When the Chair Comes to Town

A letter from the Executive Director (Photo by Brandon Petrizzo, Video Parachute)

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By Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 9 minutes
February 27, 2024

When the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities comes to town we begin at the kitchen table, pause at waystations, gather with laughers, and bring a brilliant garden into being.

Last week, Governor J. B. Pritzker gave his 6th state of the budget address. It was hard for any humanist, regardless of political inclination, not to be warmed by his opening. He retold the story of how, in 1943, Illinois children, called upon by then Governor Green, sent pennies to Springfield to equip the state to purchase the Everett Copy of Lincoln's handwritten Gettysburg Address. Matched with private funding, the campaign successfully preserved a vital piece of American heritage for the public. The story provided an exemplar of community engagement with the humanities at the center.   

To me, this snippet of history mirrors the ways in which today’s Illinoisans put the humanities at the center of efforts to make our state more just, connected, and creative. Many of these were in full force when Shelly Lowe, Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, came to town last month. 

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Chair Lowe and Illinois Humanities staff.

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Chair Lowe with members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance.

As the state affiliate for the federal agency, Illinois Humanities was tapped to design her four-day itinerary. In addition to ensuring she connected with some of the nation's premier humanities research institutions, we worked with partners to put community-based public humanities organizations at the center and ensure the people at the heart of these organizations could connect with one another, too.  

As part planning for her visit, I reached out to my "First Fridays kitchen cabinet" – members of an executive directors’ group of statewide grantee partners who gather monthly – and asked them: What should we try to make sure Chair Lowe knows, or understands, about the humanities in our state?  

... when we work locally, we are helping people to have conversations they wouldn't otherwise be having; 

... we KNOW we have more in common with each other than we see on the national news; 

... can we ask for her help with other funders? Can she help us persuade funders to think beyond quantitative data to narratives and stories when they're considering the impact of the humanities? 

... the humanities are the "go to" here in Illinois for "out of the box" thinking; 

… we are the ones that can bring everyone to the table through history, current events, language, culture, creativity, and help people find connections with one another.

Equipped with our vision, our values, and the powerful insights of Executive Directors from around the state, we were ready to host. 

Day 1: Illinois Humanities, Chicago Cultural Alliance, Center for Native Futures

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    Chair Lowe meeting with Illinois Humanities staff.

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    Dr. Mónica Félix, executive director of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, visits with Illinois Humanities staff.

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    Photo courtesy of the Center for Native Futures.

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    Chair Lowe with the Center for Native Futures staff (from left to right) Monica Rickert-Bolter, Illinois Humanities board member Debra Yepa-Pappan, and Chris Pappan.

And waystations
Peopled with all kinds
Of people —
All colors
A One
In the Land of Lincoln
Lifting Freedom, Union, yes
We pray for each other
In all our heartbreaks.
–Giving Thanks, Angela Jackson 

On Day 1, Illinois Humanities welcomed Shelly Lowe to our Chicago office. Our goal was to have her feel what it was like to be part of our team. Our Artistic Director, Jane Beachy, invited us all to respond to the following prompt: Describe a favorite humanities moment. "Round robins" like these are a grounding practice at our staff meetings. This one was enriched by the opportunity to hear Shelly talk with us about her childhood – and the chance to ask her questions! 

Next up: Core Members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance from across the Chicagoland area converged at Illinois Humanities for a conversation with the Chair. The Chicago Cultural Alliance is an active consortium of over 40 Chicago-area cultural heritage museums, centers, and historical societies. Each shared what was closest to their hearts, as well as the challenges of being small, deeply embedded, community centers that don't readily fit within the parameters of the federal agency's priorities.  

Chair Lowe's next conversation took place at one of our state's newest public humanities organizations: the Center for Native Futures, a contemporary art gallery that serves as a critical and much needed hub for both local and national Native American artists to showcase work and connect over conversation. 

Day 2: Hull House, University of Illinois at Chicago, City Club of Chicago, Newberry Library

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. 
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. 
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it. 
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. 
–Perhaps the World Ends Here, Joy Harjo

We began the day at Hull House, the memorial and monument to collective efforts to invigorate participation in democracy led by Jane Addams. Addams and the other social reformers lived and worked alongside their immigrant neighbors at a time when Chicago was 80% new arrivals and first-generation residents. The museum is located on the campus of the University of Illinois Chicago, one of the most diverse research-intensive universities in the United States. (UIC is designated as a Minority-Serving Institution (MSI), an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) and a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).) After the tour we gathered around a very long breakfast table with humanities faculty, the Provost, the Vice Chancellor for Research and, perhaps – most exciting of all given the Chair's priorities – graduate students working with Dr. Jennie Brier on projects that merge the public humanities with public health. 

