Dennis Riley 2015-05-22 12:35:58
This past St. Patrick’s Day, instead of honoring my heritage with a pint of Guinness or a Shamrock Shake, I found myself pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Along with more than one hundred other intrepid advocates, the agenda for my day was to meet with members of Congress and their staff to make the argument in support of federal funding for the humanities. The day before I had participated in the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) annual meeting, where I heard a series of speakers outline the challenges that the humanities face not only in terms of funding, but also in advocating their importance within their own institutions and the communities they serve. Sound familiar? Common Themes Some common themes among these conference presentations included: • We ignore the practical, economic impact of the humanities at our peril. • Public and private investment in the humanities is for the common good. • The humanities strengthen citizenship and increase the soft power of the United States in terms of its cultural and global impact. • A large base of cynical and underemployed professionals undercuts the humanities. • While federal funding agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), have had a positive impact and impressive return on investment, there has been a general downward trend in funding. • There is a political, bipartisan focus on short-term job training when focusing on higher education at the expense of the humanities. • Many face the challenge of advocating in a society focused on training skilled workers but not critical thinkers. • Humanities are easy to bash and most people do not know what the term means so it is incumbent on us to educate the media and public at large. • The humanities tend to “need committee approval” before responding to challenges and thus are not as nimble as their detractors. • There is a need for clarity of language because many in the humanities have a propensity to speak in jargon and acronyms. • When dealing with the press or lobbying, humanities advocates need to get to the point, not use jargon or talk down to the audience. • Embrace the op-ed, particularly with the local press, as a service to the profession. It strikes me as particularly interesting that in this list every instance of the word humanities could be replaced easily with the word archives and still be accurate and relevant. These themes echo familiar challenges faced by archives and archivists in advocating for the importance of our profession. The NHA is spearheading an initiative aimed at strengthening support for the humanities by showcasing the impact that humanities organizations achieve at the local level. Still in its initial stages, the Humanities Working Groups for Community Impact Initiative will give local organizations the opportunity to develop shared agendas with the potential to energize local stakeholders. Furthermore, they are developing an interactive map that will highlight examples of the influence of humanities projects in local communities and will allow the NHA to illustrate the national value of investing in the humanities. Funding Priorities The NHA annual meeting ended with a roundup of funding priorities for fiscal year 2015 and strategies for advocating the importance of the humanities in our meetings with legislators and policy makers. The NEH is currently funded at its lowest level in constant dollars since 1971. For FY2015 the NHA is advocating for $155 million, which represents a small increase over FY2014 levels. Under the IMLS, the NHA is calling for $38.6 million for the Office of Museum Services and $180.9 million for library programs. Congress has previously unanimously authorized the Office of Museum Services at this level, but funding for the office has never been fully appropriated. Finally, the NHA is calling for $5 million for the NHPRC, which still represents a dramatic cut from the $13 million appropriated in FY2010. Meeting with Congressional Staffers So bright and early the next day, I headed out as part of a delegation to meet with congressional staffers from New York. It should be noted that of the possible nine congressional offices NHA had attempted to schedule meetings with, we were only able to meet with four. The staff of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives John Katko, Tom Reed, and Paul Tonko were extremely gracious and generous with their time engaging with us on the importance of federal funding for these agencies. I wish there were a happy ending to this story. Alas, two weeks after our advocacy efforts, the House of Representatives released a budget resolution that, among other cuts, eliminated both IMLS and NEH. It is a long road until final action on appropriations bills, so it looks like SAA members will have ample opportunity to engage their elected representatives and promote the crucial role that federal funding has not just for us as a profession, but also the communities we serve. Now is the time to let your members of Congress hear what you have to say.
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