Casarae Abdul-Ghani is an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University, but she knows her responsibilities as an educator, humanist and mentor go far beyond her role in the College of Arts and Sciences . “I see myself not only as someone who has to be empathetic to the things that are happening within our society, but as a resource for effecting change and impacting the next generation,” she says.
When she learned about a two-year fellowship sponsored by the Lender Center for Social Justice housed in the School of Education , Abdul-Ghani knew she had to apply. “I saw it as a good fit with the work I do in my classroom and the research I do on social justice,” she explains. Founded in 2018 by Marvin Lender ’63 and Helaine (Gold) Lender ’65, the center hosts activities and programming about social justice issues and collaborates with other University units to promote dialogue about justice, equity and inclusion. Abdul-Ghani proposed a research project called “The Social Justice #Hashtag Project: A Digital Humanities Study,” and in April 2019 she was named the inaugural Lender Faculty Fellow .
“We are on a campus that deals with day-to-day concerns about social justice,” Abdul-Ghani points out. “University faculty being involved makes us better educators, better critical thinkers and better humanists because we are able to understand what’s going on with our students, within our intellectual community and in the greater Syracuse community.”
Assembling a Strong Investigative Team
Abdul-Ghani, the project’s principal investigator, works in collaboration with a cadre of student fellows who serve as co-investigators. “They each choose a well-established hashtag that has gone viral, and we analyze how those hashtags have initiated national and international conversations about social justice issues,” she explains. “Syracuse University is a Research 1 institution, and these student fellows were selected based on research they’ve already done. This strengthens their scholarly endeavors.” Abdul-Ghani is referring to Syracuse University’s top-tier position in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which ranks research activity at all doctoral universities in the U.S.
The multidisciplinary project incorporates the digital humanities, which combine computational scientific research with history, sociology, writing and communication. The Lender Center helps student fellows with critical thinking and presentation skills, which they will showcase when they present their research to a panel of national experts and the Syracuse University community at the 2021 Lender Symposium .
“Given the climate in our society and across the world now and our project’s focus on race and gender biases, I hope this research will initiate not only a conversation but some proactive action on how to address issues related to diversity and inclusion,” Abdul-Ghani says. “I came to Syracuse because the Department of African American Studies is one of the oldest programs of its kind in the nation, if not the world. I have been able to do great work here because I have great students. They are intellectuals and critical thinkers who are very insightful and conscious about what they say.”
Abdul-Ghani also credits the University for providing state-of-the-art facilities and support systems she can tap into for her teaching and research. “We are able to collaborate with scholars in other disciplines who bring the perspective of a humanitarian or a social scientist,” she says. “And I can use technology in a way that I can’t say I’d be able to at other colleges and universities. It’s very advanced. I’m very happy with the Syracuse University resources that help me further my research goals.”
Student Fellows and Hashtag Research
The following is an overview of each of the student fellows and the hashtags they chose for their research on the Lender Center project.
Grace Asch ’22, television, radio and film major, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications ; African American studies minor
Grace Asch’s project focus should come as no surprise. A TV, radio and film major, Asch selected the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which references a lack of diversity in popular films nominated for Academy Awards.
“I'm using the hashtag to frame changes that have been made not only in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the Academy), but in the film industry as a whole,” says Asch. The hashtag was created in 2015, when all 20 acting nominations went to white actors. Now, five years after #OscarsSoWhite launched, Asch is analyzing which aspects of the film industry have and haven’t changed.
For several months, Asch has conducted qualitative research, including reading about the root causes of the biases in Hollywood. “The Academy is completely separate from all the directors, writers and actors guilds, but they all follow similar behaviors,” she explains. This summer, Asch is analyzing the number of people of color in film generally and comparing that number to the racial composition of those who receive awards in films.
Asch plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation, so focusing on this issue is a way to educate herself and others before heading to the West Coast. She says her topic was a little “self-serving,” but it was important to have this information to show other people going into the film industry how they can move past the barriers that are presented to them.
“Being a Black woman who’s also part of the LGBT community, I encompass a lot of these minority ‘labels’ that I wanted to further evaluate and see how people in similar positions make their way in the industry, and what barriers are keeping them from succeeding,” Asch says.
