INTERVIEW WITH BRENDA THOMSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ARIZONA HUMANITIES AND FEDERATION BOARD MEMBER
Brenda Thomson joined Arizona Humanities in March 2010 and the Federation Board of Directors in 2019, specializing in executive management, fundraising, human resources, public speaking, community relations, and strategic planning. Prior to joining Arizona Humanities, Thomson served as the director of The Center of Law Leadership and Management at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU and as executive director of the Maricopa County Bar Association. She obtained her B.A. in English from Yale University in 1983 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1989. Thomson enjoys spending time with nonprofit organizations that promote education and diversity through community and volunteer activities.
Thank you for speaking with us today, Brenda. Before we jump in, would you please share a little bit about your background and what drew you to the public humanities and Arizona Humanities specifically?
THOMSON: I grew up in Lancaster, New York, just outside of Buffalo and went to school back east. I went to Yale undergrad in Connecticut, where I majored in English, and later returned to attend Yale Law School. I have worked on both coasts, including stints in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Fresno, California, but have spent the majority of my career in Arizona. I was attracted to the public humanities because my heart and soul have always been with the humanities. Arizona Humanities appealed to me because of my work with students at the ASU law school, the indigenous community, and also because of my volunteer activities with local bar associations and other nonprofits. I especially liked working with teens and elementary school children. Arizona Humanities was exciting because it had a wonderful reputation for excellent public programs. It also had the potential for growth and reach to underserved communities.
In 2010, you became the executive director of Arizona Humanities. Over the last 10 years, how has your understanding of the role and importance of the humanities, and the humanities councils, evolved?
THOMSON: Humanities councils have continued to evolve in ways that I could not have imagined when I first started back in 2010. Some of this has to do with technological advancements. We used to do a lot more on paper. With online grants and awards applications, and updated website interface, we have been able to work much more efficiently. We have been able to hold online grants webinars instead of having folks drive across the state for workshops. And, of course, now we have pivoted to virtual offerings for many programs. We are still learning the best ways to share the humanities virtually. The biggest difference, and the most important one from my perspective, is the community engagement. We reach more people in more ways. We have stepped up our programs and outreach to reflect greater diversity of speakers, topics, and visitors. We are reaching more people from more places. There is still room for improvement with respect to accessibility and language barriers. But, we are mindful of that and working on it.
Is there a story from your work at Arizona Humanities that particularly resonated with you or influenced your leadership at the council?
THOMSON: There have been so many things I have learned, and so many amazing people that I have met, that I hardly know where to begin. I was blessed in 2018 to receive a Women of Achievement award. During my acceptance speech I told them a story from my childhood. I was in elementary school and was excited to make an announcement to the school over the PA system about Martin Luther King’s birthday. I practiced with my mother the day before, but when I got to school they would not let me read the announcement. They told me that if I wanted to celebrate his birthday, I could just “go home.” I was devastated. I called my mother and she told me to go to my classroom. While I was sitting there fighting back tears, I heard a voice over the PA system. It was my mother! She drove to school to make the announcement. I learned a lesson I have never forgotten. When something is important, you need to act, show up, stand up, speak out, do whatever you can… even when it is not popular. My mother’s words came years before there was an MLK day holiday. She spoke up so that all children could learn the contributions of Martin Luther King to our country.
What do you see as the role of Arizona Humanities, and other humanities councils and organizations, in moving our country forward at this time?
THOMSON: Our role in moving humanities forward has not changed. It is our mission… to build a just and civil society by creating opportunities to explore our shared human experiences through discussion, learning, and reflection. It has been central to our work and all that we do. Like many councils, we are facing current challenges head on, listening to the needs of communities, and making sure that we help people see the world around them with new eyes. That is the beauty of learning. Sometimes what we see is painful, but the lessons we learn can help us grow. We are shaping the future… together.