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Women to Watch at UA Little Rock: Dr. Marta Cieslak

Dr. Marta Cieslak serves as director of UA Little Rock Downtown Center. Photo by Benjamin Krain.
Dr. Marta Cieslak serves as director of UA Little Rock Downtown Center. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

​​In celebration of Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women in leadership positions who are making a difference at the university and in the community.

The next Woman to Watch at UA Little Rock of 2024 is Dr. Marta Cieslak, director of UA Little Rock Downtown!

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I grew up in Łęczyca, a small town in Central Poland. After high school, I moved to Warsaw, Poland’s capital city, to attend the University of Warsaw, where I got my bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, one in Polish Studies and one in American Studies. After graduation, one of my MA advisors encouraged me to apply to a Ph.D. program in the United States. I didn’t even know where to start but my professor was very supportive. That’s how I ended up at the University at Buffalo (UB), where I got my Ph.D.

At UB, I studied both American and Polish history. While working on my doctorate in American Studies, I was a graduate assistant in the Polish Studies Program for three years. Being able and encouraged to study both helped me develop a transnational perspective on the history of both regions. I wrote my dissertation on the migration of Polish peasants to the US after the abolition of slavery in the US. I specialize in transatlantic history, which means different things for different scholars, but in my case, it’s studying connections between the US and Poland, and more generally, East Central Europe.

What is your current position and professional duties at UA Little Rock?

I serve as director of UA Little Rock Downtown. UA Little Rock Downtown is a community engagement unit of our university, and I’m responsible for all aspects of our operations. I organize and coordinate events and programs that aim to connect the University with the community, our state, and beyond. UA Little Rock Downtown is also home to a mural that Joe Jones, a St. Louis artist, painted at Commonwealth College in 1935. The college was an experimental educational institution that trained labor leaders. One of the most interesting aspects of my job is to co-serve as a steward of the mural by researching its history, developing programming around it, and making it accessible to the public.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do every day without another UA Little Rock woman, Emily Housdan, our programming and administrative assistant, who is a graduate of the UA Little Rock Public History program.

What brought you to UA Little Rock?

I moved to Little Rock in late 2016, when my partner took a position at UAMS. I was in a new city, where I didn’t know anyone, with no job. I started applying for open positions but also contacting various institutions that I thought might use people with my credentials. One of them was the Department of History at UA Little Rock. Dr. Jess Porter, who was at the time chair of the history department, responded politely that they didn’t need anyone. Sometime after that, he called me to ask if I would be interested in teaching as an adjunct professor. I wasn’t, because I was already doing contract-based jobs and needed something more stable, but Jess convinced me to meet with him. When I walked into his office, he said their Eastern European history professor had just resigned to take a different job. That meant the department was now looking for a full-time visiting assistant professor. He encouraged me to apply and I got the job. One year turned into a recurrent position and in January last year, I transitioned to my current job. I still occasionally teach at the History Department and feel lucky I can remain connected to teaching and our students.

What are some of the exciting projects that you are working on at UA Little Rock?

Our biggest project at UA Little Rock Downtown right now is an exhibit titled “Slavery and Freedom: Journeys Across Time and Space.” It examines the history of modern slavery from a comparative perspective. The inspiration for it is a traveling exhibit, “The Surprising Story of Furcy Madeleine,” created by the Musée Villèle, Réunion Island, France. The exhibit explores the life of Furcy Madeleine, an enslaved man who in 1817 launched his freedom suit in the French colony of Isle Bourbon (today’s Réunion). “Slavery and Freedom” will build upon Madeleine’s story. It will feature panels from the Réunion exhibit and original panels that will add a comparative context of slavery and freedom in Arkansas. The original panels will focus on the story of Abby Guy. Guy, who lived as a free person until a man named William Daniel enslaved her, launched her freedom suit in Arkansas in 1855. We received a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council to fund this project and the exhibit should open to the public starting on May 3.

On March 12, we will host a panel on the current state of affairs in Ukraine, in light of the second anniversary of the Russian invasion. Another event we’re planning is a storytelling workshop that will take place on April 27. This event, which we’re working on in partnership with the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), is part of a Big Read series inspired by Tommy Orange’s book “There There” that CALS is coordinating. We’re also working with social studies and art educators to develop lesson plans around the Joe Jones mural that we will make available to teachers.

In the fall semester, I’m scheduled to teach a course on the Holocaust at UA Little Rock Downtown. As all classes taught in our space, it will include a community engagement component. Dr. Barclay Key, History’s chair, and I agreed it’s important we offer this course right now, when once again we’re seeing surveys suggesting shockingly limited knowledge of Holocaust history among American students.

What woman has inspired you the most and why?

My maternal grandmother, Zosia. She finished five grades of elementary school and spent most of her life working as a small-scale farmer. She gave birth to seven children, two of whom died at a young age. Her experience was quite typical for an Eastern European peasant woman whose life spanned through most of the 20th century. She was also an avid reader. She especially enjoyed historical novels. She loved reciting poems in public and she knew many by heart. She also loved nature.

When she was older and losing stamina, she once went for a walk to the woods that was around a mile away from her house. She decided she was too tired to walk back home so she slept in the woods and walked back in the morning. My grandma lived through two world wars and many personal struggles and labored very hard. And she always appreciated whatever she could in life. I aspire to develop that kind of gratitude. And to have the courage to break into poetry in public without worrying what others will think, or to sleep in the woods overnight alone.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

Surround yourself with people from whom you can learn. Smart, compassionate, and empathetic individuals will be your greatest network, whether in your professional or personal life. A good mentor can change your life, and you would be surprised how many people would be willing to support you. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help or advice.

One of the greatest things about UA Little Rock is the program for students over 60 years of age. These students are typically retired professionals. They don’t have to be in college and, yet, they choose to come to our classrooms. And they bring the wealth of knowledge and experience. This is to say that your mentor may be sitting next to you in your class right now if you are a UA Little Rock student. These life-long learners are retired nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, editors, etc. Some are women who had successful careers in male-dominated fields. Just pay attention.

Name something about yourself that most people would be surprised to learn.

I really didn’t want to be a teacher. It’s a long story but when I was young and making decisions about my future, teaching repeatedly presented itself as a career path, and I always tried to run away from it. I took my first teaching job because I needed to pay my bills. I had no license or experience but the shortage of teachers was so acute, it didn’t matter. Once I started teaching, I immediately fell in love with it. I’ve done many things as an academic, and I’m grateful for all the growth opportunities but I will always consider myself a teacher first.

What is your favorite quote and why?

I don’t have a favorite quote, but one quote from my favorite historical figure, Rosa Luxemburg, resonates with me: “We will be victorious if we have not forgotten how to learn.” But the truth is I don’t walk around quoting great East Central European thinkers and revolutionaries. Much more often I quote Arrested Development, because, you know, “They don’t allow you to have bees in here.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If you can, get a dog. Dogs make life infinitely better.