By Emily McDonald and Younger Oliver
Advocacy on behalf of our cultural institutions is as crucial now as ever. The COVID-19 crisis has cast a shadow of deep uncertainty on all areas of American life, and how far these social and economic impacts may reach is still very much unknown. Over the past six months, we have been working to better understand the challenges humanities organizations are facing and how they are serving their communities in the face of crisis. We’ve found our peers are not only providing informative programming, but also extending their missions to serve their communities in creative ways. To fully capture the impact of this work, we have been partnering with humanities organizations across the country, leveraging the data collection resources we’ve developed at NHA, to highlight how humanities organizations serve as anchors in their communities during times of crisis.
On Wednesday, June 24, the National Humanities Alliance hosted a virtual briefing aimed at educating our members and congressional staffers on how humanities organizations are adapting to serve their communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I was joined in conversation by Vivé Griffith, director of outreach and engagement for The Clemente Course in the Humanities, and Katie Ringsmuth, project director and lead historian of the NN Cannery History Project. For both organizations, the difficulties of the past few months have emphasized what they already knew to be true: that the humanities have a significant role to play in bolstering community life and lending historical perspective. Though cultural organizations throughout the United States are struggling with the pandemic’s economic impact, they have a vital role in supporting us through the months to come.
Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray are three literary legends of the twentieth century, pivotal to the Harlem Renaissance, Modernism, and cultural theory. Each of these authors spent their formative years in HBCUs, and have artistic and biographical ties to Tuskegee University and Macon County, Alabama—a region that serves as a backdrop to and central inspiration for their works.
The Mastheads, a public humanities organization in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was founded in 2016 with a goal of connecting Pittsfield residents to the literary heritage of the region, cultivating pride in place, and supporting the production of new creative work. This mission grew out of the challenges Pittsfield has faced since General Electric, the major employer, left the region. To bring together diverse groups to celebrate Pittsfield as a site of cultural and artistic production, the organization has collaborated with a variety of community organizations—from the library to the local farmers market, to groups looking to support and improve their local neighborhoods—since its inception.
On December 11, the National Humanities Alliance partnered with Jefferson Community College (JCC) to highlight how the NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War programs serve veterans. The showcase-style briefing included a discussion with leaders of and participants in JCC’s 2018 program. Representatives Chellie Pingree, David Price, Elise Stefanik, and Steve Stivers served as honorary co-hosts of the event.
NHA is currently working with 14 NEH-funded summer professional development programs for teachers to document their impact. Though our final follow-up survey is still several months away, pre- and post-program surveys shed light on what drew educators to the workshops and what they found most valuable while there. The responses have been enlightening and have helped us understand how NEH-funded programs are fulfilling teachers’ needs and filling gaps in the curricula.