Beginning in September 2021, the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH)’s “A More Perfect Union” (AMPU) Initiative has sparked conversation, education, and civic engagement opportunities across the states and territories. Awarding $2.8 million in funding to state and jurisdictional humanities councils, NEH’s initiative was launched to help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026 while encouraging reflection on the meaning of citizenship and exploration of democracy throughout the history of the United States. Demonstrating the essential role the humanities play in democracy, AMPU humanities projects have promoted civic participation and deepened public understanding of the core principles of democracy nationwide.
With $50,000 in funding, each of the 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils have designed special programs that support collective reflection, encourage civic engagement, and help participants in building skills to contribute to a just and meaningful civic life. In the second installation of a two-part blog series, we will continue to explore the curation, collaborations, and community outcomes of five different “A More Perfect Union” programs across the nation.
How would the U.S. Constitution be different if you were in the room when it was written? What would you add? What would you eliminate? Who would you invite to join in the process? These are some of the questions being asked by PA Humanities’ If You Were In The Room program. During the summer of 2022, PA Humanities invited Pennsylvanians ages 16-25 to share their unique perspectives on the nation’s founding document. A part of NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” initiative, If You Were In the Room offered young people a unique civic engagement opportunity to speak up and have their voices heard on the topic of democracy, the Constitution, and how it impacts them personally. Participants submitted short videos and other creative content to join in on the conversation and be considered for a special learning opportunity facilitated by the council.
“One of our core values is creating spaces where everybody belongs and can speak their truth. This is especially important for young people who so often feel alienated and unheard, especially in political conversations,” said Dawn Frisby Byers, Senior Director of Content and Engagement at PA Humanities. “We were so impressed by the depth and passion expressed by the participants.” Sharing fresh perspectives and thoughtfully considering ideas on a variety of critical topics including women’s rights, the 2nd Amendment, LGBTQIA+ representation, slavery, quartering soldiers and more, participants explored how their lives are continuously shaped by decisions of the past and what is needed now to work towards a more equitable future.
“Through our ‘A More Perfect Union’ project we learned that today’s youth have a very different view of the U.S. Constitution. They justifiably feel that it does not fully represent the needs of their country today and could do a better job of addressing issues that matter to them,” shared Byers. Embodying PA Humanities’ core belief that the humanities can act as “a tool for civic engagement and leadership,” the often under-heard voices of younger generations offered invaluable insight, including the importance of centering marginalized voices, countering dominant narratives, and creating the future together. “As one participant said, ‘we are following the rules of America then instead of looking at America now and what we need as a people.’ We were heartened to see them share so many different viewpoints for real change that could make our country more equitable and just,” said Byers
After reviewing submissions, PA Humanities selected a group of 11 participants to join them for a curated educational experience and explore these issues even further. “It was a joy to provide an opportunity for a one-of-a-kind learning experience that included a private tour of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and to travel to NYC to see the musical Hamilton on Broadway,” said Byers. “We even arranged for the cast to meet with our group after the show! A few of them had never been to a Broadway show before and one was even brought to tears by the performance.” Having concluded the 2022 initiative, PA Humanities has documented the project and insightful submissions from If You Were In the Room participants, which are now publicly available on their website.
On the West Coast, Humanities Washington is asking similar questions of its audiences: How have different communities been included or excluded from our democratic systems? How have cultural communities defined ‘liberty’ based on their unique social circumstances? How can we work to build a more just, inclusive, and sustainable democracy? Through radio programs, podcasts, and oral history interviews, Humanities Washington’s A More Perfect Union media project invites listeners to deeply reflect on the American ideals that have shaped the nation since its inception. By centering untold stories and underrepresented communities—the Black community in Western Washington, the Latin community in Wenatchee/North Central Washington, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and more (LGBTQIA+) community in the Tri-Cities region/Eastern Washington—the media project examines American democracy’s founding documents including the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence through a cross-cultural lens.
“Interviews were conducted with local activists, community leaders, and others, who responded to questions about their lived experiences seeking ‘unalienable rights,’ their definition of ‘liberty,’ and victories that are important to remember and celebrate,” said Thomas Grant Richard, Director of Humanities Washington’s Center for Washington Cultural Traditions. “We selected interviewers and partner organizations who share the cultural identity of those being interviewed, so an emergent discourse about the nature of the place, identity, and shared appreciation of democracy and its challenges emerged.”
NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” funding prompted other important partnerships between the council and local organizations, supporting its overall mission and programming goals. “One of our priorities has been to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-led and BIPOC-serving organizations,” said Richard. As part of the A More Perfect Union Media project, Humanities Washington partnered with Wa Na Wari, a center for Black ownership, art, and belonging in Seattle’s Central District. “Partnering with Wa Na Wari resulted in interviews that shared candid perspectives and a strengthened relationship with an organization doing important work in one of Seattle’s historically Black neighborhoods.”
The full-length oral history interviews will become available on Humanities Washington’s website, and later in the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions’ online journal, Rites of Green. Throughout 2022, the interviews were also incorporated into three podcast episodes focusing on democracy in the state of Washington: “Exploring the complexities of our democracy,” “Latinx voting rights,” and “Facing challenges and seeing progress in Native communities.” In collaboration with three radio stations, KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, Spokane Public Radio, and Northwest Public Broadcasting, the episodes aired on all three stations, which with combined coverage, reached the entire state.
Though the oral history interviews have concluded, the media project’s impact will continue to inform important conversations across the state and into the future. “This funding supported our overall goals by influencing our new strategic plan,” said Richard. “In the lead up to our WA250 Celebration, we aim to expand upon the objectives and outcomes of AMPU projects by serving as a resource to other state organizations, actively participating on the planning committee, building and strengthening partnerships with other statewide cultural and education organizations, and identifying new opportunities to strengthen youth participation.”
With support from the “A More Perfect Union” initiative, Americans across the states and territories are engaging with critical concepts of citizenship, civic life, and constitutional democracy. In collaboration with NEH, councils will continue to explore the nation’s past, foster meaningful dialogue, and highlight the value of community engagement to create a more perfect union for generations to come.
This is the second of three stories that highlight the histories, processes, and community impacts of five different “A More Perfect Union” projects across the United States and Territories.
Written by Jazzy DiMeglio