Sunday, August 25, 2019

Interview with Julie Fry - President & CEO California Humanities

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.................."

Julie Fry Bio:   PRESIDENT & CEO, California Humanities

Julie joined California Humanities as its President and CEO in 2015. Previously, Julie served as a Program Officer for the Performing Arts Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  She has extensive experience working and volunteering with arts and culture organizations and philanthropic institutions in the US and the UK, and has been deeply involved in arts education advocacy at the national, state, and local levels. Julie earned her BBA in Economics and French from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, an MBA in International Finance from the University of St. Thomas (Houston), and is one thesis away from an MA in Historic Preservation from Goucher College (Baltimore). She serves on the boards of the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the California Alliance for Arts Education.

The Interview:

Barry:  You came to your position as President and CEO of California Humanities from the Hewlett Foundation, where your philanthropic portfolio included arts education and arts organizations.   What are your major takeaways after being in the gig as to how working in the humanities differs from working in the arts?

Julie   For the 20 years before I joined California Humanities in 2015, my work focused on the visual and performing arts, but for my entire life both the humanities and the arts have been at the core of who I am - as an avid reader, an amateur musician, a lifelong French language student, a traveler in search of historical context, and a regular participant in arts experiences.

That is why it’s so gratifying to be in my current role in building on the amazing work of this organization over the past 44 years: my work is in both the humanities and the arts.  The two are so closely intertwined, in my view; they need each other to maximize their effects.  One of the first stories that first caught my attention when I joined California Humanities (it was Cal Humanities at the time, and the California Council for the Humanities before that) was a film that we supported through our California Documentary Project called Romeo is Bleeding. This film focuses on a spoken word artist as he rewrites “Romeo and Juliet” with students, set on the streets of Richmond, California with students. In the film we get to see the development of the text, the layering of local experiences within the narrative, and the public performance, providing us with not only an inspiring picture of the role of teaching artists in student lives, but a reminder of Shakespeare’s influence across the ages.  The humanities influencing art influencing the human experience.

Your question was about the differences, though, and they exist, of course.  For one thing, there don’t seem to be as many philanthropic dollars available!  We also spend a lot of time explaining what we mean by “the humanities.”  They encompass academic disciplines like history, literature, philosophy, languages, yes, but they also include the stories people tell around the dinner table at night about their cultures and backgrounds, and everything in between.  We focus specifically on the public humanities, which can take on a variety of modalities, from documentary films and media, to museum exhibits, oral histories, community conversations, cultural festivals, library programming, and so on.  We call our work the public humanities because of its focus on the larger society benefits of the humanities as well as the impulse to broaden public participation and access to them, essentially building bridges of understanding that we believe leads to great empathy, and a strong civil society.

There is no question that the humanities encompass a lot of different things, but I always point to the word “human” at the root.  The humanities are all about the art of being human, about the human experience, and how we discover all of the things that we have in common but also all of the things we get to learn and appreciate about each other’ histories, cultures, and experiences in California.  Through our work we seek to make connections, deepen understanding, and encourage critical thinking across a variety of perspectives. Lofty goals, yes – but thrilling.

Barry:  Do the Humanities have a “Brand Identity” problem?  When one says ‘the arts” to someone, they have some idea about what that means - music, dance, theater performances, museums, visual art and so on.  But when you say to someone “the humanities” many people aren’t sure what you are talking about.  How do you answer the questions:  “What are the humanities” and “Why are they important”?  And how can you move to the point where people don’t have to ask those questions anymore?

Julie   I don’t believe we’ll get to a point where people won’t ask what we mean by the humanities, and I think that’s a good thing, because it gives us an opportunity to provide many explanations. There isn’t just one.  I encourage our board and staff members to have a few favorite grantee projects or program experiences in their back pocket to pull out when this question arises, something that really resonates with them personally.  Because that’s the point of this work, to better understand ourselves because someone’s story has pulled us in, compelled us to think more deeply about our world, and then be able to share it with others.

