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Working Together

By Kathleen Mitchell | HUMANITIES, July/August 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, state humanities councils were on the spot to provide forums for coping with what had happened and strengthening their communities.

Councils have been convening groups of community leaders, training the next generation of such leaders, and encouraging citizens of all ages to think about ways people can understand each other and work together.

Some of the quick responses were a matter of timing. The Nebraska Humanities Council and the Idaho Humanities Council had already scheduled their annual lectures, both featuring well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning commentators on American history. Historian David McCullough, who had been an eyewitness to “the smoke billowing--billowing like a volcano--out of the Pentagon,” spoke in Omaha, Nebraska, on September 20, the same night that President Bush addressed Congress and the nation. McCullough mixed his reflections on the President’s speech with his own remarks on “First Principles." “We must marshal our brainpower,” McCullough told the crowd, “as we marshal our National Guard or our police or our security officers. That’s our true great American resource. It’s never-ending, inexhaustible.” In Idaho, journalist David Halberstam picked up the theme, telling an audience two weeks later that “our strengths, when summoned and focused, when the body politic is aroused and connects to the top of the political process, are never to be underestimated.”

On the one-month anniversary of the tragedies, the Maine Humanities Council hosted statewide readings and discussions. “Freedom and respect in this circle,” said one participant, “models what we wish for in the larger world.” In the weeks that followed, other states took up reading and discussion programs, from Iowa and Rhode Island to Oklahoma and Virginia.

One block from Ground Zero, the New York Humanities Council dusted itself off and went back to work. Surrounded by physical devastation, it took the message of the humanities to the web. The website,, includes articles, teaching guidelines, reading lists, and bibliographies on such topics as the history and culture of the Middle East, Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, Arab Americans, civic issues, and terrorism, as well as material on grieving and coping. Its 2003- 2005 Speakers in the Humanities Program will include a section on Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and the topic of the 2002 Young Scholar’s Essay Contest is “Exploring Islamic Civilization.”

Twenty-six councils are participating in “The Art of Association: Civic Leadership and the State Humanities Councils,” a project of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the councils’ independent membership organization. This yearlong reading and discussion program is designed for boards and staffs of state councils, providing opportunities to explore the nature of citizenship and leadership.

“We have found that when people tell their stories,” says the California Council for the Humanities director Jim Quay, “and other people listen to their stories, it creates a trust that strengthens communities.” Nearly 44 percent of Californians surveyed by the council last year said they had a family story worth sharing with the state. Of those, three-fourths said their stories were about coming to California. To launch three years of storytelling, the council has invited the entire state to read the classic California migration story, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Reading began in May in anticipation of October programming in libraries, schools, and communities. The Council’s website,, has resource materials for libraries, teachers, and other groups to use to engage entire communities. The Grapes of Wrath, Quay says, “gets at not just the dream, but the gritty reality of California. The book is available in many languages. We see it as a springboard to prompt and provoke the telling of the new California stories from everybody in the state.”

The Alaska Humanities Forum actively shapes its communities by training generations of leaders. “Leadership Anchorage” is a yearlong program that cultivates collaboration and cooperation among the leaders of the city’s diverse communities through discussion of the works of such authors as Machiavelli, Hesse, Skinner, Homer, and Emerson. Participants are mentored by recognized leaders and develop community service projects in which they apply their skills and knowledge of the community. Councils employ the humanities to address the needs of professional as well as social communities. The Maine Humanities Council offers “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care” throughout the state’s hospital system. Meeting together once a month, doctors, nurses, community health workers, policy makers, hospital trustees, and allied staff reflect on their roles in relation to the patients they serve and the colleagues with whom they work. The program, begun in 1997, is intended to break down barriers between medical professionals and their patients and families and to improve communication within the healthcare industry.

The councils in Georgia and Indiana are bringing the humanities to busy professionals through annual conferences. Indiana’s 2001 Leadership Summit used speakers, panels, workshops, breakout sessions, and dinners to discuss the ways the humanities can help communities come to terms with change. Georgia’s Leadership Forums have convened humanities scholars, metropolitan Atlanta nonprofit leaders, and business leaders to focus on civil society.

The New England Philanthropy Project, initiated by the Maine council, involves all six New England councils. The series of seminars examines the culture of giving from the New England regional perspective. Nancy Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Philanthropy and a partner with the Connecticut Humanities Council in that state’s philanthropy seminars, notes that this humanities based program provides her members with a solid grounding in the value of their work.

The states of the Southwest have experienced tremendous growth and change in recent decades. Programs by the Utah and Arizona humanities councils demonstrate the ways in which councils work directly with communities. The Utah Humanities Council addresses the challenge of building a stronger society by offering complementary resources to community organizations through its Front Porch discussion programs. Named for Patrick Overton’s book, Rebuilding the Front Porch of America, the series tackles the creation of civil society, diversity, and growth. Each program includes speakers, books, articles, and videos to encourage discussion. The Arizona Humanities Council conducted a yearlong statewide project, “Voices from Communities in Transition.” Well-known speakers, including Benjamin Barber, Daniel Kemmis, and Robert Bellah worked with the Arizona council and five towns to uncover what “community” means in a fast-changing state such as Arizona. The project resulted in the article, “The Humanities and the Paradox of Civil Society,” published by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

State capitols, libraries, and radio provide settings for the humanities to encourage interest and participation on a national and global scale. The “Capitol Forum on America’s Future” brings together high school social studies teachers and their students to deliberate with elected and appointed officials on the role of the United States in world affairs. Capitol Forum is coordinated in Nebraska, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Utah by the state humanities councils working in partnership with state offices and associations. A complementary program, the “Choices Library Program,” produced with major support from NEH and eleven humanities councils, focuses on the international role of the United States after the Cold War, with attention given to the part domestic issues play in the development of foreign policy. Participants explore their own values and ways to apply them to the shaping of public policy. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’ weekly radio program features interviews with writers, scholars, cultural workers, and public officials, examining current issues of interest to Massachusetts listeners.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “constantly form associations.” It is this cultivation of civic association, based in the humanities, that state humanities councils promote and that provides them the grounding to strengthen--and in times of crisis--comfort their communities.