South Side Initiative: “Sharing Knowledge, Practicing Democracy”

The Early Years

The closing of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation rocked Bethlehem in a formidable way: many people lost their jobs, the Steel’s grounds stood closed off to the general public, and residents felt uncertain about the future of their city. Eventually, plans for the creation of a casino circulated and furthered the anxieties of local families. Lehigh University faculty members Seth Moglen and the late John Pettegrew responded to this social issue by founding the South Side Initiative (SSI) in 2007. Moglen and Pettegrew served as SSI Co-Directors in the program’s early years, drawing on their experiences as the Director of the Humanities Center and the Director of the American Studies program, respectively.

“My mantra in the early years was that SSI was about sharing knowledge, practicing democracy,” Moglen said of the program’s main goals.

As both a professor of English at Lehigh and a South Bethlehem resident, he noted the need for a “reciprocal exchange of knowledge.” He explained that most university-community partnerships operate hierarchically, despite their good intentions. Most of these partnerships privilege university knowledge above that of community members, and many university people imagine that successful collaborations constitute a kind of charity work in the community.

“Both of those models can have some beneficial, usually short-term, outcomes. But, both strategies tend over time to intensify, rather than diminish, the hierarchical power relationship between the university and its neighbors. What John and I, and all of our colleagues — including faculty and staff people across the university, students, and community partners — were invested in was creating a model of university-community collaboration that was committed to knowledge moving in both directions. What’s the specialized knowledge that university students and professors can bring? What are the specialized forms of knowledge community members have about their own families and neighborhoods and workplaces? How can we create projects that would draw on, and integrate, both kinds of knowledge? We weren’t interested in projects where university people were sharing their knowledge with community members if the knowledge was not moving in the other direction, too.”

Giving Voice to the Community

In working towards this more egalitarian method of swapping information, SSI simultaneously paved the way for its second main goal: making space for truly democratic community participation. Moglen elaborated on this second goal, noting that Southside residents wanted opportunities to speak up about local issues. It was particularly important for community members to claim a voice in their own city because their perspectives had long been silenced by the needs of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Although the Steel provided employment to multiple generations of Southside residents, the Steel was a hierarchical organization in which management had, for much of the company’s history, pursued profit while neglecting the basic needs of its workers. SSI, then, seeks to empower local families to identify what problems exist in their daily lives and suggest how these issues might best be remedied.

While the main goals of SSI look to the progress of Bethlehem and its budding future as a place where the arts can thrive, the program also preserves the memories of the city’s past. Bethlehem Steel left behind a legacy of men and women whose entire families worked at the plant.

Image of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, as it now stands. Photo credits: Ava Bertone.

“One of the things that had drawn me to Bethlehem and that has sustained me in my time here was the density of community memory, which is unusually rich and concentrated in South Bethlehem. The South Side is full of people who are third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation Bethlehem residents, which means that the elderly people in my neighborhood are the sons and daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, of the people who built these houses. The building of the Steelworkers’ Union had been so crucial to the transformation of the Southside from a place of extraordinary exploitation and industrial poverty to a place of real working-class prosperity. We were convinced that that history was a source of power for a community trying to reclaim its capacity for democratic self-government,” Moglen said.

Honoring the City’s Past

In its pursuit of inclusive oral history projects, the SSI team turned to former women workers at Bethlehem Steel. Thought to be unfit for employment at an overwhelmingly male company, many of the women interviewed recall instances of belittlement and, in some cases, sexual harassment. In November of 2017, the Single Sisters’ House hosted Moglen and Jill Schennum, a member of the Board of Directors for the Steelworkers’ Archives. Moglen and Schennum spoke about both the past and present of Bethlehem, focusing on gender relations in the city. A number of women offered compelling stories about their time working for the Steel. Often humorous and consistently poignant, these narratives touched the broad range of attendees at the event. Audience members were also invited to join the conversation. True to the SSI mission, the evening’s conversation enabled a mutual sharing of knowledge. The women workers’ stories displayed the unwavering resilience found in all of Bethlehem’s sons and daughters. The full digital archive of interviews is also available for listening online.

The outside of Bethlehem’s Single Sisters’ House. Photo credits: Ava Bertone.

“From its inception, SSI has always been committed to community memory projects that would enable people in the neighborhoods to reflect on who we are and how we learn from the past, in order to imagine a more vibrant future,” Moglen said. “I can’t stress this strongly enough, because South Bethlehem has always been a working-class, predominantly immigrant community. So, to do oral history projects and community memory projects in this city is about honoring and building on the richness of working class histories which have frequently been ignored by university folk and by those with most power in the city.”

Finding Community Strength

In addition to oral history projects, SSI commits itself to the proliferation of public-facing arts events. Spring of 2018 saw a showing of Citizen Jane, a documentary detailing the feud between activist Jane Jacobs and developer Robert Moses. The event was held in conjunction with Lehigh’s Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative. Following the film, Moglen joined Karen Beck Pooley and Alicia Karner to lead a panel discussion with the audience. Beck Pooley is a professor of practice in Lehigh’s Political Science Department, while Karner serves as Director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Bethlehem.

Photo taken during the documentary showing at Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas. Photo credits: Ava Bertone.

Once again, the conversation worked in two directions. The documentary provided a jumping-off point for attendees to think about how urban planning affects everyone living in a city. Some audience members expressed concerns about real estate development in their neighborhoods. Unlike standard film screenings, the panel discussion portion of the event enabled both community members and experts in sociopolitical issues to converse, in a sustained effort to understand the others’ point of view. Opening spaces for organic, democratic community participation is certainly an SSI strong suit, but Moglen noted that the crucial work really begins after any given event.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned over the last decade is that the event is never the important thing. The event comes and goes — even the most successful event. Every event matters to the degree that it helps to foster and strengthen the underlying network of democratic collaboration in the community. If that network is strong, the community is strong.”

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