The National Endowment for the Humanities has faced several threats to its existence in its relatively short 50-year history, but like the country itself, the NEH is well-served in times of crisis by connecting with the wisdom and foresight of its founders. The preamble to the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 includes two important principles, which provide enduring justification for both the existence and the structure of the agency. The most frequently cited of the statements in the “Declaration of Findings and Purposes” is eloquent in its simplicity and force: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” A less well-known but equally important assertion, “the arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States,” added through a 1990 amendment, codifies sentiments expressed by Lyndon Johnson upon signing the legislation in 1965. Taken together, the two principles beautifully express the power of the humanities to inform, empower, and inspire citizens and the ability of the NEH to ensure that citizens in every corner of the nation can engage in the experiences the humanities make possible.
The state humanities councils, envisioned in the founding legislation and funded through the Federal/State Partnership office of the NEH, provide both a guarantee and an illustration of the principle that the humanities belong to all the people of the United States. Possessing a profound understanding of the character and identity of the places they call home, the councils have grown increasingly skilled at assessing the needs of their communities and the issues of importance to their constituents. Council programs cover a wide range of format and topic, including reading and discussion groups in local libraries; speakers who travel hundreds of miles in rural areas to engage with local audiences; and community conversations covering topics as varied as education reform, immigration policy, the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, and the experience of war. Councils do not shy away from controversial issues, and their discussions often bring together individuals holding strikingly different viewpoints, in settings that encourage civil conversation, under the guidance of skilled facilitators and scholars.
To ensure that a diversity of viewpoints can be aired while also anchoring the discussions in reliable information and knowledge, the councils engage scholars in their states, who give the discussions context and perspective, and also draw on the expertise of their many partners. One of the core programs offered by Oregon Humanities, for example, is Conversation Project, through which residents in communities throughout the state gather for conversations led by facilitators selected through a rigorous application process. These conversations fearlessly take on the most charged and difficult issues, including race, immigration, food policy, and what it means to be an American, among other topics. “Our hope,” says director Adam Davis, “is that these programs create conditions for mutual understanding—which is not the same as agreement—and that all our publications and face-to-face programs contribute meaningfully to increased mutual understanding."
Most councils have participated in the Museum on Main Street program, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), through which SITES-developed portable exhibits are made available to museums and community centers in small rural communities. These exhibits cover topics from the history and diversity of the American workforce to the impact of hometown sports.
The exhibition provides the catalyst for programs supported by the humanities council and designed by local planning committees. Often the activities include discussions of themes arising from the exhibit but of specific concern to the communities. For programs accompanying a traveling exhibit on water, a controversial issue in many states, the Kansas Humanities Council turned to the experts to provide the grounding that project directors would need for potentially difficult conversations in communities where the stakes could be high. They called on the Kansas Water Office and the Kansas Department of Agriculture, according to the program officer, “to provide presentations about each community’s unique water story: where their water comes from, water quality challenges, and other issues. . . . Both presentations promoted better understanding of state and local water stories.”
Councils also prompt meaningful discussions through programs marking anniversaries. Humanities New York used this year’s 60th anniversary of the publication of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to launch a series of reading and discussion groups around Baldwin’s writings, supplemented with an essay by University of Virginia professor Lawrie Balfour. The essay states that renewed exploration of Baldwin’s writings “offers a way to gauge what has changed, which elements of the past have been reinvented, and what remains the same.” The scholar-led discussions, held in a setting that encourages reflection and civil exchange of ideas and viewpoints, will allow participants to look deeply into the difficult issues Baldwin raised about American society 60 years ago, which still resonate today.
In addition to addressing important anniversaries, councils shape programs around issues of particular concern to their citizens. Several years ago, New Hampshire Humanities, having observed that some religious groups were having a growing influence on policy decisions in the state, decided to address directly the issue of religious belief in the public square. The council created a two-year initiative that included a conference, public addresses, and 11 six-part civic reflection series around the state. “The civic reflections were the most meaningful and also the most difficult component of the project,” the council director reported. “We developed local steering committees of civic and religious leaders in order to gain the trust and participation of people with diverse religious and political views. For the most part, we succeeded.“
Last year, in response to “the persistent social, economic, cultural, and racial issues that divide our communities,” the NEH offered all state humanities councils special grants to create programs through an initiative the agency called “Humanities and the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the United States.” A total of 48 councils responded, conducting programs that often explored topics specific to their states. The Mississippi Humanities Council used the opportunity to address an issue of considerable interest and an equal level of risk in their state: the Confederate flag. The council planned a forum for public discussion, forming a panel that included representatives of Sons of Confederate Veterans, a previous grantee, along with four historians. More than a hundred citizens, representing a variety of viewpoints, took part in the event, engaging in a sometimes heated but mainly respectful discussion. One participant later described the evening in a Facebook post, acknowledging that the flag is a subject on which opinions are highly emotional, “but more than anything I was struck by how wonderfully diverse and civil this conversation was. . . . Tonight we didn't settle the flag issue, but all sides were heard and I have a renewed appreciation for the freedom of assembly. Mississippi, my home, is a special place. I hope the Humanities Council will sponsor a dozen of these forums.”
These programs and others like them beautifully illustrate and affirm the notion that “the arts and the humanities belong to all of the people of the United States,” from Kansas to New Hampshire to New York to Mississippi to Oregon and beyond. They confirm the value of the state humanities councils as organizations that fully connect with the communities in their states and are able to create conversations that matter. If “democracy demands wisdom and vision,” then one certain path toward a functioning democracy consists of neighbors talking with neighbors, drawing on texts that remind us of human frailty and heroism, of the tragedies and triumphs of our accumulated human experience.
Esther Mackintosh is president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. For more information, visit www.statehumanities.org.