October at Illinois Humanities With Executive Director Gabrielle Lyon

Gabrielle Lyon

Read Time 3 minutes
October 24, 2022

Last week our staff and board converged at a two-day retreat in Springfield, Illinois, to launch the first strategic planning process Illinois Humanities has undertaken in more than a decade.

We began with some serious soul searching: What is our vision? Who do we serve? What is the impact we want to have and why? Given our resources, our ambitious energy, our mandate to make the humanities accessible throughout the state – and given our commitment to make the humanities accessible, in particular, to communities historically least likely to have access – how do we be our best selves as a public humanities nonprofit organization for Illinois during this dynamic moment?

Putting these questions squarely on the table is thrilling. In my experience, strategic planning can be highly potent. When undertaken with sincerity, a good strategic planning process can enable staff and board to exercise openness and unlearning; it can move the organization into a special kind of listening mode. And, when it goes well, the process serves as a catalyst that not only brings the folks involved into an alignment of vision, values and mission, but also provides rocket fuel toward “what’s next.”

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Staff and board members came together in Springfield, IL for a strategic planning retreat and were fortunate to spend an afternoon traversing the city on a walking tour of historic sites commemorating the 1908 race riots, hosted by Dorris and Susan of the Illinois State Museum.

Illinois Humanities is deeply committed to being partner-centered and inclusive in our strategic planning process. If you’re reading this newsletter, please expect to hear from us to solicit your ideas and recommendations. And, in the meantime, feel free to reach out to me directly at strategicplanning@ilhumanities.org with your thoughts.

It feels meaningful that our board and staff retreat takes place in October, National Arts and Humanities Month. I recently listened to a discussion between poet and artist Reginald Betts and historian Jill Lepore, about Bett’s creation of Freedom Reads, an initiative to build libraries in prisons and jails across America. Betts shared one of the reasons why books matter and have mattered to him: “I needed to be confronted with arguments I disagreed with in order to know what I cared about.”

I think a lot about how important it is to engage with ideas that are unfamiliar, different, and even provocative. In a world that makes it so easy to be surrounded by the familiar, moving outside our comfort zone requires intentionality. And that’s why I love being part of Illinois Humanities: The public humanities – through shared experiences with art, literature, poetry, philosophy, history – create conditions that let us encounter other ways of thinking and being.

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Next month, in tandem with Native American Heritage Month, we will celebrate the launch of our 2022-2023 NEA Big Read program, Indigenous Stories, which will explore the diverse Indigenous heritages of North America through free community book groups, public discussions, and hands-on workshops. Book groups throughout Illinois will read texts by contemporary Native authors: There There by Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho), Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Mojave), and New Moon/Luna Nueva by Enriqueta Lunez. Alongside public events that center our own upper Midwest region, which was home to the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potowatomi, Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox, these texts will help us endeavor into conversation about different experiences of Native survivance that challenge our notions of freedom, belonging, and displacement. I hope you will join us at the Field Museum on November 19th to celebrate Indigenous Stories, and consider joining a book group, or starting your own, to explore these texts with us.

We say around here that the humanities keep us connected, creative, and in community. Thank you for being part of how it all happens.

Gabrielle Lyon
Executive Director, Illinois Humanities