LAWRENCE — Officials at Haskell Indian Nations University are partnering with students from the University of Kansas School of Engineering to develop a justice center on the Haskell campus.
The Hiawatha Center for Justice is the brainchild of Dan Wildcat, a longtime Haskell professor. The project is to redevelop historic Hiawatha Hall — an 1898 stone building on the campus that has fallen into disuse and disrepair after being shuttered in 2005 — into an interdisciplinary center for work on systemic justice issues.
Members of IHAWKe (Indigenous, Hispanic, African-American KU engineers) — KU’s association of minority and women engineers — held an “IHAWKe-a-thon” in October 2020 to generate ideas on how to rehabilitate the building and best use it for its new mission. Their proposals will be presented this week at the American Society of Engineering Education’s Engineering Deans Council Public Policy Colloquium.
Wildcat first came up with the idea for the center in summer 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the nation following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“As people took to the streets and watching the demonstrations and everything, I was really moved and I kept thinking — there's got to be some way that our school as an institution of higher education — and really the de facto national tribal college — could play a role in education and helping to heal some of the wounds we have in this society,” he said.
At the same time, Wildcat had also been a champion to find a new use for Hiawatha Hall on Haskell’s campus in Lawrence. “It’s just been in horrible, horrible condition,” he said.
“It is clear the time has come for Hiawatha Hall to undergo a major physical renovation and a spiritual rejuvenation befitting its namesake,” Wildcat wrote in an article for Media Voices Quarterly.
He contacted Andrew Williams, KU Engineering associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, to discuss the concept.
“Andrew just immediately seized on that idea,” Wildcat said.
Williams proposed having IHAWKe students take a look at the matter.
“I decided that the theme of our hackathon in 2020 would be hacking for justice and equity,” Williams said. “We have it every year, at least once a year, and they're focused on helping our students see how they can use engineering to change the world.”
The October IHAWKe-a-thon was held virtually, due to the pandemic. Engineering students worked with Wildcat, as well as other faculty and students at Haskell, as they developed their proposals — competing for scholarship prizes made possible with donations from Black & Veatch and HNTB.
“We can all really benefit from learning from each other and learning from different backgrounds, because we all come from a different community,” said Samuel Riding In, a senior in the American Indian studies department at Haskell who served as a consultant on the project. “I really benefited from being a participant because it let me speak more on these small, minute details of my own identity that I haven't really explored in that way.”
“This (collaboration with Haskell) shows students that want to further themselves in STEM can build a group of people they can count on once they come to KU to further themselves,” added Bahozhoni White, a KU senior in electrical engineering.
The students faced several questions as they worked on the project.
“(Hiawatha Hall) was built for a different purpose, so how could it be restructured or rebuilt so that it can facilitate collaboration for racial equity forums, interaction through virtual and augmented reality, and other educational displays?” Williams said.
Wildcat said he was impressed by the students’ proposals to renovate the hall, as well as ideas to use virtual reality elements to bring Haskell’s history – and that of the people it serves – alive.
“I was really amazed at the ideas they had. They had ideas I had not thought about,” he said. “They had some great ideas about some interactive virtual kiosks where people who came in the front could get information and really get engaged and knowledgeable about the history of the First Peoples of this land. I thought that was really a wonderful idea.”
Now Williams and IHAWKe students will take the proposals to the ASEE virtual gathering.
“Some elite universities are going to be highlighted,” Williams said. “It just reinforces that our students are doing things that are on par with any engineering school in the nation.”
Implementing the proposals will take money — Wildcat estimated Haskell will need to raise up to $20 million to make the project happen. In the meantime, he plans to get the Center for Justice up and running with virtual conferences and online programming.
The partnership with IHAWKe students is a good fit with the new center’s ideals, he said.
“I think engineering, architecture and design are critical. Too many people tend to think about justice only in terms of a set of values or virtues or laws and policies,” Wildcat said. “But justice also has to do very much with how we live, where we live. And I cannot think of any better area than architecture, design and engineering to literally build a real improvement in justice in our society.”
Haskell Indian Nations University is a federally funded tribal university located in Lawrence for members of federally recognized American Indian tribes and incorporated Alaska Native villages in the United States. Hiawatha Hall is named for the Onondaga man who sought out the Peacemaker (Mohawk) to help co-found the Iroquois Confederacy.
The IHAWKe Program was founded to address the needs of historically underrepresented students. IHAWKe is an academic support program that seeks to recruit, retain and graduate innovative, team-oriented engineers who change the world, connect with others and conquer their classes. This is done through advising, peer mentoring, tutoring and various engaging engineering activities for students.
Photo: Dan Wildcat at Haskell Indian Nations University.