Working Groups

Working groups bring together Lehigh faculty, students and staff with community members to engage in sustained multi-year work on issues to which we can bring academic expertise as well as local knowledge and investment. Working groups seek to address pressing local problems and to create significant enhancements in the quality of life on the South Side and in the city and region more broadly.

Under the auspices of SSI, working groups conduct sustained research and creative projects, organize public forums and other public events, host visiting speakers and artists – and, at their most ambitious, help to build new institutions on the South Side.

Public History

Public History is central to the mission of SSI. By exploring the rich histories of our city, Lehigh students, faculty, staff join community members to develop an appreciation of the vitality and complexity of our neighborhoods, as well as an ability to understand the particular challenges and opportunities that Bethlehem shares today with other post-industrial communities in the U.S. and around the world.

The Public History working group hosts lectures, forums, conferences, and courses that integrate the most sophisticated historical scholarship with inclusive democratic conversation about our community. We invite leading historians to bring their research into dialogue with conditions on the ground here in Bethlehem, and we invite community members to share local forms of knowledge and historical memory with faculty, students and visitors to the university.

We sponsor community partnership courses, team taught by Lehigh faculty and community members, to facilitate the reciprocal exchange of historical knowledge and to promote experiential learning about the dynamic relationship between past and present.

Working closely with Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services, the Public History working group is developing state-of-the-art digital media platforms to make oral histories, photographs and videos, and primary source documents available for interactive use by people throughout our community and around the world.

We pursue democratic public history as a practice of community-building.

Public Humanities and Public Arts

The Public Humanities and Arts working group brings together leaders of vibrant arts organizations, theater professionals, librarians, and faculty, staff, and students from Lehigh University to foster creative collaborations.  Members of this working group believe in the power of public arts and humanities to inspire community conversation about pressing issues in our community from systemic racism and poverty to sexism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Further, we believe in the power of public humanistic inquiry to encourage collective dreaming about more just futures for Bethlehem and the larger Lehigh Valley. We affirm the power of public arts and humanities to inspire reflections on our shared past, present-day challenges, and future possibilities for democratic civic life.  We organize community reading groups, host lectures and conferences, and pursue multi-year public humanities projects like Finding H.D.  We also support a wide range of public arts collaborations, from student exhibitions in local storefronts to the creation of new theatrical works like The Secret and Hidden Seed.  In our publication Southsider, we feature regular reporting about arts and humanities activity in the city of Bethlehem and promote the work of regional artists and arts organizations. Our working group seeks to collaborate with and support local artists and institutions in the city of Bethlehem, forging ties between community artists, writers, and thinkers and Lehigh faculty, staff and students.

Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture

The South Side Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture Working Group has several related aims. We enable residents of South Bethlehem and members of the Lehigh community to gain access to convenient, inexpensive plots of land for gardening. By fostering community gardens, we aim to increase access to high quality, affordable fruit and vegetables on the South Side. Through the cultivation of these gardens, we promote forms of community that will encourage new patterns of social interaction and integration, and enable all of us to learn more about our neighbors. Through the expansion of the gardens – and through related educational programming in South Side public schools and at Lehigh – the gardens project fosters several kinds of knowledge: about environmental sustainability, about healthy eating, about the many challenges facing local and global systems of food production, and about the rich and varied food ways of our diverse community. Finally, as the gardens project expands, we hope that urban agriculture may ultimately provide employment opportunities and new sources of income for people living and working on the South Side.

South Side Committee for Responsible Development

This committee engages community members in activities intended to ensure responsible social and economic development in South Bethlehem.  The committee seeks to promote economic vitality, affordable housing, vibrant and diverse neighborhoods, access to green space and environmental sustainability, and respect for the rich history of our community through historic preservation.  Above all, the committee disseminates public information about planning and development in our community and seeks to facilitate the engagement of all those who live and work in the city with public officials and other stakeholders.   The committee has devoted particularly sustained work on the development of a “Western Gateway Plan” for the area of South Bethlehem that lies just north and west of Lehigh University.

Documentary Film and Digital Media

In partnership with the Southside Film Festival and the local PBS television station, SSI has long embraced socially-engaged documentary film-making as a means of exploring topics such as the rise and fall of Bethlehem Steel, the history of industrial labor and the past and present of the American labor movement, immigrant communities on the South Side, post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the effects of the gaming industry on urban communities.  This working group has supported documentary film and lecture series, including the successful “Communities” film and discussion series at the Banko Alehouse Cinema.  We helped to develop a documentary film graduate certificate at Lehigh and the LVAIC Documentary Studies undergraduate minor – and the Community Study through Documentary Film seminar in the American Studies program.  This working group has organized short, intensive documentary film-making workshops that pair Lehigh faculty with community members to develop skills that they can carry into other domains of their research, teaching, professional, creative and activist work.  In all our efforts, this group brings together academics, filmmakers, and community members to explore documentary film as a medium of community action and social justice. 

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