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

May 30, 2017

Testimony on behalf of the Federation of State Humanities Councils

Prepared for the Senate 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 26, 2017.

Madam Chairwoman 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 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. In 2017-18, the Kentucky Humanities Council will bring the Smithsonian’s “Hometown Teams” exhibit to the small communities of Hazard, Carlisle, and Hodgenville, while preparing for the 36th Annual Kentucky Book Fair to be held at the Kentucky Horse Farm in November. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities makes it possible for both residents and tourists to learn about historical sites in Rhode Island through a smartphone app that tells stories by and about Rhode Islanders, and through their “Catalyzing Newport” project that engages visiting scholars to help citizens address local and national challenges. Senior citizens throughout North Dakota who are interested in writing can join their neighbors in writing and storytelling workshops. The council’s annual GameChanger festival brings citizens together to share ideas about a major event or issue that has changed or has the potential to change our world.

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, 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 Alaska Humanities Forum’s “Duty Bound” is a thematic initiative that runs through their programs, activities, and publications, deepening the public’s understanding of the experiences of Alaska’s veterans. In a state that is home to 73,000 veterans, the council uses the humanities to promote conversations that increase understanding of those affiliated with the armed services and to help tell the stories of military personnel and veterans. One of the programs, “Danger Close: Alaska,” brings together veterans and civilian writers to explore themes of war and military experience. These programs gave rise to a publication, “Duty Bound,” which featured pieces by two of the participants in its premiere issue.

The Missouri Humanities Council also employs writing as a means of enabling veterans and their families to explore and understand the experience of war. Their Veterans Writing Workshop, conducted in partnership with two major libraries, a veterans’ medical facility, and a university, are offered free and are taught by professional writers. Some of these writings are included in the council’s annual anthology, Proud to Be: Writing By American Warriors, first published in 2012. The wife of a Vietnam veteran who took part in the program said, “Perhaps after reading what others shared, he feels it is now all right for him to do so as well. History will always be written by professionals, but a personal story of what a man experienced in his lifetime is priceless for our future generations.”

“On Coming Home,” a five-week reading and discussion program sponsored by Humanities Oregon, offers veterans from all eras an opportunity to come together around a meal to read, discuss, and share ideas about such themes as patriotism, family, loyalty, ethics, and home. Discussions, led by a veteran, are prompted by music, poems, and essays written by veterans from the Civil War through the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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 webinars. All materials are available on the council website for 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 too often overlooked. The state councils are a major force in helping rural communities define their own stories and share them with 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.

Humanities Montana pays special attention to rural communities in its state through its “Hometown Humanities” program, which selects a town of fewer than 20,000 people each year as a partner in a year of programming. The council provides the community with at least 20 free programs of the town’s choosing, selected from the council’s catalog of programs. The council requires the community to form a leadership team of eight to twelve people drawn from the local library, schools, museums, local government, and others to develop the slate of programs, enhance existing cultural programs, and assess the effectiveness of the project as it unfolds.

This year councils in Alaska, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and 24 other states collaborated with the National Archives to educate thousands of Americans, particularly in rural communities, about the Bill of Rights, in recognition of its 225th anniversary. The councils partnered with more than 1,300 libraries, community centers, schools, and other local institutions, which displayed the kiosk exhibit and supported educational activities.

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 reading skills of parents, familiarizing families with the library, instilling a love of reading, and encouraging intergenerational 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. Since 2015, the Mississippi Humanities Council has served 198 families and 346 children through their Prime Time program, providing both learning and enjoyment. One of the project’s storytellers offered this description of the project’s impact: “It was evident to me that people in the community are hungry for opportunities to enrich the lives of their children, but there are not many opportunities to do so. Prime Time seemed to fill a need for a sense of community and belonging as well as supporting the parents’ desire for their children to receive a good education.”

Inspiring leaders of the future. The future of our nation depends on investment in our children. That means providing the best possible educational resources and opportunities for students in both rural and urban settings. Humanities Tennessee’s “Letters About Literature” program is a contest for students in grade 4 through 12 to write a letter to an author, living or dead. Students are encouraged to think critically about something they have read and reflect on how it has changed their view of the world. In West Virginia, a professor at Bluefield State College reported that the West Virginia Humanities Council had provided mini-grants for the college’s Windows on the World presentations, which enriched not only the students at Bluefield State, but also high school students in the surrounding communities of Princeton, Montcalm, and Pikeview. “If we did not have the support of the NEH and West Virginia Humanities Council, our students would be deprived of these learning experiences and exposure to the world’s cultures, customs, and traditions. The Council helps us to prepare 21st century leaders who will be more worldly-wise.”

Councils in New Mexico and Maryland serve as the state coordinators for the very successful National History Day program, through which middle and high school students participate in a competition that encourages critical thinking, development of research skills, and a deep understanding of history. A History Day parent in Maryland reported that her daughter’s National History Day experience “encouraged her critical thinking skills and allowed her to fine-tune her writing skills, among many other positives, and as a result, was a contributing factor in her being accepted to Columbia University. I am proud to share that she is now a successful practicing attorney in the health care field.”

Since 1997, Vermont Humanities has sponsored a one-week summer literacy camp allowing up to 200 middle school children to read, share ideas, and participate in a variety of creative activities in communities around the state. Teachers and school administrators encourage students most in need of individual support to take part in the camp, which offers a safe and secure environment in which to engage with literature and ideas, develop new skills, and gain confidence. A director of one of these camps told the council, “We know that the camp is a success because each year every camper wants to finish every reading, every project, and every activity.”

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.