We did address this in an engaging way a couple of years ago, through our We Are the Humanities – California Humanities video series. We interviewed 24 prominent California leaders across a variety of fields to answer the questions “What are the humanities, how have they been a part of your life, and why are they important?”  From author Isabel Allende to actors John Cho and George Takei to astrophysicist Dr. Jill Tarter, to then-Governor Brown, we heard a myriad of ideas, and felt the undeniable energy that each brought to these questions.  They all felt that access to humanities experiences helped to shape who they are and the ways they have expressed themselves throughout their lives.

So the big questions are:  How do you make the Humanities understood and appreciated?  How do you make them relevant to today’s world and particularly to the next generations?  How do you establish the brand?

It’s simple: we just keep helping to amplify stories about the people, histories, and cultures of California in a variety of ways, to enable people to find whichever open door or window leads them to the humanities.

It’s also not so simple.  We are continually thinking of how we can connect people to the humanities, whether it’s through our own programming or that of our partners or others in the field.  It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, to be honest!  I wake up thinking about this exact question – “How do you help people understand that everyone is connected with and through the humanities” – more days than I care to share.  For me this question is also deeply embedded in questions about equity, education, and civic engagement.

In 2015, we undertook a strategic refresh, holding listening tours around the state and gathering a lot of input into what we could and should be doing to increase peoples’ awareness of the humanities.  As a result, we developed a framework for strategic thinking, which helps to guide our decisions on where to focus our resources.  Our goal (and you’ll see that it fits in exactly with your big questions) is encapsulated thus: Because the humanities are essential to a vibrant democracy, our 5-year strategic focus on education, public engagement, and field-building will amplify our impact and make the humanities even more valued, more visible, and more deeply embedded in the lives of individuals and in our communities.

From a marketing and branding point of view for California Humanities specifically, we went through a formal rebranding process when we moved our main office from San Francisco to Oakland in August 2015, when we started using California Humanities (rather than Cal). We’ve refreshed our logo, redesigned our website, and focused on messaging and public events that provide us with an opportunity to talk about our work.  We’ve ramped up our social media efforts. We have been a quiet yet powerful force in the cultural life of California for almost 45 years, and while we want to put our grantees and partners first and foremost, we’re also working hard to build our visibility, to let people know about all of the things we do in every corner of this huge and glorious state.


Barry:  The California Arts Council is an agency of the state.  California Humanities is a nonprofit.  Do you think the fact that the Arts are seemingly state sanctioned and the humanities are not makes your job of promoting the humanities to greater understanding in the populace more difficult?  While both the arts and the humanities in California are supported to a degree by the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Endowment of the Arts gets far more publicity and is better known - not necessarily always an advantage perhaps.  Why is that? And what is the impact of that reality - negative or positive?  Would we be better off with just one Endowment - of the arts and humanities?

Julie   There is an interesting story as to why the state humanities councils are nonprofits, and state arts agencies are state agencies. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was created in 1965 to feature the best of humanities scholarship, and from that agency came the idea of “State Committees” in 1971, as a pilot attempt to take humanities to the people in more diverse, participatory and non-academic way.   I should note that the original intention was to have a single “National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities” that would include both the arts and humanities agencies, and that is the bill that LBJ signed in the Rose Garden in 1965. The National Endowment for the Arts quickly developed the idea of state programming structures, and state governments were equally quick to put money into these “State Arts Agencies.”  The NEH, however, did not agree with this approach, saying that the humanities and scholarly endeavors could not be confined within state boundaries, and resisted the idea of state agencies or being part of state politics.  There is more to this story, and you can read more here:    One additional note: even as a nonprofit, we have gubernatorial appointees on our board: a maximum of 25% (or six members) are allowed.

We have certainly benefited from being an independent nonprofit and all the flexibility that it provides in terms of organizational management. Having said that, most people are under the perception that we are a state agency, and are surprised when I tell them that we have never received state funding.  However, that has just changed: in the 2019-20 California State Budget, California Humanities is receiving first-ever funding from the state.  This was the result of three years of relationship- and visibility-building in Sacramento, having Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymember Rob Bonta in our corner, conducting a humanities hearing for the Joint Committee on the Arts in 2018, holding our first Humanities Advocacy Day in 2019, and having many board, staff, partner and grantee advocates helping share our story and our request for funding.

