Testimony on Behalf of the Federation of State Humanities Councils (HOUSE)

May 25, 2017

Testimony on behalf of the Federation of State Humanities Councils

Prepared for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies by Esther Mackintosh, President, Federation of State Humanities Councils, Addressing the National Endowment for the Humanities, May 24, 2017.

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I thank you for this opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of the 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils. Our request for FY 2018 is $155 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities and $46 million for the Federal/State Partnership, which funds the councils.

The state humanities councils are full partners of the NEH, using the Federal/State Partnership funding to bring public programs to communities throughout the nation.  Councils use these funds to leverage additional support from foundations, corporations, private individuals, and state governments. On average, councils leverage $5.00 in local contributions for every dollar of federal funding awarded through their grants. Over the past few years, they have further extended their resources by forming partnerships with more than 9,000 organizations throughout their states. Each year, councils continue to expand their programming to meet growing needs in their states.  Councils in many states help to revitalize communities, especially in rural areas, through programs that strengthen local institutions and increase tourism.  Teacher institutes conducted by councils increase the quality of humanities education and re-inspire teachers.  Family reading programs contribute to school readiness and long-term academic success, particularly for children in low-income families. Council-conducted community conversations help residents understand all sides of divisive issues.

The preamble to the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Humanities and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts proclaims that “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” This lofty assertion calls for citizens to develop the ability to carefully evaluate and shape decisions about issues they confront in their personal and community lives. It requires citizens to understand their own and their nation’s history in order to fully understand the forces that brought us to our present moment.  It asks that citizens recognize and accommodate differences in viewpoint, background, and experience, as a necessary prelude to shaping strong communities. These are all values advanced through the humanities and the programs supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the state humanities councils.

The first statement of the preamble offers another bold assertion: “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” This includes people without easy access to major educational and cultural institutions but whose stories are an essential part of our national narrative. It includes people in all income categories, all racial and ethnic groups, and all levels of educational achievement.  It includes those who live in towns of 400 people as well as those who live in cities with populations in the millions.  The state humanities councils play a key role in fulfilling the promise of the preamble’s statement by extending the reach of the NEH into communities in all corners of every state.  California Humanities, for example, helped tell the story of Boonville, with a population of just over a thousand people, through a radio documentary, while also training librarians to facilitate community conversations in such urban areas as San Diego, Sacramento, and Riverside City. Utah Humanities joined with the Smithsonian to bring the Museum on Main Street exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” to the tiny communities of Hyrum, Leeds, Fillmore, and Castle Dale, while also offering accredited courses taught by college faculty for low-income adults in Ogden, the City of South Salt Lake City, and Cedar City. This summer in Ohio, citizens in Burton, Clifton, Warren, and Milan will gather under a Chautauqua tent to hear from scholars portraying author Mary Wollenstencraft, Novel Prize winning scientist Marie Curie, Shawnee nation leader Chief Cornstalk, explorer, naturalist, and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and primatologist Dian Fossey, an experience that will entertain and educate audiences made up of neighbors as well as tourists. These and hundreds of other council programs demonstrate the tremendous reach and diversity of the humanities experiences councils make possible.

Councils ensure that “the humanities belong to all the people” through their programming for such groups as veterans, residents of rural communities, children and families, students, and teachers, as well as through the many programs designed to strengthen and revitalize communities.

Supporting veterans.  The state humanities councils and the NEH offer programs that not only help returning veterans find their place in their communities, but also help those communities understand the veterans’ experiences. One of the most effective tools for processing the experience of war is reading and sharing stories, which is the basis of several council programs for veterans.

The Maine Humanities Council provides a book discussion series exclusively for veterans, using Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and The Odyssey to evoke discussion among the participating veterans about their own experiences. Often the groups include veterans from several different periods, providing an opportunity to explore both commonalities and differences among their combat and homecoming experiences. The council also offers programs for the general public, collaborating with veterans and veterans’ organizations to design programs that bring veterans into dialogue with members of the public.

The Minnesota Humanities Center’s multifaceted Veterans’ Voices initiative “draws on the power of the humanities to call attention to the stories and contributions of veterans.” Through one of these programs, “Echoes of War,” discussion leaders participate in a council-conducted training over two weekends in preparation for facilitating discussions at locations throughout the state between veterans and other community members.  The initiative also includes the “Veterans’ Voices Award,” which honors Minnesota veterans who are making significant contributions to their communities.

The West Virginia Humanities Council has used special funding from NEH to produce a six-part web series consisting of 30-minute videos, which tell the stories of West Virginia veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the First Gulf War, and post-9/11.  The council has contracted with a veteran-owned West Virginia-based film production company to create the videos, which include narration, on-camera interviews with West Virginia veterans, and archival film footage.

California Humanities continues to share the powerful stories gathered through their “War Comes Home” initiative, which included a series of video-recorded interviews with veterans from several different eras and varying backgrounds; five public forums that looked at a variety of veteran-related themes; and a package of resources for teachers that included access to an online instructional toolkit and online webinars. All materials from these efforts are available on the council website for ongoing viewing by the public and as a source of instructional materials for teachers.

