Executive Function

With Shelly Hendrick Kasprzycki 

HUMANITIES, Fall 2019, Volume 40, Number 4

The Great Recession hit Shelly Hendrick Kasprzycki’s hometown of Jackson, Michigan, hard.

Before she became president and CEO of Michigan Humanities, she was director of Greater Jackson Habitat for Humanities and witnessed firsthand how the city’s working poor were walloped by a lack of affordable housing, layoffs, and a decline in manufacturing.

“Having worked at a community level is very valuable to me here after being those boots on the ground,” Hendrick Kasprzycki said. “You learn what it is like for people to struggle while working hard to improve their lives. These communities also need humanities and thrive through them.”

Her path into the humanities was a winding road through public health and nonprofit service, but she always strove to build understanding and hope, she said.

Nestled in books at the tiny Summit Branch of the Jackson District Library, Hendrick Kasprzycki discovered the value of the humanities in childhood. A favorite read was Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, which taught her the basics of feminism and set her on a course into women’s advocacy and public health.

She earned a BS from Eastern Michigan University in health administration and an MA in public health education at Central Michigan University, specializing in women’s health and teen pregnancy prevention. She fought with zeal for those two issues for the next nine years as project coordinator in a statewide program to positively impact adolescent health.

But after working for the government in public health for nearly a decade, she said, she was “lured away.”

Time spent outside government helped her find a path where her advocacy could blossom under the mentorship of the president of the philanthropic Jackson Community Foundation.

Hendrick Kasprzycki’s work with nonprofits reignited her passion for the humanities, which in turn inspired her to help grassroots nonprofits succeed in their missions.

“I’ve always loved the humanities for the knowledge and insight they bring in helping us understand each other.” Reflecting further, she adds, “Knowledge doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t understand it and have the ability to think about it and question it.” Insight, for Hendrick Kasprzycki, is the critical ingredient.

At the helm of Michigan Humanities, she, along with the staff and board of directors, made environmental humanities a priority. The council spearheaded Third Coast Conversations: Dialogues about Water in Michigan, running through the end of 2019. The program fosters discussions in which people come together and talk about water conservancy, water’s cultural significance, and freshwater availability.

Hendrick Kasprzycki says some people may see reactions to the water-supply crisis as a concern of science and not humanities. “But it is a matter,” she says, “of humanities how we address [and] solve problems, work as teams, and understand and value people involved and affected by science.”

Part of Third Coast Conversations, Freshwater Future has received support from MHC to help residents of Flint elevate their voices and concerns and discuss the future of freshwater in the city.

Flint is the subject this fall as well of the “Great Michigan Read,” which aims to unite the state. The selection—What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City—chronicles the struggle of Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha with state regulators who deemed the water safe.

Stepping back and considering her role at the council, Hendrick Kasprzycki stresses that too much credit is too often given to her and her alone. “I have a great board, staff, and a dedicated community behind me and I thank my lucky stars for them.”

“To know you’re funding work in history that will preserve for generations is astounding. This is what I would do for free if I could afford to do it.”


What are you reading? Fordlandia by Greg Grandin about Henry Ford. I’m also reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, about the Great Migration northward. What are some misconceptions about your work here? That the humanities are only about literature and are only for highly educated people rather than a broad group of subjects and interests for everyone. What are you looking forward to in the next few years? Hosting the National Humanities Conference, to be held in Detroit in 2021. Who is inspiring you lately? Robert F. Kennedy. His daughter Kerry Kennedy spoke at our Michigan Humanities Awards. She spoke powerfully about hope’s triumph over fear and hate. The humanities have the power to change that by helping give people a better perspective on how things came to be and how to work together for a better future.