Executive Function

Executive Function Special: An Interview with Phoebe Stein

Meet the president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils

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Phoebe Stein has been a tireless advocate for the humanities at the local, state, and federal levels for more than 20 years. After starting out at Illinois Humanities, she became the executive director of Maryland Humanities, and has now moved on to become president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The federation is the national association of state and jurisdictional humanities councils, all of whom receive operating support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. With the National Humanities Alliance, the federation organizes the annual National Humanities Conference, taking place this week. In an interview with Laura Wolff Scanlan for HUMANITIES magazine, Stein says the humanities provide opportunities for people to be heard and feel connected around the most pressing issues facing our nation. She also talks about her grandfather's famous cousin, Gertrude Stein.


HUMANITIES: You were the executive director of Maryland Humanities from 2008 until this spring. Can you share a highlight from your time there?

STEIN: A highlight for me was Maryland Humanities’s response to the uprising in Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. We raised $50,000 to support organizations serving the communities most affected by structural racism in Baltimore. We asked if they could use the humanities in their work and their answer was, “Yes.” Grants went to a fairness in housing nonprofit to create a documentary about the history of redlining, there was a special oral history project that featured Baltimore youth called All Baltimore Voices, and another grant to the Enoch Pratt Free Library to host an event with author Claudia Rankine at its Pennsylvania Avenue branch.

HUMANITIES: You became the president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils on May 1, not long after the pandemic hit the United States. How did that affect your transition?

STEIN: I had served on the board of the federation for four years and worked with them for 20 years, so I knew the organization and some of the staff. But not being able to physically gather and build an office culture, which I like to do, has been challenging. Like everyone, we have staff members caring for family members, be it elders or children, and how do you support them in this situation? So, we schedule social time, virtual coffee breaks, to get to know each other better.

HUMANITIES: How are the state and jurisdictional humanities councils doing?

STEIN: The councils’ work is primarily gathering audiences. Their success in shifting face-to-face programming to online, and doing that in engaging and meaningful ways, has been a huge lift. We really couldn’t be prouder of being part of this community. They’re reporting they sometimes have hundreds or even thousands more people attending programs online. They’re connecting people and helping communities grapple with the biggest questions we’re facing. I’m so inspired by the work they’re doing right now, despite all the challenges of responding in real time to the pandemic. They’re not only doing new work, but they’re doing unprecedented work. And in partnership with and through the support of NEH and Chairman Peede, the councils have made more than 4,300 grants with $30 million dollars of CARES Act funding from NEH to support humanities infrastructure across the nation.

HUMANITIES: You conducted an orientation in June for new executive directors of state councils. What advice did you give them?

STEIN: Two things. Keep a balance between the big picture and the details. And remember that they’re part of an incredible network of people doing amazing, life-changing work, and the federation is here to support them as a convener, as a connector, and as a resource.

HUMANITIES: How can the humanities be a vital part of the frontline response during COVID?

STEIN: Without an understanding of our histories, our stories, the context for this particular historical moment, and people’s experiences that have led up to these moments, without that, it’s impossible to know really what’s at stake. The humanities, particularly our state and jurisdictional humanities councils, are a part of the work right now and have been for a long time. They’re gathering people to hear and listen to one another. Understanding what’s at stake is essential to bringing about lasting change. What the councils do is bridge understanding, address distrust, cultivate compassion, empathy, understanding, all of those things while providing connection and community during social distancing.

HUMANITIES: Your annual conference will be done virtually this year. What opportunities do you have that just aren’t possible in person?

STEIN: More people can attend [virtually] and we can be a bit more nimble. We’re taking the opportunity to have discussions that are important in times to come, but also to reflect on the current climate. We were able to add these sessions, called Hosted Conversations, just before the conference began. They include “Humanities Programming Models that Bridge Political Divides,” “Public Partnership in the Pandemic Moment,” “Information Literacy in the Age of Internet Conspiracy,” and “Creating Program Models that Center Community Reconciliation: A Conversation.

HUMANITIES: Are you able to plan for the federation’s future or do you have to stay in the moment for now?

STEIN: I just mentioned nimbleness and our goal is to remain responsive and relevant. While the federation and the state councils are one in many ways because we don’t exist without member state councils, the federation is also its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and we need to look at how we can best support and deliver services to our members, and how we can best communicate the value of the humanities councils’ work, and the humanities, more generally to the public. We also have some new partnerships, so what is happening in 2021 is to really support others at the highest level possible.

HUMANITIES: The federation just received a Mellon Foundation grant. How will this help meet your goals?

STEIN: The Mellon Foundation made a grant of $1.96 million for 43 state and territorial councils to carry out public humanities work on the theme of civic and electoral participation, “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation.” These are radio programs, a touring exhibit, online talks and discussions, some publications. I’m so excited for the work Mellon is doing, but, particularly, investing at this level in council work really means a lot, I will say, and there’s going to be this fantastic programming.

HUMANITIES: Gertrude Stein was a relative of yours. How has she influenced you professionally or personally?

STEIN: Growing up I heard about her as a warm family member who wrote to my grandmother about food, war time, and family news, and who loved American comic strips and was very connected to my family. My dad would talk about her laugh and her love for my grandparents, and, that was in tension with this portrait I saw or read about of an expatriate who moved to France to reject American culture. So that tension is what I ended up exploring in my academic work, including her deeply troubling political views, for which I am no apologist.

HUMANITIES: What is your favorite Gertrude Stein quote?

STEIN: This is really my favorite, from a letter she wrote to my grandmother after my grandfather had his first very bad heart attack, which I think was in 1933. “My dear, very dears, I’m all broken up about your news. I was beginning to get worried because you always answer so promptly and Julian and you, Julian, my only cousin, because he was the only cousin I loved, my poor darlings, you did take the disaster of the U.S. so hard and I only wish he hadn’t. What is the disaster compared to him? Besides disasters never last but it is so hard to make a man know that. Women know it but men don’t. Anyway, he will get better and we will see you both and don’t tell him about my coming over but once we are over, why then he will surely be well enough so that we can sit together quietly. You and he are very close to my heart but that you know. We have been spending a quiet summer getting ready for an unquiet autumn, but above all, I love you both very much and we will see each other. Always and always, Gertrude.”