ACLS Leading Edge Fellowships

The Leading Edge Fellowship program aims to demonstrate the potential of people with advanced degrees in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to solve problems outside the academy. In the first two cycles of the fellowship program, recent PhDs in the humanities will help communities respond to issues caused by the Covid-19 crisis and advance public understanding of the pandemic. Support for the first two cohorts of fellows has been made possible by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Read more about this fellowship program.

Please note: affiliations shown are as of time of award. Please click on fellows’ names for current information.

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Watch "Emerging Themes and Methods of Research: A Discussion with ACLS Fellows," an annual meeting session featuring recent ACLS fellows. 

Diana A. Burnett
Diana A. Burnett
PhD, Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania
Appointed to the Kairos Center for the project "Analyzing the Impact of COVID-19 on Poor and Low-Income People to Transform Conditions on the Ground"
see position description (abstract)
The Kairos Center is a national organization of grassroots religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty led by the poor. Our network of leaders and organizations have roots in organized struggles of the poor and dispossessed extending back several decades and are also on the leading edge of social change efforts today. We are one of the two anchor organizations of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. There are over 140 million poor and low-income people living in the United States. 64 million workers earn less than $15/hour, and there is not a single state in the country where a minimum wage job is enough to pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers are expected to rise as conditions for the majority of working people continue to worsen. The Leading Edge Fellow will join the Kairos Center as part of its policy team to research and communicate the conditions facing poor and low-income people during the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. Working with the Kairos Center’s and Poor People Campaign’s network of grassroots and community leaders, the fellow will engage and interview poor and low-income people who are organizing against these injustices across dozens of states. These first-hand accounts and related research will contribute to breaking down false narratives about the poor and help build power among the poor to transform the conditions that continue to impoverish so many across the country. The fellow’s work will also contribute to policy work focused on housing, health care, welfare, militarism, and lifting the load of poverty for all.
Martha Lagace
Martha Lagace
PhD, Anthropology, Boston University
Appointed to African Communities Together for the project "Mapping African Immigrant Communities Post-2020"
see position description (abstract)
African Communities Together (ACT) is a national organization of African immigrants with offices in the New York City and Washington, D.C. metro areas. ACT empowers African immigrants to integrate socially, get ahead economically, and engage civically. ACT connects African immigrants to services, develops our members as grassroots leaders, and takes action to make social change. Since its founding, ACT has connected thousands of African immigrants to direct services, trained hundreds of new leaders, and led successful policy campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels that have impacted hundreds of thousands of immigrants. ACT’s African immigrant membership comes from a diverse range of nationalities, cultures, and languages, is religiously diverse, and is predominantly working-class and low-income. The Leading Edge Fellow will join ACT’s team as a Research Manager, and use policy research, qualitative and quantitative data, and personal narratives to advocate for policy reforms that advance immigrant and civil rights, economic development, and access to services for African immigrants living in the United States. The Research Manager’s primary focus will be updating ACT’s demographic research on African immigrant communities in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other metro areas, as well as crafting regional profiles for publication that present this data in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, developments in U.S. immigration policy, and the racial justice uprisings. This research will help advance public awareness of the needs of African immigrant communities and support local, state, and federal policies that advance legal equality, economic development, access to resources, and civic engagement among African immigrants.
Justine Esta Ellis
Justine Esta Ellis
PhD, Theology, University of Oxford
Appointed to CREW for the project "Advocating for Ethics and Money-in-Politics Reform Using Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic"
see position description (abstract)
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) uses aggressive legal action, in-depth research, and bold communications to reduce the influence of money in politics and help foster a government that is ethical and accountable. The Watergate scandal led to a number of reforms to the American system of governance that shaped today’s campaign finance and government ethics systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has already reverberated through many parts of the system, and its intersection with the ethics crisis in our executive branch and the country’s renewed focus on systemic racism may trigger a similarly, if not more, transformative reform moment in the near future. To prepare for and shape that reform moment, advocates for effective ethics rules and equitable participation in American democracy must connect with these larger trends. The Leading Edge Fellow at CREW will be a principal contributor to this effort, and will lead a project to effectively tell the stories that teach these lessons. To carry out this project, the fellow will work in partnership with CREW’s broad coalitions, which include labor, racial justice, faith, women’s rights, environmental, good government, and other important communities.
