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In Focus

A New Awareness in New York

By G. Stephen Thurston | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

Like so many others, David Cronin and his colleagues at the New York Council for the Humanities spent much of September 11 on the phone trying to find each other. Theirs is a small office -- only eight people including the part-timers -- just one block from the World Trade Center. The terrorist airplane attack came early enough to find their office nearly empty except for two workers who had to flee when the towers collapsed; neither were injured.

In the aftermath, the staff members worked from their homes via conference call and e-mail. When they returned to the office thirteen days later, Cronin says he and his coworkers spoke of their nervousness, the narrow escapes,and wondered if something else would happen. “It wasn’t business as usual,” Cronin says.

For Cronin, who has been the executive director for eighteen months,the value of the humanities is even clearer. “We are always informed by an awareness of what happened,” he says. He believes that there is an urgency now for educated discourse and the understanding humanities studies bring. The need has always been there, but now it is felt more, he says.

Cronin sees part of the council ’s job is to offer “some understanding of the larger history and culture of the part of the world that this came from.”

To start, the council is including topics on Middle East history, culture, and geography in their already existing programs.For instance,an invitation has gone out to humanities scholars to be included in the speakers catalog for 2003-2005 ,which lists scholars willing to talk to general audiences on a wide range of humanities subjects all over the state. Cronin says the list will cover all humanities subjects, but “I’m going to make certain there’s a solid and informative section on Islam history and culture.” Another program is the tenth annual Young Scholars Contest, which offers students college scholarship money. The essay contest, with a deadline in May, is titled “Exploring Islamic Civilization” and asks students to investigate and write about an aspect of Islamic civilization.

“There are large portions of the world we know too little about,” Cronin says. He thinks that because of the attacks, the country is hungry to learn. He wonders if humanities councils can make up for all the lack of education and then says, “No. But we can, in the public sphere, contribute to a desire to question and to ask.”

Geographically, most of New York is suburban or rural, but the largest number of people live in the greater New York City area. Cronin wants to make sure that the entire state is able to take advantage of the council’s resources. Cronin says the council’s office may be based in the city, but “we take very seriously the statewide mandate.”

One project Cronin hopes to fund throughout New York is Prime Time Reading Time, which originates from the Louisiana Humanities Council. With help from NEH, the project has spread to sites across the country, including a couple of test sites in New York. It is aimed at families who do not traditionally read to their children, Cronin says.The children are generally eight- to ten-years old and spend one evening a week for eight weeks with their parents reading a story and then discussing it with a humanities scholar at the local library.

Looking ahead, Cronin wants access to be easier for those looking for money for new programs. A lifelong educator, Cronin most recently worked for the New York Public Libraries as manager of the public programs office before succeeding Jay Kaplan as executive director of the council in June 2000. During his seventeen years at the library, he found that the grant process could be frustrating and sometimes netted little more money than it took to apply.

To help communities trying to get grants, a series of meetings with organizations will be taking place this spring around the state. The meetings are to help organizations take advantage of the council’s existing programs, create and implement their own projects, and to understand the grant application process. At the same time, Cronin believes the council can find out what kind of help the community organizations most need and what sort of projects they are trying to tackle.

The recession and overwhelming costs for rescue, recovery, and cleanup faced by New York State are threatening many programs, but have not discouraged Cronin. “Things will gear up,” he says, “It’s going to be okay.”