February 1, 2021
January 2021 has been a month of stark contrasts – from the January 6th storming of our Capitol building to January 20th when poet Amanda Gorman used words to paint a picture of the hill we must climb, and what it might be like if we climb it together. Gorman’s words have been echoing in my mind since the inauguration, particularly “And yes we are far from polished far from pristine but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge a union with purpose.”
The phrase reminds me that the elements of what we collectively witnessed this month on the national stage – both the destructiveness of white supremacy and the generative desire to form ‘a more perfect union’ – have deep roots in the Constitution. The work to define the ‘we’ in “We the People,” is humanities work, demanding and glorious. Humanities work requires questioning, revisiting, contextualizing, editing. Humanities work holds that one narrative doesn’t “push out” another, but, rather, that narratives are complex, nuanced, multiple; narratives serve to trouble the waters as much as they bring clarity. Humanities work makes it possible for us to evolve, to become more just as we become more than “just us.”
One of the ways Illinois Humanities illuminates familiar, forgotten, and new narratives is through our Road Scholars program. Our newest roster of Scholars (announced January 11) have created participatory programs in history, philosophy, literature, theater, film, music, and politics designed to foster curiosity and civic engagement; nine programs are available in Spanish and two in Mandarin. Presenters, all Illinoisians who present around the state, bring these world-class free public programs to communities large and small throughout Illinois.
Our Envisioning Justice Rapid Response programs use the arts and humanities to center narratives of people and communities most impacted by mass incarceration and systemic injustice. This January, in addition to announcing our Road Scholars, we published a companion guide to our national Rapid Response: RE-VISION program. The guide encourages users to think about the resource as a point of departure, not a guide that will tell you what to think, and serves as a tool to help foster critical conversations about the impacts of mass incarceration.
To create conditions that enable questions, rather than dictate to people what to think, is central to Illinois Humanities’ approach to programming. As my colleague from NJ Humanities, Carin Berkowitz, so aptly explains it: “Humanities turns statements into questions.”
The statement “We are striving to forge a union with purpose,” raises the question, then, at least for me: “What does it mean to be a union with a purpose?”
Illinois Humanities is in the midst of working to understand and describe the impact of COVID-19 on our state’s humanities organizations and to describe these organizations’ impact, in turn, on their communities. The project may contribute some ideas of what being a union with a purpose might look like.
Cancelling programs and festivals, closing museums and heritage sites, has been a devastating blow to social cohesion and people’s well-being. Illinois’ humanities organizations are immersed in alleviating these impacts by building community connections and, in some cases, supporting the transformation of social change. In the time of COVID-19, the “cultural infrastructure” created by the humanities and humanists in Illinois is reducing isolation, building resilience and, perhaps, holds critical keys to how we might recover. Perhaps amongst these stories we can find what “purpose” (vs. perfection”) looks like. I’m looking forward to sharing this statewide report – and the stories therein – with you this March.
I can’t close this newsletter without celebrating WordCount, our first-ever state-wide read-a-thon.
51 competitors collectively read 325 books in 35 days, and raised $3,100 for the Odyssey Project. Thank you all for creating a community (from Chicago to Peoria, Libertyville to Schaumburg, and even our “WordCounter” fan in Utah!) with an all-important commonality: a love of reading.
Our Grand Prize winners are: Genn King who topped the reader list with 90 books, magazines, and articles read; our top fundraisers Susan Eleuterio, Melissa Thornley, and Catherine Barnett; and Elizabeth Barker our top “recruiter.” If you want to check out participants’ reads (and their standings) you can see them here.
Lastly, in anticipation of Black History Month I encourage you to check out our staff-curated list of texts by Black authors and artists.
Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director
P.S. We know the next U.S. Youth Poet Laureate is out there and we encourage them to apply to the 5th annual Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards. We are accepting submissions from young poets in grades k-12 until May 31, 2021.