Interview with Phoebe Stein, New Federation President

May 15, 2020

It’s been exactly two weeks since we welcomed Phoebe Stein as the new Federation President so we wanted to catch her (in between all the Zoom meetings!) to see how she is doing, what it feels like to begin her leadership during a pandemic, her thoughts about the organization and humanities community as a whole, and finally whether she’s a virtual coffee break or happy hour kind of person!

You have a unique situation in that you are starting at the Federation in the midst of a pandemic. What has this been like and how do you see the role of the Federation, councils, and humanities community at a time like this?

PHOEBE: I’m a person who likes to get up and running quickly by learning as much as I can from being proximate with people and in communities. So not being able to work in an office with colleagues and gather in person with board members, partners, stakeholders, and funders has been difficult for me. But, I’m using technology to make those connections.

As to what roles and responsibilities the Federation, our member councils, and the larger humanities community have right now I’m going to steal some language from one of our council executive directors, Adam Davis in Oregon. I agree with Adam that it is critically important for us right now to be what he calls “a calm, encouraging, and reliable partner in creating opportunities for people… to feel a strong sense of interpersonal connection and shared imagination.”

While nothing can compare to what we’re facing now, you have held several leadership roles (at Maryland and on the Federation board) during crises, including the Great Recession. What lessons from these past crises can be applied to our current situation?

PHOEBE: This current moment feels unprecedented for me as I’ve experienced nothing like it in my lifetime. So I’m reticent to say there are lessons from the Great Recession that can apply here. I will say that my experience during the Great Recession taught me that recovery is slow and vastly uneven for different populations and institutions depending on the history of investment in those communities and their well-being. And, healing is another thing altogether.

Since starting in the council community, first at Illinois Humanities and then at Maryland Humanities, where you also served on the Federation board, how have you seen councils evolve over the years and what do you think are some of the major issues facing councils today? What role do you see the Federation playing?

PHOEBE: I’m going to echo my predecessor Esther Mackintosh here, who so eloquently explained the evolution of state council work as “moving that center of gravity to the community itself and listening first to what those communities care about.” Beyond this centering, I see exactly what Esther does, that councils are wholly “committed to helping communities take on difficult and even controversial issues and recognizing that the humanities have a role to play in social change.”

As councils help facilitate addressing challenges faced in and with community, they face intense competition for resources, identifying and using best practices to run their nonprofits, and demonstrating the value of the work they are doing. The Federation’s role is to support them in doing all three of these things.

How has your understanding of the importance and role of the public humanities in American life evolved throughout your career? Why do you believe the humanities are important to our nation?

PHOEBE: My first real experience with the power of the humanities was hearing Toni Morrison speak in 1988. Alone in a darkened college auditorium at University of Michigan, I knew I wanted to be a part of what she was doing, but I didn’t fully understand what I even meant by that. Her talk, “Unspeakable Things, Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” was about the representation of African Americans in the canon of American literature, but it was her call to moral action that resonated with me. She seemed to be saying that her work, and moreover the work of the humanities, was about literature and history yes, but also – and perhaps even more importantly – about better understanding human lives and advancing equity. And that’s why I think the humanities are so important to our nation.

How does your background as an executive director for a state humanities council influence your vision of the Federation’s role and service to its members and broader humanities community?

PHOEBE: I think the biggest adjustment in coming to the Federation has been shifting my perspective to think nationally. That said, I carry with me all the roles I’ve played at state humanities councils over the years – intern, communications officer, and director of public affairs at Illinois Humanities and finally as executive director in Maryland. All those positions offered me a unique perspective, and I think I need them all to think about how best to lead and proceed in my new role. And, of course, I’ve had support and mentorship from so many in our community over the years and all those who have come before me.

For me, the most valuable super power someone can have is being able to hold the big picture and a strong attention to detail at the same time. I strive for that.

So it’s been a couple weeks already, congratulations! What do you feel has met, challenged, or exceeded your expectations of the role?

PHOEBE: I’m excited and honored to be here. I’ve been overwhelmed by the enormous support I’ve received from day one from colleagues, partners, old friends, and new friends I haven’t even met yet! Our community is so generous, dedicated, and collaborative that even though I did start this job very much alone at my home in Baltimore, I have felt surrounded and buoyed by everyone’s help and encouragement. And I will say that the staff and board of the Federation have already gone above and beyond to ease my transition.

What do you see as the critical issues facing our community and how do you see the Federation addressing these issues?

PHOEBE: I think remaining relevant and accessible are always most important for our work as a membership and advocacy organization, for our member councils, and for the humanities overall.

But, in addition to providing opportunities for people to be heard and feel connected around the most pressing issues facing our nation, we also need to demonstrate the value of these gatherings, be they virtual or in-person. Because of course, while the humanities can be a personal pursuit or experience, the public humanities are what happen when we interact with one another. So the question is how we continue to do our deeply community-based work when communities are virtual for the foreseeable future.

The Federation’s role in addressing these challenges is to support and connect state humanities councils with one another and provide the resources for them to do their work most effectively and efficiently. We also have a role to play in articulating the value of the humanities today, and more specifically, the impact of the public humanities programs and grants. For example, we are hearing from CARES grantees how indispensable the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding that councils are distributing across the nation has been to the survival of cultural institutions. The Federation will also be documenting how virtual council programming is making a difference in communities nationwide. Part of our job is to make the case strongly and repeatedly that an investment of public and private dollars in the public humanities is necessary.

What are the books you’re reading now? Next?

PHOEBE: I am reading Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, the third novel in the Neapolitan Novels series by the Italian author Elena Ferrante, and a book published by Harvard Business Review Press called, The First 90 Days. I have Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown on my reading list.

What is your favorite lockdown pastime?

PHOEBE: I’ve really enjoyed having more time to cook dinner every night.

Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. But, before you go, we have to ask:

  1. Zoom, WebEx, GoTo Meeting, Conference Call? Zoom
  2. Video coffee break or happy hour? Always love a video coffee break!

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