by Julia Cummiskey, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
I traveled to Washington, D.C. in early March to participate in the National Humanities Alliance and Advocacy Day, thanks to a grant from the African Studies Association. I have done some state-level advocacy work in the past, but this was my first time visiting Capitol Hill and I was a little anxious. When I moved to Tennessee this past August, I had promised myself to become engaged with the politics in my new state and this was a unique opportunity.
The one-day conference hosted by the NHA on March 11 brought together university faculty and administrators and representatives from several scholarly societies, institutions, and collections. We discussed challenges facing the humanities in today’s political and economic environment, and ways to help students, the public, and our representatives to understand exactly what humanities education contributes to civic and professional life. The opening plenary panel specifically addressed the role that the humanities could play in “Rebuilding Public Trust in Higher Ed” in a time when claims to expertise have been undermined at the highest levels. After the plenary, I joined the breakout session on “New Advocates Training.” If I was anxious at the start of the day, this session relieved most of my concerns. Beatrice Gurwitz and Alexandra Nowicki of the National Humanities Alliance led a session that included skits illustrating the “dos” and “don’ts” of successful advocacy meetings (hint: make sure you can explain what the NEH is beyond “a national endowment that funds the humanities!” and have concrete requests), a briefing on the main goals of the objectives we should emphasize, materials on each of the legislators whose offices we would visit, and tips on what to do to prepare for our meetings. They suggested looking up projects funded by the NEH in each member’s district, reviewing their past activity, and thinking of personal experiences we could share that would illustrate the connections between humanities funding and the priorities of each representative. They had prepared folders for the participants from each state with detailed profiles of the representatives we would visit and they introduced us to the NEH for All website (nehforall.org) where we could look up NEH-funded projects in our state by location, topic, economic impact, and more. By the end of the session I felt ready and excited to meet my representatives!
In general we were encouraged to seek three actions on the part of our representatives and senators: 1) to sign a “Dear Colleague” letter supporting a request for at least $155 million for the NEH in FY 2019; 2) to sign a “Dear Colleague” letter supporting a request for at least $76 million for Title VI/Fulbright-Hays; 3) to join the Senate Cultural Caucus or the Congressional Humanities Caucus. These requests represented a small increase over the funds allocated for the NEH in the previous budget and level funding for Title VI/Fulbright Hays. In spite of recent calls to eliminate funding for these programs altogether, the NHA facilitators encouraged us to be optimistic about our impact and reminded us that Congress often funds programs that have a strong local impact regardless of the White House’s budget proposals.
Over lunch, the nominee to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities, John Parrish Peede, shared his vision for how the NEH could move forward. He acknowledges the challenges faced by professionals in the humanities, but challenged us to think critically about whether we are indeed equipping students with the skills they need to succeed in a changing world and, when we are, whether we are effectively communicating that to the students, their parents, and the public.
A similar conversation evolved in the following breakout session dedicated to “Changing Narratives About Humanities in Higher Ed” where four speakers described their work in digital humanities, community partnerships, and new forms of assessing student learning. I was especially excited to learn more about Dr. David Trowbridge’s project which allows students to develop content for Clio, a mobile application that includes walking tours and information about historical sites in the United States.
For the last part of the day, we met with the other members of our state delegations and planned for our day of advocacy. I had the pleasure of connecting with three other “Volunteers”: Amy Elias from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Kelly Fisk Hamlin from Wolf Gap Education Outreach, Inc., and Tyler Hamlin from Vanderbilt University. Getting to know these three, especially Amy with whom I partnered for our advocacy visits, was one of the highlights of the whole experience.
On Tuesday morning, the four of us met bright and early for “Tennessee Tuesday”—an opportunity to meet and get a photo with Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander. Then we paired off and set off on a full day of lobbying. Amy and I met with staff members in the offices of Representative Diane Black, Chuck Fleishman, and John Duncan, Jr. and Senator Bob Corker. In each meeting we emphasized the role of humanities programs in serving populations the representatives were especially dedicated to helping, such as veterans, adult learners, and families. I was consistently surprised by how welcoming and engaged these staff members were and how they appeared genuinely interested in what we had to say and how we could help them make informed reports to their superiors.
By the end of the day I was exhausted and exhilarated. I returned to Chattanooga with a far greater understanding of the policies related to humanities education and programming, the operations of federal appropriations, and the role I could play in advocating for the programs I know to be important. The final outcome of our advocacy and the ongoing work by the NHA and its partners was that a record breaking 166 members of the House of Representatives (including 19 Republicans) signed the “Dear Colleague” letter in support of the NEH budget request and 82 signed the letter supporting Title VI/Fulbright-Hays funding (including 3 Republicans). 34 Senators signed the letter in support of the NEH and NEA. I am disappointed to report that none of the Representatives or Senators from Tennessee signed either letter, something I plan to try to change next time around! I am grateful to the ASA for making this experience possible and encourage anyone who is interested but hesitant to commit to advocacy work to take the plunge!
For more information on the 2018 NHA Annual Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day you can check out the NHA blog post at https://www.nhalliance.org/humanists_take_the_hill.