How to Volunteer at the African Scientific Research Institute

Solitary adult man stands alone.
Jihad Muhammad, Professor/Lecturer and Principal Founder of the African Scientific Research Institute

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 61.8 million people volunteered for an organization at least once in 2008. Of this population, only one age group -- young adults between the ages of 16 and 19 -- volunteered at a significantly higher rate compared to the year before. Part of the explanation is the unprecedented enthusiasm Barack Obama engendered among teens as he made his bid for the White House. In 2008, millions of Americans got involved in the political process for the first time. Now, as President Obama launches United We Serve, an initiative encouraging Americans to lend a hand in their communities, even more U.S. citizens will be compelled to volunteer.

One such person is Demetria Gallagher, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For the last year, Demetria has been volunteering for the African Scientific Research Institute (ASRI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving African American culture as a legacy for future generations. Demetria's volunteer work actually grew out of a class project she completed in pursuit of a master's degree in urban planning. The focus of her project was to develop a survey that could be used to assess the community development needs of Pembroke Township, a 52-square-mile (83-square-kilometer) tract of rural land about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of the city of Kankakee, Ill. As she completed the project, Demetria realized that her survey instrument could be improved to more effectively capture the voices of the predominantly African American residents that lived in Pembroke Township.


As a volunteer for ASRI, Demetria refined the survey so it more accurately reflected the history of the area and the needs and challenges of Pembroke community members. Today, she is implementing the survey and collecting early data -- data that the town will use to develop a successful tourism plan that's beneficial both economically and culturally. Tourism may seem like an odd goal, but that's what ASRI's Project Genesis is all about. The organization uses cutting-edge science to identify and reconstruct forgotten African pioneers, abolitionists and the communities in which they lived. Then it works to help rebuild these communities and make them self-sufficient through activities and attractions that draw visitors who want to learn more about the challenges Africans faced as they struggled to gain their freedom.

ASRI relies heavily on volunteers like Demetria. If you think you might want to donate your time and energy to ASRI, keep reading. This article will explain everything you need to know about the African Scientific Research Institute, how to become a volunteer and what you can expect once you sign up.


About the African Scientific Research Institute (ASRI)

ASRI Scientists and summer vacation volunteers investigate cemetery plots -- Jean Baptiste Point de Sable St. Charles, MO.
ASRI scientists and summer vacation volunteers investigate cemetery plots -- Jean Baptiste Point de Sable St. Charles, MO.

In 1999, a group of scientists and educators, led by forensic anthropologist Jihad Muhammad, decided it was time to confront a serious issue within the African American community: Many African Americans do not know or understand their connection to the slavery experience and, lacking this connection, cannot verify their ancestral history. As a result, African American children often suffer from low self-esteem, which in turn affects how they respond to their environment. Muhammad proposed an organization that would apply the principles of biomedical and cultural heritage research to help investigate and trace the footsteps of African American progenitors in America between 1628 and 1888.

The organization was incorporated as the African Scientific Research Institute (ASRI) and launched its first major project: to piece together the past of Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, a fur trader of African descent who is now regarded as the founder of Chicago. ASRI chose de Sable because of his importance to American history and because very little was known about the man, his life and the settlement he built on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Using scientific tools such as DNA profiling, Computerized Tomography (CT) scans and laser analysis, ASRI researchers identified de Sable and other individuals of historic significance. Then they used advanced forensic techniques -- facial reconstruction, for example -- to put flesh on skeletal remains. And, finally, they conducted an archaeological investigation to find artifacts, tools and buildings of the era in which de Sable lived. The result was a clear picture of the man: how he lived, where he lived and why he made certain decisions.


Since that initial research, ASRI has employed similar principles to re-create the histories of several other communities founded by African American ancestors. Two of the most notable are New Philadelphia, Ill., recognized as the first incorporated African American town in the United States, and Hopkins Park, Ill., a town founded and governed by a former enslaved man named Matthew Joseph Tetter. All told, ASRI has identified 23 communities in Illinois founded by former slaves. There are numerous others across the nation.

The ultimate goal is not simply to create a record of the past. It's to rebuild these towns and to make the history of African Americans come alive, building by building and face by face. But it doesn't end there. ASRI also seeks to transform these once-marginalized communities into thriving centers of commerce and economic growth, primarily through tourism development. ASRI has dubbed this activity Project Genesis, and is actively working to revitalize five such communities.

As you can imagine, the work of ASRI requires a multidisciplinary team of scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and educators. Up next, we'll look more closely at some of the activities someone might participate in as an ASRI volunteer.


Activities of the African Scientific Research Institute

Dedicated ASRI volunteers enthusiastically help conduct the investigation of the Jean Baptiste Point de Sable archaeological burial site under the supervision of university-trained archaeologists.
Medical and forensic scientist Jihad Muhammad is at work in a field laboratory recording ontology data from an enslaved African's skull recovered during an ASRI Burial Grounds Preservation Program.

