What are your goals for the project, and how will you know if you’ve reached them?
“Everyone is a leader in their own right in a movement,” reflected artist L. Ward from Butcher Shop Rehab after he met Theaster Gates with us in Chicago. We have reimagined our work in this way, putting people first and embracing the very process of discovery, making knowledge, devising art, and community building in our own terms. And that’s how we define our goals. So on this journey, we have to have the courage to let go and trust in the process of community engagement to inspire solutions and develop the leadership that will emerge out of such a civically-engaged process. We are working on an evaluative methodology that embraces such an emergent practice and privileges stories of change. The “Most Significant Change” technique [written by Rick Davies and Jess Dart] is a participatory monitoring technique that allows project stakeholders both to decide what sorts of change are to be recorded, and to play a role in analyzing the data.
Is the definition of public humanities shifting right now?
Many times humanities is defined as a list of academic subjects—such as philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history, and languages—that we have used to understand and document our world. We like to say that at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council we are putting the human back in the humanities, and putting the tools of our trade—like storytelling, interpretation, creativity, and civic dialogue—in people’s hands to build their own communities, celebrate cultural diversity, and develop vibrant local economies. We have the toolkit for a grassroots participatory democracy that’s not only aimed at building an equitable society and educational opportunity, but also grounded in the diverse arts and culture we dearly love.
In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, philosopher Peter Levine argues that people are our best renewable source of energy and power. We agree, and the PHC is a national leader in shifting the humanities community to embrace a more socially-engaged practice. Over the last few years, as we refined the strategic vision for PHC, we decided that we wanted to make an impact in a different way—for the humanities to touch people who may not ordinarily go to places like museums and libraries. So we chose to put people first, to trust in them to guide the way. This was a new way of thinking, and it took a lot of courage to step out of our comfort zone. Rather than focusing on what the humanities mean, we wanted to demonstrate what the humanities can do to create long-term positive change. Nowadays, you are more likely to see us sitting at a table in cities like Chester, Easton, Carlisle, Williamsport, and Meadville with a mayor, community activists, artists, entrepreneurs, and many other different kinds of people talking about their stories, values, and plans for the future.