Taking humanities on the road

In her new position with Carolina Public Humanities, Rachel Schaevitz is launching new collaborations with community colleges, museums, movie theaters and nonprofits to advance the University’s mission of serving the state of North Carolina.

Rachel Schaevitz is the new associate director for state outreach and strategic partnerships with Carolina Public Humanities. (photo by Donn Young)
Rachel Schaevitz is the new associate director for state outreach and strategic partnerships with Carolina Public Humanities. (photo by Donn Young)

A passion for public service is in Rachel Schaevitz’s DNA. Her family instilled in her the importance of being involved in your community — whether through volunteer efforts, a chosen career path or a stint in public office.

Schaevitz is doing all three. After a career in the film business, she went back to get her Ph.D. in media and communication from Temple University, focusing on using media and the humanities as vehicles for social change. Her dissertation looked at how silent film techniques might be used to help non-native English speakers navigate the American health care system.

She then served as a postdoctoral fellow at Carolina Public Humanities, helping the organization broaden its reach beyond traditional weekend seminars and public lectures. In her three years as a fellow, she was instrumental in developing programs like “Humanities Happy Hour,” where faculty members share their research after hours at Top of the Hill’s Back Bar, and “Language Lunches,” where people discuss a topical article in a foreign language and practice their speaking skills over lunch.

Now she’s expanding her role with CPH as the first associate director for state outreach and strategic partnerships. She’ll be building relationships with community colleges, nonprofits, museums and other institutions to take UNC humanities on the road.

“The natural evolution of the postdoc became not so much, how do we reach people in our own backyard, but how can we branch out across the state?” Schaevitz said.

To test the waters, she took existing programs — like a seminar on the Holocaust — to community college campuses. Then CPH began a new idea — tailoring specific programs to the needs of a particular community.

In March, for example, CPH partnered with Carteret Community College after an incident of racial tension in the Morehead City area to offer “Beyond Tolerance, Diversity in our Communities: Living in Mixed Race America.” Jennifer Ho, a professor of English and comparative literature and an expert in critical race theory, led the half-day seminar with Ph.D. student Dwight Tanner.

Schaevitz leads a film discussion at the Chelsea Theater on "The Philadelphia Story." (photo by Donn Young)
Schaevitz leads a film discussion at the Chelsea Theater on “The Philadelphia Story.” (photo by Donn Young)

In May, Schaevitz traveled to Sylva in western North Carolina with religious studies Ph.D. students Samah Choudhury and Hina Muneeruddin, both experts in Islamic studies. They developed a program at the request of Southwestern Community College, “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? Religion and Islamophobia in America.”

The crowd was standing-room only, packed with students, faculty and members of the community.

“We got a tough question that was a little offensive, and our graduate students handled it with professionalism and grace,” said Schaevitz, who hopes to use graduate students even more in her outreach efforts. “After the talk, a woman in the audience who was from Iraq pulled aside the young man who had asked the question, and they engaged in a real dialogue in a corner of the auditorium while we were cleaning up the room. We had ignited a spark and created a safe space for these kinds of conversations.”

The Mellon-funded Humanities for the Public Good initiative has been helping to support Schaevitz’s partnerships with community colleges. She received a Faculty Engagement Award, which is designed to catalyze connections between humanities faculty and collaborators beyond the campus to do socially impactful work. She also presented at a recent statewide community colleges conference about the success of these outreach seminars.

Back in Chapel Hill, Schaevitz continues to explore new ways of reaching the community. Drawing upon her first love, film, she has introduced “Morning at the Movies,” a new partnership with the nonprofit Chelsea Theater. The “cinema school” features a film and post-show discussion. She led an Oct. 24 talk about the classic Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant romantic film, The Philadelphia Story.

As for her public office hat, Schaevitz successfully ran for a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2017. She’s also a liaison to the Chapel Hill Arts Commission and serves on the Orange County Visitor’s Bureau Board of Directors, among other volunteer activities.

“It’s nice to be a bridge between the University and the town of Chapel Hill and to understand both worlds,” she said. ““I feel so grateful to be at UNC and CPH — both value supporting creative, outside-the-box thinking to create sustainable partnerships and build community in meaningful ways.”

By Kim Weaver Spurr ’88