Throughout National Arts and Humanities Month, the Federation has been exploring the amplitude of “the humanities,” paying close attention to the ways humanities councils both help to shape and are shaped by the relationships community members have to their world(s) around them. While everyone experiences life and world events differently, each person’s unique journey contributes to a collective web of expression and exchange.
Exchange—not as in transaction, but as in transformation—is a process that is reciprocal, fluid, and shared. By sharing and listening to the unique stories, dreams, and needs of others, we lay the groundwork for understanding while expanding our collective expressivity. During this month-long celebration, we aim to deepen our understanding of the multiplicity of experience and expression alike.
To help illustrate the importance of “the humanities” through the wide array of perspectives and experiences that make up this field, we spoke with eight individuals from different regions and walks of life about their unique relationships to “the humanities:”
Lashonda Curry is Communications Director at Florida Humanities. Sunny Miller is a fitness instructor and co-founder of HUSTLE, a boutique fitness studio. Willy Palomo is a Program Manager at Utah Humanities, Utah Center for the Book. Leo Pangelinan is Executive Director of Northern Marianas Humanities Council. Lyz Soto is a Communications Officer at Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities. endawnis Spears (Diné/ Ojibwe/ Chickasaw/ Choctaw) is a Federation board member, Director of Outreach and Programming and founding member of the Akomawt Educational Initiative. Brenda Thomson is Executive Director at Arizona Humanities. Iris Swedlund is a member and volunteer spokesperson at Humanities North Dakota.
Federation: What was your first encounter with the humanities (i.e. art, philosophy, history, heritage, theology, cultural food ways, storytelling)?
Sunny Miller: My first encounter with the humanities was in college. I took a Philosophy class my freshman year that shaped the course of my college career. I was intrigued by the way my professor spoke, moved, and thought about ethics and the humanities. I became a philosophy major, and graduated with a BA in philosophy and political science. I was so interested in how we as humans interact, communicate, and express ourselves.
Willy Palomo: Hands down, my most powerful early encounters with the humanities were through hip-hop culture. Nas taught me to love lyrical storytelling, Papoose made me a fan of complex literary devices and wordplay, and Immortal Technique guided me towards histories erased from school textbooks. Hip-hop taught me that learning can be fun and beautiful. At its best, connecting with the humanities is connecting us to what makes us feel most alive.
Leo Pangelinan: My mother was raised in San Francisco’s bay area and is of mixed Caucasian and Lebanese ancestry. My father is of Chamorro ancestry and was raised on the island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. They met during my father’s brief enrollment as a college student in Portland, Oregon. They ultimately married and settled on Saipan and had three children of their own. When I was six years old, my siblings and I lost our mother to a fatal car accident. The event was traumatic and devastating, however, I believe the protective factors of our Chamorro cultural heritage helped to soften the blow, both immediately and over the course of our lives. At the time, I remember the attention and gathering of family who came to visit with us from throughout the island and to participate in lisåyu or rosary prayer. This is an ancient Chamorro custom in which extended families come together and pray for the repose of the spirit. The prayers are chanted in the Chamorro language by a prayer group led by an elder who assumes the role of a techa or prayer leader. Daily prayers occur for 18 days after the death of a family member – the first nine days of prayer is for the community-at-large and usually concludes with a funeral, the last nine days is for family. In addition to my exposure to this ritual, I learned later that the coming together of our extended family was an expression of chenchuli’ – a reciprocal support system in which families on our islands express their care and concern for each other. During the lisåyu for my mother, I remember experiencing our community coming together to share in our grief. I later learned that different branches within our clan delegated various responsibilities amongst themselves for preparing food to sustain the daily prayer gatherings and cover funeral expenses.
