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In Focus

Wisconsin’s Dena Wortzel

By Jenny Price | HUMANITIES, March/April 2010 | Volume 31, Number 2

When Dena Wortzel came to Wisconsin in the early 1990s, she knew very little about rural life. For starters, she had never been inside a dairy barn.

“Our life stories always affect the way we see the world,” says Wortzel, executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. “I was a totally urban person until I moved to Wisconsin.”

But one thing happened to drastically change that for the Washington, D.C. native. The “totally urban” Wortzel harbored a childhood dream to own a horse. She went to see a man about one, ended up buying the horse, marrying the man, and moving to his farm, about forty miles outside Madison. There she’s remained for more than fifteen years, training horses and converting the farm’s cropland to tallgrass prairie.

“There’s a huge distance, both in Wisconsin and nationally, between urban and rural people in many ways,” Wortzel says. “The longer that I’ve been living where I live, the more important it is to me to try to find ways to help people be intelligible to one another.”

Wortzel started with the council as a program officer in 1994, working with grant applicants from communities large and small around the state to nurture their projects and proposals. She has been with the council since then, where her work has included coordinating Motheread/Fatheread, a family literacy program that helps parents who are poor readers become confident about reading aloud to their children.

Since becoming executive director in 2008, Wortzel has focused on Wisconsin: Making It Home, an initiative aimed at getting state residents to think more about where they live and how to preserve what they love about it. Wisconsin has a rich tradition of big thinkers on this topic—John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson top the list—and Wortzel hopes Wisconsin residents will be inspired to add to that legacy.

“Whether it’s in the context of a zoning committee or whether it’s the kind of school system you want to have for your kids, home and place and community are all things that we’re thinking about all of the time,” Wortzel says. “There are conflicts, often, where we feel that the addition of the yeast of the humanities might encourage people to think and speak differently with one another and, in that sense, strengthen community.”

The council’s biggest event is the annual Wisconsin Book Festival, where nationally known authors, including Dave Eggers and Jane Hamilton, have mixed with regional and local talent. Last year’s keynote speaker, farmer and writer Wendell Berry, explored the idea of home and place with his reading of “Making It Home,” a short story from his collection Fidelity: Five Stories.

This year, the council is doing a more traditional program—a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Key Ingredients: America by Food”—and something a bit more experimental—a series of film festivals featuring movies from around the world that are focused on the connections between people and place. The food exhibit begins its tour of a half dozen small towns across the state in October and will spend six weeks in each location.

The film festivals kick off in March during Aldo Leopold Days in Baraboo and closes in April during Earth Day weekend in Ashland. “We felt that film is a format that might reach a different audience than books,” Wortzel says. “And, of course, the wonderful thing about film is you can come and see it together and have this experience together.”

Each of the host communities individually selects the films to be included in their festival, from a slate shown at last fall’s Tales from Planet Earth Environmental Film Festival in Madison.

“That was really important to us, because we didn’t want to be sitting here in Madison assuming that we knew which of those movies would connect with local audiences and local issues,” Wortzel says.

To reach groups who do not participate in council programming, Wortzel and her colleagues have begun working with population scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to map places to do outreach.

“If we say we want to work with everyone in Wisconsin, we need to check,” Wortzel says. “Where are the gaps in terms of our actual reach?”

Jenny Price is a writer for On Wisconsin, the alumni magazine for the University of Wisconsin–Madison.