Social Engagement Thesis

The Social Engagement thesis encourages students to think “outside the box” and incorporate academic work with social entrepreneurship. The thesis requires three parts: academic essay; visual documentary; and policy recommendations.

Academic Essay

Students must write academically rigorous essays on projects that they have established and operate in Africa or the Americas. The Social Engagement thesis requires mastery of an array of disciplinary perspectives. Although each student must have a thesis advisor, he/she must work and consult with several other faculty, since coordinated interdisciplinary efforts are at the foundation of this alternative thesis-writing experience. Students must take courses in the African Language Program for projects outside the United States and for work with immigrant communities in the United States. The thesis requires evidence of thorough research and mastery of relevant scholarship on the specific communities and cultures under study. In many cases this will require not only awareness of necessary methodologies of participant-observation, interviewing, and other fieldwork, but also the Harvard Ethics Training in Human Research (HETHR) certification.

Visual Documentary

Students who write the alternative thesis must document their project in a video or other media format, thus providing a tangible 'deliverable' that is focused on reaching and educating a broader audience. One can imagine a film, a website, a business plan, etc...

Policy Recommendations

Students must present recommendations or information as to the start-up and sustainability of their projects. Social engagement theses have experimental and experiential aspects to them that result in service-oriented research and learning. This should be included in the actual written component of the thesis, such that the thesis becomes an intervention toward helping to solve a specific social problem. For example, social engagement theses have focused on bringing fresh water to a rural village in Ghana or educating underprivileged Nigerian girls.

Social Engagement Thesis Examples

Zilolonge Arts-Literacy Project - Naseemah Mohamed

The Zilolonge Arts-Literacy Project, which I implemented in a high school in my home town of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, serves as pedagogical intervention against the colonial pedagogical legacy of corporal punishment and rote learning in the Zimbabwean classroom. Despite the high literacy rate in Zimbabwe, above 90%, both teachers and students predominantly view education merely in relation to their economic well-being, and have lost sight of the importance of education for human development, the cultivation of love of learning, student agency and higher order thinking skills. The Zilolonge Arts Project was adopted from Harvard’s Cultural Agents Pretext for Arts Literature Program. Based on the theoretical foundations of Paulo Freire and John Dewey, the program incorporates the arts, including music, theatre, poetry and drawing, into the current literature curriculum in order to increase student agency within the classroom and validate student cultures and experiences. I trained six teachers from a poor high school - Nkulumane High as well as four professional artists how to teach literature through the arts. The teachers and artists then taught approximately seventy students twice a week, for ten weeks in an after school program at Nkulumane High School. Using Chinua Achebe’s work, Things Fall Apart as their foundational text for all of their activities included students painted scenes from the text, wrote poems about characters and themes, dramatized scenes and interpreted character movements through dance. I measured the effects of the program on 1) student reading engagement and critical thinking, 2) student motivation to learn, and 3) promotion of a more egalitarian learning culture and dialogue. Using pre- and post-program interviews, reading enjoyment assessments and detailed ethnographic fieldwork, the program increased student reading and learning enjoyment and ameliorated the fear students had towards their teachers. The school has since kept the program, and I am currently working with a district officer for the Ministry of Education to pilot the project in a different part of the country.

Project Muse - Iman Taylor

Detroit has the lowest high school graduation rate of any major city in the United States; consequently, a small percentage of its citizens go on to graduate from a four-year college or university. This predominately African American city has the potential to be as powerful as it once was, but one of its most salient setbacks includes the low educational attainment level of the citizens. This monumental issue was the impetus that led me to found Project MUSE (Motor-city Urban Summer Enrichment), along with two of my peers, Kyla Taylor and George Hardy.

MUSE aims to introduce students to multiple aspects of education through the use of creative curriculums and seminars taught by undergraduate college students, and also promotes youth leadership and aspirations of attending institutions of higher education. After completion of the program, students will be exposed to high school concepts, have a clearer understanding of college expectations, and form long lasting relationships with collegiate mentors who will serve as academic and social resources throughout their high school years.

Sounding Creole - Carla Martin

This dissertation investigates the interrelationship of language and music in the complex cultural domain of Cape Verde and the Cape Verdean diaspora in West Africa, Europe, and North America. I illustrate how derogatory tropes of degeneracy, inferiority, and impurity applied to Creole languages and cultures (Creole exceptionalism) have prevented language parity between Portuguese, Cape Verde’s official colonial language, and Cape Verdean Creole (CVC), the vernacular of the country’s entire population. These tropes and their sociological implications are, ultimately, detrimental to efforts toward development in the country. I show that music, a safe and welcoming space for CVC, plays an integral role in preserving and promoting the language.

The results of centuries-old exceptionalist beliefs include the historical association of women as closer to nature than to culture in the Cape Verdean context and the perception of CVC language and culture as similarly subaltern as compared to their European counterparts. While men have traditionally been the revered songwriters and cultural intellectuals in Cape Verde, on world music stages Cape Verdean women have had the lion’s share of success. I argue that this gender role reversal is largely due to the unique career of Cesária Évora. Drawing on discourse-centered analysis, I chart the elements of race, gender, and social class indexed by song texts into the sociopolitical world of which they are a part and analyze the fruitful interventions and subversions made by Cape Verdean women performers in discussions of womanhood, “Africanness,” and “Creoleness.”

