By Brett Campbell
In 1999, while completing work on her dissertation in cultural studies and rhetoric in Portland, Oregon, Cara Ungar decided to leave academia. She applied for a position as development director at Oregon Council for the Humanities. After a fascinating, two-hour talk with the executive director, she was feeling pretty confident. But the director shook his head ruefully.
“There’s no way I can hire you,” she remembers him saying. “You just got your PhD, and you can barely speak English.” Ungar spoke English, of course, but she spoke it like an academic.
Ungar grew up in the New York suburbs with a father who was an astrophysicist and an artist mother who later went back to school and earned a doctorate. “Everyone in the family has a PhD,” she laughs.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in literature at State University of New York at Purchase in 1992, she headed to Western Washington University, where she really first experienced the power of big ideas.
She explored the connection between language and the public sphere. “It changed me—I thought, ‘This is the thing that’s going to change the world,’” she remembers. “If everyone started learning like this and thinking like this, people would be more compassionate, would volunteer for good causes, so much will become possible.” She then pursued those interests in a doctoral program in rhetoric at Miami University in Ohio.
After receiving a fellowship to write her dissertation, Ungar moved into a house with old college friends in Portland. She considered several job offers for professorial positions. But finally freed of the academic environment that had nurtured her since childhood, she hesitated.
“Once I got to Portland, I felt like I was living in the middle of a community of people who had fully realized, multidimensional lives—gardening, cooking, hiking, activism, biking—and that seemed more appealing as opposed to just academics,” she recalls.
Then came that unsuccessful job interview with Oregon Council for the Humanities, which taught Ungar that she needed to learn more about communicating and working with nonacademics. She went to work for the Oregon Historical Society, and obtained a certificate in nonprofit management from Columbia University. And when the executive director who’d interviewed her for that development job stepped down, he called Ungar and encouraged her to apply for his job.
“I respected the work of the organization,” she says, “and I knew the humanities to be life-changing. I wanted to help build an organization that was more accessible so that this work would resonate and mean something for folks in their everyday lives, the way they had for me and my students.”
One of Ungar’s first tasks drew on her work in language and the public sphere: rebranding OCH’s identity. Its name and logo “didn’t say anything about the way the organization was already starting to change,” Ungar told an initially reluctant board of directors.
She and Communication Director Kathleen Holt enlisted the help of Jelly Helm, a renowned Portland advertising executive who’d produced major campaigns for Nike and had been impressed by one of the organization’s public discussions. Soon Oregon Council for the Humanities was better known as Oregon Humanities and its slogan became “O. Hm.,” as in the sound people make when they’re hearing a new idea. Its logo, magazine, messages, and programming became more inviting, warmer, even hipper.
Ungar and her staff overhauled programs to reach broader communities. OH’s teacher training institute, which previously brought teachers together for a summer, morphed into Idea Lab, an integrated program in which teachers “invest in a particular topic and also learn how to teach in a laboratory environment” with students.
OH also sponsors a quarterly “Think & Drink” series that draws around two hundred people to hear talks from scholars and other speakers, and then to linger and discuss among themselves. The Oregon Chautauqua became the Conversation Project, in which big ideas are presented in ways that are less top down.
At one Portland conversation on race, a broad audience of participants discussed the city’s racial issues. Ungar remembers one woman standing up and saying, “I finally realized why I’m here today. I never talk about race because I’m scared of offending somebody. Now I know it’s okay to offend somebody as long as you’re having a conversation, as long as they’re thinking about it.”
“Her world had changed a little bit,” says Ungar. “Different people have different ideas about what the humanities are. For some, it’s a specific group of disciplines, and for others they’re a lens through which you see and act in and talk about your world. I see them as a means. Our vision is to help build a more critical, creative, compassionate, and informed citizenry.”