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Schmidt takes scholarship to streets, parks and public spaces

September 22nd, 2022

Jalane Schmidt

Jalane Schmidt will receive the Outstanding Alumnus Award at the annual Alumni Banquet Oct. 9 during Fall Festival, given on the basis of character and citizenship, service to church/community or college, or other outstanding achievements, honors and recognition.

The Outstanding Alumna for 2022 is redefining what it means to be an “active scholar.”

Schmidt was raised in Newton and graduated from Bethel College in 1991 with a B.A. in Bible and religion.

After Bethel, she spent two years in the  Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Washington Office which, she says, propelled her in the direction of divinity school.

She then headed down the scholar’s track, earning an M.Div. degree from Harvard Divinity School, followed by an M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University.

She did postdoctoral fellowships at Oberlin (Ohio) College and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and was an assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida-Gainesville.

In 2007, she joined the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she is currently an associate professor and director of the Memory Project under UVA’s Democracy Initiative.

In 2015, Schmidt published Cachita’s Streets: The Virgin of Charity, Religion, Race and Revolution in Cuba with Duke University Press.

The book is based on Schmidt’s years of field and archival research in Cuba on religions of the African diaspora, popular religion of Cubans, and Latin American and Caribbean religions.

“These were topics that occupied my research and teaching up to 2016,” Schmidt says. “And then the public conversations started about what to do with the Confederate monuments in Charlottesville.”

In 2016, Zyahna Bryant, then only 15, started a petition to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park in downtown Charlottesville, which led to a series of public meetings – all of which Schmidt attended, and which began to change her.

She saw, she says, that this “demanded a different way of thinking, research and teaching than I had been trained to do.”

She became involved in organizing speakers against the monuments, and then counter-protests when white nationalists began targeting Charlottesville after the City Council voted in February 2017 to remove the statues of Lee and General “Stonewall” Jackson, located nearby. She helped found a local chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“I had to learn how to be much more succinct,” Schmidt says. “In a public meeting, you have about 3 minutes to make your point. And I was learning on the fly – Civil War history [and Jim Crow history were] not what I had studied and researched.”

Charlottesville grabbed world attention on Aug. 12, 2017, when white nationalists under the banner “Unite the Right” came to Charlottesville to rally, leading to clashes with counter-protestors that left one of them, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, dead after a man drove a car into a crowd.

And Schmidt was on a path of “public scholarship and public history” from which she hasn’t turned back.

Since 2017, Schmidt has put together museum exhibits, co-led historical walking tours of downtown Charlottesville and helped plan and carry out public educational and commemorative events – all with a goal of exposing the true history of the town and its Confederate monuments.

In 2019, she co-founded two advocacy organizations, Take ’Em Down C’ville and Monumental Justice Virginia, and became the director of the Memory Project, which sponsors “different events and projects around town that have to do with democratizing the historical narratives we tell about ourselves.”

Says Schmidt, “Teaching history [can be done] through more than just writing. I’ve done the 300-page, peer-reviewed book for the university press. Now it’s public history, to teach [about] white supremacy.”

Take ’Em Down C’ville and Monumental Justice Virginia organized their affiliates statewide and lobbied the Virginia General Assembly in 2020 to overturn a century-old state law that prohibited localities from

removing Confederate statues (one reason why the Charlottesville statues were still standing more than three years after the City Council had voted to take them down).

“I used skills I had learned in the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office [following graduation from Bethel] for this,” Schmidt says.

“During the 2020 legislative session, we went to Richmond three times a week for the hearings on the bills. We were pounding on this. It was just before March of 2020, and we barely got [the bill overturning the law] through before everything shut down.

“That was one of my proudest moments – using scholarship to do public advocacy work and to change a 120-year-old law.”

The Charlottesville statues came down in the summer of 2021.

Schmidt’s latest use of her research and interview skills and historical scholarship has been to direct and produce a documentary film for the Memory Project, Unveiling: The Origin of Charlottesville’s Monuments.

For the film, “we interviewed African-American residents of Charlottesville, giving them the last word [on the monuments].

“The film is a distillation of years of scholarship into an accessible medium. It premiered in July 2022, and maybe the coolest thing was we had the screening outside in the park where the Lee statue used to be. That’s poetic justice.”

Schmidt notes, “The work of public history [means] shifting to doing the teaching in public. It includes documentary film, social media and public events.

“People will come, schoolchildren will come, to a public event, a film, a museum exhibit. Those are the ways of making scholarship accessible to the public.

“I credit my Bethel education for encouraging the advocacy – not being cowed into shrinking away from making change or agitating for change. You can’t allow yourself to be talked out of standing up for something. It’s never convenient to make trouble, but you have to do it anyway.”

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel ranks at #14 in the Washington Monthly list of “Best Bachelor’s Colleges” for 2022-23. Bethel is the only Kansas college or university to be named a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center. For more information, see


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