This study contributes to numerous ongoing scholarly debates in African diaspora studies and Creole studies, especially regarding the politics of representation, and offers one of the few existing comprehensive historical and ethnographic studies of language in music and of a Creole language specifically. Inherently political, the research for this dissertation has been accompanied by a decade-long project of social engagement advocating for the linguistic human rights of CVC speakers.

Social engagement work:

The research and writing of my dissertation began with a problem – language inequality, and its resulting sociological implications, in Cape Verde and the Cape Verdean diaspora. The problem stemmed directly from my ongoing work on Cape Verdean Creole language rights.

Since 2002, I have been actively engaged in advocacy for the Cape Verdean Creole language in the hopes of reforming social and educational policy in the United States, Cape Verde, and Europe to better address the needs of Creole language speakers and to promote full bilingualism (side-by-side with the official language of Portuguese) in Cape Verde. This advocacy work has included serving as a board member of the Capeverdean Creole Institute, a Boston-based organization devoted to the promotion of Creole. The group, composed of New England area scholars and pedagogues, has played a role in developing the standardized orthography for Creole and designing Creole-English bilingual materials in the United States. Events organized by the Capeverdean Creole Institute have included language education seminars, workshops, and conferences; author, artist, diplomat, and educator exchange trips from Cape Verde and other parts of the diaspora for cultural events; and translation and curriculum development consultation. The work of the Capeverdean Creole Institute has resulted in stronger ties between American institutions and Cape Verdean ones, increased visibility of Creole language issues in Cape Verde and the diaspora, improved educational opportunities, and significant development of materials in Creole and in translation.

I have also become the United States representative of the National Library of Cape Verde, responsible for distributing its many published books in this area. Through this non-profit initiative, I organize multiple book fairs in conjunction with other large cultural events each year. Members of the Cape Verdean community now have access to these publications for purchase or for borrowing from local libraries, both private and public, which have vastly expanded their collections to better serve the needs of Cape Verdean patrons. Harvard’s own collection has increased by the hundreds as a result of this partnership, as have the collections of New Bedford Public Library and Rhode Island College.

To increase access to these books, I have also begun selling them online, via the website The site, which is under construction, is also being expanded to serve as a sort of online clearinghouse for Cape Verdean studies, designed for use by both specialists and non-specialists. At present, it serves as a directory to the Cape Verdean web and to Cape Verdean scholarship, hosting lists of institutes and scholars important to Cape Verdean studies and links to related sites. Interactive content is currently being developed, as well.

To conclude, the dissertation that I’ve written emphasizes the role that archival and ethnographic research can play in the understanding of attitudes toward the Creole language. Just as significant to this project is social engagement, or the active political intervention in advocating for social change around this language problem. By working with the underlying goal of creating Creole equality with Portuguese, I join a chorus of voices dedicated to the preservation of African and African diaspora languages and musical traditions and to activism for linguistic and cultural human rights.

Project Unveil - Oluwadara Johnson

During an exploratory research project in 2008, Oluwadara (Dara) Johnson learned that Nigerian secondary schools had an extremely high female dropout rate and that a surprising number of the girls were interested in theatre. This discovery inspired her to create Project Unveil, a social enterprise that uses performing arts to empower and educate “at-risk” girls via an intensive summer camp and complementary after-school program. Project Unveil also provides a wealth of resources to parents and guardians of students through the Project Unveil Academy.

Since 2009, Project Unveil has prevented 43 girls aged 11 to 19 from dropping out. Dara devised a clear methodology, entitled “dramatic education by inclusion-and-expression” (DEBIX), which serves as the engine of PU’s success. DEBIX involves active storytelling (which incorporates aspects of the traditional African moonlight story telling), play reading and writing, and acting to help “at-risk” female students express themselves with confidence and creativity. Via the DEBIX methodology, Project Unveil has turned girls who were at best ambivalent about education into eager learners, critical thinkers, leaders, and team players. This year, four of the 43 Project Unveil girls became the first females in their families and local communities to graduate from secondary school. Another one of the Project Unveil girls won an academic scholarship to one of the top-two schools in Nigeria. Project Unveil continues to have a tangible impact on the lives of young girls from Ibadan, Nigeria.

For more information about Project Unveil, please visit

Project Access to Clean Water for Agyementi - Sangu Delle

In 2008, the United Nations-designated “International Year of Water and Sanitation,” two Harvard undergraduates and I co-founded Project Access to Clean Water for Agyementi (Project ACWA), with the goal of providing clean water and sanitation to Agyementi, a village in southern Ghana. A significant number of people in Agyementi, like other villagers in that region of the country, suffered from trachoma, a preventable disease which causes blindness, as well as guinea worm, skin diseases, and diarrhea, all of which resulted from contact with contaminated water and poor sanitary conditions. ACWA was conducted via Social Engagement, a pedagogical initiative of the Department of African and African American Studies. Motivated by the concept that by stepping outside the ivory tower students are better able to understand what they study, Social Engagement emphasizes how and why academic ideas and even technological discoveries are challenged by the lived experiences and cultural prescriptions of communities we work with. Thus, Project ACWA was the product of academic study combined with practical experience and fieldwork.

Without Project ACWA, Agyementi would have remained with the 1.1 billion people globally without access to clean water and the 2.6 billion without access to adequate sanitation. The infants in Agyementi would have continued to die from diarrhea, adding to the 2.2 million deaths attributable to diarrhea every year. [Sangu Delle '10]