Josie Holland, '23, in front of Jepson Hall

Josie Holland, '23

January 25, 2023

Looking to the past to imagine a better future

How can analyzing history help us work toward a better, more inclusive future? Josie Holland, ’23, a leadership studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS) major, has explored this question during her collegiate years.  

As a lead student researcher in the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab since fall 2020, she has mapped redlining, the practice of denying fair access to credit—particularly mortgages—based on the race of the residents of a neighborhood. The mapping project shows a strong correlation between U.S. neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s and those with poor health outcomes today. 

“This digital humanities work has real value,” Holland said. “I helped put these maps out in the world, and now people are actually using them in grassroots and legislative activism.”  

Similarly, she witnessed the practical application of a project she undertook this past summer for her Jepson internship as a Smithsonian Institution digital engagement and research intern. She worked on the FUTURES exhibition housed in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. The exhibition brought together science, technology, and art to look at past utopian projects and imagine more sustainable, inclusive futures. 

“Using objects from the museum’s collection, I created activities for virtual learning labs focused on Indigenous futures, the future of women in STEM, and LGBTQ futures,” said the Richmond, Virginia, native. “These learning labs targeted middle and high school students and their families who couldn’t visit the Smithsonian in person.”

Now, for her Jepson senior honors thesis, she is analyzing the popular HBO series “Our Flag Means Death” as a kind of queer utopia. Associate professor of leadership studies Kristin Bezio is her honors thesis advisor.

Set in 1717 and loosely based on historical buccaneers Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, the streaming comedy reimagines the two falling in love with each other. They lead a crew of predominantly Black, Brown, and queer pirates.

“The show has made waves in the LGBTQ community,” Holland said. “My thesis looks at what happens when people with marginalized identities take lead roles, when we make spaces for marginalized people to flourish and have their own stories.”  

The senior will present her honors research on queer utopias and LGBTQ influences in popular culture at both the Jepson Research Symposium and the School of Arts and Sciences Student Symposium in April. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies provided funding to support her honors research and for her to present some of her other research at the Society for Utopian Studies Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, this past November. 

She chose to attend Richmond in part because it offers generous funding for humanities research, she said. 

Whether conducting research, mapping redlining for the Digital Scholarship Lab, or creating futuristic learning labs for the Smithsonian, Holland draws on the past to imagine a better tomorrow for people on society’s margins.

“When I think about leadership, I think about the best possible future, and this strongly connects to thinking about utopian studies.”