When I joined California Humanities, I also became a member of the Cultural Cabinet, an informal quarterly gathering of culturally-focused state agencies, such as the State Library, the State Archives, the California Museum, the California Arts Council, and the California Native American Heritage Commission, among others.  When we get together, we discuss strategies to most effectively coordinate our efforts across our varied areas of focus.

Barry:  While the arts continue to struggle to achieve financial stability and funding adequate to their needs, there is a substantial and steady funding stream from both the public and private sectors - even if that stream is arguably inadequate and inequitably distributed.  How are the humanities funded?   What is your strategy to try to increase the pool of funding available to the humanities. And how are you going about attracting both public and private funds?

Julie   There is no question that the federal support through the National Endowment for the Humanities is critical to keeping our doors open, and every year we meet with 40-plus of our Congressional representatives and/or their staff at Humanities on the Hill in Washington, DC, together with the other state humanities councils, advocating for the importance of this federal support to our national cultural life, and asking for increased funds for both endowments.

We are in the interesting position of being both a grantmaker and a grantseeker. We have been increasing our funding pool steadily over the past several years and it is a priority to continue to do so.  While we haven’t yet made any decisions or public announcements on how we will deploy the new one-time state appropriation, it will certainly enable us to invest more deeply in our existing grant lines and programs.

It’s also important for us, as with any nonprofit, to diversify and grow our revenue streams, and we have been doing so, increasing the number of individual donors and foundation and corporate funders.  In such a large state with few statewide funders, our focus on finding local investment has been critical to expanding our programs, while bringing attention to others who are doing humanities-focused work in communities.

Barry:  The arts in California are comprised of literally hundreds of organizations making and performing art, and those organizations are complemented by a network of different kinds of service organizations to provide both a link to local communities and as a resource to the artistic organizations and individual artists. What are the humanities’ counterpart to the arts ecosystem?  How is the humanities ecosystem organized?

Julie   It has been fascinating, as I straddle the arts and humanities worlds, to find that a parallel universe of humanities networks exists across the country.  First and foremost, the Federation of State Humanities Councils is a nonprofit organization that serves as a hub for the 55 state humanities councils; they provide federal advocacy, an annual National Humanities Conference, and at times, funding partnerships for national humanities initiatives.  I serve on the board of the Federation, and have found it to be an important partner in galvanizing the work of the state humanities councils, providing a common thread when all of us are doing very different work in our states.

There are other humanities-focused organizations, including humanities institutes at universities and community colleges.  The National Humanities Alliance brings together the academic and public humanities, and provides data in the form of humanities indicators on a wide variety of issues, including humanities education.  Imagining America currently based at UC-Davis, is a national organization providing collaborative thinking at the intersection of the arts and the academic humanities.

One thing we realized when we were gathering data as part of our strategic refresh is that there isn’t a humanities hub in California, and so one of our strategic components in our framework is fieldbuilding, to see how we might work together more collaboratively as a field in California.  Our first step has been to research what organizations across the state do humanities work, and our intention is to map those organizations, and then talk with them to see what we might all do together to benefit our state: perhaps it’s a California humanities conference, or some sort of visibility-building campaign. This research work continues.

Barry:  While the Humanities don’t have the exact equivalent of the Local Arts Agency, which local organizations act as a kind of de facto  “hub” and branch office system for the arts, you do have the libraries throughout the state, and that network is arguably the equal, or superior to the arts LAA network.  How, and to what extent, are you drafting the libraries to be part of a system around which the humanities can organize, advocate, and grow within each community.  What are you doing so far as a collaboration / partnership between your organizations and those libraries and where do you see that relationship heading in the future?

Julie   Libraries have always been a wonderful partner and network for California Humanities, and over the decades we have done many programs with them, including statewide reads.  For example, in 2014-15, our War Comes Home statewide initiative focusing on the human experience of war supported over 800 library events across the state, reaching 1.8 million participants.

