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Advocating for the Humanities in Washington, DC

The author of this blog post was awarded a travel grant to attend an advocacy conference in Washington, DC. This opportunity was available as part of the ASA Advocacy program. If you wish to see more opportunities for ASA members like this, please consider donating to the 60th Anniversary Campaign to support this, and other strategic initiatives.

By Nancy L. Clark

It is hard to imagine that African Studies would exist today as a robust and growing academic field without the support of many programs funded by US taxpayers. Most of us have enjoyed the benefits of these programs – through the NEH, NEA, NSF, Title VI, and Fulbright-Hays – and we would not have been able to pursue our scholarship without these resources. In a time of increasing inequality and insecurity throughout the world, these programs are more important than ever. And yet we find them under greater attack by a new administration and congress seemingly bent on building walls rather than bridges.

This is the time to step forward to tell Congress and our fellow citizens that these programs must continue. That is why it was not difficult for me to volunteer to visit Capitol Hill to tell that story. The ASA Advocacy Travel Award allowed me to attend the Annual Meeting and Advocacy Day Program run by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) in DC March 13-14. The NHA (of which ASA is a member) was founded in 1981 (in response to similarly dire proposals to cut the NEH, et al by the Reagan Administration) and has a long history of advocacy for the Humanities. At this year’s conference, there was a 50% increase in participants (nearly 350), specifically in response to threatened cuts to the budget.

We spent the first day of the conference being prepared for visits we would make to our congressional representatives on the second day. A number of inspirational speakers gave us plenty of ammunition to argue for the value of the Humanities. We were each then assigned to a particular state delegation and began our training for the next day’s visits. I was in a group of three, assigned to visit 5 members of the Louisiana State delegation. Two of us were from LSU and the third was an NHA staffer. The Louisiana state delegation includes Steve Scalise, House Majority Whip and second in command to Paul Ryan, as well as two Republican senators and three Republican congressmen – none of whom have expressed support for our programs.

To be honest, I was looking forward to the visits. I worked on Capitol Hill for 5 years in my “youth” and I have also lobbied the Louisiana State legislature quite a bit for LSU in the past ten years. But my faculty partner was nervous, and so we came up with a simple plan: She would talk about how these programs help our state, I would explain the importance of knowledge about Africa, and our staffer followed up with actions for the representatives. Each of us came up with one “story” illustrating our point, rather than elaborating on the more theoretical and philosophical values of the Humanities. We had our game plan!

On the second day, we trudged forward in a snowstorm with the possibility that most of the congressional offices would be closed because of the snow. Instead we found that the Congressional Budget Office had just released its devastating analysis of the pending Ryan Health Bill and congressional offices were inundated with constituent calls. Every office that we visited had phones ringing constantly, so if you are one of those callers rest assured that you are having an impact on the business of those offices. And remember, you are a constituent and you also represent a constituency at an important institution in your state.

We met with staffers and made the meetings short, leaving materials and making our points. Although we started with home state chit-chat, we quickly moved on to our points: Louisiana institutions have received $15 million in NEH grants and nearly $2 million in Title VI and Fulbright-Hays grants; our universities train students to deal with the unknown global challenges of the future; and we invited the representatives to specific humanities-related events on our campus, thereby insuring a follow-up communication with the office. We made it personal – and you would be surprised how many of these staffers (overwhelmingly young) realized they themselves or a friend or relative had benefited from these programs through travel/study abroad, language study, or through classes. Most were alums of LSU or other public universities in the state and they could begin to understand how important federal programs are for those institutions.

Were we entirely successful? Time will tell. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. In many cases, opposition is based on relatively little/no knowledge. Advocacy does not mean arguing, but rather educating. There is no confrontation, but rather discussion. It is easy to tell a story you believe in, and ours is a story that should be told more often and more forcefully.

If you are looking for things to do in your own community, here are some suggestions that were discussed at the National Humanities Conference. After all, we need to educate our fellow citizens as well as our representatives:

1. Write Opinion pieces for your local paper, or even campus paper
2. Screen films/documentaries funded by the NEH or PBS
3. Encourage your former students to contact their congressional representatives to tell them how these programs have affected their lives
4. Become involved with NEH institutes for K-12 teachers (yes, Africa should be part of that curriculum)
5. Think of ways to make your subject (Africa) visible and relatable to your communities
6. Visit your representatives’ local offices, especially during the congressional recess

Nancy L. Clark
DeGrummond Professor of History
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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