By Chrissa Gerard
For the last twenty years, first as a volunteer and then as director, Alice Smith Barkley has been carving a new path for the North Carolina Humanities Council. Today the council embraces programs ranging from literacy for parents to oral history training for teachers. Barkley believes “many of the voices in the state have no way of being heard,” without help from NCHC.
One focus of the council’s work under Barkley has been the inclusion of small, community-based groups. “There was always a sense of urgency to bring in underrepresented populations,” she says. When she began as a program associate at the council, she recalls, academic institutions received the most funding because they were more knowledgeable about the grant-writing process. So the council decided to cultivate relationships between scholars and community leaders working outside colleges and universities.
One example of that effort started seven years ago in rural Anson County with discussions between the African American and white communities about their histories. Several oral history projects grew out of these discussions, including one at Brown Creek Correctional Institute. Organized by faculty at Anson Community College and scholars at the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program (SOHP), the project focused on the life histories of male prisoners. Telling their stories helped them connect with their families and provided insight into their own experiences. Based on transcripts of those histories, the inmates created Leaves of Magnolia, a dramatic presentation performed at the prison this year for at-risk high school students.
Motheread/Fatheread is another community-based project started in North Carolina and nurtured through the council. It was founded by Nancye Brown Gaj, who won a National Humanities Medal for her work, to teach mothers in prison how to read by helping them read to their children. Barkley learned about what was then called Motheread at a literacy conference in 1982, when it was the only program that had a humanities-based approach to literacy in North Carolina. The partnership began with a grant from the council, which gave Motheread the opportunity to spend a year consulting and planning with humanities scholars. “They gave us an intellectual home base. That was a phenomenal thing to do,” says Gaj. She explains Barkley’s influence: “She had an idea of what we could be.” With several years of financial and organizational support from the council, Motheread/Fatheread is now incorporated and has spread to eighteen states and two territories.
The council’s support of North Carolina teachers dates back to 1983. Last year they launched a program called “Transforming Landscapes and People.” The project joins public school teachers with scholars to analyze oral histories taken by the SOHP on subjects such as the social and economic impact of WWII, desegregation and race relations, and new immigrant communities. The sixty teachers who will attend this summer’s Teachers Institute histories to take back to their classrooms. Barkley says, “A project like this is a wonderful opportunity. Teachers, students and their communities all benefit.” The long-term goal is to write a new North Carolina history based on the project’s results.
Barkley’s own history follows an unusual pattern. Her formal training in the humanities began at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, but was put on hold when she married. “Four children later,” as she puts it, she went back to school, where she received her B.A. in religious studies. She interviewed for a job with the humanities council, but funding was cut, so she volunteered instead. “I spent six months working hard, learning as much as I could,” she says. She was subsequently hired as a program associate and seven years later became the executive director. “I had no idea that twenty years later I’d be telling this story.”
Barkley plans to retire next year. When asked what other projects she would like to accomplish before leaving, Barkley says there are many. “I want to make sure our work with teachers has a firm footing . . . nothing is more important as a future investment for the state.” Barkley admits that “I’d like to see funds from the state more secure. They make a tremendous difference in the grants we want to continue to offer communities.”
Under her guidance, the council now has its own lobbyist in Raleigh and has established “humanities day” in the state legislature to increase the council’s visibility. Unwilling to rely on public funding, Barkley created an advisory board to oversee the cultivation of private donations. “Our problem, like that of many other state humanities councils, of course, is that the need is far greater and the good ideas far more plentiful than we can afford to adequately support.”