In Focus

Briann Greenfield of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities

She takes a public historian's view of the world.

HUMANITIES, January/February 2016, Volume 37, Number 1

Briann Greenfield had just come to New Jersey to head the state’s Council for the Humanities when she decided to attend a daylong program at Rutgers exploring black history and culture. It was a snowy February day in 2014, and New Jersey was still new territory for her.

Greenfield grew up in a small New Hampshire town near Lake Winnipesaukee. Filled with old houses, the town inspired the fictional Peyton Place, a setting Greenfield often joked about when introducing herself. Peyton Place, a juicy 1950s novel and a prime-time television soap opera, was replete with gossip, secrets, and double crosses. Greenfield’s childhood home, however, was anything but. Her mother worked as a secretary for the state, and her father worked for Pitney Bowes, going from office to office repairing copy machines. She had one brother.

From childhood, Greenfield was smitten with history, and as she grew older her interest in the past grew. A high school teacher, Perry Onion, encouraged this passion and inspired her to study Latin. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in history and earned her Master’s in American Civilization/Museum Studies at Brown. Her doctorate, also from Brown, was in American Civilization.

By the time Greenfield arrived in New Jersey, she had taught history for close to 13 years at Central Connecticut State University. She developed and taught a cornucopia of courses ranging from museum studies to food culture to the history of consumer culture to the history of technology. Now, being a tenured full professor is not a job many people would walk away from, but Greenfield itched to get out of the classroom and into the real world. “I was tired of talking about what other people did. I really wanted to be on the front lines,” says Greenfield, 45, the slight, extroverted director of the New Jersey Council since February 2014.

When Greenfield arrived at the annual Marian Thompson Wright lecture series at Rutgers/Newark she took a seat in the crowded auditorium and took in the speakers’ words like a starving man served a lavish meal. The topic was “Tending the Light: Community Organizing & the Modern Civil Rights Movement” and covered Freedom Summer, a campaign launched in 1964 to register black voters in Mississippi. Speakers included participants in the campaign as well as scholars who had chronicled them. As a former professor, Greenfield was used to doing the talking. But she was a good listener, too. “I was blown away by the event,” she recalls. “The audience consisted of locals from the African-American community, other communities, academics, and others you wouldn’t consider consumers of scholarly programming.”

Greenfield has quickly burnished her reputation as a workaholic. She sat in on focus groups with nearly one hundred people representing various local cultural organizations, brainstorming ways to create social bridges among them.

Having people connect over ideas matters to Greenfield. She’s particularly proud of the council’s ongoing work on Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care. By the end of 2015, health-care workers in eight hospitals, veterans’ centers, and long-term care facilities across the state had participated in the reading and discussion program. The program promotes discussions for health-care workers of every rank. “The people range from folks who change bed pans to medical directors. They often don’t get any support, yet they’re dealing with death and dying,” says Greenfield.

The council has begun experimenting with the “unconference.” This is “a conference without an agenda. Participants come and make the agenda during the first hour. Then everyone votes on which proposal they find most engaging,” says Greenfield. The first one, called Telling Untold Histories, held last spring, covered LGBT history, making community supported archives, and preserving and interpreting the history of disability.

“Many organizations came together to build the event, including the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, the New Jersey Historical Commission, the New Jersey State Museum, and the Alice Paul Institute,” says Greenfield. “Our original goal was fifty participants. By the end, we had to cap registration at one hundred.”

Ever the scholar, she continues to study New Jersey. She has explored the cities, agricultural plains, and boardwalk shore culture. When she finds time, she tours gardens. She walks the streets of shabby neighborhoods and areas with gleaming grounds and houses. Along the way, she found a place to call home in the historic Mill Hill section of Trenton, not far from her office.

Greenfield’s favorite places: Paterson’s Great Falls on the Passaic River—the waterfall fueled the industrial revolution; the Methodist camp meeting sites in Ocean Grove; the Batsto River in the Pine Barrens; Newark’s 1935 art deco Penn Station by McKim, Mead & White. “I’m a public historian, so these places interest me,” she says.