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Federal/State Partnership hosts ten new state humanities council executives

May 13, 2013 | By Kathleen Mitchell

The often annual new executive directors orientation, hosted by Federal/State Partnership and the Federation of State Humanities Councils, gives those of us in Federal/State Partnership the opportunity to get acquainted with the new executives, to introduce them to the staff and work of NEH, to talk about the ways we partner with the councils, and to provide a setting for brainstorming and good conversation. One of our goals is to create a cadre of directors who will know each other well both as friends and as colleagues.

During the meeting at NEH on May 2, some of our NEH colleagues came up with easy to remember agricultural and arborial metaphors to help call to mind the kinds of humanities work they support. Joel Wurl of the Division of Preservation and Access started this off by suggesting that P&A nurtures the roots of the humanities, Brandon Johnson of the Office of Challenge Grants said that the seed money of a challenge grant helps bring forth humanities fruit. Julia Nguyen had to keep it going by saying that the Division of Education Programs fertilizes. Russ Wyland topped it off by quoting a panelist who said that what the Division of Research Programs really does is cut down trees to make books.

A highlight of the day was meeting with Outgoing NEH Chair Jim Leach and new Acting Chair Carole Watson. Some of the new directors had met Jim during his Civility Tour when he visited every state in the union, often in the company of its humanities council. Jim spoke of his love of the humanities and the great value of the humanities for the country. His latest speech, in a sense his valedictory to NEH, "STEM and the Humanities: a False Dichotomy," makes this clear. Carole talked about the thrill she had when she began her NEH work 35 years ago as a program officer in the former Division of State Programs, the precedessor of Federal/State Partnership. Before joining the Chairman's staff in the mid 1990s, Carole had been the director of State Programs for several years.

Other NEH staffers the new directors met were Courtney Chapin, director of the Office of Congressional Affairs and White House liaison, who talked about the roles councils play in helping introduce the work of NEH to governmental audiences. Judy Havemann, director of the Office of Communications, gave each director a folder of information that her office uses in preparing informational material about NEH's work in their state. Jen Serventi introduced the Office of Digital Humanities and the cutting edge national and international work it does, and Karen Mittelman, director of the Division of Public Programs, talked about the many state humanities council projects that division has funded. David Skinner, the editor of Humanities, let the directors know how important the work of state humanities councils is for the content of the magazine.

They also met people key to their work because of the General Operating Support grants the councils receive: Robert Straughter, the new director of the Office of Grant ManagementLaura Davis, the new director of the Office of Inspector General; and her colleague Stephen Elsberg, the auditor who works with state humanities councils.

Of the ten new directors, Erik Nordberg had been on the job as executive of the Michigan Humanities Council just one day when he came to Washington for the orientation. Two others have not yet begun their council work. Paula Watkins, assistant director of Humanities SC, is head over heels involved with the book festival which takes place in Columbia May 17-19. She'll make the move north to North Carolina in June. Adam Davis, currently executive director of the Center for Civic Reflection, will move west from Chicago to start his job at Oregon Humanities in July.

The seven directors already on the job are Armand de Keyser, Alabama Humanities Foundation; Nina Kemppel, Alaska Humanities Forum; Hayden Anderson, Maine Humanities Council; Patricia Williamsen, Ohio Humanities Council; Laurie Zierer, Pennsylvania Humanities Council; Elizabeth Francis, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities; and Tim Henderson, Humanities Tennessee.

The new council executives bring energy and passion to their work. Laurie Zierer of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council notes "the power of the humanities to open minds and inspire cultural dialogue. ... Whether it is fracking, urban sprawl, immigration, violence, or our troubled public school systems, the humanities can start and facilitate the conversations." Hayden Anderson of the Maine Humanities Council concurs. The "humanities have real-world benefits. Robust public engagement with the humanities strengthens our communities and makes us better able to face the problems and challenges we must address together." Adam Davis is looking forward to starting his work with Oregon Humanities this summer because "OH is pushing toward an admirably direct and plain argument for why the humanities matters." Armand DeKeyser of the Alabama Humanities Foundation is straightforward about the personal satisfaction that accompanies doing good work: "I believe that AHF is one of those organizations that can make Alabama  a better place to live. Promoting the humanities is promoting quality of life. What a great job…one allows me to help my fellow citizens enjoy their surroundings even more."

The next day, May 3, the ten joined the staff of the Federation of State Humanities Councils for an orientation about its work. The Federation is the membership organization of the state humanities councils.