Taking the plunge on Humanities Advocacy Day

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An earlier Humanities Advocacy Day effort in Chicago, 2008. Image: Quinn Dombrowski

Attending Humanities Advocacy Day this spring was a new experience for me. I have been a practicing public historian for almost 24 years working at museums and in the academy, but I had not been particularly active politically until recently. On March 14, 2017, I traveled to Washington, DC with colleagues from West Virginia University to talk to our state’s representatives about something I care deeply about: funding for the arts and humanities.

The day of action was organized by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), which boasts nearly 200 member organizations, including the National Council on Public History. NHA is an advocacy coalition dedicated to the advancement of humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs. It also coordinates Humanities Advocacy Day.

This year advocates urged senators and representatives to continue to support funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and other cultural programs that the Trump administration’s budget blueprint proposed eliminating. (The budget bill Congress passed in late April, after Humanities Advocacy Day, left NEH funding intact for the rest of the current fiscal year, but humanities funding remains in danger.)

An appreciation of, and concern for, humanities funding drove my colleagues and me to participate in the day of action. One faculty member in musicology was invited because he had received research funding from the NEH. I had secured a research grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The NHA provided training, talking points, and information about the senators and representatives we would meet. At the advocacy meeting on the Monday prior to Humanities Advocacy Day three themes emerged.

  • First, participants identified a need for community engagement in the humanities by universities and especially doctoral programs.
  • Second, we discussed the importance of better collaboration with K-12 educators in order to get humanities into the hearts and minds of Americans at an early age.
  • Third, we agreed on the necessity of advocating for the value of humanities training.

In the nation’s capital, the WVU contingent met with staff for Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Representative Evan Jenkins, and Representative David McKinley. After attending the NHA meeting and training the previous day, we decided that, rather than focusing solely on our own research, it was more important to emphasize how the NEH and our state humanities council allowed WVU faculty to work with local communities who care deeply about their past.

Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia Commons

In order to demonstrate how much their constituents value history, I gave our representatives a few examples of private individuals who purchased historic sites to preserve them and subsequently opened them as museums. I also explained how WVU faculty uses West Virginia Humanities Council grants to make humanities research and historical narratives more widely accessible to West Virginia citizens. My biggest surprise was how much WVU’s recent Research 1 classification meant to our representatives. Knowing this helped us make a case that the NEH supported both the research and land grant missions of the university.

As it turned out, I felt that we were preaching to the choir. All but one of our members of Congress had already joined the Congressional Humanities Caucus. Shelley Moore Capito was one of 23 senators who signed a letter to President Trump expressing support for the NEH prior to Humanities Advocacy Day. The NHA provided us with enough background on each member so that we could show our gratitude for their current and past support.

If you are squeamish about contacting legislators, thanking those who have already shown support may be an easier way to start than cold calling.  Expressions of gratitude and encouragement are important because they show that you know about and appreciate the good work legislators are doing.

With a major Congressional fight over humanities funding expected this fall, advocates for the humanities should learn from our experiences reaching out to legislators as we prepare for the next round of battle. The NHA has online guides that suggest ways to take action and provide lists of advocacy resources.

~ Melissa Bingmann earned her PhD from Arizona State University and is currently Director of Public History at West Virginia University as well as serving on the NCPH Board of Directors. She has worked in museums in Chicago, Arizona, and Rhode Island.


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