By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Chicago continues to be an urban laboratory for University of Chicago research, a tradition that dates back to the University’s founding.”
—Adam Green
Associate Professor of History

Kathryn Lea recently sat down at the United African Organization, an advocacy group for African immigrants, and started in on a list of personal questions for the Congolese woman across the table: Do you consider yourself American or Congolese? How did your mother and father split housework when you were growing up? Do you intend to pursue a path to American citizenship?

The woman, 23-year-old Léa Munwam, described immigrating to Chicago as a teenager, getting an education, and finding a job in a completely foreign culture.

Their interview was part of Lea’s coursework for the class “African Women in Chicago,” one of many classes offered under the umbrella of Chicago Studies. It’s a program in the College designed to help students understand the city they live in, and to generate original research about Chicago.

“We are always seeking new ways to help our faculty and students interact with the wider world in search of new knowledge and cultural understanding,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “Chicago Studies is a perfect support to the University’s academic work about and within the city of Chicago.”

Lea and her Congolese interviewee aren’t just doing schoolwork—they’re helping each other with an ambitious oral history project about the lives of African women who immigrate to Chicago. The project will help Lea with her MAPSS degree in history and will help the activists and advocates at the United African Organization better understand the people they are trying to serve.

“It’s important because maybe my story can encourage other kids when they come to the U.S.,” Munwam says.

Three million people as a primary source

The Chicago Studies program started in 2007 as collaboration between the College and the University Community Service Center. Faculty in departments and programs across the University have taught courses related to Chicago Studies, on topics as diverse as “Chicago Blues” in Anthropology, “Prairie Ecosystems” in Biology, and “Reading the Suburbs” in English Language and Literature.

Adam Green, associate professor of History and master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division, teaches a class called “Black Chicago” every fall. He says he’s always delighted when students can see theories from the classroom tested and changed through real-life and real-time experiences in the city.

“The Chicago Studies classes are not designed to teach our students the existing knowledge about Chicago; they’re designed to push the boundaries of what is known and let the students generate new knowledge,” Green says.

For the last four years, the Chicago Studies journal, published annually by the College, has featured high-quality student research about the city. Topics have included an account of the Illinois Birth Control League and its place in the national birth control movement, local groups that opposed Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, and the peaceful protests that spurred integration on Chicago’s beaches during the sweaty summer days of the early 1960s Civil Rights movement.

“Chicago continues to be an urban laboratory for University of Chicago research, a tradition that dates back to the University’s founding,” Green says.

Helping immigrants find their voices

Rachel Jean-Baptiste, assistant professor of History, saw a gap in the research about immigrants from Africa to Chicago and decided to tackle it, with the help of her students. “There is almost no sense of recent African immigrant history or the new phenomenon of African migration,” Jean-Baptiste says, “and with its large immigrant population, Chicago is a great place for this kind of fieldwork.”

To chip away at this knowledge gap, Jean-Baptiste arranged with the United African Organization for each of her students to record an interview with an African woman who had immigrated to Chicago.

Sarah Travis, the community outreach specialist at the UAO, helped match the students with an African woman whose life story best matched the student’s research interests. Students fanned out across the city to conduct the interviews—to the South Side, north into the immigrant enclaves of Rogers Park, out to the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights.

“Get out of your neighborhood, and you can really tour the world in Chicago,” Travis says, noting that while some immigrants tend to live in ethnic enclaves, small African communities are sprinkled throughout the city and suburbs.

Interviewing an African immigrant in a research setting was eye-opening for Haben Ghebregergish, third-year philosophy and history student. “I’ve never done anything like this before—I’ve worked with texts, but never oral histories,” she says. She interviewed a nurse from Guinea, and hopes the stories she gathered will inform her AB thesis next year.

Rewarding for subjects, students

Ghebregergish says she expanded her critical thinking and research skills through the class discussions, the readings, and the fieldwork.

“A historian doesn’t have someone giving her prompts and telling her what questions to ask. I feel like the agency we’ve had in this class is what researching history is about,” she says.

The class also was rewarding for participants like Munwam, the Congolese immigrant.

“I enjoyed it,” she says of the interview. “It made me think about what I went through when I was adjusting to life in a new country, and how much I’ve grown as a person.”

Jean-Baptiste hopes that the research her students have begun in this class will give people in Chicago a better sense of who their neighbors are, why they move here, and what we all define as the history of Chicago.

“The University of Chicago has a rich place in creating and recording the city’s history,” she says. “Asking students to interview their fellow residents reinforces the idea that the act of listening to the voices of Chicago is a vital academic exercise.”