As part of our strategic refresh, we surveyed and did focus groups with librarians, and developed the Library Innovation Lab, which provides a cohort of 10-12 programming librarians from around the state with training in design thinking and community research, as well as year-long support and some “venture capital” to design and implement small scale public humanities projects that will reach and engage underserved immigrant populations in their communities. Our hope is that they will experiment with something new to their library, while also providing professional development and skills that can be used beyond the grant period.  We’re now working with our third cohort, and we love seeing the ideas they have been bringing to life in their libraries.

Barry:  One of the underpinnings of the humanities, in California and nationally, has been, and continues to be, storytelling as a way to preserve, document and amplify the various voice and stories of the citizenry - and the multiple cultures that comprise American, and particularly California, society.  in a sense, those stories are at the core of the humanities.  California is a unique place.  Again the fifth biggest economy in the world.  40 million people.  As diverse a place as exists anywhere on the planet.  They use to say that whatever people in California are doing now, the rest of the world will be doing in ten years.  Things start here:  the Beat Generation, the Hippies, LGBT culture, television, the computer revolution, the San Francisco music scene.  There are so many stories to tell, and so many different ways to tell them. Now we live in an age where people’s attention spans seem so short, so how are you approaching the storytelling of Californians to be both truly representative of our vast diversity - on every marker, and how are you packaging the stories - however told - so that you capture the largest market and the attention of those in positions who can help further the overall story of the humanities itself?

Julie   We recorded a compelling audio interview with former National Poet Laureate (and one of our former board members) Juan Felipe Herrera, in which he says “Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to generate peace, is by listening to someone’s story, a poem or a saying.  And all of a sudden our heart is moved.  It’s hard to move the heart, you know.  We’re so busy.  We have so many things we feel we have to do.  So whenever we stop and listen to someone’s tiny story– or big story – it doesn't matter – our hearts will be moved.”

(You can hear the interview here: Juan Felipe Herrera, Former U.S. Poet Laureate – California Humanities)

This gets to me every time I listen to it.  Even tiny stories have power!  That’s comforting to me in the face of so much noise, so many stimuli, and myriad ways we can spend our time.  Stories will always win out, whether it’s part of a corporate strategy, as major San Francisco tech firm brand manager told me recently, or a Moth Radio Hour-like event, as one of our Library Innovation Lab participants created in Fresno, or a youth media report about the fires in Northern California, as developed by one of our CA2020 community college fellows.

We’re happy that some of the humanities stories we support appear on Netflix and PBS and at major film festivals.  We’ve even had California Humanities-funded films available to view on airlines (thank goodness for the advent of individual televisions at each seat). Our goal is to do whatever we can to fund great, moving, important - and even tiny stories, from all across the state - and help get the word out in California and beyond.

Barry:  Continuing with storytelling for a moment, a lot of stories are told using a visual approach - including film, photos, artifacts and the like - perfect museum exhibitions.  Are you doing anything specific to work with museums to help tell the humanities stories?

Julie   We do fund museum exhibits and programming through our Humanities for All grant lines, and have done so for many years through former grant programs.  They are a natural venue for public programming that connects so many community voices through the arts, history, culture, place.

One example of a project that touched on history and culture was Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from American’s Concentration Camps. The Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco, in collaboration with the National Japanese American Historical Society, displayed over 100 handmade artifacts created by Japanese Americans sent to the American internment camps during WWII.  The exhibition was augmented by tours, educational materials, and other public programs related to Executive Order 9066.  I was struck by the beauty and the poignancy of the exhibit, which included a quilt crafted by children in the camp school, as they studied the pioneers, and jewelry made by women of common household materials found in the camps.

Barry:  How much relevant data on things that fit the “humanities” moniker have you been able to collect so far?  What kinds of data?  And what do you intend to use the data for?  What are you missing that would make your work easier in this arena?

