Skip to main content

In Focus

Humanities in the Nation’s Capital

By James Kaiser | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

A banner hanging outside the headquarters of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., reminds Joy Austin of what she tries to accomplish every day. It says, "Transforming lives through the power of the humanities," the mission statement for the council.

"I really believe that the humanities has that power," says Austin, executive director of the council since 2000. "Here in Washington, D.C., where there are so many humanities resources and so many people with great ideas . . . this humanities council should be in the business of supporting and encouraging those ideas."

In 2002, Austin started a weeklong summer program called Soul of the City, which uses the humanities to promote participation in the community. Supported by a grant from the NEH We the People initiative, the program enabled forty high school students to explore the history of the capital through writing, film screenings, and field trips this past summer. One group project was an interactive online map of D.C. that includes journal entries about places that have historical or personal significance, such as the Supreme Court and Chinatown.

"I think it's a really wonderful way of looking at leadership development," Austin says. "What we're saying is, if you understand the broad issues that make up the life of the city, if you understand its history, if you understand its architecture and its neighborhood and its place, if you understand some of the ethical dilemmas that leaders must face as they make different choices about a city, and if you can articulate that in some kind of a creative process, then you are prepared to take an active role in decisions and choices that affect your life as well as the city's."

The council's programming theme this year is "Freedom, Rights, and Responsibilities." To provoke thought and discussion about such ideas, Soul of the City participants received copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation, and visited the originals at the National Archives.

The theme surfaces in other programs. For its Humanities Profiled television show, the council produced a series of specials that take viewers into the National Archives. Guests have included the founder of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, Ira Berlin, who spoke about the Emancipation Proclamation, and former assistant attorney general Roger Wilkins, who spoke about the Declaration of Independence.

Austin is particularly proud of the council's television programs, which are broadcast on public access. She believes that the council, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, has found an effective way to reach the public through Humanities Profiled and another program called D.C. Humanities, which gives grant recipients the opportunity to share their work. In a city full of cultural organizations, Austin believes it is a challenge for a small organization to find its own voice. "The question every day is whether the program that we're providing is unique and reaching residents," Austin says.

Before coming to the council, Austin was a program manager at the Center for Arts and Culture in Washington, D.C. She worked as a consultant to the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she advised the foundation on the creation of a monument to the Underground Railroad and worked with its Expert in Residence Program. She has also worked with the African American Museums Association and is writing a book about black museum pioneers.

Austin emphasizes the council's role in its community. "I understand the power of this kind of an institution to improve the quality of life for people," Austin says. "I've worked in nonprofit, humanities-oriented projects all of my life. For me personally, the opportunity to support people's ideas is critical."

About the Author

James Kaiser, a senior at Yale University, was an intern at NEH.