Andrea Constant ’24, sociology graduate student, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
For years, Andrea Constant has wanted to conduct research on the complexities of the Black Lives Matter movement and, more specifically, on violence against youth who have been murdered by police. Constant’s project revolves around the hashtag #SayHerName, which highlights police violence and gender-based violence against Black women and girls. For the bulk of the summer, Constant has done an extensive literature review of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a review of literature focused on the #SayHerName hashtag and the history of Black-led social movements in the United States. She has also researched the criminalization of Black girls and women in the U.S.
Currently, Constant is analyzing the data she has collected. There has been an increase in the usage of #SayHerName this summer following the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old EMT who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It’s interesting to see how the hashtag has been utilized,” says Constant. “Since I began collecting this data, I’ve seen the themes and the narratives switch, depending on who is tweeting. For example, in the tweets following Breonna Taylor’s killing, people are pleading for justice for her death and for other Black women. I’ve seen people using the hashtag to highlight the deaths of Black trans women too.”
Constant says the hashtag is important to her because it fights for recognition for all Black women and girls within the Black Lives Matter movement who may not have been advocated for en masse previously.
“The evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement was very impactful in my late teen years coming out of high school,” she says.
In her analysis, Constant says, she has noticed how the hashtag has been co-opted to speak about women more broadly. “It's really interesting because the hashtag was originally created as a space for Black women and girls.” Constant is reviewing the history, evolution and current use of #SayHerName, and she is studying whether it has opened up discussion for gender-based violence for all women, or if there is ambiguity and lack of understanding of the hashtag’s original meaning.
As Constant continues her research, she plans to explore whether people—through their tweets—educate themselves on the original meaning behind the hashtag, and to see how else the hashtag may evolve.
Adriana Lobo ’22, communication and rhetorical studies major, College of Visual and Performing Arts ; policy studies minor
Adriana Lobo chose the hashtag #NiUnaMenos because she wanted to offer a different perspective on feminism. #NiUnaMenos, Spanish for “not even one less (woman),” is a Latin American feminist movement that campaigns against gender-based violence. Not only has Lobo focused her fellowship research on the hashtag, she has also selected fall semester courses focused on feminist theories and methodologies that will help her analyze the movement.
Lobo’s research extended from the library to her own home through conversations with her mother. “Not only am I learning more about Latinx feminism from my readings and from documentaries, but I'm also able to have these conversations with my mom, who has a different perspective on it. There are a lot of Latin women in my family, and they're able to share some of their experiences,” says Lobo.
Lobo’s inspiration for studying #NiUnaMenos was partly influenced by the Latina Feminist Theory class with Professor Pedro DiPietro that she took her freshman year. “It was the first time I took a class where I was learning more about myself,” says Lobo. “We learned more about feminism, but from a different perspective. Most importantly, we learned that even if we are treated as an outsider within our own culture, we will continue to carry it on our backs. I wanted to share that there are different types of feminism and that Latin feminism is powerful too.”
Among the things Lobo has learned from her research is that Indigenous women may be targeted because many are poor and physically isolated from mainstream society, and oftentimes they do not speak the country’s official language. “They're also used almost as symbols,” explains Lobo. “When they are murdered, it’s sometimes used as a form of marking territory.”
Lobo says it was important to her to bring these issues to light through her research on #NiUnaMenos. “They shouldn't be forgotten just because they are Indigenous women.”
Abigail Tick hadn’t had a personal experience with advocacy and social justice until her freshman year in college, when she joined Students Advocating for Sexual Safety and Empowerment (SASSE). The group had planned a walkout against Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018.
That experience inspired her to take more action to advocate for victims of sexual violence. When this research opportunity presented itself, Tick selected the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, a platform for survivors of sexual violence to disclose the reasons they chose not to officially report their experience.
She says the hashtag is a way to build a community for survivors, but it also works to destigmatize the language used to talk about rape and other forms of sexual violence. “Social media is a crucial space for victims to generate dialogue as well as find resources. I’m interested in looking at that bridge for victims of sexual violence,” she says.
Tick views the hashtag through both a feminist lens and a critical white studies lens. “The image that we typically imagine of a rape victim on a college campus is that of a white cis woman. But it’s an intersectional issue, and it affects marginalized communities. That’s something I am trying to amplify, to shift our assumptions of what a victim looks like,” Tick explains.
She has been reading texts recommended by Professor Abdul-Ghani and recently submitted her literature review for the project. “I'm trying to understand space that my hashtag consumes in the social media sphere, and what that also means and looks like for the movement.”