Spotlight: Freedom Reads Social Impact Fellowship

March 2, 2024

By Pria Garcelle

Montogomery, Alabama – Earlier this month, two Princeton graduate students – Pria Garcelle from with Department of Classics and Cece Ramsey from the Department of French and Italian – joined members of the Freedom Reads team in a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice to further explore the history and the roots of racism and mass incarceration in America. Both Cece and Pria have been working part time with the Freedom Reads team as GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellows, a fellowship which provides graduate students with the opportunity to apply their skills as researchers in work with nonprofit organizations partnered with Princeton University's Graduate School.

The Museum and Monument—a five hour immersive experience—-together tell a harrowing story that starts in the gray, turbulent waters of the Atlantic and never really ends. The space is crammed full of art installations, haunting holograms, mini-theaters and an overwhelming amount of records and artifacts and interviews and quotations that hardly even scrape the surface of the horrors of our history. The Museum spotlights especially that which is so tempting for many Americans to forget: that the lasting traumas of slavery and its many social byproducts have had a real, profound, and yet still unaddressed effect on the American psyche.

This is not an easy museum.

In this museum, you are not given the comfort of distance from the past because one of the main goals is to show you that no such distance exists. Contrary to positivist narratives of history, we have been handed down a legacy in America via our institutions, our customs, our languages, and our geographies, etc., that has, in many ways it seems, taken us further backwards than forward. In exploring these legacies, the viewer is left with a feeling of urgency for why the work of the historian is crucially necessary in today's society. “[The museum] is a reminder that we are always so much closer to a precipice. So much closer than we imagine,” one team member said during a group reflection afterwards.  

The Legacy Museum is the first and only museum in the nation that focuses specifically on the lynching of African Americans following emancipation. Located in the heart of downtown Montgomery, Alabama, the museum is situated at an important trans-temporal crossroad of racial history. The building itself was a former warehouse and holding jail for the black enslaved populations passing through the city during the 18th and 19th centuries. After emancipation, Montgomery embraced Jim Crow laws like much of the South. Lynching and segregation set the status quo for decades there but also led to the creation of a fierce spirit of resistance which was to lead to the American Civil Rights movement.

The museum serves as a necessary reflection on the roots of American injustice. It confronts everyone who enters with the unfiltered legacy of the past in a bid to begin an honest and open conversation about what it would take to truly heal. For us on the Freedom Reads team it served as a humbling reminder of the urgency of all the work we still have left to do before us. The museum spoke honestly of our nation’s past in an attempt to give us wisdom and, as we see it, it is the work of Freedom Reads to provide as many people as possible access to the second essential ingredient needed in this same work towards the founding of a better future: hope. To quote the words of Freedom Reads Founder and CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts from his New York Times essay, “I do not believe that a book alone will grant a person wings, but the hope of it all is not a fantasy. The hope is that someone will turn a page, and with the turning, transform."

This is not an easy museum.

But, if you let it, it can be an invigorating one.

Pria Garcelle is a PhD candidate and current Social Impact Fellow with Freedom Reads at Princeton University. She is currently researching archaic Greek textiles, fashions, and the social histories embedded in them.

GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowships are bespoke opportunities for Princeton graduate students with nonprofit organizations that have partnered with the Graduate School. Host organizations work closely with the Graduate School to determine the learning outcomes and professional development goals for these immersive experiences. Each fellowship is custom-designed for you to apply discipline-specific skills, gain interdisciplinary project team experience, and receive one-on-one mentoring while contributing to the social impact mission of the organization. You gain exposure to organizational dynamics and leadership strategies, participate in virtual meetings and/or presentations, and complete meaningful projects that address local, regional, national, and global challenges. The average time commitment is 10 hours per week for the length of a semester or during the summer.

Learn more about the Social Impact Fellowship Program and apply here!