By Jim Schlosser
Through her office window, Shelley Crisp can see the humanities in action. We are looking at Greensboro’s Center City Park, the walkways, grass commons, stone benches, fountains, and concert stage—an ideal place to escape, if briefly, from the workaday world.
“You see people of every stripe playing, attending concerts, reading, and talking—the humanities are right there,” says Crisp, executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council. A native North Carolinian with a strong affinity for “place,” Crisp tends to see the humanities in the stories of the many peoples who make up the quickly changing and fast-growing state. There are the stories of tobacco farming and fishing families, who have lived off the land and ocean for generations, and newcomers who might speak Spanish, Hmong, or Arabic. People don’t realize that 264 languages are spoken in the homes of North Carolina, says Crisp.
When the council was established thirty-eight years ago, the state was about to go through a major shift, from a rural lifestyle to a more urban one. “At such times, there’s a transitional crisis,” says Crisp, and the council’s founders wanted to do humanities programs that might ease the tension between tradition and transition.
Crisp, who became director in 2007, works from a space-challenged office suite on the sixth floor
of a downtown high-rise reserved for nonprofit agencies. Her “amazingly committed staff” stays busy as a partner on a myriad of projects, including one involving Harkers Island, a fishing community that has been threatened by development and pollution. A photographer named Larry Earley had been taking pictures of the Core Sound workboats, and he realized there was an opportunity to record more than images. Working with scholars, the local people had a chance to explore and document how “people are part of the history of their place,” says Crisp.
A documentary project has delved into the history of the Beacon Blanket Mill in Swannanoa, once the largest blanket factory in the world. “When it shut down, the community life as the textile workers knew it shut down,” says Crisp. The North Carolina Road Work program, a new undertaking, has participants discover the stories about a road in their community and offers the possibility of moving from the personal story to larger themes. The “road” that Elizabethtown chose was the Cape Fear River. Eighty-eight-year-old Horace Butler, who still works in timber, was the last logger to take a log raft down the river in 1957. He is the repository of a life intimately linked to the river. His story is now posted on the Bladen County Library’s website.
To address the opposite end of the age spectrum, the council has begun reaching out to the millennial generation through its support of “The Soapbox Salon,” a series of community conversations started by a new nonprofit called Face to Face. The council has also started a magazine, North Carolina Conversations, and this year is bringing Museums on Main Street to North Carolina for the first time.
Crisp, who grew up in Raleigh, embraced the most basic of the humanities disciplines as a child. “I read books,” she says, in a household where literature and theater were simply part of the fabric of everyday life. Miss Mary Penny and Mrs. Phyllis Peacock, high school teachers who are “legendary” in the state, taught her to love American and British literature.
That passion has made for a wall of diplomas. “I have every English degree you can have,” she says without boast or exaggeration: bachelor’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; master’s from North Carolina State University; and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In her dissertation, she delved into the works of the Victorian poets Alice Meynell, Charlotte Mew, and Mary Coleridge.
She finished her formal education in 1997 with an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She writes lyric poetry, some of it inspired by walks she takes along a former railroad bed near her home. Several of her poems have appeared in scholarly reviews.
Prior to joining the council, Crisp had taught at Guilford College in Greensboro, UNC–Charlotte, and UNC-Greensboro, where she continues as visiting faculty. Guilford English professor Jim Hood had urged her to seek the position with the council. He liked her work ethic, innovation—she had devised a course for the Master of Liberal Studies program at UNC–Greensboro in which students read works of Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature—and her curiosity about North Carolina.
Willis Whichard, a retired state Supreme Court justice who in 2007 chaired the council’s board of directors and worked on the search for a new director, says the council found the right person.
“She has proven to be a good motivator and manager of people,” Whichard says. “Some of the reason for that is she leads by example, by working very long hours herself. She clearly has passion for the humanities and how it can teach us about being human.”