To protect the arts and humanities, go local.
This post was original written in March. On May 23rd, the President’s budget was released, with NEH, NEA, IMLS, National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) all slated for elimination, alongside cuts for other federal research and cultural organizations.
Threats to federal funding for the arts and humanities, public broadcasting, museums, and libraries are higher than they’ve been in years, and it is in local communities across the country where the impact of cuts will be most evident. The New York Times and other outlets recently reported that with Mick Mulvaney now confirmed as budget director, “his office is ready to move ahead with a list of nine programs to eliminate,” including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Opponents of these agencies will say this is about “fiscal priorities,” that such things are nice to have but unnecessary in the current climate, or that this is not the kind of work that federal funding should support. Some might just say that they don’t like what gets funded, and that such spending is either bereft of intellectual value or is agenda-driven. The best way to address these critiques is to get specific and get local.
Moving politicians to action requires specific stories from local communities. This point was made forcefully by Sam Blakeslee, former Republican California State Senator representing California’s 15th State Senate district, in a recent Knight Foundation & Civic Hall Symposium on Tech, Politics, and the Media (agenda; video). Blakeslee is now at the Institute of Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University where he directs a program on digital democracy dedicated to building tools to foster civic engagement through social media. During the symposium, Blakeslee asked “how do you drive real change?” and told two anecdotes about the power of local reporting and advocacy, acknowledging that a focus on the local has been a very effective part of the Republican playbook for years. Even as his legislative staff would ignore news and inquiries from state and national reporters, he relates that:
“… when we knew a [local] reporter was calling on a sensitive subject in our district, everything changed. Went into war room mode, pulled everyone in… We understood that once a story locally hit the front page, it would change our behavior. To change the world, you need to work at a local level.”
He emphasized the significance of “hard facts” and “primary source material” that resonate locally rather than pulling something off a wire, asserting that local reporters with salient facts that they could “push into social media world so networks can activate” had significant impact on his office’s response. The short video is worth watching in full. In it, he noted that “when my local head of the farm bureau started writing letters to the editor to our local paper,” his office was again galvanized to meet the issue head on. Local issues backed by local facts matter.
There are other reasons to go local. First of all, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is important to understand that the federal employees you would hope could fight back against these cuts are in no position to do so. They can’t advocate for their own position (which would only be seen as self-serving anyway), and they are prohibited from asking you to advocate for them. As a former federal employee when cuts were on the line, I can say that it is an incredibly frustrating and demoralizing position to be in. But there are active groups that are organizing at the national level — like the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) — running outreach campaigns, gathering national statistics, and facilitating direct contact with Congressional offices. You should support them, use their resources, and donate to them so they can bolster their efforts.
But they also need grassroots arguments to filter up from local contexts, demonstrating how funding enriches specific communities. How does a small grant transform programming in ways that are meaningful? How do local communities benefit from national spending? In a recent conversation with Briann Greenfield, Executive Director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, I learned about a 2016 award to the Millville Army Air Field Museum, located in south Jersey, for the Veterans History Project. The project began in 2001, as reported by NJ.com, but the grant enhanced the project in important ways, including the development of a summer camp for high schoolers to “learn more about the importance of oral histories,” and the addition of a history professor to work with the students to “help them formulate higher order level questions to ask during the interview process and better understand how oral histories support the field of history.” Both of these elements are important, because oral histories benefit from specific professional methods that draw out the interviewee; this work strengthens both process and product. Finally, project director Bob Trivellini shared with Greenfield that the “funding of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities has allowed these significant first-hand accounts to be preserved and edited, so they can be shared on iPad stations at the Millville Army Air Field Museum and used in history classrooms.” Large scale national statistics are all well and good, but bringing students face-to-face with WWII veterans to preserve their memories as essential local history for future generations reflects both the benefit of the humanities but also their necessity. Without supporting humanities research and teaching, students don’t learn how to ask those higher-order questions and the infrastructure wouldn’t exist to preserve these memories. Such programming also bridges generation gaps, and creates opportunities for civilian and military populations to interact. Funding support transforms a conversation into an interview, a memory into a preserved historical record, and a question into a teachable moment.