Lyz Soto: I’m certain my first encounters with the humanities happened at home. Half of my family immigrated to Hawaiʻi from Ilocos Norte and Guangdong. The other half of my family immigrated to the US continent from Germany, England, and France. Thanksgiving meals in Hawaiʻi would usually have the ubiquitous turkey, but it would also have dinuguan, dim sum, rice, poi, poke, and chow fun—so, food representatives of our family genealogies and the place we now call home.
endawnis Spears: I think one of my first encounters with the humanities was listening to my grandmother tell me about her early childhood growing up on the White Earth Reservation. She was the first in my life to use personal narrative as history. She told me about her own grandparents and her parents and her siblings and cousins—I learned about other people’s experiences that were very different from my own—but they were made meaningful and relatable to me because of the love and intention in her delivery. I was a Diné girl living in Arizona, my world was family and friends that were primarily from tribes in Arizona. My grandmother was Ojibwe from Minnesota, a place, culture, and history I knew nothing about. But she brought me into understanding another world by telling me stories about her tribe and family’s history. That’s when I learned the power of narrative.
Federation: How would you describe your current relationship to the humanities?
Lashonda Curry: The humanities help me live a richer, fuller life. Music, food, exploring art, appreciating diversity and different cultures, getting lost in a documentary or a great piece of storytelling — these are all things that feed my soul, heart, and mind. I believe the humanities have heightened my life experience, and I’m a more grateful and grounded person because of it.
Sunny Miller: I realize the importance of what I do on a much larger scale than just guiding people through a workout. As a fitness instructor and business owner, I know that my role as a leader has more to do with connection, support, and inspiration than just the workout itself. I believe physical and mental health are interconnected, and are very important to many peoples lives. We use what we learn in our workouts and are able to apply it to our everyday lives.
Leo Pangelinan: I think the best way to describe my current relationship to the humanities is that of an experiential student. My formal education was centered on acquiring practical vocational skills which left me with very little time to examine and reflect on my developing interests in disciplines such as history, philosophy, language, and anthropology. In spite of this orientation, I’ve always felt a deep desire to explore my identity and cultural heritage as a Chamorro, Micronesian, and Pacific Islander. I learned early on that the Chamorro people persevered through a 500-year legacy of colonial rule by the Spaniards, Germans, Japanese, and Americans. I lived with my paternal grandparents who hid in caves to survive the WWII Battle of Saipan and who lived a life learning to speak and adapt to foreign languages and customs. Growing up, I was surrounded by a community that emphasized familial and historical connections to each other and our environment. Even so, my world view was colored by my identity as an American, rooted in my mixed ancestry and our islands becoming a U.S. Commonwealth in the late 1970’s. This backdrop set the stage for my reflections on the impact of mainstream American culture in my community and my desire to preserve and ultimately revitalize elements of the Chamorro culture.
Lyz Soto: I would describe my current relationship with the humanities as an extended complicated conversation with a loved one I know really well, but I keep finding out unexpected things about them. The humanities has this tremendous capacity for abundance, so there’s always more to learn and it’s particularly compelling when I’m surprised by it, or when it offers an ah-ha moment and understanding is deepened or expanded.
endawnis Spears: Currently, I find the humanities to be a place of empowerment. I worked for many years in museum education and I loved it, but it could feel very confined at times. I felt like there were so many connections with the work we were doing in museums with anti-colonial work in classrooms, arts spaces, public policy, social justice, colleges/universities and politics. I was eager to better understand how the dynamics of ideas and knowledge moved between each space, how knowledge in one place informs and shapes knowledge acquired in others. The humanities are multidisciplinary, they encompass multiple ways of organizing knowledge and experiences—and that is a very freeing place to work and make community. Which is why my colleagues and I founded Akomawt Educational Initiative—to work in a variety of humanities spaces. And I say this all of the time, so forgive me, but Native people are the original interdisciplinarians- the idea that science is also spiritual, history is also narrative and story, governance and politics are also exercises in gender equity. The humanities are empowering because it is a place where these can all intersect in a beautiful and meaningful way.
Federation: How has your relationship to the humanities changed over the years? How has it changed you?