Suzanne Li Puma
Suzanne Li Puma
PhD, Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley
Appointed to Breakthrough for the project "Assessing the Cultural Impact of Our Stories: In Vivid Color, a Multimedia Project"
see position description (abstract)
For twenty years, Breakthrough has harnessed media and popular culture to spark conversations and cultural transformation at the intersection of gender, sexuality, racial justice, and immigrant rights. Through nuanced, authentic storytelling, the organization uplifts the voices and experiences of marginalized people, to challenge systemic barriers and build their cultural power. The building blocks of Breakthrough’s campaigns are the instruments of pop culture: social media, music videos, video games, comedy shows, podcasts, documentary films, narrative fiction, and more. Using these mediums, the organization reaches audiences at scale, inspiring people to empathize and take action in support of a fairer and safer world, free of violence and discrimination—especially the forms that disproportionately harm women, girls, and people of color. The Leading Edge Fellow at Breakthrough will take a leading role in scaling a project that is at the center of its current work: Our Stories: In Vivid Color. A multimedia initiative, Our Stories amplifies the first-person narratives of girls and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth of color, ages 14-24, across the United States and Puerto Rico. It explores their lived experiences, creative and activist projects, and dreams—namely, of what a more liberated future would look like, for themselves and their communities. The project will be disseminated via digital and social media, and will hopefully be streamed on a major platform like Netflix or Amazon, to reach a mass audience. The Leading Edge Fellow will also lead a research project on these and related topics, which will include a landscape review, primary data collection, and qualitative analysis.
Kresten Froistad-Martin
Kresten Froistad-Martin
PhD, Ethics and Social Theory, Graduate Theological Union
Appointed to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice for the project "Collateral Consequences: COVID-19 and the Criminal Justice System in North Carolina"
see position description (abstract)
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South to defend and advance their political, social, and economic rights through the combination of legal advocacy, research, organizing, and communications. SCSJ’s Justice System Reform team promotes social and economic justice through its efforts to ensure police accountability, end racial profiling and mass incarceration, eliminate the unfair collateral consequences of involvement with the criminal legal system, and challenge systemic racial discrimination and inequities at all stages of the system. At the same time that COVID-19 has ravaged North Carolina’s prisons, jails, and detention centers, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inadequacies of North Carolina’s system of supports for justice-involved individuals trying to build a successful life after reentry. In a state that incarcerates five times as many Black residents as white residents, scaling back of already limited resources and supports, and a two-week quarantine requirement are derailing an already difficult transition SCSJ has identified new concerns as well as opportunities in the areas of pre-release and reentry as a result of COVID-19. The Justice System Reform (JSR) team will be releasing two toolkits in Fall 2020: Your First 48 Hours, a community resource guide for individuals coming home from local jails as well as state and federal prisons, and the Umar Muhammad Clean Slate Toolkit, a guide to removing charges and convictions from a person’s criminal record so they may economically and socially better their lives. Building on this work, the Leading Edge Fellow will use a range of data, including personal narratives, to document the impact of COVID-19 on reentry supports and expungement efforts in North Carolina. The fellow will ground all research projects in the lived experiences of those most impacted. As a first step, the fellow will collaboratively design a research agenda with SCSJ staff and community partners, then using this foundation to elaborate research products that will help advance public awareness, support local and state-wide community efforts to make meaningful changes to support those impacted by an unjust system, and make the case for a shift in funding and legislative priorities in the context of advocating for policy reforms. Based on interest and capacity, the fellow will also have the opportunity to work with SCSJ’s Voting Rights (VR) project staff on documenting and expanding the knowledge base about the ways that COVID-19 has shifted the voter registration and elections landscape and infrastructure.
