By Richard Carter
As director of Nebraska's Humanities Council, Jane Hood is confronting two tough issues. The first is ensuring the financial future of the state humanities council. The second addresses the role that the state council can play to alleviate the isolation of Nebraska's rural towns and strengthen their infrastructure and economies when many of these communities are dying.
Her strategy is to build a cultural trust for the council and bridges to Nebraska's small towns and rural communities.
"The idea of a cultural trust is simple," says Hood. "We convinced the state to establish a $5 million dollar endowment to help support both the arts and the humanities. The state put in $5 million in 1998 and each year the Nebraska Humanities Council has to raise private funds equal to 30 percent of the earnings on that state endowment. Then we can pull down those earnings to use in our programming. If the fund keeps going up, it means our challenge is greater."
In the long run, a state humanities council may become financially self-sufficient and therefore independent of politics. As Hood points out, what the state legislature gives, it can also take away. "This is a totally new approach,"adds Hood, "and right now Nebraska is the only state to support a humanities council through a trust. What we want to do is raise a private endowment that is the equivalent of what the state gives. With this we have an extraordinary opportunity to attract gifts to a permanent endowment because people know that their money will be used to match the states' funds."
Building bridges to Nebraska communities is another challenge Hood is taking on. In partnership with state agencies, the Nebraska council is giving planning grants to rural and urban communities to use local history and culture to give people a sense of the past and future. "We believe that communities know better than we do what they need. It's an approach from the bottom up, "says Hood.
The rural parts of the state are facing a kind of economic disintegration that Hood has seen before when she worked for the Illinois Humanities Council and witnessed the closing of Chicago's steel industry on the city's South Side. Rural Nebraska is losing people and individual farms. More Nebraskans are moving to the state's cities and suburbs, the rural economy is in crisis, and with income disparity growing, sometimes the result is tension and mistrust.
In rural Nebraska, the local school is often a battleground. Even today, there are 112 one-room schools in the state, most of them located in Nebraska's sparsely settled panhandle. "The schools are the most volatile of the issues between rural and urban areas in Nebraska," Hood explains. "The school is the symbol of the community in many rural areas, and the view is that once the school is gone, the community is gone."
Under Hood, the Nebraska council has started programs that link rural and urban areas of the state, such as the Nebraska Literature Festival, which takes place in a different location each year. The council has its own radio program on Nebraska Public Radio called "Connections,"and the council has worked closely with Nebraska Public Television to produce programs, such as one that recently dealt with the high quality of rural education
Another rural versus urban issue the council has addressed is water use. It funded a program on public television called "Platte River Road" that looked at water use from all perspectives: agricultural, recreational, urban, and environmental. As Hood says, the council can fund programs that link the state and it can help Nebraskans look at public policy issues that polarize the state.
Hood is particularly proud of the Nebraska council's Capital Forum Project, which offers high school students around the state the chance to be involved in the decision-making process of government. Now in its second year, the program has grown dramatically. "Anyone who is concerned about cynicism and apathy among our youngest voters should see how involved young people become with local, national, and international issues. It's a tonic,"she says, adding, "and public officials were really impressed too. The experience dispelled a lot of ideas about eighteen-to twenty-year olds."
After thirteen years as director of the Nebraska council, Hood still believes Nebraska offers the opportunity to address its challenges. "I still have that optimism,"she says. "And while everything doesn't come down to money, money does certainly help. We have programs that get very diverse people together to make things work. After all," she says, "isn't that what democracy is all about?"