors.
SSI is a research initiative supported by the Lehigh Provost’s Office and by many Lehigh academic departments and programs, Specific projects have been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.