By John C. Williams
Robert Bailey, executive director of the Arkansas Humanities Council (AHC), is retiring in March after eighteen years on the job. To hear him tell it, though, his absence will be no great loss: It's really the hardworking staff and inventive grantees that make AHC what it is. Although competent management is certainly necessary to secure funding and handle the council's $970,000 budget, AHC's work is less about ladling out cash and more about giving hands-on support to beneficiaries.
“The thing we do that's different than most grant-making organizations is provide training and technical assistance to the local organizations who secure the grants," says Bailey. "We focus more on seeing to it that resources are available to the creative, imaginative folks in the state who are really trying to accomplish things on their own. Our orientation is service. We're not interested in being the moneybags from the big city bringing in manna. ”
AHC does not create programs and pitch them around the state. Instead, grantees create proposals that fit their specific needs. Two council staff members spend most of their time in the field, traveling to grant sites and providing advice and support to recipients, many of whom do not have a professional background in the humanities. Although they get help from the council, grantees have almost total control over their projects.
Arkansas is especially ripe for a bottom-up approach to grant-making. Because the state is largely rural and ranks low nationally in many education and poverty categories, the council considers it important to give to those who, because of either lack of means or secluded location, would not otherwise have the opportunity to conduct their projects. For instance, an AHC grant helped a Helena middle school arrange a civil-rights-themed field trip to Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Montgomery. The grant required the involvement of a humanities scholar, so the middle school's directors enlisted Elizabeth McClain, a Tennessee State history professor, who guided the trip and arranged for students to meet with original members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
After Bailey took the helm in 1989, the council's staff set out to connect with grassroots organizations, many of which shared an interest in local history. “They always thought in terms of things not being the way they should be now, and wanting them to be better, ” says Bailey. “There's this root-level instinct that if you can understand how things got to the way they are now, you'd have more control over shaping a better future. ”
A centerpiece project is an initiative to restore African-American cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair. Arkansans place great value on both burial and ancestry, so the neglect of graveyards and the loss of relatives' identities is a major concern. Gravesite restoration takes expertise, though. “They had the strong desire to organize, but didn't know how to go about the documentation, didn't know how to go about doing the preservation, ” says Bailey of the program's grantees. That's where the council came in. With AHC's assistance, local restoration groups have connected with archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians who help with records searches and cemetery cleanup.
Another AHC initiative funds local historical research by people who may not have formal training in the discipline. Many of these projects focus on the history of African-American schools before integration. “A lot of people know the Rosenwald school stories and all of that, the big money folks who wanted to dwell by folks in the rural South, particularly the disenfranchised,” says Bailey. In the early twentieth century, the Jules Rosenwald Fund supported the construction of schools for black students; by 1932, nearly five thousand schools had been built. "But the story that is not as well known is how many of those folks did it by their bootstraps in their local communities," adds Bailey.
The program has had some surprising results. The SouthWest Arkansas Community Development Organization in Magnolia was astonished to find more than thirty little-known Jim Crow-era schools. A different group of retired school administrators produced a book based on their findings. “They just worked year after year after year, all on a volunteer basis, to do this documentation,” says Bailey of that project. “They got one of the historians involved very interested in it, and they approached him and said, 'Would you write a book about it?' ” The historian, Calvin Smith, agreed. In 2003, the University of Arkansas Press published Educating the Masses: The Unfolding History of Black School Administrators in Arkansas, 1900-2000.
Although the council primarily funds local initiatives, it doesn't neglect larger organizations, For example, the council has been a major supporter of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, created by the Central Arkansas Library System.
And where does Bailey fit in to all of this? He's simply content to remain in the background and ensure that everything runs smoothly. In fact, he won't even take credit for AHC's nonconventional approach to grant-making. “The goal had been there, ” he recalls of his early days at the council. "What I did was have an opportunity to help put it in place. It's been a lot of fun."