Dani R. Merriman
Dani R. Merriman
PhD, Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder
Appointed to the National Museum for American History for the project "Ethical Considerations: COVID-19 Vaccine Research"
see position description (abstract)
The National Museum of American History empowers people to create a just and compassionate future by exploring, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. At the heart of the museum are the dedicated professionals who care for its audiences, national collections, resources, messages, buildings, and scholarship, all in service to the people of the United States. From its nearly 800,000-square-foot home on the National Mall and through numerous online channels, the museum welcomes millions of people every year from across the country and around the world, free of charge. Because COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color, the need for diverse pools of test subjects for a vaccine has become especially crucial. Yet America’s long and complex history of unethical medical experimentation in communities of color has made many community members hesitant to participate in clinical trials. By researching and collecting materials related to the ethical imperatives that shape the development and implementation of clinical trials for an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the National Museum of American History seeks to document and collect around efforts to rectify and address ethical lapses which have long impacted and shaped medical research. Two Leading Edge Fellows will conduct research on the role that religious institutions and community organizations are playing in encouraging community participation in clinical trials. The Fellows’ research will include efforts by the National Institute of Health’s COVID-19 Prevention Network’s (CoVPN) Faith Initiative. Led by a minister, CoVPN’s Faith Initiative uses seven “faith ambassadors” and more than 30 clergy-consultants from the Black, Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native communities to assist in efforts to diversify clinical testing pools for COVID-19 vaccines, as well as to promote the vaccine rollout in 2021. The Fellow will research the ethical parameters for COVID-19 vaccine trials as determined by law and then conduct oral histories of individuals involved in CoVPN’s Faith Initiative. Oral histories will explore the role religious leaders played, or did not play, in ensuring that COVID-19 clinical trials reflected the diversity of the American experience. Oral histories conducted by the Leading Edge Fellows will assist the museum in identifying objects, such as ethical protocols, public health materials, test kits, and vaccines, which are central to documenting this story for museum visitors and researchers. By researching and identifying aspects of COVID-19 vaccine trials and the vaccination program as it unfolds, the Leading Edge Fellows will enhance understanding and interpretation of the museum’s world-class collections of historic vaccinations and immunotherapies.
Chris Hedlin
Chris Hedlin
PhD, English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Appointed to PublicSource for the project "Reporting on Faith and Religion in Pittsburgh Amid the Pandemic"
see position description (abstract)
PublicSource inspires critical thinking and bold ideas about Pittsburgh through journalism rooted in facts, diverse voices and pursuit of transparency. The PublicSource newsroom—founded in 2011—is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, digital-first media organization dedicated to serving Pittsburgh and the region. PublicSource covers K-12 education, local government, economic development, the environment, health and public safety. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on religious communities and institutions in the Pittsburgh area. In just a few months, the churches, schools, temples and other places of worship have had to pivot and figure out how to reimagine Sunday schools, sermons, Ramadan celebrations, baptism ceremonies, and funerals. In Pittsburgh, changing markets and coronavirus shutdowns in March led to a halt of distribution for a 166-year-old Diocese of Pittsburgh publication, shrinking congregations and shut down parishes. Through a project based in journalism and research, the Leading Edge Fellow will play key role as we devise ways to measure the impact on the sense of religious identity in our area. Some of the questions the fellow will explore with our team include: How are religious institutions managing (or not) to preserve and foster faith and religious identity in the times of the pandemic in the Pittsburgh region? How has the pandemic affected the physical footprint of religious institutions? And, what social issues (e.g. child care and senior isolation amid COVID-19, race relations, addiction recovery, etc.) are religious institutions expanding into or adjusting their work to because of the pandemic? The fellow’s research, analysis, and reporting will serve a large population of the Pittsburgh region who are engaged with places of worship and religious concepts at a time when the pandemic is isolating many from their communities and information gaps are broadening.
