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In Focus

Iowa’s Christopher Rossi

By Nikki Moustaki | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

Christopher Rossi, executive director of Humanities Iowa, sees a period of transition ahead as the face of the state is changing: "There are communities in Iowa where 40 percent of the children in public schools don't speak English as a first language. That kind of change creates conflict, and we see the humanities as an opportunity to address those issues."

The council tries to accomplish this through collaboration with other organizations and the use of media such as radio and film. "The humanities council is the only organization in the state that promotes Iowa's identity and history through documentary film," says Rossi. One recent documentary, Discovering Dominga, tells the story of a young Iowa woman who survived a massacre in Guatemala when she was a child and was adopted by an Iowa family. The film traces her search for her identity as she travels back to the village where her parents were killed. Dominga was broadcast nationally on PBS and is one of many council-funded films, including Troublesome Creek, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Another film funded by the council grew into a series of statewide programs looking at the lingering significance of Confederate imagery in American life. In 2001, the council worked with The History Channel and Graystone Communications to produce The Unfinished Civil War, a documentary about two Civil War re-enactors, one a Southern Confederate, the other an African American representing the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. While the film toured, the council brought in scholars and speakers who were already talking about the Civil War in other council programs. "We worked with African American organizations to celebrate Black History Month, along with educational institutions ranging from the University of Iowa College of Law to a fifth-grade class at Cedar Rapids Elementary School," says Rossi. As part of National History Day, the filmmakers were brought in to help students make their own video documentary projects. The film and its programs won the 2002 Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Councils for excellent in public programming.

Rossi is pleased about the council's collaborations. "I reckon that everybody is going to be better off if we share power and opportunity rather than elbowing each other out of the way."

Small radio stations across the state help the council reach their audience. "One of the things we've done to reshape our identity is to make the world know more about us," says Rossi. "We started using radio as a means for disseminating our message." "Voices from Humanities Iowa" features scholars and writers who focus on or are inspired by Iowa. One of the stations that airs it is a tiny public station in Sioux City on the western border. "That little radio station reaches more people in two weeks than we might reach in our public programs in a year," Rossi says.

"Voices from the Prairie" features weekly three-minute spots about poetry. "Our belief was that Iowa had its thumb-prints all over many of the national poet laureates," says Rossi. Four of the last eight laureates were educated in Iowa: Mark Strand, Mona Van Duyn, Rita Dove, and Robert Hass. "We had a belief that Iowa was more than a corn and hog exporter, and, in fact, we were exporting some of the finest writers in the country," says Rossi.

Rossi was born in Philadelphia and moved to Iowa City when he was a year old--he jokes that he has been apologizing for being "an outsider" to native Iowans ever since. He holds a Master's of International Law from The University of London King's College, a PhD from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a JD from the University of Iowa College of Law. "I have this alter ego that sometimes engaged in issues relating to national security and international politics, but the segue from a former life in government to a life pushing for public education in the humanities was based upon a simple understanding that the values we seek to protect aren't simply values that relate to survival. They relate to the values we really do believe in--democracy, tolerance, freedom, and liberty," says Rossi. Rossi doesn't have any pretensions about the role of Humanities Iowa. "We are basically a small organization that does on occasion some extraordinarily good things."

Nikki Moustaki is a writer in New York City.