Schwartz Prize Insights: A Q&A with two of last year’s winners

by Sydney Boyd, editor & content producer

Last year, our nation faced exceptional circumstances, and humanities councils responded in kind with an incredible array of programming. So for the first time, the Federation awarded the Schwartz Prize in two categories: one for outstanding public humanities programming and the other for innovative programming created specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

We asked winners from both categories to reflect on their experience. Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup is the executive director of Vermont Humanities, which won in the first category for their project, “Vermont Reads 2019: ‘March: Book One’ by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.” And Eric Lupfer is the executive director of Humanities Texas, whose “Teacher Professional Development Programs” won in the second category.

Why did you decide to nominate a program for the Schwartz Prize?

Kaufman Ilstrup (VT): When we started to get feedback from the community groups reading the national book award-winning trilogy, we knew we really had a hit on our hands. Communities were organizing so many different humanities projects to go with our statewide reading program—they were training students in nonviolence, organizing civil rights sing-a-longs, and creating anti-racism action groups that went far beyond the initial reading of the books. In some cases, groups that initially met to read March in 2019 are still meeting today, two years and a global pandemic later.

Lupfer (TX): Humanities Texas nominated our teacher professional development programs for the COVID-response award because we felt that our transition from in-person to online programming during the early months of the pandemic had been both effective and instructive. For more than 15 years, our professional development programs have enabled teachers to deepen students’ engagement in the humanities, improve their academic performance, expand their capacity both to succeed in college and the workforce and to fulfill their responsibility as citizens.

How did you choose which program to nominate?

Kaufman Ilstrup (VT): We just wanted to share a program that was really impactful for Vermonters and our organization, and “Vermont Reads: March” was clearly that program. When we learned that we could bring Rep. John Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Aydin to Vermont in 2019, we knew that it would be a big event but we didn’t expect almost 4,000 people to cram into three talks at Vermont’s largest performing arts venue. Working with the late Rep. Lewis and Andrew Aydin in Vermont was a deeply moving, almost spiritual experience, one that Vermonters talk to us about frequently even today. And, sadly, it turned out to be the last time Rep. Lewis and Andrew spoke about the March trilogy in public before the congressman’s passing in July 2020. Vermonters feel truly blessed that they had the opportunity to meet the Congressman before his final illness.

Lupfer (TX): In April 2020, we transitioned those previously in-person programs to an online format after surveying Texas teachers about their professional development needs in the quickly changing context of the emerging pandemic. Over the late spring and summer, we held 13 webinars and seven multi-day institutes, totaling more than 60 scholarly presentations and serving nearly 2,000 teachers in all corners of the state. Participating teachers represented all of Texas’s 36 US congressional districts, worked in 269 of the state’s 1,227 school districts, and taught more than 150,000 Texas students each year. Transitioning to an online format significantly increased the program’s accessibility to teachers statewide, taught Humanities Texas staff the value of remote programming, and facilitated the development of new institutional partnerships. Online options will remain a key part of our teacher professional development programming even after the pandemic subsides.

What do you think most councils don’t know about the Schwartz Prize process that you learned?

Kaufman Ilstrup (VT): Writing our application was a great exercise in reflecting on our mission, vision, and values. We really had the opportunity to sit back and think about how we achieved our goals and what kind of a difference it made for Vermonters. In this case, it really helped us to clarify how we use the humanities to empower young people. Congressman Lewis told us that he only wanted to come to Vermont if he could spend the majority of his time with young people, so we had to figure out how to make sure that we could deliver.  

After you won, were there any positive outcomes you weren’t expecting?

Lupfer (TX): We were proud to be recognized with the Schwartz Prize, as it is one of the highest honors the Federation bestows. We alerted our board members, program faculty, stakeholders, and donors of the award. It quickly became clear that the award meant a great deal to them as well. We learned that, when talking about our work, it is immensely helpful to be able to point to national recognition of the programs we administer at the state level. We now cite the Schwartz Prize in our external communication as a way of highlighting the value and importance of our work in Texas.

What advice would you give to those applying this year?

Kaufman Ilstrup (VT): Use this opportunity to really reflect on how you make a difference in your communities.  It’s not just about numbers, activities, and outcomes (though that’s important too!). How are you really changing hearts and minds and building social capital for people in your state? How is your work positively affecting communities over the long haul? 




The Federation of State Humanities Councils is now accepting nominations for the 2021 Schwartz Prize.