Leo Pangelinan: Somewhere along my explorative journey I began composing music in the Chamorro language. Performing Chamorro music with others gives me an outlet to express my cultural heritage and learn more about our evolving identity as a community. Recently, I have taken a more active role in exploring my interests in traditional wayfinding which has allowed me to participate in canoe voyages to other remote islands throughout Micronesia. The Chamorro people lost much of their traditional navigation and sailing knowledge under Spanish rule. In the last twenty years or so, however, master navigators from the remote atolls of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia have reinvigorated the Chamorro spirit in reclaiming this practice. With the support of our local government, Northern Marianas Humanities Council, and other local nonprofit organizations, the knowledge and skills associated with our seafaring traditions is seeping back into our community. Acquiring this knowledge has had a profound impact in many areas of my life and is improving my understanding and appreciation for the patterns in nature that make it possible to sail across thousands of miles of open ocean.
Brenda Thomson: I believe that the humanities have changed me and continue to change how I view the world and the people in it. No matter what the challenges are that we face, no matter how different our life’s experiences, political views, resources, or geography are, people’s stories are worth listening to and learning from. There is bravery, wisdom, pain, suffering, creativity beyond measure, laughter, and joy. We are all of these things and more. We are human.
Lyz Soto: Much of my professional life has been in a field of humanities, which tends to create a more formal relationship, and sometimes a more rigid one. But a lot of my humanities work has been in poetry and youth advocacy and that changed my life. Part of that work included thoughtful conversations about and research into some challenging topics, like the ongoing impacts of colonialism in Hawaiʻi and racial and cultural discrimination, next to more intimate issues, like domestic violence, bullying, and identity. Many of these conversations were youth generated, and these discussions and the writing that was born from them altered my relationship with my home as the Islands of Hawaiʻi.
Iris Swedlund: I became involved as Librarian for the School and Public Library in Velva North Dakota. Next, I was asked to be on the Humanities North Dakota Board and I served two terms and just kept seeing more value in this organization, but libraries and others did not seem to use the services. When I retired after 44 years as a librarian, they asked me to volunteer—my favorite. Humanities North Dakota creates events and classes, and my cartoons, I think, have helped message the importance of being a “lifelong learner .” (If you go to Humanities North Dakota’s website you will see me with the red glasses, which I always wear.)
Federation: What is a common misconception or misunderstanding about the humanities that you’ve run into?
Lashonda Curry: Many people don’t know what the humanities are or they believe its sole focus is history. When you start to share the spirit of what the humanities are, and lay out the different disciplines, it’s quite an eye-opening moment for many people. They begin to see the humanities are embedded in their daily lives, which helps them understand and appreciate the importance of the humanities for themselves and in their communities.
Sunny Miller: I think the term humanities is confusing for many because it can be interpreted in many ways. It is such a broad term that is sometimes thought of in a solely academic way. For me, I see humanities as really the way in which we as humans interact and express ourselves. Having a career in fitness has given me a platform to connect with people on not just a physical level, but a much deeper mental level.
Brenda Thomson: The most common misunderstanding about the humanities is not a misunderstanding at all. People just don’t know what the humanities are. They understand that the humanities involve “people,” but they don’t know how or what or why. It is much easier to show people the public humanities in action than it is to describe the humanities. When they see [Arizona Humanities’] annual awards video featuring the public humanities winners describing what they do and the impact of their work in the community—the writers, the artists, the scholars, the poets telling their stories, telling our stories—then they get it.
Lyz Soto: The most common misconception is that the humanities is the same as humanitarian. I think the other misunderstanding we grapple with is a belief that the humanities can only embrace cultures that are European in origin. In Hawaiʻi, that leaves out the indigenous Kanaka Maoli culture and more than half the state’s population, which is largely Asian and Pacific Islander, so a lot of our responding to that misconception is sharing with our communities that the humanities is a far more generous space than they might have been taught in decades past.
Iris Swedlund: My friends and readers at the library would say “highbrow.” My reaction was that your education does not matter. Humanities is not highbrow. Humanities is reading, conversations in unique genres and together, we can all become LIFELONG LEARNERS.
