News Archive

Documentary filmmaker Bill Kavanagh will talk about community engagement and uncovering grassroots history in documentary production.

In this context, he will refer to his film on a federal desegregation lawsuit in Yonkers, New York. The documentary film he produced, Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, followed three families through the crucible of the litigation, known as US v. Yonkers.

The federal anti-discrimination suit lasted for 27 years, from its initial filing in 1980, to a 1985 ruling, to a final settlement, reached in 2007. During this period, the city of Yonkers integrated its schools, but appealed the litigation on housing discrimination all the way to the US Supreme Court. Yonkers skirted bankruptcy over fines incurred, but finally built some 200 units of low-income housing and several hundred units of affordable housing to satisfy its obligations under a consent decree.

Bill Kavanagh, producer / director, recently produced and directed the documentary short, "A Matter of Place," on housing discrimination and those who fight it. It won best documentary short at the first annual Catskill Mountain Film Festival in 2014 and has been used by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to educate the public and professionals in fair housing. Kavanagh is currently working on a documentary film in Bethlehem about economic changes in circumstances for workers over the last several decades.

Alexis Leon recent American Studies graduate has her article "The Cinderella Scientist: A Critical Reading of the CBS series, 'The Big Bang Theory'" published.

John Pettegrew, Associate Professor, History

Lehigh University American Studies - John Pettegrew

Associate Professor of History, John Pettegrew, has been named the of Director of American Studies Program effective July 1. Pettegrew is a historian of the late-19th and 20th century U.S. thought and culture. He is co-editor of the three-volume work, Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism; author and editor of A Pragmatist's Progress: Richard Rorty and American Intellectural History; and author of the book, Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920, an examination of the putatively male instinct of aggressiveness as constructed in modern U.S. social science, law, literature, sports and military cultures. His current research includes the topics of combat in the Iraq War, and the emergence of empathy in 20th-century social thought. 

Professor Pettegrew is also Director of the South Side Initiative (SSI), which brings together Lehigh University faculty, students and staff with the people of Bethlehem in order to share knowledge, foster democracy, and improve the quality of life in our city. SSI rests on the proposition that the teaching and research mission of the university – and the quality of life in Bethlehem – will be enhanced by this collaboration. He is also Co-Chair of Public History Working Group. Pettegrew has been taken with Bethlehem and its history since joining Lehigh's faculty in the last millennium. He's worked as a consultant with Bethlehem's ensemble theater Touchstone Theater on a number of productions. And his interest in public history has led to documentary film making, including the study he produced with his undergraduate students, Work in Progress: Bethlehem Steel during World War II (1998). As Co-Founder/Co-Director of the South Side Initiative, Pettegrew has spearheaded, among other projects, the Southside Community Gardens. He helped found the Lehigh Community Garden in 2010. In 2011 he focused on developing Lehigh's Center for Documentary Film and Digital Media, a program working in close collaboration with Lehigh's Library and Technology Services as well the local television station, PBS-39.

(effective July 1, 2014) 

Nadia Sasso ’14G and her childhood friends like to travel together once a year to reconnect, relax and enjoy one another’s company. On one particular trip in 2010, their shared experiences took on new meaning. 

Sasso and her friends Marie Mansaray and Zainab Fadlu Dean are all American-born children of immigrants from Sierra Leone. A long civil war over politics and diamonds has left this West African country one of the most poverty-stricken nations in the world. For Sasso and her friends, the country’s plight was so far from their American upbringing, yet so close to their hearts.

Together, the friends set out to give back to their families’ homeland. They formed Yehri Wi Cry, or “Hear Our Cry,” to improve maternal and infant mortality in the West African nation. The organization provides birthing kits and incentive packages to help improve childbirth in facilities where the quality of care is inadequate. 

“Even if you’re not born in the country, you don’t have to be rich to give back,” says Sasso. “We’re setting the example of what people can do if they put their resources together.”

