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State humanities councils, age, race, and gender, 2013

September 22, 2013 | By Kathleen Mitchell, Senior Program Officer, Federal/State Partnership

State humanities councils, along with most nonprofits and other organizations, contend with issues of race, age, and gender. In the case of councils, these challenges can be seen prominently with regard to their audiences, staffs, boards, and executives. We will focus here on demographics and the impact they might have on how councils choose what audiences to serve by means of their programs.

Faced with the task of serving the population of a state or jurisdiction, councils are sometimes hard-pressed to define their audiences. An admirable but impossible goal, some councils aim to reach all the people of its state or jurisdiction. Others are concerned to reach the underserved while some operate according to the policy NEH established for councils when they were founded: to address the humanities needs of out-of-school adults. With so many definitions available, however, identifying the out-of-school adult can also be difficult.

The reality is that the majority of councils have been most successful reaching audiences of educated, economically stable older women. In contrast, the Idaho Humanities Council has recently attracted many men with its "Making Sense of the American Civil War" reading and discussion series. Reaching men, at least those of ages commensurate with councils’ women audiences, will be important for the future: the 2010 census revealed that the longevity of men aged 60-74 has increased significantly.

Young people—children, tweens, and teenagers—seem to prove easier to reach than young adults. The "Think and Drink" programs of councils in Oregon and Washington as well as the Humanities Council of Washington, DC’s "Humanitini" have, however, succeeded with young adults. In general, though, unless those in their 20s and 30s have low reading skills, they are quite likely to be the demographic least served by state humanities councils. This is especially true for parents.