Julie:  We have been collecting data from our grantees for years for reporting purposes, and have done formal evaluations of some initiatives in the past.  Last year we contracted with Harder + Co to help us develop a new evaluation framework across all of our programs to better understand the impact that we have put into practice this year.  This framework informs how we track outcomes, and measure progress and success. As part of this, we work with our grantees and partners in the collection of evaluation data from multiple sources including self-evaluation and audience surveys. California Humanities staff and board members attend events or programs when possible and review any products (such as written materials, publications, films, clips or interactive websites) as appropriate. We continue to use the data we collect for reporting purposes, but we are also analyzing the data we receive and using it to improve our programming and how we tell humanities stories.

The Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences provides more data across five main topic areas:  K-12 Education, Higher Education, Workforce, Funding and Research, and Public Life. This is where I go when we are looking for national trends and data.

Barry:  Follow up:  The Smithsonian is arguably one giant Humanities Museum, with the artifacts and treasures on display key to all the stories behind them.  Is there any equivalent in California?  Should we have a California version of the Smithsonian?  Should every state?

Julie:  I want to mention two museums that fit the bill:  The California Museum - Official home of the California dream in Sacramento, and the Oakland Museum of California: a Bay Area Art, History & Science Museum.  These are amazing treasure troves of California history, art and artifacts, and I would encourage everyone who lives here and everyone who visits California to spend some time in each.

However, I would posit that museums, cultural centers, and historical societies in other communities across California are equally important.  They tell local stories, and are accessible for students and those who aren’t able to travel to larger cities.

Barry:  Another aspect of the humanities includes consideration of serious, pressing issues confronting people - not only of the day - but historically.  Your organization sponsors panels, discussions, conversations, talks and the like.  Can you elaborate on this area of your work?  And where you plan to take it?

Julie   One thing we love to do is to help get the word out about grantee events in order to help bring in new audiences and raise visibility for the projects we fund around the state.

We also like to put together our own events, from public conversations to film screenings to grantseeker workshops with other funders or elected officials.  For example, when Swan’s Market (where our main office is located in Oakland) celebrated its 100th anniversary, we had a panel discussion that included Oakland’s Mayor, Libby Schaff, talking about what makes a neighborhood.  We’ve put together speaker panels at book festivals, and last year we participated in California Fresh film series at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.  Each month they screened a documentary that we funded, and we facilitated discussions afterwards with the filmmakers.  We are always looking for opportunities to have public conversations about California stories.

Our Oakland office is also the site of our Art of Storytelling exhibit series, now in its third year.  Our goal is to provide humanities-focused visual arts experiences that highlight some aspect or experience of California life; we have public events that provide an opportunity to meet the artist and other experts in a particular topic that people can see on the walls.  Exhibits have included textile stories from the African-American Quilt Guild of Oakland, activist posters from Favianna Rodriguez, photographs from the farmworker fields of 1975 taken by Mimi Plumb, and photographs, artwork, and written word from incarcerated men in Lancaster Prison.  Our current exhibit is called We Are More: Stories by Queer Comic Artists launched publicly on July 16. New Exhibit We Are More: Stories by Queer Comic Artists Opens in July – California Humanities

Barry:  As you acknowledge on your website:  “often we think about the humanities as academic subjects or fields of inquiry that produce knowledge…” about the human experience.  In a sense then, literature, history, sociology, law, theology and even the arts are facets under the Humanities umbrella.  As you well know, there continues a major push to get the arts included in the K-12 curriculum and as an addition moving STEM to STEAM.  Should there be a similar effort to include the Humanities as well, or subsuming what is already being offered under the Humanities banner?

Julie   Our strategic framework has a component focused on K-12 humanities education, and in the past couple of years we have been exploring the gaps in humanities education in the state, the potential policy levers for systems change, and the programmatic inputs that can move the needle on whole-student education.   We believe that there is an opportunity to ensure that every student has an education that includes the arts and humanities alongside (not instead of) STEM subjects.  We need young people who are both data-focused and humanists, and parents and educators who understand that our democracy needs them to provide a robust civic education.

