Former slave's voice amplified through new app

Trevor Getz

SF State History Professor Trevor Getz said Abina's voice struck him as something important that needed to be heard. The new "Abina" app keeps her voice alive and engages students with stories of global importance while helping them build key critical thinking and social studies skills.  

It took more than two years and a cast and crew of nearly 35 San Francisco State University students, faculty and staff members, but a best-selling graphic novel written by Professor of History Trevor Getz will soon be lighting up tablet screens throughout the country as a narrated, animated, digital education app.

Written by Getz and illustrated by Liz Clarke, the 2011 novel "Abina and the Important Men" depicts the life and trial of Abina Mansah, a woman living in 19th-century colonial West Africa who escapes slavery and takes her former master to court. Now in its second edition, "Abina" has sold more than 50,000 copies and is used in more than 300 colleges and universities, including Harvard. In 2012, it won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson Prize from the American Historical Association.

Illustration from 'Abina and the Important Men'

Illustration from "Abina and the Important Men"

Getz discovered Abina's testimony in 1998 while doing research in Ghana. "Her voice struck me then as something important that needed to be heard. She was somebody from another time and place, from the bottom of the hierarchy — Black, African, young, woman, slave, poor," Getz said. "These are people whose voices don't normally get captured for the historical record. Nevertheless, she was saying something extremely powerful and important."  

"Abina" was designed as a teaching tool for historians and their college-level students, but before long, high school teachers began using the novel in history classes. "Teachers would call and ask if I would talk to their classes on Skype, and it soon became clear that the book was not quite adapted to teach the key critical thinking and social studies skills needed by high school students," said Getz.

At the same time, Getz realized that high schools were quickly moving to digital learning environments and that a digital version of "Abina" would be much more affordable than a print version. 

With a $13,000 grant from the University Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, Getz assembled a team of faculty, staff and students to create an animated film adaptation of the novel and the additional content needed for an educational app. Soumyaa Kapil Behrens, director of SF State's DocFilm Institute, served as the project's producer and director and said she was honored to be a part of the legacy of Abina Mansah.  

"Abina was brave enough to fight for her freedom hundreds of years ago, and we are humbled to amplify her voice now so that many more people can hear it," Kapil Behrens said. "As a testament to her personal journey, I cast SF State students as the main voices of the film so they each had the opportunity to experience Abina's story as if it were their own."

Students in the Department of Design and Industry (DAI) independent study course "Design Working Group" were also involved, creating the e-book layout and graphic design for the new app. 

"It's great that the whole 'Abina'  project — from its conception as a graphic novel to the app — was developed here at SF State across multiple disciplines," said Ricardo Baltazar, 22, a visual communication design major who will graduate this May. "It's a true example of the power of collaboration — it allows us to create meaningful and impactful content."

The New York City School District is piloting the app in three high schools to work out any bugs, and the finished product includes the film and accompanying text as well as an extensive set of lesson plans, student learning outcomes, assignments and classroom activities targeted to 10th-grade world history students, Getz said.   

And the price is right. "We're offering high schools an annual license for $4 per app. If a district adopts it, it will be much more economical than the cost of buying books at $20 each," said Getz. 

Daniel Bernardi, interim dean of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts, served as the project's executive producer. "'Abina' is a project that could only grow out of inspiration, dedication and collaboration," said Bernardi. "It first takes a visionary scholar: That’s Professor Getz. It then takes a team of artists, filmmakers and technologists willing to work within, across and through challenges: That’s DocFilm. And then it takes a University that supports its community transgressing boundaries: That is SF State.”

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