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A&S’s Stephen Davis Awarded 2022 ACLS Digital Justice Seed Grant

By Lindsey Piercy

Stephen Davis specializes in anti-apartheid politics.

Stephen Davis, an associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, has been awarded a 2022 ACLS Digital Justice Seed Grant.

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Digital Justice Grant Program is designed to promote and provide resources for digital humanities projects that aim to diversify the digital domain, advance justice and equity in digital scholarly practice, and contribute to public understanding of racial and social justice issues, especially those that elevate the interests and histories of people of color and other historically marginalized communities. The program is made possible by a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

“The inaugural ACLS Digital Justice Grantees highlight a wonderful convergence between publicly engaged humanities and digital humanities,” Keyanah Nurse, ACLS program officer of Higher Education Initiatives, said. “These teams exemplify the move away from extractive practices around data collection and toward collaborative knowledge production with those outside the academy. ACLS is proud to support the robust engagement with data ethics at the core of these projects.”

Davis specializes in anti-apartheid politics with a specific focus on the armed struggle and the practice of political violence. He has been awarded the seed grant for “The Personal Writes the Political: Rendering Black Lives Legible Through the Application of Machine Learning to Anti-Apartheid Solidarity Letters.”

The project uses machine learning (ML) models to extract data from an archive of anti-apartheid solidarity letters predominantly written by Black South African women. The goal is to utilize newly developed optical character recognition (OCR) and handwritten text recognition (HTR) methods to render images of handwritten letters into machine readable text. Once processed, they will train custom ML models to produce triplets — meaning two or more nouns related via a verb that indicate a qualitative relationship between two categories of data. A knowledge base derived from entity triplets will permit a better understanding of the lives, struggles and contributions of Black women in South Africa.

"We are thrilled to begin exploratory work on this exciting project. This archive has long held the promise to revise our understanding of the role of Black women in the anti-aparthied struggle,” Davis said. “With recent advances in machine learning, we can finally unlock that potential to revise our understanding of popular participation in this important movement."

“The Personal Writes the Political” is one of eight startup projects awarded ACLS Digital Justice Seed Grants, which will each receive up to $25,000. All grantees will have the opportunity to work with the Nonprofit Finance Fund to plan for the long-term stewardship and sustainability of their projects.

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