Sasso’s commitment to improving the quality of life for women and children in Sierra Leone spurred The Katie Couric Show to name her to the Next Generation of Female Leaders, a short list of women-led organizations that are helping empower women globally.

“You’re raised to think about others. How can you impact change? If I see something wrong, I think of a solution,” she says. “If I find others who don’t understand or look like me, I find how I can engage others and help them understand. You can’t hold the weight of the world in your hands. But I do push myself a lot, and that’s what you have to do sometimes.”

Exploring an “in-between place"

That drive and compassion also influence Sasso’s work at Lehigh. As a graduate student in American Studies, she is exploring the culture and identity of African immigrants.

Sasso’s mother arrived in the United States when she was 12, and her father arrived as a student in 1986.

“They fall under the guise of African-American, but they’re not really. It’s very unique because you have a sense of culture unlike other African-Americans. I was taught to be very communal and think very little about myself. Being part of America, you’re forced to learn to be more of an individual.” 

Sasso says that immigrants, like her parents, are in an “in-between place.” Exploring what that place means for an immigrant’s culture and sense of identity will guide her research and thesis work. 

Through independent study and coursework, Sasso is reading and learning about the African immigrant experience and how teens respond to moving to the United States. She works closely with James Peterson, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English, with whom she studied as an undergraduate student at Bucknell University. 

“That was a big influence on me coming to Lehigh,” she says of Peterson. “This is a great way to continue under his guidance.”

Translating a vision

Sasso took a hiatus before attending graduate school in order to try her hand in the corporate world. After graduating from Bucknell in 2011, she moved to Los Angeles to work in media and marketing analysis for The Nielson Company and corporate communications for Disney Consumer Products. Her experience in corporate media and communications has helped her translate her vision and communicate the mission of her nonprofit.

“Our biggest challenge is learning how to engage people in Sierra Leone on the topic at hand,” she says of Yehri Wi Cry. “We don’t necessarily like asking for money, but we do seek out cultural exchange or learning opportunities. We want you to learn more.”

Sasso saw graduate school as an opportunity not only to expand her knowledge of a subject matter, but to also improve her communications skills so that she can disseminate that knowledge.

“Coming to Lehigh, American Studies offered the closest program to an open-ended media concentration,” she says. “I’m able to build more media-related skills, so I can not only write, but keep up with the digital age and tell stories in a different way.”

To do so, Sasso is pursuing Lehigh’s graduate certificate in documentary film as part of her degree. The certificate program, which was launched through the American Studies program in 2012, is designed to augment social science and humanities students’ education and training.

Sasso plans to write a master’s thesis and produce a documentary film to complete her degree requirements. Her film will follow the path of five women who were born in the United States but chose to migrate home to their families’ native countries of Sierra Leone and Ghana. She will also profile successful women who were born in Sierra Leone and moved to the United States. For all of these women, Sasso’s curiosity lies in the creation of identity as part of that immigrant experience —the same curiosity she had about her family’s experience. 

Returning ‘home’

A Strohl Graduate Summer Research Fellowship, awarded to Sasso by the College of Arts and Sciences, enabled her to travel to Sierra Leone and Ghana in July to conduct interviews for the film. 

Sasso is at ease in Sierra Leone, which still surprises her family.

“I think they’re happy that I’m embracing it,” she says. “I think they never thought in their wildest dreams that I’d be so involved. It’s still a developing country, and they’re surprised how I’m able to maneuver and move through it. I’ve been sheltered by a lot.”

After graduating from Lehigh, Sasso says she hopes to take her nonprofit to the next level, perhaps by moving to Sierra Leone for a year. She’s also considered turning her documentary into a series. 

“I think at graduation, I’ll have another great story to tell. “


Story by Tricia Long ’12G

Posted on Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Nadia Sasso, '14G


October 8th, 2013 Noon Linderman Library, 200 Jupiter Hammon's Lost Poem, "An Essay on Slavery" Speaker: Cedrick May

Julia Maserjian spends her work days in the company of computers, paper documents and recorded materials. But when she gets a chance to stand in the shadow of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces and stare upward at the Hoover-Mason railroad trestle, she is truly in her element.