Second, local is where these cuts will be felt the most, and most especially in rural areas. Despite assumptions that such cuts would most harm intellectual elites in the cities, cultural funding has wide influence across all states and territories, and broader impact for Americans who are not near cultural centers most often found in larger communities. From a recent New York Times article: “The N.E.A. has a big impact in the middle of the country — even more so, I suspect, than in urban areas where funding is more diversified,” said Martin Miller, the executive director of TheatreSquared, a regional theater in Fayetteville, Ark. It’s important to understand that a large portion of the budget for an organization like NEH is comprised of pass-through funds to state agencies. The Humanities Indicators project (a project of the Academy of Arts & Sciences and funded in part by the NEH) reports: “Just over 37% of all Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 NEH program funding was distributed under the Federal/State Partnership program, with monies going to state humanities councils to support their administrative and programmatic operations.” Approximately 40% of NEA funding also goes to state organizations, where it helps leverage additional state funding. Brian Mitchell recently argued, “In the upcoming battle, if there is one, perhaps the most important counterpunch will be the role played by federal and state partnerships, represented by the 56 state humanities councils across America,” in part because of their commitment to support programs across the entire state. A former colleague recently said to me that these federal funds serve as a “moral compass” that asserted an “expectation to serve every Congressional district” and thus reach isolated populations. The CPB is similarly committed to reach across all congressional districts, and its loss would disproportionately harm rural areas. In a recent statement, the CPB noted the “federal investment in public media is vital seed money — especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40–50% of their budget…The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect.”
Resources to Advocate on a Local Level
You can start advocating on a local level by reaching out to your local public television and radio stations, to your state humanities councils (here’s a list), and to your local arts organizations (here’s another list) to see how you can help beyond financial support (which they would, I’m sure, also appreciate). Ask if there are specific talking points you can use, and specific data and anecdotes about valuable programs in your congressional district. Make time to attend upcoming events and help spread word about the forthcoming schedule. Write an op-ed to the local paper celebrating that event, and talk about the importance of national funding on your local cultural scene. Clip that article and send a copy of it to your representative, and talk about it at local town halls. Organize and assert to your representatives the value these local programs bring to your communities.
For baseline talking points, you can draw on the Federation of State Humanities Councils, which shares that in 2015 state councils :
- Leveraged $5 for every federal dollar awarded in grants. NEH funding is crucial for securing additional support from individuals, foundations, corporations, and state governments.
- Conducted programs in nearly every Congressional district and over 5,300 communities nationwide.
- Worked with over 9,200 partner organizations (Source: The State Humanities Councils: An Investment in America’s Communities, [PDF]).
State humanities councils also keep statistics about their impact. From Greenfield, I learned that the between 2014 and 2016, the NJ State Humanities Council invested over $2 million in local programming across 755 events in 216 communities.
In addition to asking your local organizations about statistics and specific programs in your town that they fund via funds they receive, you can also try to find information about how national funders like NEH, NEA, and CPB support programs local to you through their national grant programs. At NEH, you can go to the homepage (www.neh.gov) and click on “Look Up Projects NEH Has Funded.”
NEH’s “Funded Projects Query Form” pulls from a database that now holds grant records going back to NEH’s earliest award (NEH’s first grant in 1966 was to the American Society of Papryologists). With this system you can query by state and/or by congressional district, with results showing most recent records first. For example, if you want to search for local funding, you can enter your own district.
A search limited just to the 10th district in New Jersey shows 98 matches, revealing local institutions that receive NEH support (like the Montclair Historical Society and Kean University), details about the project, the award amount, and other relevant metadata, including the NEH Division and program that supported this work. You can also download an Excel spreadsheet of all this relevant information. Using this spreadsheet, I learned that NJ District 10 alone has received $5,316,740.71 in support from NEH over the years, including a $500,000 challenge grant awarded in 2011 for the Newark Museum on the topic of “African Art at the Newark Museum: Building for the Second Century.” I know from visiting the NEH program page about Challenge Grants that these grants typically require at least a 3:1 match, which means the institution receives the money only once they raise three dollars for every one dollar the federal government gives them. That’s the power of leveraging federal funding for private fundraising.