Christine Mladic Janney
Christine Mladic Janney
PhD, Anthropology, New York University
Appointed to Freedom for Immigrants for the project "The Global Dimension of Immigration Detention"
see position description (abstract)
Freedom for Immigrants’ highly dedicated team works to end U.S. immigration detention by monitoring human rights abuses, elevating stories, building community-based alternatives to detention, and advocating for system change. The heart of this work is community-based volunteers who visit people in detention, building relationships that have the power to change lives and systems. Currently, Freedom for Immigrants supports a network of approximately 4,500 volunteers visiting at 69 U.S.-based immigrant prisons through Freedom for Immigrants-affiliated visitation programs. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought public health sharply into focus, and it has exposed how immigration detention is a global issue. Since March 2020, Freedom for Immigrants has been working with partners in the United Kingdom, Spain, and India to expose how our immigration detention systems are intertwined. The Leading Edge Fellow will take this work to the next level, representing Freedom for Immigrants in international fora on the topic of immigration detention and undertaking three research projects over the course of the fellowship.
Jonathan K. Henry
Jonathan K. Henry
PhD, Religion, Princeton University
Appointed to Community Change for the project "Private vs. Public Interests: Sheriffs’ Elections and Mass Incarceration"
see position description (abstract)
Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. The organization works to create an open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process. Common Cause is embarking on a project that will shed light on the role of sheriffs in the country’s growing mass incarceration, those who fund their campaigns, and how these interrelated issues have taken on particular significance amid the COVID-19 crisis. The Leading Edge Fellow will work closely with Common Cause’s mass incarceration program manager to investigate and expose who donates to sheriffs’ political campaigns, and why. Common Cause’s preliminary research has shown that, too often, it is the very corporations that donate to sheriffs which ultimately serve to benefit the most from prisons and jails not adopting appropriate decarceral measures or implementing virus mitigation measures. During a pandemic, when lives are dependent on being distant from the general population, locking up potential offenders in jails, seems particularly egregious. The fellow’s research will educate voters on the impact of “pay-to-play” politics in their communities, and help grassroots organizers advocate for public financing of local elections.
Kimberly A. Probolus
Kimberly A. Probolus
PhD, American Studies, The George Washington University
Appointed to the Southern Poverty Law Center for the project "The Third Edition of Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy"
see position description (abstract)
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. Headquartered in Montgomery, AL, it has offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. For five decades, the SPLC has won landmark cases that brought systemic reforms in the Deep South. It has toppled remnants of Jim Crow segregation and destroyed violent white supremacist groups; shattered barriers to equality for women, vulnerable children, the LGBT community and the disabled; protected migrant workers and immigrants from abuse; ensured the humane treatment of prisoners and reformed juvenile justice practices; and more. Through its Intelligence Project, the SPLC is the premier U.S. non-profit organization monitoring the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremists, including the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, and antigovernment militias. In the wake of the Charleston Church Massacre, the SPLC compiled a wide-reaching and publicly accessible database of Confederate monuments and symbols on public land: Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy. The goal of the 2016 report was to dispel the false narrative that Confederate monuments are symbols of heritage—when they are symbols of white supremacy—and educate the American public on the history of these monuments many of which were erected after Reconstruction, during the rise of Jim Crow, as part of a campaign to whitewash the history of the Confederacy. Revised in 2018, Whose Heritage? has established the SPLC as the leading expert on Confederate symbols. The report has been cited by virtually every national media outlet, and extensively by federal lawmakers and activists. And despite COVID-19 highlighting the disproportionate health and economic outcomes for people of color because of structural racism, internal SPLC polling shows that a majority of Americans have yet to fully grapple with this legacy or believe that these correlations exist. The Leading Edge Fellow will join Intelligence Project’s team as a Research Analyst to help SPLC develop a Third Edition of Whose Heritage? in 2021 that dramatically expands the data, dives deeper into analysis, and better positions the report to be used for affirmative public education and advocacy campaigns. The fellow will use historical research, new data, and personal narratives to revise Whose Heritage?; collaborate with the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project on creating related multigenerational education materials; and collaborate with the SPLC Policy Department to advocate for the removal of Confederate symbols on public grounds.