We commissioned data analysis and research from SRI Education, which confirmed what we know anecdotally about the access and equity gap to humanities education across socioeconomic and age divides.  We have had regular meetings of an informal kitchen cabinet made up of educators, funders, and learning experts to hone in on a possible approach for California Humanities to take.  As a group, we have focused in on middle school as a flashpoint, as there seems to be little consistent connection to the humanities at those ages.  The report can be found here:

We are currently working with an education consultant to develop strategic theories of change to guide the development of a programmatic focus that provides middle grade students with an education that includes the humanities.  We plan on testing our ideas at a convening in the coming months, and then will make a decision on which idea to pilot in 2020.

Barry:  We live in a world where the very concept of truth itself has become a personal choice, where a free press is facing constant attacks, where authoritarianism is on the march all across the globe.  What then is the role of the humanities in protecting democracy, a free press and the values that have long underpinned America?

Julie   Last year, we launched a new youth-focused initiative: CA2020: Youth Perspective and the Future of California.  If California is at times seen as an indicator of where we are headed as a country, then the state’s 9 million young people under the age of 18 will play an increasingly significant role in shaping who we are and the issues that we care about both regionally and nationally in coming years. With an eye toward the next national election and the goal of amplifying youth voices, we want to hear the insights and perspectives of young soon-to-be-voting age Californians on the subjects and issues that both divide and unite us. The CA 2020 initiative has been designed to examine how young people in California will come to understand and make reasoned and informed decisions about issues that directly affect their futures – and that includes learning what they care about, how they get their news, how they will continue the values of a free press, and how to manage information that is coming to them in a 24-hours news cycle.

Central to our work with young people is the concept of media literacy, a critical 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy. We are thinking about not just young people’s ability to analyze media messages, but also to be active contributors to public dialogue and civically engaged. We seek to empower young people to share their perspectives, encourage them to participate, and provide platforms to amplify their voices. This is where we consider the most important work of civic engagement resides.

Our programming has four main approaches:

Democracy and the Informed Citizen partners California Humanities with California community colleges and youth service organizations.  In 2018-19, we worked with the San Diego Community College District, Bakersfield College, Foothill-De Anza Community College District and Shasta College. Activities included: a series of public conversations with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Sonia Nazario (Enrique’s Journey) and journalist Joaquin Alvarado, participatory and hands-on activities for youth and students focused on media literacy, and a campaign to bring youth voices to the greater public, through op-eds, podcasting, blogging or other media. We held a Youth Media Summit in December 2018 in the Bay Area to bring together journalism students and faculty from our four community college partners to learn together and interact with media professionals. We’ll continue to add community college partners in the coming year. This was funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Democracy and the informed Citizen Initiative, in partnership with the Pulitzer Prizes and administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils.
This original series of short video documentary portraits will highlight the role and power of California’s youth in shaping our state’s future by sharing a diverse range of young Californians’ stories. It will showcase the voices and perspectives of soon-to-be-voting age youth, shedding light not only on the problems we face, but also on the solutions youth are providing. The series will be a centerpiece for a broader statewide conversation about California’s youth and the future of California.

The Humanities for All grant program supports locally-initiated public humanities projects. The Youth Voices strand of the grant program aims to reach and engage with California’s youth. Projects that involve youth as primary program participants or audiences, and address topics or subjects of interest to them will be given special consideration.

We also recently launched CDP NEXT GEN, which provides grants up to $15,000 to youth media organizations who provide training and support to emerging mediamakers under the age of 18 to create short nonfiction films and podcase that tell original stories about life in California today.

Barry:    Where do you see more opportunities to collaborate with other sectors - from the arts, to architecture, to the universities and academic inquiry, to history and civics?  How do we fast track those efforts?

Julie   We see these cross-sector connections every day, whether it’s talking to an architecture firm about historic and cultural context on a community-based project, or partnering with a local urban institute about how stories play a role in local policy development, or bringing together philanthropy leaders to talk about how foundations and the academic humanities sector can intersect more thoughtfully.

I don’t believe partnerships can ever be fast-tracked: it’s more important to be open to opportunities as they arise, knowing that as an organization, we can’t say yes to everything, but  we’re happy to be at the table to help make connections that might move cross-sector work forward.

(I feel that this is one of those questions that could be a whole separate blog – so I’m not sure if a short answer like this is even worth including.)