“The digital world always draws you back to the analog world,” says Maserjian, a digital historian in Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services group. “You can’t be subtracted from it. It can’t just be about zeroes and ones. With historical scholarship, you have to give context to it and draw people in. And you start with the tangible object to do that.”

Those objects will soon be much closer for South Bethlehem’s residents and visitors. Earlier this year, the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority announced plans to transform the Hoover-Mason railroad trestle into an elevated linear park similar to New York City’s High Line.

Railroad cars once brought raw materials from one side of the steel plant to the other on the trestle, which was built in 1905. It runs the length of the blast furnaces and ends near what is now the Sands Casino. By next summer, visitors will be able to walk the trestle and experience a view that was once available only to steelworkers.

At Lehigh, Maserjian has been at the forefront of the Beyond Steel digital archive project, making historical documents and oral histories from Lehigh’s collection and those of other organizations more accessible. Her knowledge and appreciation of Bethlehem’s rich industrial history has deepened in her nearly ten years at Lehigh, where she also serves in an advisory role with the university’s South Side Initiative.

Planting the seeds of collaboration

“I became part of this community of historians,” she says. “We all share a love of history and a profound respect for the memory of place in Bethlehem.”

Beyond Steel planted the seeds of collaboration among the various history groups in Bethlehem. When the trestle project was announced, Maserjian realized it was an opportunity for the community to tell the history of the site and the community surrounding it. She attended a meeting of the redevelopment authority and proposed that there be greater input from local historical institutions and heritage supporters. 

The authority, under the leadership of executive director Tony Hanna ’73, agreed to consider a plan. Nine organizations, including the South Side Initiative, formed the Bethlehem Heritage Coalition and set about developing an interpretive proposal.

“I don’t know that any one of us could tell the complete story of Bethlehem,” Maserjian noted. “Each of the members of the coalition has a piece of this history to share.” 

Dana Grubb of the South Bethlehem Historical Society is also a coalition member. He says the common goals shared by its member groups created a natural partnership on the project. 

“From the trestle you see parts of the south side community, and there is an area where you can actually see St. Michael’s cemetery and the neighborhoods around it,” Grubb said. “Bethlehem Steel has its own history, but it also affected and interacted with the history of South Bethlehem and its ethnic communities. We came up with so many ideas that could be approached from that [trestle] platform.”

Making the Steel’s significance accessible

The Redevelopment Authority has now engaged Local Projects, a museum media design firm, to design and execute the historical interpretation portion of the Hoover-Mason Trestle redevelopment. Maserjian and the coalition will continue to be involved as the project moves forward. 

Maserjian says the trestle project is just the beginning for the Bethlehem Heritage Coalition.

“I feel really proud,” she says, “to be working with this group of people—to have us come together, when, let’s face it, we’re all often after the same pools of money and support. I believe we’ve set the tone moving forward with this project for collaboration among these groups.”

Seth Moglen, associate professor of English and former director of the South Side Initiative, described the Hoover-Mason Trestle project as a model for the kind of university-community collaboration that SSI and Lehigh seek to foster.

“For more than a century, steel-making shaped every aspect of life in the city. It’s a matter of enormous importance for former steelworkers and their families, and for all of us in the city today, that the many meanings of the Steel be explored in ways that are publicly accessible.

“By acknowledging and analyzing the complex meanings of our past, we can learn much about the kind of city we have been—and the kind of city we want to become.”

Story by Hillary Kwiatek

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 12:00 PM Umoja House, Room 102 A Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and William R. Scott Africana Studies Joint Brown Bag Talk Gendering Diaspora in Ghana: the Role of African American Women in Creating Enabling Environment for Claiming Dual Citizenship and Advantage in Global Tourism Speaker: Kwama Essien, Assistant Professor, History Department, Lehigh University