NHA on the Hill: Building Community Through Conversation

On November 9, the National Humanities Alliance produced a virtual briefing on how NEH funding for public humanities discussions enriches our communities. The briefing focused specifically on the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough, Tennessee, with whom NHA had partnered to document the impact of their program, “Freedom Stories: Unearthing the Black Heritage of Appalachia.” Cecily Hill, director of community initiatives, was joined in discussion by Kiran Singh Sirah, the president of the International Storytelling Center; Alicestyne Turley, the Freedom Stories project director; and Adam Dickson, the Supervisor of the Langston Centre in Johnson City, Tennessee, and current Town Alderman of Jonesborough. The event was an opportunity for congressional staff and others to hear about the data we’ve collected on this program attesting to its tremendous value. Those involved in the project spoke about how it built space for dialogue and learning, and about how the discussions offered participants the chance to explore our rich histories and come together across differences.

Freedom Stories is one of several discussion programs funded by the NEH’s division of public programs. These programs are intended to reach broad and diverse public audiences in non-classroom settings. They engage humanities scholars and community experts and encourage communities to think about their local history and culture within the context of the broader American story.

The Freedom Stories program focused on the rich history and storytelling traditions of Black Appalachia. Over the course of twelve online sessions, ISC hosted public discussions covering a range of topics in Black Appalachian history. For example, there were sessions dedicated to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Black education during segregation, and Emancipation Saturday, as well as a range of other topics. Each of the panelists discussed the program itself, then reflected on how the project impacted their own lives. Dickson said that he was inspired by the stories of Black Appalachians’ dedication to pursuing educational excellence in the face of segregation during the Jim Crow era. He also spoke of how it was a confidence booster for African Americans to see their stories celebrated and connected to larger American history themes. 

Freedom Stories also offered participants an opportunity to discuss difficult topics in a welcoming and non-threatening environment. Turley said that the programs had increased community dialogue and diversity discussions, and Sirah talked about the unique power of stories to generate empathy. In fact, 82 percent of participants in an NHA survey agreed that they “feel more confident taking part in thoughtful discussions about race” as a result of the program, and 93 percent felt motivated to “listen to the stories of people whose backgrounds are different from [their] own.” 

NEH funding has been foundational to the success of the Freedom Stories program and to the ISC as a whole. Sirah discussed how NEH support has allowed the ISC to greatly expand its programming in underserved communities and bring together young people from across Appalachia to learn about storytelling and continue the tradition. It has also allowed the ISC to do more storytelling research and to develop additional digital storytelling resources. In an unexpected development, the NEH grant even attracted attention—and funding—from Silicon Valley. 

You can view a full recording of the briefing here.

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