Federation: Why are the humanities important to you personally and to society-at-large?
Willy Palomo: As society becomes more global and as our experiences become more diverse, the humanities are the only tools we have to understand one another. Humanities are a crucial tool for communicating across difference and building solidarity. Without them, we engage with one another as something less than human beings.
Brenda Thomson: The humanities are a part of who I am to the core. I didn’t realize when I joined the staff of Arizona Humanities back in March of 2010, how much the work that we do, the people that we meet, the things that we learn, would change me in ways that I had never imagined. Our mission—to promote a just and civil society by providing opportunities for people to learn about the human experience—is a big deal. It’s not just about learning for learning’s sake. It’s about making a better world. Democracy, justice, and civic engagement don’t work very well if people are not committed to working together. I can’t predict the future. My hope is that there is one, and that the future we make together is better.
Lyz Soto: The humanities is this really capacious container, because it’s filled with all the stories about us, our world, and our understanding(s). It has an ability to create connective tissue between all kinds of disciplines, perspectives, and cultures, and that can help us imagine beyond the moments we’re currently living in. We need those kinds of bountiful connections to make decisions that aren’t siloed by narrow discipline definitions or constructed in a vacuum.
endawnis Spears: The humanities are vital to the health of our society at large and the society that we want to be. We are living in an era of incredible technological change—these changes will continue to prove detrimental to our planet if we do not imbue the development of technologies with the values we are taught by history, philosophy, and heritage. As Native people, our accountability to our future generations and to our non-human relatives is a guiding principle. We have these values built into our cultures. The humanities can help the non-Native society that lives in what we call the “United States” today share and communicate the values that are important to the future we are building together. The humanities are one of the most important tools we have as a society to share in a peaceful and joyful way how to be good relatives to each other, even in times when we seem so vastly different from one another.
Iris Swedlund: Being a member and volunteer keeps me connected to exciting conversations, new ideas, and very interesting people. I so enjoy the variety of people, authors, classes, and events. Learning has never been easier and FUN!
Federation: How can the humanities help shape the future?
Lashonda Curry: The humanities remind us of all the ways we are connected. When you listen and share and find those connections in our human experiences, we become stronger as a society. We become whole. Through the disciplines of humanities, we can explore who we are, where we come from and how we live, as well as reflect on our past to shape our future.
Willy Palomo: The humanities shape our future by shaping how we view the world and one another. Our understanding of history will determine how we respond during social conflict. Our understanding of literature will shape what books inform our decisions. Our understanding of philosophy will shape our ethics and values. If we choose not to engage in the humanities, we will respond to one another from a place of ignorance. The quality of our engagement with the humanities will determine the quality of our decision making.
Lyz Soto: Because we work with a lot of history students, I hear this saying a lot, “We need to learn history, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” and that idea isn’t wrong; it’s just incomplete. In Hawaiʻi, we know that our ancestors got a lot of things right, particularly when it comes to successful, sustainable food practices, which were once intricately woven into every community and every person’s life. The humanities gives us avenues both to take a wider view that considers and incorporates multiple perspectives and to spend time with the minutia that enhances our ability to understand the nuanced and the complex. We need that kind of breadth and depth of understanding to approach future shaping as a conscious and deliberate action.
Exploring ourselves, each other, and the world(s) we share through the humanities helps us participate in the reciprocal relationship of meaning-making. Through conversation and exploration of our values and perspectives, we are able to identify intersections, multiplicity, and divergence both within and among us.
When we share our own stories and commit ourselves to listening to the stories of others, we are open to multiple ways of knowing, learning, and being. No matter the avenue, when engaging the humanities, we encounter complexity and build capacity for connection, empathy, and ideation. This National Arts and Humanities Month, we celebrate the reality that life on Earth is endlessly connected and continuously changing through each and every one of us.
Written by Jazzy DiMeglio