Virtual Briefing: Humanities Organizations and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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.

The Clemente Course in the Humanities offers credit-bearing courses to economically-disadvantaged individuals throughout the United States. In addition to facilitating rich engagement with humanities sources through faculty-led seminars, Clemente strives to overcome obstacles to higher education access, for instance by offering childcare so that students can attend the course during normal times. COVID-19 severely disrupted Clemente’s in-person model, and the organization had to pivot quickly to continue serving its participants by sourcing hotspots and computers. While discussions can be led online, many participants do not have internet access at home. During our conversation, Vivé reflected on Clemente’s wide-ranging impacts, which they have documented through several studies (including one in partnership with NHA). Further, she reflected on how the program has taken on new meaning: many of its participants are essential workers and, for them, Clemente has come to serve as a place of respite and reflection, as well as a place to bond across physical distance.

Based in Bristol Bay, Alaska, the NN Diamond Cannery History Project aims to preserve the history of the eponymous cannery and the people who worked in it. This salmon cannery—one of Alaska’s oldest and largest—fed and housed hundreds of workers each year. During its century of operation, it played home to an incredibly diverse array of American experiences: Croatian fisherman, Italian, Scandinavian, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Korean, Japanese, and Mexican workers, and Alaska Natives, African Americans, and Hawaiians found work there. In 2019, the project commemorated the 100 year anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which decimated the Bristol Bay population, by creating a traveling exhibition and short film. That work has taken on new meaning in 2020, as local government officials drew upon it to inform decision making and help the public understand why hard decisions have had to be made. The NN Diamond Cannery History Project has helped inform local, national, and international media, and the local PBS station created a 30-minute documentary based on its work, “1919: A Year of Death and Survival.”

While we conceived of this briefing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are well aware that this is not the only crisis affecting the United States. Before turning to questions from the audience, Vivé and Katie took some time to reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement. While these projects have striven to uplift diverse voices, both speakers outlined work they plan to undertake and are already undertaking to do and promote anti-racist work. While Clemente strives to serve Black communities and sees anti-racist work as implicit in its mission, Vivé indicated that the organization will be working to make that mission more explicit, in part by including more diverse voices in its leadership. And Katie discussed both the Cannery’s history as a place of segregation and racism and her increased motivation to uncover Black histories in relation to the Cannery. While Black Americans made up a very small percentage of the Cannery’s workforce, they consumed its products even while racist imagery was used to market the canned fish to white populations in the South.

A full recording of the briefing is available—please click here to view it.