Rethinking collaborative public humanities research in New Orleans and Baltimore

A group of five people standing close together on a street with trees on either side of them.
(l-r): Toya Ex Lewis, Sarah Fouts, community members, and Fernando Lopez. (Image courtesy of Fouts)

If you were looking for Sarah Fouts in New Orleans, chances are you would find her at one of the many taco trucks or pop-up food vendors across the city, chatting with locals. Relationship-building is at the core of her work, which focuses on the experiences of Black, Central American, and Mexican food industry workers in post-Katrina New Orleans. 

Fouts is an assistant professor of American studies at UMBC who earned her Ph.D. in Latin American studies at Tulane University. For more than a decade, she has volunteered for, collaborated with, and supported the work of grassroots organizations in New Orleans. Now, she is working with long-time partners there on an exciting new project.

A person with short brown hair wearing a grey long sleeve dress shirt stands in front of large orange cement arches.
Sarah Fouts. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

The Whiting Foundation has awarded a $50,000 Public Engagement Fellowship to Fouts along with local organizers Toya Ex Lewis and Fernando López to implement Project Neutral Grounds: At the Intersection of People, Street Food, and the Hustle. Lewis is the organizer of Project Hustle, born in New Orleans, and López is a Mexican-born documentarian. The three partners have worked together since 2013. Their latest collaboration will bring together Black, Brown, LGBTQ+, and immigrant food vendors in New Orleans to celebrate, share, and document their experiences and histories.

“In collaboration with Black and Brown food vendors, Project Neutral Ground will showcase the culture, complexities, and potential futures of post-disaster economies,” says Fouts. “We seek to dismantle barriers and foster dialogue to build networks across factors like race, gender, and class in order to foment an understanding of these vendors as they occupy and vie for city spaces.”

Sharing community history

New Orleans has a rich history and culture of street food vendors, particularly led by the city’s Black community. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans with wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour and a monumental storm surge that flooded 80% of the city. Many Black and Brown vendors were forced to leave their homes and businesses or find new ways to continue to live and work. Central American food vendors migrated to the city to help fill the void. 

Three people are standing by a food truck with a large yellow cement wall. Photo by Fernando López. New Orleans.
New Orleans taco truck. (Photo by Fernando López)

Now, almost 20 years after Katrina, New Orleans street vendor culture is a mixture of traditional and modern takes on Soul Food and Latin food representative of its burgeoning Black and Brown communities. The success of taco trucks and Soul Food pop-ups has raised complex questions about food truck regulation, worker rights, immigration issues, and local vs. tourist experiences that often pit these communities against each other. 

The Whiting Foundation funding will help Fouts, the project director; Lewis, the organizing director; and López, the creative director, work in collaboration with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to document and share the history, culture, cuisine, and personal journeys of ten food vendors in post-Katrina New Orleans food culture.

Collaborative storytelling

The team will first film and photograph the vendors cooking a dish of their choice at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. A follow-up filming will document a “day in the life” of each food vendor. Finally, an audio recording will capture personal oral history interviews. Over the course of the year, López and Lewis will use the footage to develop ten mini-documentaries showcasing each vendor’s story. 

One person with a camera stands on top of a table filming a person cooking while another person holds a microphone. Photo by López. New Orleans.
(l-r): López with food vendor and Fouts filming at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. (Photo by Fernando López)

Fouts, Lewis, and local artist SheRa Phillips will work with students in Fouts’s UMBC Public Humanities course in fall 2022 to convert these stories into a zine that highlights historic and contemporary vendor stories, maps of where street food vendors are, a historical timeline of street vending in New Orleans, and recipes. Vendors will also be able to give the zine to their customers, helping to share this important part of New Orleans history with new audiences.

“This is a way for native New Orleanians to have opportunities to tell our own stories,” says Lewis, “instead of the usual extractive way our stories get taken and told for us.”

The Project Neutral Grounds digital and physical collection of stories will be on exhibit and archived at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to share with future generations of locals, vendors, visitors, and public humanities scholars. 

Public humanities in Baltimore

Since joining the faculty of UMBC, Fouts has also connected with Baltimore communities. The American Council of Learned Societies has awarded Fouts; Nicole King, professor and chair of American studies; and Tahira Mahdi, adjunct professor of psychology, a public engagement grant of over $150,000 to support their innovative public humanities work. The award, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will fund the development and implementation of the project Baltimore Field School (BFS) 2.0: Undoing & Doing Anew in Public Humanities at UMBC 2022 – 2023.

Fouts, King, and Mahdi will work with community members, UMBC graduate students, and faculty to continue developing frameworks for community engagement between local communities and academia that have long-term benefits for local communities in particular. 

A person wearing a white hat reaches for oranges in a food cart with people in the background.
An arabber sells produce form a horse-drawn cart in Baltimore. (Bill Shewbridge/UMBC, Baltimore Traces project)

“This collaborative process takes a great deal of time, listening, and building trust,” King explains. “The people living and working in city neighborhoods and building grassroots organizations should be centered in the process of defining challenges and ways to address them in Baltimore and cities like it.”

Two people stand side by side in front of a gray wall with a large sing above them, one is wearing a checkered blouse and black pants the other a cobalt blue dress jacket and grey pants.
West Baltimore street walking tour with Curtis Eaddy. (Bill Shewbridge/UMBC, Baltimore Traces project)

The award will broaden the reach of the Baltimore Field School (BFS), launched through a $125,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2020. BFS creates a framework for faculty to collaborate with community organizations in building ethical and sustainable research and teaching projects focused on public humanities.

“ACLS is proud to support these outstanding examples of publicly engaged, community-centered scholarship,” says ACLS President Joy Connolly. “Direct engagement with communities beyond the walls of academia is essential to the continued creation of knowledge for the public good. At the same time, these programs will help in expanding our definitions of humanistic scholarship and in contributing to solutions for a brighter future for all.”

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