The Commonwealth Project

  • north stl

What Is The Commonwealth Project?

The Commonwealth Project at Harvard University models a new way for universities to engage with social problems through mutuality, service and collaboration. Taking root in the Midwestern region of St. Louis, professors and students cooperate with cultural producers, activists, attorneys and local politicians on community-led justice initiatives and historical research.

Why Harvard? Why St. Louis?

The residence of the St. Louis artist and activist Tef Poe at the Charles Warren Center during 2016-2017 and at the Hutchins Center during 2017-2018 provided a unique opportunity for a sustained interchange of eyewitness and academic knowledge about the city of St. Louis. Out of that interchange emerged the idea of the Commonwealth Project. Our mission is to be thoroughly mutual: to bring frontline knowledge into the university and university know-how into the community.

tef and jamala

The Challenge

The city of St. Louis presents the challenge of the present moment in the history of the United States in extremis. By virtually any standard measure the city is a byword for urban decay. Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the population of the city declined by almost two-thirds; the city today is smaller than it has been at any time since 1870. St. Louis is one of the ten most segregated cities in the United States, and has the highest rate of police shootings (of both armed and unarmed targets) in the United States.

And yet the city of St. Louis also presents a long history of Black genius, resistance, and flourishing. It is the city where W. C. Handy first heard the syncopated rag-time music that took root in the blues. It is the city of Maya Angelou, Miles Davis, and Chuck Berry. Of Ike and Tina Turner. Of Nelly and Chingy. It is also a city that has produced a trenchant critique of the racial aspects of American inequality. The Pan-Africanist radicals Claudine Jones and C. L. R. James both traveled to the city in the 1940s to learn from the example of its Black radicals.  From Hershel Walker in the 1930s and 1940s to Ivory Perry and Percy Green in the 1950s and 1960s down to the Organization for Black Struggle and Hands Up United today, the city has produced a singular and enduring critique of racial segregation and inequality.

#InTheCity Visual Arts Fellowship

The first of its kind at Harvard, #InTheCity Visual Arts Fellowship tasks six St. Louis-based fellows with capturing different parts of the city in response to the question “What is St. Louis to you?” All photo-based art practitioners in St. Louis, their work engages in the city with a belief in the transformative power of art to intervene in social realities. Artist fellows each receive financial support and access to Harvard’s educational resources in collaboration with the #InTheCity Student Board over the course of the 2019–20 academic year.


With curation by designer and Harvard Loeb Fellow, De Nichols, The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis will be home to the first exhibit of the artists’ photographs and public workshops. A landmark of North St. Louis with a 23-year history of presenting stories about the region's Black heritage, The Griot is the first black-owned museum in the city.

The second exhibition of artist fellows’ work will be at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, on view in early May, held in conjunction with the campus-wide 2020 ARTSFIRST festival. A program of talks and events will be released for both.

Summer Program in Community-Engaged Research (PCER)

In summer 2019, four undergraduate students took part in a 10-week community-engaged, multidisciplinary research program in St. Louis. In this immersive experience, students worked directly with grassroots community groups (primarily the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council and Equity Legal Services) on research to support legal action against housing discrimination and environmental racism. Students learned about historical land use and zoning practices, environmental justice, historical commemoration, and archival research. Students selected for this project worked on teams with local residents, community organizers and activists, civil rights attorneys, legislators, and environmental scientists.

Community Development Studio

In Fall 2018, the Commonwealth Project supported a Community Development studio course focused on St. Louis' Third Ward offered by Professor Daniel D’Oca at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Ongoing Projects

Centreville, Illinois*

  • Investigating the long-term neglect of public water infrastructure that leads to flooding and raw sewage contamination 
  • Amplifying resident narratives of environmental racism

Beirne Park in Creve Coeur, Missouri*

  • Launching a public history campaign inspired by the story of Dr. Howard Venable
  • Organizing The Venable Park Coalition
  • Developing a community-driven proposal to redress Beirne Park’s historical racist housing inequality

R.C. Striders Track Team

  • Producing visual media for K-12 track team, R.C. Striders, during Junior Olympics preparations at Normandy High School in North St. Louis

Organization for Black Struggle (OBS)

  • Creating finding guide and digitization system for over thirty years of sensitive video materials.
  • Assisting with long-term preservation and digitization plan for an OBS institutional archive.

Community Lawyering*

  • Assisting with mediation of landlord-tenant cases in City and County Court

City of St. Louis Recorder of Deeds’ Office*

  • Finding and cataloguing over 900 race-restrictive covenants from 1890s to present under the mentorship of Dr. Colin Gordon (UIowa)

*In partnership with Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council

Press Kit Researched & Produced by 2019 PCER Interns