Telling the story of rural communities. Rural America represents a vital chapter of our national narrative, but it is a chapter that is too often overlooked.  The state humanities councils are a major force in helping rural communities define their own stories and make those stories better known to the rest of the country.  Through the Museum on Main Street (MoMS) initiative, designed specifically for rural communities and made possible through a partnership between the councils and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), dozens of rural communities each year are able to host a Smithsonian exhibit, supplemented by an exhibition created by residents of the community, demonstrating how the themes of the exhibit play out at the local level.

In 2015 the Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City, Oklahoma, worked with the Oklahoma Humanities Council to host “Hometown Teams,” exploring the role of sports in American society. The museum’s director captured the impact of the council support in her comments at the end of the exhibit tour. “We love what the Oklahoma Humanities Council does for museums and small communities, and we have had an amazing response to our ‘Women of the Wild West Shows’ programs that accompanied the Hometown Teams exhibit.  The exhibit and programs changed the way the public thinks about our museum.  They’ve given us the opportunity to have the public look at us a different way. Our museum was stagnant and didn’t have the extra money to change exhibits often or make new exhibits happen.  OHC underwriting had a huge effect and allowed us to offer new and fresh programming.” In February 2017, the council launched a ten-month tour, “The Way We Worked,” which looks at the diversity of American jobs and workers and reflects on the evolution of work in America over the past 150 years.

The benefit of humanities programs to rural communities is stated concisely by the director of a public library in Idaho, who noted the difference that council funding makes, “especially in rural and remote towns across Idaho.  The vitality of towns like Salmon (pop. 3,033), Rupert (pop. 5,763), and Stanley (pop. 68), Idaho, depends not only on their economic resources but also on their cultural resources….These communities help constitute our national identity, and their cultural and intellectual endeavors depend on federal resources.”

Promoting family literacy. Many studies have shown that children exposed to books at an early age have a much higher chance of long-term academic success. Conversely, children who have had little exposure to the culture of reading in their homes can be at a serious educational disadvantage before they even enter school. Many councils help address this potential gap, especially for low-income families, through reading programs in local libraries. These programs have impact in several important ways—by bringing families together in a welcoming setting, helping to strengthen parents’ reading skill, familiarizing families with the library, instilling a love of reading, and encouraging inter-generational discussion of ideas. In 1991 the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities created a groundbreaking humanities-based program, “Prime Time,” currently conducted by councils in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Washington, which has been shown to produce long-term improvement in family engagement and student academic achievement. The program uses high-quality children’s literature and storytelling to generate discussion of such themes as courage and determination, dreams, loyalty, and fairness.

In 2016, Humanities Washington supported 22 six-week series of Prime Time, reaching more than 800 children from both rural and urban settings.  The council mapped out clear goals for the programs and achieved results that in many instances exceeded those goals. Survey results showed that family retention rate in the programs was 89 percent. Public library use by participating at-risk families increased significantly, and 80 percent of participants reported a positive attitude toward library use. Sixty percent of the facilitators reported an increase in discussion participation by adults, and 90 percent reported an increase in participation by the children. One facilitator reported “significant change” in several students who participated in the program. “One student in particular blossomed…she would hardly speak when we first started meeting.  As the sessions continued she added more and more to the conversations.  This has carried over into her attitude at school. Her teacher shared with me that she always has a book in her hand now and is ready to read or take a test on it.”

Inspiring teachers and students. The future of our nation depends on investment in our children.  That means not only providing the best possible educational resources for students, but also offering their teachers opportunities for content-based professional development in the company of highly motivated colleagues. State council programs include both areas. The Great Basin Young Chautauqua program, founded by Nevada Humanities in 1993, is an annual six-month training program for children from 8 to 18. In January, students select a historical figure, on whom they conduct research to create a character and a performance. The project educates students about methods of historical research and gives them confidence in their own intellectual and creative abilities.

Utah Humanities’ Clemente Course is an interdisciplinary humanities course of study designed for at-risk high school students.  The goal of the intellectually rigorous course, developed through partnerships with local school districts and Utah colleges, is to encourage students to apply for and succeed in college. One graduate of the challenging and rewarding course stated, “Clemente will make you think about topics that have never even crossed your mind before.”

Behind every successful student is a dedicated and inspiring teacher, but even the best teachers need to recharge, which they are able to do through the teacher institutes conducted by many councils. The Idaho Humanities Council has carried out an ambitious schedule of summer institutes since 1998.  This year’s institute, “Wallace Stegner and the Consciousness of Place,” will give teachers an in-depth understanding of this important Western writer through study of texts, daily lectures and discussion, and sessions on teaching methods.

The councils’ profound understanding of the needs of their states and their extensive reach into communities large and small ensures that the humanities truly do belong to all the people of the United States.  We thank you for understanding how critical that is to our democracy and for providing support for the NEH and the state humanities councils.