Veronica Watson, professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and convener of the Frederick Douglass Institute Collaborative, has secured funding from the 400 Years of African American History National Commission to offer two high-impact programs to students throughout the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

The two programs, “I Fear for My Life” and “Let Me Read You Your Rights,” are both being developed as part of the 2020–21 Frederick Douglass Social Justice Academy, which seeks to engage students in dialogue, learning, and leadership development related to racial and social justice.

The “Let Me Read You Your Rights” initiative was initially established by the National Alliance of Faith and Justice and brought law enforcement together with youth to read and discuss the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The original “Let Me Read You Your Rights” program also provided mentoring for middle and high school students.

Watson received $31,750 to expand this initiative to the collegiate level, engaging young adults aged 18–25 across the State System. In addition to leadership development, the expansion has three educational goals:

  • To improve understanding of rights guaranteed under the Constitution and Bill of Rights among all participants;
  • To increase positive interactions between young adults and law enforcement that lead to greater understanding, more communication, and a greater use of police discretionary power to support rather than incarcerate young adults; and
  • To develop skills in mentoring and facilitation among participants.

As part of the project, student facilitators will organize several reading sessions that partner State System students with law enforcement to read and discuss the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They will also develop discussion and reading groups to expand the understanding of policing, mentor youth to decrease their involvement in the criminal justice system, and facilitate community dialogues. All events will be delivered remotely and are open to students across Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education.

Watson received $29,000 for the “I Fear for My Life” project. Funding will be used to support student researchers and interns at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and to pair them with faculty mentors, to conduct foundational research for a book of the same name. The publication, I Fear For My Life, will capture writing and images related to recent police shootings of unarmed black people that have sparked national and international protests, and will also include perspectives from law enforcement on these cases and public responses that have resulted.

Students working on both projects will have the opportunity to share their work at Frederick Douglass Social Justice Academy Student Research Showcase, tentatively planned for spring 2021.

Watson is excited about the opportunities these resources will make available to students in the State System.

“These projects are focused on topics that are at the center public debate right now,” she said. “The 20 to 30 students who are selected to be involved will be participating in student-faculty research, learning from and presenting on the research they do; mentoring high school students across the country; facilitating dialogue; and developing tools to help them become vocal advocates for social justice.”

She also notes that the impact of this work is far-reaching.

“These paid opportunities can help students afford to stay in school, can help them see the value of their education, and can increase their abilities to be positive change-makers in our society. This is the kind of transformative work the Douglass Collaborative strives to do through all of its initiatives,” she said.

Since 2010, Watson has served as a convener for the Frederick Douglass Institute Collaborative, which, guided by the spirit and legacy of distinguished orator and statesman Frederick Douglass, seeks to create inclusive university communities and transformative connections among historically underrepresented students and faculty, as well as other communities across the commonwealth and beyond. The Frederick Douglass Institute Collaborative is active across 14 campuses in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. IUP takes part in the mission of the Collaborative through its Frederick Douglass Institute for Intercultural Research.

In addition to this most recent funding, in fall 2019 Watson received a two-year award of $155,454 to support the work of the Frederick Douglass Institute Collaborative from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, with additional support coming from IUP. This award marked the ninth year of continuous funding from the State System for the Collaborative.