In The News

Executive Function with Angel Ysaguirre: In Illinois, the humanities council puts its efforts into civic discourse

This article appeared in Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in July 2017. The article features an interview with our Executive Director, Angel Ysaguirre, who mentions our programs, including Continuing Ed. and our new engagement fellowship with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. You can find the original article here.

Angel Ysaguirre is doing his second stint at Illinois Humanities—this time as executive director. Following jobs at Boeing and the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, he was, he says, driven by a sense of alarm over the erosion of public discourse.

Ysaguirre was troubled by two things: the poor quality of the information people were getting from news media and the rise in political partisanship. “While away from the humanities council, I saw this need to present the humanities in a way that didn’t just increase appreciation, as was our mission, but to use the humanities as a tool for social engagement,” says Ysaguirre.

At Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Ysaguirre saw firsthand how politically divided people had become, especially on hot issues such as the closing of 50 Chicago public schools. “The worst part, for me, was how [much] less people were willing to compromise or try to see things from different perspectives,” he says. “I observed how poorly people talked about public policy.”

Although Ysaguirre was proud of the work he had done as the director of programs at the council nine years earlier, he hadn’t considered applying for the executive director position. But he began asking himself: What can state humanities councils do in a really different way? “The answer was,” he says, “to get people who wouldn’t otherwise reach out to each other because of race or socioeconomics or political ideology, to encounter one another in conversation.” When the council’s board chair called, asking him to apply for the job, “I decided to come back.”

One of the influences on Ysaguirre’s thinking was a 2014 report called “Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life.” The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, concluded that partisan animosity had more than doubled from 1994 to 2014. More than 27 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans who responded said ideas of those from the opposing political party “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

“I thought, if someone thinks someone else’s views are actually dangerous, then why would they compromise? How could you compromise with someone whose beliefs you think are dangerous? That freaked me out,” says Ysaguirre.

And thus began the council’s efforts to increase conversations among diverse groups. Ysaguirre had already done similar work at the council years before, creating projects like “Brown v. Board of Education 50 Years Later: Conversations on Integration, Race, and the Courts” and the Odyssey Project, a free 32-week college credit-granting program for low-income adults with little access to higher education.

“When I left the council in 2005, we had shaped our programming to reach more diverse audiences, but we weren’t really doing programming that was codesigned by those communities,” Ysaguirre says. “Back then, we would gather a steering committee of 20 or so experts to design programs. Now, we design from the ground up. We still use a steering committee of experts, but have a broader view of who an expert is.”

The council has finished a yearlong series on the future of public schools in Illinois called Continuing Ed, which has been running in Chicago, Elgin, central Illinois, and three small communities in southern Illinois.

Experts included a state senator, academics, sociologists, high school principals, students, parents, and many others who spoke at these public programs. Excerpts of the talks and other information, including graduation rates, tax spending, chronic truancy, ethnic makeup, and socioeconomic status of specific schools and districts, have been printed in an eye-catching, oversized newspaper titled What About Us: A Compendium on Equity in Public Education. The paper was distributed to public schools across the state and to elected officials.

Continuing Ed concluded the year with a roundtable discussion at the Union League Club in Chicago, where the participants discussed what should be expected of public schools and how families can help schools achieve that promise. In addition, a group of Chicago public school graduates, who participated in the Free Spirit Media after-school program for underserved students, filmed speakers and audience members during the program and will produce a documentary that will be broadcast on WTTW Chicago Public Media this fall.

To address the issue of resources for investigative reporting drying up at community newspapers and newsrooms, the council is in the process of reviewing applications for a journalism fellow who will travel the state and train journalists on ways to infuse more community voices into their reporting. “Through our program a few years back called Reporting Back, we learned there was a hunger by journalists to talk to more community members,” says Ysaguirre. The council found partners to create the People-Powered Publishing conference, which focused specifically on community-informed journalism, with the goal of strengthening connections between journalists and the public they cover. Interest was so strong last year that this year’s conference is moving to a larger location and is expanding from one day to two.

“When I came back, we took the idea of . . . programming to a different level,” says Ysaguirre. “We not only wanted to provide information and make people aware of certain topics, but get a lot more conversations going and have those conversations become statewide discussions.”

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Tell me more, Angel

Best lesson you have learned? People who disagree with you are just as sure that they’re right as you are. And they may be the one who is right.

Your favorite summertime activity in Chicago? Shopping at the farmers’ markets and cooking.

A visitor has one day in Chicago. Where do you take them? For a run on the lake.

What music do you listen to? I listen to everything, but I especially like the way soul music sounds on vinyl. Lately, I’ve been exploring Curtis Mayfield’s discography.

Person who has had the greatest influence on you? My paternal grandmother. She was extremely generous, spending her energy on creating the world as she thought it should be rather than complaining about what wasn’t right and who was to blame. Along the way, she focused on people’s potential rather than their shortcomings.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I had no idea. I said I wanted to be a doctor because I thought that would make my parents happy, but it wasn’t true.

The skill you wish you possessed? I wish I were a better negotiator.

The thing that makes you laugh loudest? Comedy laced with pain. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite writers.