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In Focus

Executive Function with Laurie Zierer

By Jen A. Miller | HUMANITIES, Winter 2017 | Volume 38, Number 1

Laurie Zierer came to the Pennsylvania Humanities Council in 1995 for what she thought would be “a pause.” She had just finished her master’s degree in rhetoric and planned to earn her PhD after her husband finished his medical residency. That’s when she responded to an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer: The PHC was looking for a program officer.

Twenty-one years later, she’s still there—and now the PHC’s executive director.

Zierer is a native Pennsylvanian, who grew up in Hollidaysburg, home of the Slinky. She credits books, especially fantasies like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, for showing her how reading could take her beyond the confines of her small, 6,000-person town. “Books were the door that opened up to me how I could make a difference,” she says.

At first, she thought making a difference would come from teaching. She earned her BA in English and MA in education and taught high school English before getting that master’s degree in rhetoric. When she saw the ad for the PHC job, she thought it could be a great way to make use of her degrees. Once she took the job, however, she found that the humanities could also be her path to making a difference.

“Humanities are large and embrace so many different ways of learning,” she says. They can even, Zierer believes, help Pennsylvania combat two major deficiencies: gaps in achievement and political engagement.

Not only does Pennsylvania have one of the widest achievement gaps of any state in the U.S., but it’s falling behind in civic discourse, too. Pennsylvania scored so poorly on the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Health Index—only 20.9 percent of Pennsylvanians reported that they talk frequently with family and friends about politics—that the state ranks dead last in the nation.

The humanities, says Zierer, are perfectly equipped to right both ships, and three PHC core projects right now aim to do so through reading, collaboration, and storytelling.

In 2010, PHC started the Teen Reading Lounge, a nontraditional book club. Teens help create reading lists relevant to them and their communities and then develop activities around those books. More than 600 teenagers in 78 libraries have participated so far. A pilot version of the program, focused specifically on bringing in teens from low-income backgrounds, launched in 2015. “We see them as cocreators and colearners,” Zierer says. “The humanities can come alive in a way to kids who are involved.”

Another key part of the program, she says: It creates safe spaces where teens can talk about issues. For example, The Hunger Games books have been a popular selection, leading to discussions about society, the media, and family.

In what may be their most ambitious project, PHC has been working in Chester, which is rated the second most violent city in the country. Zierer describes the Chester Made initiative as “a unique project to not only promote arts and culture in Chester but to use tools of the humanities for community revitalization.”

In 2015, PHC joined forces with the city of Chester, Widener University, and a team of Chester residents to collect nearly 150 stories about what mattered to residents, which led PHC to create a cultural asset map that identified places, organizations, and events that are central to arts and culture in Chester. Many of the touchstones lined up along a mile-long stretch of Avenue of the States, which has been dubbed the Chester Cultural Corridor. The group also found that an arts and culture movement already happening in Chester’s downtown “was leading the charge and needed to be supported,” she says. That includes a theater, art gallery, artists’ warehouse, a spoken-word café, and jazz space.

In December, PHC and Chester Made launched a pop-up space on the Avenue of the States to serve as a physical location where artists, youth, city leaders, and the community can design and talk about how to build the downtown together. Their work has already provided a framework for the new mayor’s plan for the downtown’s future, and also given city planners a physical map to show developers what’s important to Chester.

PHC is taking the same approach to community development and connection through storytelling in three more Pennsylvania communities by partnering with the Orton Family Foundation in Vermont to bring its Community Heart & Soul program there. It focuses on getting everyone in the community—not just city leaders—to talk about those communities. More cities will be added in 2017.

“It’s always the same people all the time sitting around the table,” she says. “What this method does is open up the doors and let other people in to tell their stories and engage.” Instead of relying on conversations that happen at town halls, the participants go into neighborhoods, to block parties, to clean-up efforts. “This is bringing people together who don’t know about one another,” she says.

“Our programs are beginning to truly take lift and become viable, and we’re growing by leaps and bounds,” she says. “The idea of the difference we can make with the humanities—that makes my heart sing.”

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Tell me More, Laurie

What book should be required reading for every American high school student? Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Your favorite historic site in Philadelphia? New Century Trust, the oldest continuously running women’s organization in the U.S. still in its original site, a National Historic Landmark at 13th & Locust. 

Name the film or play that has moved you the most. The original Planet of the Apes. I saw it when I was five at a drive-in with my family, eating popcorn in the back seat. That last scene when Charlton Heston realizes that Lady Liberty was destroyed rocked my world.  

Which children’s book character are you most like? Pippi Longstocking. She inspired me when I was young. There were no other characters like her: a girl who was always seeking adventure, amazingly strong, totally independent, and playfully FUN.

If you had all the resources imaginable, what project would you like to see come to fruition? Comprehensive statewide campaign to demonstrate that the humanities are central to a well-rounded education, a vibrant economy, and an equitable society.