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In Focus

North Carolina’s Doug Quin

By Nikki Moustaki | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

"As far back as I can remember, I was exposed to different cultures, languages, art, and ways of thinking and of being in the world," says Doug Quin, executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council.

The son of a foreign service officer, Quin was born in North Carolina but spent part of his childhood in Algeria, from 1959 to 1962, during its war for independence.

"I have very vivid memories of the war in Algeria," he says. "We were taken hostage as a family and lined up to be shot. I remember clinging desperately to my father's leg while he made a plea for our lives. The sheer terror of those kinds of moments in the backdrop of the war is mixed in my memory with other memories, like being escorted to school by a tank unit at the top of our street and the French soldiers letting me play on the tank and giving me candy."

Attending school in Sweden, Canada, Iceland, and Scotland, before returning to the states for college, Quin recalls always being the new kid in school, not understanding the other kids' jokes or customs. "You really learn when you face what you don't know, when you can't make pat assumptions, when you don't have a comfort zone," Quin says. "The humanities don't necessarily provide us with a comfort zone either, but rather they urge and challenge us."

To tackle the challenge of North Carolina's changing demographic, from its recent influx of immigrants to the changing face of its economy, Quin is committed to grassroots programming.

"We hear from small historical societies and community groups who come up with creative ways of working with local history, culture, and other issues pressing to North Carolinians."

One such group is The Concerned Citizens of Tillery in Halifax County. Through educational programs, networking, and research, the group is addressing the needs of small, economically disadvantaged land owners, predominately African American, in rural North Carolina.

Another project will use a photographic exhibition to chronicle the lives of a group of Southeast Asian boat people, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodian, who landed in Raleigh twenty years ago as refugees. "That's an American story," says Quin.

Before coming to the North Carolina Humanities Council, Quin participated in the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artist and Writer's Program where he spent time in Antarctica creating soundtracks and CDs of the tundra's soundscape. Some of the sounds he recorded include Weddell seals, penguins, icebergs calving, wind, and "atmospheric whistlers from space." "Music and the origins of music have always been a passion of mine, says Quin. "How we relate to our 'sounding world' is about music and natural sound and how they weave together in our lives. The view was twofold--making music and engaging people phonically with the world."

Quin's recordings have been featured on NPR and various European radio stations, and are used by scientists researching the animals of the Antarctic.

From growing up in five very different places and experiencing political unrest firsthand, Quin understands the importance of national discourse.

"We can't take our way of life in a democracy for granted. We have to fight for it, and the fight isn't just with arms, but with intellect, and by investing in pushing each other as citizens to negotiate vast differences in attitudes and ideas. It's a fragile prospect. Seeing a war zone and everything out of control through the eyes of a child, and seeing the fear and uncertainty in the adults around you sticks with you because what you think is certain really is not. It's a good example of how tenuous our hold on any sense of social order really is, and that it can come unraveled very quickly. The humanities inform a very necessary part of civic participation and discourse. That ideal is very important to why we do this work. It's incumbent upon us as a group of organizations to continue to remain relevant."

About the Author

Nikki Moustaki is a writer in New York City.