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Marquette University project aims to improve social studies instruction using local Milwaukee history

A group of students and a historian gather outside to look at a mural. The mural features many historical scenes in figures in both vivid colors and in sepia tones.
Melissa Gibson
Students from St. Joan Antida High School go on an outing as part of the Explore Milwaukee program.

Now more than ever, educators are having critical conversations not only about which histories to teach but how we should teach them – especially when it comes to the histories of people of color in the United States.

A new Marquette University program aims to help teachers answer those questions.

Milwaukee Roots: The Democratizing Local History Project will engage students in the local histories of Milwaukee’s people of color.

Housed in Marquette’s Center for Urban Research Teaching, and Outreach, the project will help teach students through place-based experiences, allowing them to learn from community leaders and visit crucial historical landmarks. The goal is to have these resources available to teachers across Milwaukee.

Dr. Melissa Gibson is an associate professor at Marquette and leader of Milwaukee Roots. She says the idea for Milwaukee Roots came from a credit recovery program she helped develop for Saint Joan Antida High School to help students get back on track after failing their social studies classes.

As part of the program called Explore Milwaukee, Gibson took students on trips to learn about local history. They visited Walker's Point Center for the Arts, met with a local historian to listen to stories of Milwaukee's Latinx community, and visited local business owners in the Sherman Phoenix to explore the history of the neighborhood.

Marquette was awarded a $1.27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch the Milwaukee Roots initiative.

Similar to Explore Milwaukee, Milwaukee Roots will help teachers educate students about the histories of local communities of color through place-based experiences and guided explorations.

“There are so many amazing archives, resources, and scholarship in our city on its rich history, but it's all over the place,” says Gibson. “So our hope is to build a web-based ecosystem that maps Milwaukee's neighborhoods and important places within those neighborhoods that tell the history of our communities of color in Milwaukee.”

Milwaukee Roots’ week-long summer program will provide professional development for area teachers. Educators will go on their own place-based excursions and work with Marquette faculty to develop innovative ways to teach local history and civics. Milwaukee Roots is also partnering with Milwaukee Public Schools to put together a course on local history for high schoolers.

“What we hope at a minimum is that this network of teachers will begin to see how, for almost every topic in their social studies classes, there is a really local connection that we can teach that bigger issue through,” Gibson says.

The development of the Milwaukee Roots project is informed by Gibson’s research of educational justice.

“As a scholar, I was initially really concerned with big philosophical questions, like ‘What is educational justice?’ And I can't give you a short answer to that,” Gibson says. “I would say that the idea of educational sovereignty and being able to be an equal participant in shaping one's education, and seeing oneself in school, in the curriculum, is part of it.”

Ultimately, Gibson hopes that Milwaukee Roots will inspire Milwaukee students to be active, engaged citizens and community members.

“Positive democratic citizenship requires that we buy into the idea of a shared community and a shared common good, and that community and that common good cares about us back,” Gibson says. “So that's part of what we hope to teach and to cultivate in Milwaukee Roots through our city.”


Nadya is WUWM's sixth Eric Von fellow.
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