SRU alumna wins Pencak Prize for history research


Pittsburgh from above

The history of urban renewal projects in Pittsburgh was the research topic of a Slippery Rock University student whose paper was awarded the 2020 William A. Pencak Prize for undergraduate Pennsylvania history research.

Oct. 21, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Nikol Damato was one of the most accomplished and involved students from Slippery Rock University's Class of 2020, taking active roles in everything from student government to service-learning programs and addressing student food insecurity on campus. But it is her work as a student, particularly a research paper she wrote, recently garnered her high praise from the Pennsylvania Historical Association.

A 2020 SRU graduate with degrees in history and interdisciplinary programs, Damato is the 2020 winner of the William A. Pencak Prize, which is awarded by the PHA to honor the year's best written undergraduate Pennsylvania history paper. In addition to Damato receiving a cash prize and a certificate, her paper, titled "Urban Renewal in the 'Human Renaissance': Race, Law, and the Environment in Pittsburgh, PA," will be published in the next issue of PHA's journal, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies.

"I had known about this award for the past couple years, so it's really exciting and an honor to be selected for it," Damato said. "It's an even bigger honor to not only represent SRU, but also Pittsburgh and the western part of the state."

The last three recipients of the Pencak Prize wrote papers about historical events and issues related to Philadelphia and the Susquehanna Valley. Damato's paper, however, focused on Pittsburgh, particularly the regulatory framework and sociopolitical context of city's post-World War II urban renewal initiatives. She examined the divergent narratives between political leaders and African American activists, which had major ramifications to the environment and the changing social, legal and political landscapes from the postwar years through the 1970s.



"There were white political elites in Pittsburgh who were attempting to enact all these different urban renewal projects affecting primarily low-income or minority communities in the city," Damato said. "And then there were African American civil rights groups emerging at the time, adopting environmental legal rhetoric for their own goals and needs. So I analyzed these two different groups and how they navigated the process of urban renewal and the changing legal terminology of what an environment is, which expanded to include not only urban buildings but the people in the environment as well."

Damato wrote the research paper in fall 2019 as part of her Research and Writing Seminar class, which was an elective similar to an independent study, taught by Bill Bergmann, associate professor of history.

"I wanted to have a thesis or capstone to show not only what I'd learned but one that would really challenge myself to be a better researcher and writer," Damato said. "Dr. Bergman asked, 'What does it look like to be a good historian and how do we apply the skills and knowledge that I already have?' and he challenged me to always go one step further.

"I want to be an environmental attorney, so as an attorney and as a policy professional, I will not only will be looking at these laws (related to environment), which I analyzed in my project, but I also will be continuing to research, write and draft these types of arguments. The critical thinking, analysis and writing skills will translate really well into my career because it really is a research and writing heavy field."

After graduating, Damato was one of nearly 100 people selected from across the U.S. to become an AmeriCorps CivicSpark Fellow and work on 11-month projects for public agencies. She is currently working in Lakeport, California, for the Lake County Water Resources Department, conducting shoreline assessment and inventory of structures and habitats along Clear Lake in an effort to help her agency with environment review and the permitting process.

More information about the Pencak Prize is available on the PHA website, and more information about history programs at SRU are available on the History Department's webpage.

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