Racial Violence, Inequity, and the Role of the Public Humanities

June 16, 2020

When I wrote my President’s message on my first day on the job just a little over a month ago, I included one of the Federation’s guiding principles: “The humanities strengthen the civic, cultural, and social fabric of society by fostering understanding and promoting an engaged citizenry.” I reiterate it now as we see our nation urgently needs learning, understanding, and healing. Today we also see the vital importance and evidence of an engaged citizenry across the country.

The Federation expresses our shared grief and condolences for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and so many often unnamed others who have lost their lives as a result of racial violence. We are also aware of and anguished by the fact that those dying of COVID-19 are disproportionately indigenous people and people of color. We unequivocally believe that Black lives matter.

As we ask ourselves what our response should be in the face of racial violence, inequity, and national upheaval, I return to the imperatives that Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, sets out for those who want to make a difference (and I paraphrase here): to be proximate, to change the narrative, to be uncomfortable, and to be hopeful.

Dr. Lisa Lee, executive director at the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, describes the power of the humanities to inform and move us forward: “We hope people leave our programs and exhibits armed with facts and an enthusiasm to consider a greater context and the impact of history. And most importantly, we hope people are able to foster a commitment to compassion and empathy in order to become part of the solution, rather than the problem, and to participate in the forging of a collective more inclusive future.”

Here is just a small selection of the many powerful programs that our member state and jurisdictional humanities councils run that engage communities in just the work Dr. Lee describes. These public humanities programs provide historical context and create forums for learning more about ourselves and understanding perspectives different than our own. They also call us to reflect together on the histories of structural and systemic racism that have brought us to this moment. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I urge you to check out your local humanities council to see what they are offering in your state.

As I thought about the role the humanities and humanities councils can play right now, I asked Kevin Lindsey, the CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center and former Human Rights Commissioner for Minnesota, to speak with me. He was gracious enough to agree and our conversation can be found here.

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