by Joanna Tague, Denison University
I am a fairly reserved individual. As an undergraduate, I was reluctant—even fearful—to join in any classroom conversation (and so I almost never did). This personal attribute is, as friends and colleagues continually remind me, professionally quite paradoxical: as a professor at Denison University, a rigorous small liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio, I now expect my students to contribute to class discussions consistently and energetically. Nonetheless, if anyone had told me as an undergraduate—nearly twenty years ago—that one day I would willingly and eagerly go to Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Congress and their staffers for increased federal funding for the humanities and international education, I would have replied that they clearly did not know me at all.
Part of my innate reticence has to do with being a first-generation American citizen and first-generation college student: I have always felt simultaneously compelled toward higher education and yet unsure of how I “fit” with the culture of the academy. Regardless of my own ambivalence, though, I have been continually humbled by the academy’s extraordinary capacity to afford aspiring scholars opportunities they likely never could have imagined. I first encountered this as a graduate student, when I was extremely fortunate to have received multiple awards and fellowships via Title VI federally funded programs. A Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad award to Tanzania as well as four Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships for Swahili all fostered in me a desire to know more—to immerse myself in the study of African languages and to interrogate power in the production of history. While these programs are usually transformational for any recipient, for first-generation students they signal entry points to futures we often never knew possible.
On the most fundamental level, though, Title VI programs are crucial to the preservation of American democracy. Such programs help produce highly skilled professionals, whose linguistic capabilities and global competencies not only advance national security but also keep American publics informed about (and often questioning stereotypes of) critical world regions. Fulbright-Hays and FLAS fellowships often serve as pipelines to careers in the State Department, USAID, and other government offices. Yet despite their evident necessity, these federally funded programs have a perilous past and an ever-uncertain future. This could not have been made more apparent than on 19 January 2017, when news broke that the incoming Trump administration proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). That May, the Trump administration announced its Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 formal budget request, which called for elimination of the NEH, NEA, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Historical Publications and Research Commission (NHPRC), Title VI, and Fulbright-Hays. These are funds that have, in the course of the past decade, already been slashed. Whereas in FY 2010, Title VI and Fulbright-Hays received $125.9 million in federal funding, in FY 2018 that amount totaled $72.2 million. For supporters of the arts and humanities, the Trump administration’s proposed eliminations signaled an onslaught: the humanities were on the chopping block of higher education in the United States. And once gone, who among us could have faith that funding for such programs might ever return?
So in January 2018 when the African Studies Association announced the call for an Advocacy Award (where recipients would attend the National Humanities Alliance conference in Washington, D.C. on March 12 and then visit House and Senate offices to make a case for federal funding for the humanities on March 13), I had to grapple with my inborn introvert. And though the thought of pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill and lobbying staffers for continued funding filled me with indescribable dread, I also knew that I simply could not sit by and observe as endangerment morphed into possible extinction. I kept thinking about how these programs enabled me to follow a completely unforeseen life’s trajectory, and at the same time I had to weigh my profound awe for the transformational quality of such programs against my inherent introversion. In doing so, I concluded that these programs made of me an activist years before—that because of them I would always rally for the protection of knowledge and learning, though I hardly knew it until I felt compelled to act.
Thrilled to have received the ASA Advocacy Award, I arrived in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, March 12 and immediately attended a Welcome Reception hosted by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). This venue afforded newbies like myself an opportunity to meet seasoned advocates and get a sense of what Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill might look like. The one-day NHA conference consisted of a range of inspiring panels, such as “The Humanities and Rebuilding Public Trust in Higher Ed;” “New Advocates Training” (where we discussed the federal budget and the appropriations process as well as our requests to members of Congress and how to structure a Hill visit); “Changing Narratives About Humanities in Higher Ed,” and “Making the Case: Federal Funding for the Humanities” (which provided an overview of this year’s funding and policy priorities and enabled conference attendees to meet with other members of their delegations to review member of Congress profiles and discuss strategies for Hill visits the next day).