Barry:  There is increasing evidence that the humanities - like the arts - are of verifiable value in treating patients for multiple kinds of health problems.  For example, Doctors are now encouraged - in some places anyway - to study the humanities as part of their training because it gives them perspective, empathy and a greater ability to help their patients heal.  What have you done, or what do you want to do, in advancing the humanities as part of the aging and health fields?

Julie   The medical humanities as a field is growing nationally, and includes a program that we have been delivering since 2010. Literature & Medicine ®: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care is a professional development program developed by the Maine Humanities Council, which provides site-based reading and discussion experiences for practicing health care professionals across the country. The program aims to improve the quality of health care services delivered to patients, and thus patient outcomes, by improving providers’ interpersonal and communication skills, increasing their ability to empathize with patients and co-workers, and increasing their levels of job satisfaction, cultural awareness, and self-knowledge.   California Humanities currently implements Lit & Med in four VA (Veterans Affairs) hospitals across the state – San Francisco, Fresno, San Diego, and Palo Alto - with plans to expand to four additional medical facilities in the coming year.  It looks a bit like a book group; once a month for six months, a group of VA facility caregivers and administrators meet over dinner to discuss humanities-based texts on relevant topics, facilitated by a humanities scholar.  What we hear from participants is that it changes their perception and experience of their work, their patients, and each other.

Barry:  Literature reading may be on the decline with younger people.  How can we combat that trend?

Julie   We must continue to invest in our library and education systems, listen to what is relevant to young people, and give them a voice.  There are great youth-focused literary organizations out there doing amazing work in this regard.

Barry:  It seems that your grants program has grown significantly since you assumed your post.  How have you been able to energize humanities grant making?

Julie   Grantmaking has always been a central strategy of California Humanities as the most effective way to reach the far corners of a state as large as ours, and we take it very seriously.  Program staff take a great deal of care in developing clear guidelines, providing grantseeker workshops and webinars, and being available to answer questions and feedback throughout the grantmaking process.   We are well-known for our robust support of documentary, radio, and new media projects. Some funded projects have garnered national attention with screenings on PBS programs like POV and Independent Lens, as well as recognition of excellence through Emmy, Peabody, and Academy Awards.  We are also sometimes the only source of funds for small, community-based projects or interpretive programming for small and mid-size cultural organizations. As early funders, our grantees tell us that our seed funding leverages additional support and provides the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” thanks to our rigorous grant selection processes.  We are also known for providing support to applicants and grantees that goes above and beyond the often transactional nature of grantmaking:  we provide advice, feedback, letters of support, a sounding board, and strategic thought partnerships on projects.

In 2018, we received 699 applications across all grant lines, and were able to make 98 grants, so it is a high priority for us to continue to increase our grantmaking dollars, which have increase from $669,000 to 2014 to over $1 million in 2018; we’ll be able to augment this in the coming year with our new state funds..  We’re happy to say that applications from all regions in California are on the rise, a result of our ongoing outreach strategy.

Our strategic refresh in 2015 gave us an opportunity to hear from people about how we can be more responsive to funding needs, and as a result, we sunsetted the Community Stories grant line, which offered grants up to $10,000, and launched the Humanities for All (HFA) grants.  HFA Quick Grants up to $5,000 are for shorter-term projects, and don’t require any humanities advisors or culture bearers or a cash match, as do our other grant lines.  The grantmaking process is also streamlined.  The HFA Project Grants are for projects up to two years in duration, and can be up to $20,000.  We have found that this approach has done what we had hoped, and expanded the humanities ecosystem that we are able to support, from small grassroots nonprofits to larger cultural institutions.  We have also added some specific areas of focus within Humanities for All, including projects that are for and with Youth, Arts + Humanities-centered projects, and most recently, Second Responders: The Humanities in the Aftermath of Natural Disasters, to raise awareness on the part of all Californians about the challenges affected individuals and communities face through public humanities programming.  Our goal, per our strategic framework, is to listen to community needs across the state and respond with appropriate opportunities.

Our California Documentary Project continues to make Research and Development grants (up to $10,000) and Production grants (up to $50,000).

