Creating Community

Josh Loar - a white man with a beard looking into the camera.
Josh Loar - a white man with a beard looking into the camera.
Josh Loar of Visual and Performing Arts is creating community.

Josh Loar’s Keweenaw Culture Project is a multifaceted, community-based endeavor for the advancement of campus and regional cultural equity.

Multimedia designer, director, engineer and Professor of Practice Josh Loar, is stewarding a multifaceted, community-based endeavor he calls the Keweenaw Culture Project. Inspired by both his move to the area five years ago and conversations with students about their experiences in the area, Loar is committed to increasing cultural equity on and off campus.

"When talking with students, some of whom were of Middle Eastern extraction, some of whom identified as LGBTQIA+, or some other variety outside the main demographic here, I heard different stories about not belonging, about feeling like they wanted to leave here as soon as they could," he says.

But Loar knew, based on his experience and talking with others, that "a lot of the residents seem to ... feel very committed to this place and connected to it." He wanted to know why and how such a dichotomy exists in our region, with the hopes of bridging the perceived divide. 

Backed by a Michigan Tech Research Excellence Fund (REF) Grant and Campus Compact's Fund for Positive Engagement, phase one of Loar's project is collecting oral histories of Keweenaw residents that address the question, "Have you ever felt out of place in the Keweenaw?" By posting flyers on campus and downtown Houghton-Hancock, and writing a call for participants in the Sept. 20, 2017 issue of Tech Today, Loar is hoping to collect between 75-100 oral histories by the end of the 2017-18 academic year.

1 version of a recruitment poster for Keweenaw Culture Project A second version of a recruitment poster for the Keweenaw Culture Project.

Have you seen either recruitment poster around campus or the community? 

Since the start of the fall 2017 semester, he's interviewed and audio-recorded 70 participants. While listening to his subjects speak, Loar says he’s been surprised that "there were some people that I might have guessed would have some experiences that felt uncomfortable that didn't."

He attributes this in part to students' busy schedules and our cold climate. "Some of the issues we face here are not as extreme as some campuses, and to be cynical about it, some of it is just that it's so cold. People don’t want to go outside," he says. Of course, not going outside means not interacting with community members or in the local culture, which in turn affects the financial and cultural economy of our community—something Loar is working to improve.

Once all the oral histories have been collected and edited, Loar will donate the corpus to the Michigan Tech Archives' oral history collection. Plans for a digital curation are in the works with Michigan Tech archivists. Additionally, Loar is collaborating with the Keweenaw Time Traveler (KTT) team to geotag locations mentioned in the interviews—an effort that will contribute to both Loar and the KTT teams' goals of community building, and cultural and historical outreach in and about the Copper Country.

Taking Action

In addition to curating oral histories, Loar has spearheaded efforts to revitalize empty downtown spaces in Hancock. Loar’s plans and events have been covered by The Daily Mining Gazette, starting with a Nov. 1, 2017 article on his plans to bring in guest artists from around the world who are representative of the cultures in the Keweenaw and to hold a Hancock Holiday Window Display Competition, which took place during the last two months of 2017.

"The Hancock Holiday Display competition drew more entries than we had empty windows … The competition saw nearly 200 votes from community members, which in a population as small as ours is a good turnout for a first event with little promotion. We are working to raise further funding to bring guest artists to the community to both work and display art in some of the vacant spaces. We've been aided in these projects by strong commitment to the arts from Hancock City Manager Glenn Anderson and Mayor Lisa McKenzie."Josh Loar

Next year, Loar will hold public forums to share some of the findings from the oral histories and engage in dialogue about positive community change. Loar says the events will be held, “both on campus and off, because we're finding that there are events on campus that some people will not go to because they're on campus, even if the event is free. There's a perceived division between campus and the rest of the community that we want to try to cut through with this project.”

Community Arts

Based on his interviews and his background in theatre arts, for phase three of the Keweenaw Culture Project, Loar will write a new play based on the interviews, to be produced in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts.

"One of the things I'm hoping to shed light on with this is that we're all human beings just trying to make a living, trying to find friends and have a good life, whatever that may be, and to be subject to [discrimination] is abysmal. We're not doing our job if we think we're being equitable and creating a fair society."Josh Loar

Keeping with the Keweenaw Culture Project’s larger goals, the play’s plot and scheduled performances will help to bridge a gap between campus and the greater community, and between perceived cultural differences between native and transient residents. 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.