Name: Carson Eckhard
Major: History and English; Urban Studies minor
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Current Location: Philly
Activities: Chair External for Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE); VP of Engagement for Beyond Arrests (BARS); Youth Leader at the #VotethatJawn Initiative; Penn and Slavery Project Researcher; History Department Researcher; Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation Board Member
Street: It seems like all your interests and activities are threaded around a love for history. When and how did your passion for the field start?
CE: I’ve been interested in history since I was in first or second grade. I think I was just drawn to figuring out things about the world, and history seemed like a really accessible way to do that. Even when I was six, seven, I just read a ton. I was a huge book nerd, starting with history–type books for kids. I guess I never really outgrew that stage. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve come to see history as a really meaningful tool for creating positive social change.
Street: Did you come to Penn as a History major?
CE: I thought initially that I’d maybe do PPE. Then, I started taking more classes in the History and English departments and really just loved the faculty that I had the opportunity to learn from, loved the material, loved both departments. I got involved with the 'Penn and Slavery Project' research my freshman year, and from there it was kind of just the path.
Street: How do your two majors complement each other?
CE: At times, history can be a little bit of a rigid field. It doesn’t always capture everything. That’s especially true of people and groups who have been silenced ... so I think it’s really important to consider English literature and art as expressions of power—expressions of what formalized, strategic history, like court records, sometimes can’t convey. Literature and art can reveal truths that might not otherwise be as apparent. History is sometimes confined to what was acceptable or not acceptable, and there’s so much more to the human experience than that.
Street: You’ve done a lot with the Penn and Slavery Project. Tell me more about this project and how you got involved.
CE: It was started in fall 2017 by a group of undergraduates who were interested in contesting prior claims that Penn had no ties to slavery...I became involved in the project my freshman spring. At the time it was super small, maybe 4 of us. We ended up discovering more facets than we’d initially anticipated regarding Penn’s complicity with slavery. From there, I’ve been excited to see how the research we’ve done has been able to help start conversations...that was always the main goal of doing this kind of research: to bring it to the people to start talking about it. Not just people at Penn, but people in West Philly, other universities, to discuss what Penn’s responsibility is to address its legacies...there’s always more information to find and there’s always more action to take.
Street: What has been the most exciting finding in your research?
CE: The outcomes can be exciting, but the finding themselves are never exciting. The most striking thing I’ve worked on is identifying the remains of individuals in the Penn Museum’s Morton Crania Collection...it’s been important in understanding Penn’s place in this all and in understanding these people, where they came from, and hopefully beginning to use historical research to center the humanity of the people in the collection in a way that has previously not been done.
Street: Shifting gears a little, what brought you to work with the Liberation Foundation? What do you do there?
CE: I used to work in the District Attorney’s Conviction Interrogation Unit, which handles exoneration cases and wrongful conviction cases. While I was working there, I met Terrance Lewis, whose case we handled in May 2019. Terrance was incarcerated for 21 years as a juvenile lifer for a crime he didn’t commit and was released about a year and a few months ago. One day, he told me he was interested in starting a foundation to help other people in his position—suffering under disproportionate or undue sentences. We talked about where students could maybe help aid that effort and started planning some things. This summer I received a Gordon Fellowship from the Urban Studies Department and worked full time with Terrance, helping get things up and running. I help manage a pretty large team of student volunteers who help with everything, from processing mail from incarcerated people to marketing and social media. So I’ve been overseeing that and recruiting more people to get engaged. The biggest part of my job has been recruiting people who are more qualified than me to help run this organization—lawyers, for example. We now have a large team of lawyers, which is good, because we don’t have to worry that we’ll accidentally commit fraud or something now! We just took our first case a few months ago and have an upcoming court date, so that’s been exciting.
Street: How might life after Penn look for you?
CE: I think down the road I’d like to maybe pursue a career as an academic—but immediately after Penn, I could see myself doing a lot of things. I’m certainly going to grad school, potentially in history. But I also might take a year and work for the Liberation Foundation and help Terrance get that really solidified and hopefully hire some full–time staff there. The immediate future is kind of up in the air, but isn’t everything right now?
Street: What advice would you give to students looking to pursue their academic interests further at Penn?
CE: Start by going to office hours for the classes you really like. Even if you don’t feel like you have questions on the course material, you might meet a professor who can introduce you to research that you’re really passionate about or introduce you to others who have similar interests. That is probably one of the most underrated parts of college. That’s how I got started.
Street: Biggest role model in history?
CE: Michelle Obama. She’s making history all the time. She’s a kick–ass mother, daughter, and wife, but also has an incredible professional career. I admire her ability to make really lasting change in the world.
Street: What is something people wouldn’t guess about you?
CE: I can recite the opening monologue of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on command.
Street: Biggest Zoom pet peeve?
CE: When you can’t tell who’s going to talk next.
Street: Favorite quarantine habit?
CE: Spending time with my grandmother.
Street: Last song you listened to?
CE: “Across the Universe” by the Beatles.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn…
CE: People who know how to answer that question and people who don’t.
Street: And you are…
CE: I’m the latter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.