Interview with Esther Mackintosh

May 1, 2020

PROFILE: Interview with Esther Mackintosh

How has your understanding of the importance and role of the humanities in American life evolved since starting at the Federation?

ESTHER: Before coming to the Federation, I had experienced the humanities mainly through my academic studies, which meant it had been a fairly solitary experience. I’m ashamed to admit that even having been immersed in the study of American literature, which should have shown me over and over how vital the humanities are to life in a democratic society, I had not thought deeply about what I now see as the essential role the humanities play in community and public life. That “awakening” began the minute I got to the Federation and started educating myself about the programs that state humanities councils were doing, programs that brought people together to think and talk in the company of others. 

I still strongly believe in the transformative power of the humanities in individual lives. In fact, I believe that is where it begins, with one person’s broadening understanding of the larger world and deepening appreciation of the stories of those around us – especially those whose experiences are different from our own. But throughout my time working with the councils, I have come to believe more and more strongly that communities and even nations can also be transformed through the power of the humanities. Creating opportunities for communities to look together at where they have been and what that means for their collective future, to embrace the variety of experiences community members carry within them and to understand how that variety enriches the whole, to talk together about ideas that will help them make informed decisions – all this is part of the public humanities experience that councils offer every day. Every new council program that I have learned about over all these years with the Federation has further deepened my belief in the public value of engagement with the humanities.

How have you seen the councils evolve and adapt over the last thirty years?

ESTHER: It is important to remember that there was no blueprint for councils when they were created. The early councils had to figure out largely for themselves what it meant to be a bridge between the academy and the public, and the early adjustments with that were impressive but not always entirely successful, in part because they drew fairly heavily on the humanities disciplines and tried to translate those for the public. I think the single most important change in how councils approach their work today is that they now begin with the community, with their concerns and challenges, and they draw on the humanities to engage communities in experiences that address those challenges.

The early councils “brought the humanities to the public.” The evolution over these years has meant moving that center of gravity to the community itself and listening first to what those communities care about. Some years ago I had a conversation with a university professor who was active as a facilitator in a council civic reflection program. When I asked him to describe the difference between teaching a piece of literature in a classroom and leading a community discussion, he said, “I had to learn to put aside my practice of dissecting the text and understand that what matters is the problem the group puts in the middle of the table, and what the text is there to do is help illuminate that problem.” I’m happy to see that this evolution continues. In the past few years I see councils becoming much more committed to helping communities take on difficult and even controversial issues and recognizing that the humanities have a role to play in social change.

Since being at the Federation, you’ve supported and led the councils through a number of major events including 9/11, the Great Recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic – what do you see as the role of the humanities during times of crisis, why is an understanding of the humanities critical to helping our nation, communities and people cope, comprehend, and move forward in these uncertain times? 

ESTHER: We only have to look at what councils have done in the past month to see the tremendous role the humanities play at such times. The virtual programs councils have launched are not just about helping people avoid the boredom of isolation. They are much more about giving people tools to make sense of what is happening around us. What have human beings said and done at other times when we were overcome by events beyond our control? What are the words that offered clarity and hope to previous generations and that still resonate for us today? 

Immediately after 9/11, one of the humanities councils launched a series of discussion groups around the W.H. Auden poem, “September 1, 1939” (reread it – you’ll be glad you did!). At a time when so many people were so fearful, people flocked to these discussions. We are all hungry for news from other times and places when we feel overwhelmed. How did you, voice from the past, handle a comparable circumstance? What did you see in the people around you that can help us? What wisdom do you have to offer? That’s what the humanities give us in such times. 

As FSHC President, you’ve navigated the congressional climates of three very different US Presidential administrations (Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump), helped increase federal appropriations by more than $18 million for the councils and $25 million for NEH, secured multiple million dollar grants for councils, and partnered with the National Humanities Alliance to co-host the National Humanities Conference to bring both the public and the academic humanities communities together in a way never before done – what’s the secret to this incredible success? 

ESTHER: The secret is in the company I have kept! When you are as fortunate as I have been in working with so many smart and committed people, it’s easy to look successful. All I had to do was learn to tell the story effectively of what a remarkable network of organizations the councils are and how much good they do in their states and it became easy for Congress to allocate money and for other national organizations and foundations to want to connect with us. 

What are you most proud of and what do you hope is your legacy? 

ESTHER: I’m most proud of the steadily increasing collective strength of the councils. This is a community of organizations that really do recognize themselves as a community, that actively share with each other, that understand the value of their distinctiveness while also recognizing how much more powerful they are when they communicate openly and candidly with each other and can speak as one voice on certain very fundamental aspects of their work and missions. 

“Legacy” is a daunting word. One of my favorite lines in literature is found at the end of Middlemarch, and describes a legacy that any one of us might be happy to claim: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 

What are the things you’re looking forward to doing most during your retirement?

ESTHER: This might be colored by the very intense level of activity we have all experienced over the past month, but in this moment, the things I’m really looking forward to are 1) reading books at any time of the day I choose; 2) thinking; 3) spending time with friends and family members without looking at a calendar or a clock; 4) taking very long walks, 5) baseball, and 6) finding a way to channel my energy into a cause I really care about. Sounds like I’m going to need a very long retirement…

What are the top three things you’ll miss the most?

ESTHER: 1) working with the terrific members of the Federation staff. 2) Spending my days, either in person or through other means of communication, with the people I have come to admire so greatly and enjoy so completely. 3) Feeling fully engaged in work that I strongly believe in. Let’s hope that loops back to the question above. 

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