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In Focus

Arizona’s Julia Yoder

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

Before moving to Arizona in 1985, Julie Yoder tried her hand at many occupations. She was a high school teacher and administrator in California, she worked for a time in publishing, and she worked in Europe for seven years as a teacher of English as a second language. She and her husband even bought a five-acre farm in northern California and raised sheep on it for ten years.

"We wanted a different kind of life," says Yoder, now executive director of the Arizona State Humanities Council. "We didn't know much about sheep, only that it was a good match for the size of the farm we had. We loved it, and it was a great experience for our son as he grew up, but we discovered the work never ends. We knew it was time to give it up when we started supporting the farm instead of it supporting us."

Before buying the farm, Yoder says, "I took jobs that came along. The time teaching in Europe got me interested in English and journalism." Later, she worked as an editor in Phoenix. That led her toward her current profession. "I feel I was made for the humanities," she says. Yoder, who has a master's degree in humanities from Arizona State University, began at the Arizona council in 1987 as an administrative assistant and was named its director in July 2005. Her goal is to "continue programs the people of Arizona want," she says.

Literacy projects are one of the council's and Yoder's top priorities. To help parents who struggle with reading, the council sponsors Motheread Arizona, a family literacy program that helps parents improve their reading and parenting skills. The program is under the auspices of the national Motheread organization, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, which promotes reading to children at home. The council coordinates forty programs around the state and provides training for leaders. "We've had parents go from almost illiterate to fairly good readers."

The council also sponsors the annual Arizona Book Festival, now in its ninth year and held on the grounds of Phoenix's oldest library. The festival features national and local authors, panel discussions, storytelling, and activities for children.

Yoder is sensitive to the needs of minority constituencies in the state, including its twenty-one recognized Indian tribes. Her master's thesis was on Native American federal policy issues. "I've learned how important the Native American voice is." The council has supported Navajo storytelling programs as well as projects to help preserve the Navajo language.

Another important constituency for the council is the large number of Mexican immigrants in the state. "It's a constant challenge, and we are deliberately reaching out to these communities," she says. The council supports local Hispanic programs, such as the annual "Day of the Dead" held at the Heart Museum in Phoenix. The celebration includes songs, plays, and storytelling. "It's a way to celebrate life," says Yoder.

Heritage tourism grants go to sites in Arizona interested in developing exhibitions that showcase the state's history. "Through our We the People funds," says Yoder, "we are giving larger grants for cultural heritage tourism. These are for exhibits at sites where tourists can go for authentic and accurate Arizona history." The council funded a small museum in northern Arizona to revamp its exhibition on the ancient cliff dwellers, known as the Anasazi. Another grant went to create a trail for a self-guided tour of the Colossal Cave and Cienega Corridor in the southern region of the state, both prehistoric archaeological sites.

Yoder is looking forward to two special programs coming up in 2007. The first, "Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care," is a hospital-based humanities reading and discussion program for health care professionals, using literature as a means of discussing issues of illness, death, and human relationships. It is a national program developed by the Maine Humanities Council.

The second is "Between Fences," an exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution and designed for small, rural museums. It will travel to six sites in Arizona. "The exhibit looks at the history of fences and land use in America," explains Yoder. The Arizona tour of "Between Fences" will focus on legal and cultural fences at the border with Mexico.

"We are going to use the exhibit as a focus on immigration issues," says Yoder. "Immigration is an important and controversial issue in Arizona. The humanities can provide a forum for discussion of the historical context, our shared values, and our similarities rather than differences."

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.