As its name suggests, ASRI is dedicated to scientific research. Much of its work falls into a general area of study known as bio-history. There are many different definitions of bio-history, but basically it refers to the study of the interrelationships of plants, animals and man in the history of culture and human development [source: Perrein]. Bio-historical research encompasses numerous academic fields, including the natural sciences, the humanities, social sciences and applied sciences, such as agriculture and medicine. In fact, many of the researchers employed by ASRI are internationally recognized experts in their particular disciplines.

The research conducted by ASRI is generally related to one of four key activities:


Identifying African American progenitors -- An ASRI investigation often begins at a gravesite. Using archaeological techniques, human remains are removed and returned to the lab for analysis. There, scientists use a variety of techniques to glean as much information as possible. Osteologists, for example, study bones to determine the sex, age and growth patterns of an individual. DNA testing also reveals a genetic profile that can be used to determine lines of descent.

Forensic reconstruction -- Next, scientists work to put flesh on unearthed skeletons. They use CT scans to generate three-dimensional images of the skull or long bones. Data from these scans is turned into digitized files that can be manipulated on a computer or synthetically reproduced via a process called rapid prototyping. Once a bone or whole set of bones exists digitally, researchers layer on muscles and skin to reconstruct what a person would have looked like. ASRI scientists have reconstructed the faces of numerous African slaves and abolitionists in this way, making it easier for African Americans alive today to identify with their past.

Historic reconstruction -- What ASRI does for individuals it also does for structures and buildings. The process of depicting a non-surviving building or object for the purpose of replicating its appearance at a specific period of time and in its original location is known as historic reconstruction. ASRI scientists use many of the same tools, such as CT scans and laser analysis, to collect the data they need to rebuild the architectural components that would have played a role in the lives of African pioneers.

Urban planning -- Finally, if ASRI is to be successful in helping African American communities become self-sustainable through tourism, it must facilitate the urban planning process. Unlike some planners who fail to seek the needs and wants of community members, ASRI planners are careful to involve residents and business owners at every step. They conduct interviews to understand the unique history of the area and implement surveys to collect data that can be used in the planning process.

Volunteers may participate in any or all of these activities, depending on their skills and interests. In the next section, we'll review the requirements that must be met by ASRI volunteers.


Volunteering at ASRI

Medical and forensic scientist Jihad Muhammad is at work in a field laboratory recording ontology data from an enslaved African's skull recovered during an ASRI Burial Grounds Preservation Program.
Dedicated ASRI volunteers enthusiastically help conduct the investigation of the Jean Baptiste Point de Sable archaeological burial site under the supervision of university-trained archaeologists.

Volunteering for the African Scientific Research Institute can be a rewarding experience. For college students, it provides an opportunity to move from classroom concepts and theories into real-world practice. They develop new skills and contribute to important research that shapes what we know about African American history. Perhaps more important, volunteers get to network with other students, faculty and community members -- contacts that could prove invaluable as they plan their careers.

Although much of the work ASRI conducts is scientific in nature, volunteers do not need to have a science or medical background. ASRI does, however, encourage all of its volunteers to take the Cultural and Heritage Tourism course offered through the University of Illinois at Chicago. This graduate-level course helps participants understand what communities must do to develop successful programs linking the arts, humanities, history and tourism. It also, as ASRI Executive Director Jihad Muhammad explains, helps establish a common vocabulary among team members.


As you might expect, ASRI volunteers must be at least 18 years old and must be able to dedicate a certain number of hours a week to their volunteer work. They are not paid for this work but, instead, give their time, talent and abilities to the ASRI because they believe in what the organization is trying to achieve. Some volunteers do occasionally move in to paid positions at the institute.

The process to become a volunteer is relatively straightforward. Interested individuals should contact ASRI's volunteer coordinator directly, either by phone or e-mail. They will receive an application, which should be completed and returned for consideration. ASRI employees review the applications and invite candidates in for an interview. Once they are accepted into the program, volunteers receive their assignments. ASRI tries to match individuals to positions based on interest and skills, but can only offer positions that are currently open. If a position requires a set of technical skills, ASRI will provide the necessary training in some cases. Common volunteer activities include excavating at a dig site, providing support for symposia or workshops, collecting and analyzing survey data, assisting with administrative functions or participating in summer education programs at one of the archaeological field schools.

Regardless of their specific assignment, ASRI volunteers walk away from their efforts with a deeper appreciation of the important role slavery played in shaping the identities of African Americans. As Demetria Gallagher says, "Most people think of slavery as a negative thing. But the African Scientific Research Institute turns around the stigma of slavery by showing how African pioneers overcame serious obstacles to do great things. This turns a negative time in history into a positive."


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Volunteering in the United States, 2008." U.S. Department of Labor Press Release. Jan. 23, 2009. (July 9, 2009)
  • Muhammad, Jihad, Brian Wilcox and Demetria Gallagher. Telephone interview. July 10, 2009.
  • Perrein, Christian. "French project of biohistory." Atlas entomologique rĂ©gional (Nantes). (July 9, 2009)