Barry:  If you could invite any six living people to a dinner party, who would they be?

Julie   The first thing that popped into my head was a Book Party, a table full of the authors that I am currently reading:  Susan Straight, Alex Espinoza, Gaël Faye, Isabella Hammad, Tommy Orange, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.  We would have to eat finger food because we’d all have a book in one hand. If I could have a second dinner party, I’d go in a different direction with a Rock Party, and invite Kate Bush, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Billy Ocean, Elvis Costello, and Paul McCartney, because I can imagine that a dinner of iconic British rockers of a certain era would absolutely end with a storytelling and jam session.  This is a good game.  Can I keep going?

Barry:  While a liberal arts education is increasingly under attack as non-utilitarian, there is increasing recognition across many areas, including Silicon Valley, and even the Pentagon, that humanities majors’ training to think critically about the human context is precisely the skill needed to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges.  It is becoming less what  you know, and more important that you know how to think.  There is less and less certainty over what jobs will even exist in the future, and so preparing for specific jobs that might not even exist, is not the smart approach.  Indeed, exclusively emphasizing the vocational aspects of a university education places education’s value in terms of business utility, and excludes value to society as a whole, or to the well being of the individual beyond having a job.  That position is increasingly questioned.  How do we get the message that the humanities and a liberal arts education are of critical value to our society, out to more people, especially young people and to more employers too?  Or is that too hard a sell?

Julie   I come across articles almost weekly about this, and the good news is that liberal arts degrees seem to be more accepted – or at least the articles are trending in this direction, if the university statistics haven’t yet caught up with it.

People often talk about outcomes:  employment, citizenship, fulfilment. Economic instability fuels the need for high school and college kids (and their parents) to focus on whatever will get them a steady paycheck, large enough to let them move out of mom and dad’s house. Interestingly, data supports the idea that humanities students can get ahead professionally.

We’ve also been in conversations with tech firms in Silicon Valley and beyond about this subject; in particularly, we’ve been interested in providing some of our humanities assets – documentary films, discussion events – as a way to connect tech employees with those skills that the humanities engender that are important in our professional, personal, and civic lives, such as:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving 
  • Empathy, ethics, expression 
  • Social justice and equality
  • Context –understanding others in their world through history, language, culture
  • Civic dialogue
  • Ethics
  • Communications and interpersonal skills
  • Curiosity and creative thinking

A few years ago, a board member and I gave a talk at the University of San Diego that we entitled “What Good are the Humanities?  Making the Case for Empathy in a STEM World”. Our goal was to make the case that students can benefit from the “both/and” approach in K-12 and higher education.  Wouldn’t it be a gamechanger if STEM students were required to take a healthy serving of humanities coursework, and vice versa?  A chemistry professor mentioned to me afterwards that he always brings in a writing instructor to teach his students how to better articulate their experiment outcomes.

Barry:  Where would you like to see your organization in five years?   What do you see as the biggest obstacles to the humanities growing and thriving?

Julie:  When I joined California Humanities in 2015, I told the board that I wanted to double the operating budget in five years.  Now that we’re coming up on that self-imposed deadline, I will say that we’re getting close, although we’re not there yet!  The impulse is, of course, is to grow prudently to make sure that we are able to do as much as possible across the state, without becoming unwieldy.

We have an extraordinarily talented and dedicated staff and board, and as we continue to grow, I want to make sure that everyone has a satisfying and meaningful experience, both internally in our daily work, and as participants in the larger humanities field.

We are committed to equitable practices, and have been undertaking an “equity alignment” this past year to ensure that we are making intentional efforts to live our equity value across all organizational functions.  We will always be looking for ways to more equitable and accessible as the world continues to evolve around us.

And those obstacles to the growth of the humanities? I’m going to put on my rose-colored glasses, like my mother, and repeat something she says to me when I feel as though I’m facing something insurmountable: “You’ll figure something out.”  I think this sort of optimism and pragmatism has carried the human species forward for a long time, and so, as long as people exist, the humanities will be right there with them, shining a light on the human condition.

Thank you Julie

Have a great week everybody

Don"t Quit