Andrew Krinks
Andrew Krinks
PhD, Religion, Vanderbilt University
Appointed to the American Friends Service Committee for the project "Testimonies of the Detained: Understanding the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Incarcerated People"
see position description (abstract)
Founded in 1917, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action. Among its other programs, AFSC works to end mass incarceration, improve conditions for people who are in prison, stop prison privatization, and promote a reconciliation and healing approach to criminal justice issues. In New Jersey, the AFSC supports people in prison by monitoring and documenting human rights abuses, providing direct legal representation in immigration cases, as well as advocating for change at the policy level and oversight at the community level. AFSC’s Prison Watch Program and Immigrant Rights Program have worked together on initiatives including lowering phone rates at NJ County Jails, ending solitary confinement, and more recently, on a campaign to #FreeThemAll, which focuses on advocating for release of all people in prison as we live through the dangerous COVID-19 pandemic. Because of AFSC’s long history of work in these areas, the organization immediately recognized the impact that COVID-19 was having in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers in New Jersey and throughout the country. The Leading Edge Fellow at AFSC will help document this ongoing situation, and provide recommendations to policymakers for the future. Their primary project will be to research and develop a report on incarceration under COVID-19 that highlights the experiences and needs of people in prisons, jails and immigration detention centers in New Jersey. Drawing from the testimonies and stories of incarcerated and detained people, the report will highlight the troubling way in which individuals who complete their criminal sentences are often turned over to ICE for additional detention, as well as the chaotic conditions of release from detention under COVID-19. The report will incorporate policy and practice recommendations gleaned from people in prison, their families and communities, and other advocates.
Lawrence A. Whitney
Lawrence A. Whitney
PhD, Theological Studies, Boston University
Appointed to the National Museum of American History for the project "Ethical Considerations: COVID-19 Vaccine Research"
see position description (abstract)
The National Museum of American History empowers people to create a just and compassionate future by exploring, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. At the heart of the museum are the dedicated professionals who care for its audiences, national collections, resources, messages, buildings, and scholarship, all in service to the people of the United States. From its nearly 800,000-square-foot home on the National Mall and through numerous online channels, the museum welcomes millions of people every year from across the country and around the world, free of charge. Because COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color, the need for diverse pools of test subjects for a vaccine has become especially crucial. Yet America’s long and complex history of unethical medical experimentation in communities of color has made many community members hesitant to participate in clinical trials. By researching and collecting materials related to the ethical imperatives that shape the development and implementation of clinical trials for an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the National Museum of American History seeks to document and collect around efforts to rectify and address ethical lapses which have long impacted and shaped medical research. Two Leading Edge Fellows will conduct research on the role that religious institutions and community organizations are playing in encouraging community participation in clinical trials. The Fellows’ research will include efforts by the National Institute of Health’s COVID-19 Prevention Network’s (CoVPN) Faith Initiative. Led by a minister, CoVPN’s Faith Initiative uses seven “faith ambassadors” and more than 30 clergy-consultants from the Black, Latinx and American Indian/Alaska Native communities to assist in efforts to diversify clinical testing pools for COVID-19 vaccines, as well as to promote the vaccine rollout in 2021. The Fellow will research the ethical parameters for COVID-19 vaccine trials as determined by law and then conduct oral histories of individuals involved in CoVPN’s Faith Initiative. Oral histories will explore the role religious leaders played, or did not play, in ensuring that COVID-19 clinical trials reflected the diversity of the American experience. Oral histories conducted by the Leading Edge Fellows will assist the museum in identifying objects, such as ethical protocols, public health materials, test kits, and vaccines, which are central to documenting this story for museum visitors and researchers. By researching and identifying aspects of COVID-19 vaccine trials and the vaccination program as it unfolds, the Leading Edge Fellows will enhance understanding and interpretation of the museum’s world-class collections of historic vaccinations and immunotherapies.