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J. Cialdella Case Statement

NHC 2016 Working Group
Challenging the Exclusive Past: Relevancy, Inclusion, and Diversity
J. Cialdella Case Statement

Building Capacity for Racial Equity and Humanities Work

In July 2014, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded the Michigan Humanities Council (MHC) a 3-year grant for the purpose of creating and running the Heritage Grants Program, which focuses on funding projects that use historical perspectives to examine present-day issues related to race, ethnicity, and cultural identity. The primary goal is to bring the voices, stories, and histories of underrepresented and marginalized groups of people to the foreground, thus working to challenge a more exclusive narrative about Michigan’s past that does not reflect the state’s changing demographic landscape and a past that is more diverse than many imagine. WKKF selected MHC, in part, because of our existing ability to administer and manage a statewide grants program that reached communities and smaller organizations on a local level that the larger foundation could not reach or support as easily. The award significantly increased our grant-making capacity, with 1.2 million in $25,000 awards to make over two grant cycles. At the same time, the social justice oriented nature of the project has challenged MHC to look more closely and critically at its own practices as a public humanities organization. How could we reach new organizations that focuses on work with underserved racial and ethnic communities? How can we encourage our current applicant pool – typically museums, historic sites, and libraries - to engage with topics of race and ethnicity in meaningful ways and collaborate with diverse groups to create compelling humanities projects? With new resources, we’re trying to sort out effective “best practices” to seed successful projects and provide communities with support, access, and opportunities to use and engage with history and humanities programming.

An advisory group for this program has helped us expand our perspective and network of partners. Importantly, this included not only organizations with expertise in public history, such as the Kutsche Office of Local History at Grand Valley State University and Historical Society of Michigan, but also those with expertise in diversity and inclusion such as the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA), Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, and Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, Consortium of Hispanic Agencies, and United Tribes of Michigan. The involvement of what might be considered “non-traditional” public history and humanities partners was invaluable in the group’s two major functions of outreach and reviewing applications with MHC’s grant review committee. They helped bring new networks of applicants through the communities they work with and refreshed discussions by offering insights that examined how the projects addressed racial equity and inclusion. For example, this often meant that rather than looking at how broad of a public audience a project might draw, which is a typical concern with MHC’s other grant programs, it was often more important to consider how a project would benefit a particular group of people or smaller community. Since one goal of the program is to support grassroots groups and smaller community organizations, it was also equally significant for the group to consider the type of institution that applied.

If the applicant was a larger museums or university, partnerships and collaborations with smaller groups became an important consideration, particularly if the application gave voice to an underrepresented cultural group or regions that was not present in other projects under consideration. The challenge came in deciding how to value different models for project that fit with in the program’s focus. Review meetings and discussions emphasized a need for models and approaches to assessing partnerships, the value of expanding audiences or regions covered, and relevance beyond having letters of support. Ultimately, the committee funded a variety of project models, some with larger organization (particularly if the project helped to bring a particular story or voice to the foreground, such as a university project examining the history of African Americans in Michigan’s upper peninsula). In the long run, it remains to be seen which prove most effective and sustainable in bringing new stories and people into the process of making history, but a clearer set of methods and models would help to assess how well public humanities project are brining new perspectives and voices into the field.

Often capacity building in the form of proposal-writing assistance was not only needed among small organizations, but also in helping larger organizations interested in applying the value and need for meaningful collaborations with smaller organizations. Discussion with MHC staff about the university proposal above, for example, led to a much stronger collaboration with the university’s center for diversity and inclusion and a series of discussion forums that helped connect the project more directly with topics of important to students on campus in the present moment. Developing criteria for determining which type of projects and organizations helped make new narratives visible in a given region to was challenging and an issue we’re still trying to work through as we prepare to make a new round of awards.

A similar challenge in offering assistance to applicants and in making funding decisions was in assessing the balance between a historical nature of the projects and how they engaged with present day topics of importance. When were projects using “history” enough? When were they not looking to the present enough? A tension between serving present-day needs and thinking historically has been central to the field of public history. In looking toward building a more inclusive range of projects that can help expand the types of histories people encounter into the future, it remains important to find ways to effectively discuss, reflect, and assess the way, particularly when the communities, organizations, and individuals we’re working with may not have the same experience and ways of valuing the role and meaning of history in the present. With the first round of projects wrapping up in June 2016, I am eager to gain insights from others as to how we might more effectively build our capacity to advance this work and cultivate new approaches to public history and the humanities in our second year and into the future.