The conference allocates advocates according to their states. There were three of us in the Ohio Delegation: Peter Knox from Case Western Reserve University, Paul Sukys from North Central State College, and myself. Peter, Paul, and I met for the first time on Monday night, when we went over our member of Congress profiles for the state of Ohio and discussed possible strategies for connecting with representatives about the humanities. Peter and Paul had worked on this together before; they knew how to prepare for and execute “Advocacy Day.” But I didn’t. When we met for the first time on Monday, I asked them what the next day might look like. They said we’d figure it out as the day progressed: each delegate would, throughout the day, essentially hone their standard “pitch” and, as we went from meeting to meeting, the delegation would collectively find its’ own rhythm and routine. As the uninitiated, this still seemed a bit vague. Our task appeared monumental: we were to invite representatives to consider supporting a funding level of at least $155 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the FY 2019 Interior Appropriations bill (in FY 2017, the NEH operated on a budget of $147.8 million per year, or .006% of the federal budget). State delegations were also charged with asking representatives to consider signing “Dear Colleague” letters, which asked representatives to consider supporting at least $72.16 million for International Education and Foreign Language Studies ($65.1 million for Title VI and $7.06 million for Fulbright-Hays programs) in FY 2019.
When Peter, Paul, and I met for the first time that Monday evening, the first question we had for each other was: what do you care about—what programs do you want to pitch to the congressperson’s office? I felt overwhelmed and spent that night re/reading and conducting more research on our Ohio representatives, anticipating how I might best connect with them and their staffers on the value of international education, language proficiency, and the need for global competencies that Title VI and Fulbright-Hays provide.
The next morning, our small but potent delegation walked the few blocks from the conference hotel to congressional offices on Capitol Hill. I remained unsure about my role, augmented by the fact that Peter, Paul, and I had meetings scheduled back-to-back from 10am until 4pm. Throughout the day, we met with the offices of two Ohio State Senators (Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman) and five Ohio State Representatives (David Joyce, Marcy Kaptur, Steve Stivers, Tim Ryan, and Marcia Fudge). During our first couple of congressional meetings, I simply observed Peter and Paul. Their interests were NEH-funded veterans’ programs—programs with which I was much less familiar. Through their rhetoric I saw our daily ‘routine’ unfolding. They each spoke to staffers about specific programs: the “Dialogues on the Experience of War” (which supports discussion-based programs for veterans and their communities through the study of literature, philosophy, history and other fields) and the “Warrior-Scholar Project” (which prepares veterans for college through a week-long academic boot camp grounded in humanities texts and writing assignments). We emphasized that such programs are vital in terms of veterans healing (and their communities) and dealing with trauma. In our meetings, almost every representative in the state of Ohio—Republican or Democrat—endorsed programs for veterans; all we had to do was connect the ways in which NEH programs benefit veterans and how reducing funding for those programs was antithetical to the interests and needs of their constituents.
In my comments to staffers, I attempted to echo the sentiments that the NHA had inspired in us the day before, that “when we think of national security, the global economy, and other perennial and pressing concerns, the word ‘humanities’ does not typically come to mind. But it should…we increasingly need the humanities to help us understand the cultures and languages we encounter…the majority of our CIA analysts, State Department officials and staff members and diplomats at embassies across the globe are graduates of the humanities.” It was astounding how many staffers in all congressionally elected-offices (both Republican and Democrat) had studied abroad and were visibly disconcerted at the prospect of eliminating language training and/or Fulbright-Hays opportunities for future generations. One Republican staffer had studied in Jordan—it clearly remained a soft spot for them—and once we got that staffer talking about their time abroad and how much they treasured their experiences, we were convinced that we might have appropriately pitched the staffer, who had the ear of the representative, and just how very powerful that connective thread might be in terms of influencing not only policy, writ large, but particular budget line items (especially as the signing of the spending bill neared).
Much of Advocacy Day was a sprint—from the Russell Senate Office Building to any of the many other Senate and House Office buildings in order to make the next appointment. My Fitbit logged over 20,000 steps on this one day! Appointments could last anywhere from 10 to 35 minutes, one just never knew. As we walked the halls of all of these buildings, advocates from a diverse, complex mosaic of American professional and social groups lined the hallways awaiting appointments. All hoped to catch the ear of a member of Congress or staffer who might elicit true change (or maybe just the best that could be hoped for, the status quo). And yet I recall Peter, Paul, and I as a small but mighty delegation: Ohio remains one of our country’s most powerful swing states. Walking into our meetings on Capitol Hill, we felt fairly cognizant of what it means to be purple on the Hill.
