Published June 14, 2021
A UB research team has received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to develop a project that will help veterans create and nurture what is often an elusive but critical sense of meaningful belonging.
The grant is part of the NEH’s “Dialogues on the Experience of War” program, which uses the humanities as channels for veterans to think more deeply about issues raised by their military service and the experience of war.
UB will work in collaboration with Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries and the Veterans One-stop Center of Western New York on the innovative project, titled “Developing a Sense of Meaningful Belonging among Veterans.”
“Our project moves beyond questions of how veterans can readjust and reintegrate into society and aims to facilitate rich discussion and reflection for how veterans find and develop a meaningful sense of belonging after their discharge,” says Vasiliki Neofotistos, associate professor of anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences, and the grant’s project principal investigator.
Meaningful belonging is about having a shared, common experience that creates a feeling of belonging to and being approved by society as a whole. It’s a fundamental human need that allows people to positively manage stress and discover coping strategies, while contributing to their overall social and emotional well-being.
While the communities created within military units often foster a sense of belonging, finding a resemblance to that cohesion within general society can be a challenge for veterans, one that might require effort and direction from outside sources and programs that provide guidance for rediscovering what seems to be absent at the conclusion of military service.
That’s where “Developing a Sense of Meaningful Belonging among Veterans” can leverage the power of the humanities as agents for developing an understanding and appreciation for the shared human experience and the obligations society’s members have toward one another.
“Our intended outcome is to support them in this quest by using humanities-based sources so that veterans will have a better opportunity to find that meaningful belonging,” says Neofotistos, who will work with co-investigators and UB colleagues Lisa Butler, associate professor in the School of Social Work and an expert on the care needs of veterans and their families, and Bonnie Vest, a medical anthropologist and research associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences with expertise in the health and well-being of veteran and military populations. Butler and Vest also co-direct Joining Forces-UB, a project dedicated to veteran-related education and research at UB.
“Developing a Sense of Meaningful Belonging among Veterans” begins with a syllabus of readings and presentations curated by a team comprising combat veterans and experts in the humanities, social sciences and social work. The syllabus includes historical writings, letters, fiction and video documentaries.
From that foundation, Neofotistos says six student-veterans or recent graduates who were deployed overseas will be trained to lead a series of monthly discussions through October 2022 that will allow veterans to explore a different theme each month: loss and suffering, disability, mental health, reconciliation, public memory and reintegration.
These monthly themes are opportunities for rich discussion, critical reflection and deep engagement on how veterans can establish the support structures and social connections that lead to meaningful belonging.
The first discussion cycle will be at Hallwalls from September 2021 until March 2022. The central branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library will host the second cycle from May 2022 until October 2022.
In addition to the monthly discussions, the project also includes a photo exhibition and public panel discussion at the central library scheduled for April 2022. The exhibition will feature selected images from “Odyssey: Warriors Come Home,” a photography exhibit that was the product of a project on veterans’ photography workshops, funded by a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts grant. The exhibit, featuring work by 36 local veterans, ran from September through December 2019 in Buffalo’s CEPA gallery.
“This is a great opportunity for UB and our community partners to use the humanities and the critical thinking and analytical skills they inspire in ways than can constructively serve veterans,” says Neofotistos.