A quick trip across town to the Chicago City Club for a fast-paced conversation about the role of the Humanities in economic development. A cross section of the city's funding, planning, cultural and policy communities was gathered and was buzzing when the conversation began. The energy in the room was electrified by a performance of Root work by Faylita Hicks. As Chair Lowe, Vickie Lakes Battle and Bernard Loyd spoke, an important theme emerged: BALANCING economic development objectives with maintaining cultural and historical identity of the community; BOTH are required, neither is sufficient in isolation. There wasn't enough time for the conversation. But, perhaps, people walked away with at least one "big idea:" namely, to capitalize on the value of the humanities for economic development, the humanities need to be at the table early and by design.  Luckily, the conversation was recorded and can be viewed here. 

The Humanities' Impact: Fostering Economic Development in Chicago and Beyond, courtesy of City Club of Chicago.

The day was capped with a visit to the Newberry Library, one of the country’s most crucial sites of historic and documentary preservation. Newberry shared a collection presentation from their D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies featuring materials that will be included in their upcoming exhibition, Indigenous Chicago. The visit not only provided a chance to engage with some collection materials, but also to hear about the exhibit and associated programming.

Day 3: Chicago Cultural Center Humanities Reception, Disrupting Segregation Bus Tour

Loud laughers in the hands of Fate— 
My people....  
–Laughers, Langston Hughes 

Commissioner Erin Harkey of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events joyously welcomed representatives of more than 100 organizations from around the state – including Cahokia and Western Illinois – to the jewel in the crown of Chicago’s Palace for the People: the Preston Bradley Hall at the Cultural Center. Jeanne Schultz Angel, President of the Illinois Association of Museums closed the program. In between long-time colleagues hugged, new colleagues met each other, and introductions and greetings flew. Grounding the conversation was Chair Lowe’s story of how she came to realize the humanities had been with her from childhood, and her passion for what the humanities are, and can do, to help people come together. “Continue to invest in your communities and most importantly your young people,” she said. “It matters now more than ever.”  

Chicago’s south side was the next stop on Day 3 for a Disrupting Segregation bus tour of the Englewood, Kenwood, and Bronzeville neighborhoods guided by Sherman Dilla Thomas and Tonika Lewis Johnson (2021 PHA Awardee). The tour was developed as a physical and participatory manifestation of Johnson's Folded Map Project. One highlight (of dozens of highlights) was seeing a marker explaining how legalized theft through Land Sale Contracts in the 1950s and 60s contributed to the present inequity in Black communities. 

Day 4: Mitchell Museum of the American Indian; Alice Kaplan Center for the Humanities at Northwestern University

From the tip of the root to the tip of the leaf, 
from the tip of the leaf to the tip of the root— 
we dream in soil and seed till our dreaming ends 
in a grand and brilliant garden.
Root Work, Faylita Hicks 

Our last day unfolded in Evanston. Kim Vigue, alongside board members, staff, and volunteers, set the table for a conversation about the museum’s history and present, and the vision for its evolution.  

A conversation at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities about the role of university support for nontraditional students was anchored by Jessica Winegar, Director of the Institute.  

During this conversation I was given a gift by one of the graduates of the program: a powerful and grounding definition of the humanities. “In my opinion, the humanities are the things that humanize us.” 

I learned a lot about Shelly Lowe during her visit. She deeply cares about ensuring young people are at the table; she wants to make the National Endowment for the Humanities a more accessible and inclusive agency; and she loves poetry.  

The poems in this reflection – by Angela Jackson, our state poet Laureate, Jo Harjo, Faylita Hicks and Langston Hughes, resonated and echoed in more ways than one over those four intensive days. If you couldn’t be with us during the Chair’s visit, I hope you will read the poems. If you do, I expect you’ll get a taste of what we shared: beginning at the kitchen table, pausing at waystations peopled with all kinds of people, gathering with laughers, and bringing a brilliant garden into being