I was particularly heartened by some of the questions we received from staffers—some of whom asked truly provocative questions: what prompted you to be here today, why do you want to advocate for this? These questions gave me pause and prompted our delegation’s introspection in ways I had not anticipated. They also made our interactions with staffers more spontaneous and intimate. The unexpected can happen in these meetings, as our delegation quickly learned. In one early meeting (with the deadline for the spending bill approaching the next day), one staffer asked if our delegation might not draft language about the NEH and submit it “in the next few hours?” One got the sense that change can happen at breakneck speed on Capitol Hill, that the old adage of being at the right time, in the right place still thrives.
As the day progressed, Peter, Paul, and I naturally fell into the routine we had anticipated the night before. Perhaps they were so sure it would materialize because of their shared past as advocates/together. But I also soon saw the ways in which our individual pitches soon coalesced and crystallized into an increasingly compelling, polished, and collective case for continued federal funding. Just hours prior to Advocacy Day we were three utter strangers; through our work on that day, to my mind we found a familiarity with one another and a solidarity that can otherwise take years to cultivate. At the end of each meeting, we pointed staffers to several resources that we hoped might be of interest to their representative (such as joining the Congressional Humanities Caucus and signing our ‘Dear Colleague’ letters). The next day, we each wrote follow-up emails, thanking staffers for taking their time to meet and speak with us and reiterating how thankful we were for the representative’s support of NEH, Title VI, and Fulbright-Hays. I flew out of D.C. that night wondering if Advocacy Day might not now be a permanent fixture on my yearly calendar.
But how could we gauge the effects of our advocacy—what impact, if any, did we have? I believe our advocacy was extremely effective, as evidenced by the House Dear Colleague letters. In the days after the conference, we learned that a record-breaking number of representatives signed the House NEH Dear Colleague letter: 166 total, including 19 Republicans. This was a significant increase over last year (when 144 representatives, including 12 Republicans, signed). Similar gains occurred with the House Title VI and Fulbright-Hays Dear Colleague letter, which received 82 signers (up from 65 last year), including 3 Republicans (up from 1 last year). Then on Friday, March 23, Congress voted to approve the FY 2018 spending bill, which funds Title VI at its current level and restores funding for the Fulbright-Hays to FY 2017 levels. It also includes an increase of $3 million for the NEH for the remainder of FY 2018. In her memo to the ASA community on March 26, Suzanne Baazet, Executive Director of the ASA, called this bill a “radical shift from the funding cuts and program eliminations proposed in earlier versions of the bill.” I hope that this evidences the steps we can take to try and shape policy on Capitol Hill, and I remain hopeful that in our current political climate attempts to minimize/eradicate federal funding for the humanities via the senti/mentalities of our elected officials can be swayed.
I cannot thank the ASA enough for providing the Advocacy Award. The opportunity to speak with representatives and their staffers about how vital the humanities are to our national/collective education and consciousness stirred something in me to want to do this again. I remain a reticent person, usually the most silent member of any group meeting. And yet, when I am faced with the possible extinction of the very programs that led me to where I am in this most fortunate of professions, I could not sit back in silence. I remember the day I read the call ASA sent out for the Advocacy Award and I asked myself, could I do that? Could I roll onto Capitol Hill and meet the task at hand, given how aware I am of my own human nature? And all I heard was a voice asking: how can you sit idly by? What prompted me to act and apply for the award was the fact that if I did nothing, I would be the only person who knew. And to my mind, that meant that I would be the only person who knew that I was not doing my job, or living true to myself, to the best of my abilities. We need these programs but what happens when they need us? How/Do we rise to that? So I did what my undergraduate self never would have thought possible: I walked onto that hill and challenged myself to talk for hours upon hours to complete strangers. And it was exhausting for that day but remarkably liberating in the days since.