You can run similar queries to see funding from the past ten years in state or congressional district, search specific topics, and so on.
Local History, Personal Stories
How best to draw this all together in an easily-accessible format to share when you visit with your congressional staff? Amanda French — librarian, literature PhD, and villanelle expert — shared with me the materials she recently took to a visit with her representative’s staffers. French was an active member of another project in Blacksburg, VA that received an NEH “Common Heritage” grant. Funding for Common Heritage grants supports day-long events where local citizens bring their cultural and historical materials — photos, letters, papers, and so forth — to be scanned by local libraries and archives, which also offer “public programming at community events that explore these materials as a window on a community’s history and culture.” Community members get to take home their digitized records, and choose whether or not to also gift copies to local digital repositories. Increasingly, and through NEH and other federal support, these local records are being aggregated into portals like the Digital Public Library of American (or, DPLA).
French is thus well-versed in navigating local resources, and did a little background research. When she visited her congressional office, she brought historical images relevant to the congressman and his district, as well as a targeted talking points. French shared that “The legislative assistant I met with was especially struck by a print of 1795 survey of Poor Mountain I brought, and made notes when I was talking about it, because Congressman Griffith is apparently from that area.”
The targeted talking points highlighted how much money the congressional district received in the past ten years (which you can find using the Query database discussed above), and listed specific projects targeted to the congressman’s interest. French relates that she included a “recent project to preserve photos of coal miners & their culture, because I discovered that Congressman Griffith is a notable supporter of coal miners, of whom there are many in our district.” Finally, her brief noted the value of NEH support and how it differs from other kinds of funding support, and ends with a specific “ask” to protect NEH funding at current levels.
While you now know how to find relevant grants using the Funded Project Query Tool, how do you find relevant historical images if you’ve not had the benefit of holding a local scanning event? As a New Jersey resident, I’m represented by Senator Cory Booker who — a simple search on your favorite search engine reveals — was born in Washington, DC but grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey. The map below is a Census Map from 1950 that I downloaded from the National Archives, but (and this is important) discovered via DPLA. NEH specifically helped support the development of DPLA infrastructure that aggregates national and local resources under a single portal, all while driving traffic back to those local repositories — it’s why I could find and use this image with such ease. NEH’s funding support not only helped initiate DPLA’s creation and also helped leverage early private support that sustained it, and so in my materials I would include an NEH logo alongside the DPLA and NARA logos to demonstrate how this work is fruitfully intertwined.
NEH funding supports core infrastructure used nationally and internationally, and it also allows you to look for some neat cultural artifacts — a census record, an old hometown map, a picture of a main street — that are deeply connected to your representative’s own past. Another terrific place to look is Chronicling America, the open archive of historical newspapers digitized through the NEH’s National Digital Newspaper Program. NEH awards two-year grants to libraries and archives across the United States to digitize their newspaper collections as early as 1789 and as late as 1924, which are then shared openly via the Library of Congress. It’s a tremendous partnership across federal institutions and state universities, libraries, and archives. If you can’t find your state yet (New Jersey only recently received their first award, so none of their newspapers are available yet), then you have yet another reason to advocate for increased funding at the NEH.
When you visit with your local representatives, take something related to their own personal histories as a conversation starter and a reminder of the breadth and depth of NEH impact (just remember to put an NEH logo on it). If you can’t find a local artifact, use other unique stories, like the recent discovery of a Walt Whitman novel, found after 165 years in part because of the NEH long-term support of The Walt Whitman Archive, or how archaeologists, archivists, and doctors collaborated to discover early signs of heart disease using mummies. If you can’t make it in person, these lovely images make a wonderful postcard. The NEH 50th Anniversary website, regular website, and its rich Humanities magazine all offer compelling examples of NEH funding outcomes. When you share these artifacts and stories of our nation’s local history with your congressional offices, let them know that it is because of NEH and other federal cultural agencies that you could.
[If you missed my earlier essay, How to Fight for Federal Support of Cultural Research and Why It Matters, you can find it here.]