A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How Humanities Organizations Can Help Us Heal More Equitably

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

Can we recover from the pandemic while becoming a more equitable society?

Food, housing and financial security are rightly our philanthropic priorities right now. Yet, our country is calling on us to heal persistent divides and right structural wrongs. Humanities organizations could play a pivotal role.

The humanities suffer benign neglect in philanthropy. Many funders concentrate on addressing inequity and promoting a better quality of life for underrepresented populations by making grants for education, the arts and community development. But there is a case to be made for funding the humanities, now more than ever.

Just as we turn to the health care sector for treatments and vaccines, so too should we turn to the humanities for healing and inoculation from racial injustice and economic inequities, said Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of King Boston.

Imari was joined by Brian Boyles of Mass Humanities, Kyera Singleton of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and Bridget Keane of Boston Athenaeum for a recent conversation at GMA Foundations about how humanities organizations can help us heal.

The public humanities is a field of learning and dialogue. It engages people to reflect on history, heritage and knowledge. This often-overlooked funding area merits funders’ attention as a lever for inclusion in society and in the economy.

Community based humanities organizations that involve everyone in civic discourse can:

  1. Ask big questions
  2. Decentralize knowledge and authority
  3. Activate a shared vision for a more equitable world

Exploring big questions through the humanities

Understanding history allows us to ask big questions about our present. We have all seen large-scale protests against racism. Locally, smaller groups of residents are speaking to one another about their own experiences. Humanities organizations can support this meaningful examination.

The Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, is not a traditional New England house museum. Visitors learn about slavery, freedom and inequities. It’s centered on the lives of people whose stories are seldom told. Conversations explore the impact of this history on the community now, and where to go from here. As Executive Director, Kyera Singleton said, her purpose is not to create programs that are of this moment, but programs that carry this moment.

Kyera Singleton, ED of Royall House and Slave Quarters in conversation at GMA, July 2020 from GMA Foundations on Vimeo.

Decentralizing knowledge in the humanities

In our world, authority and power come from knowledge, and this is often conveyed from a position of educated privilege. But it need not be. The field is acknowledging that we risk perpetuating harms by not listening to all people. Whose knowledge do we value? And how do we center lived experience?

Well-established organizations are shifting. Mass Humanities has prioritized transforming the stewardship of the humanities field in the state. The Boston Athenaeum, a membership library founded in 1807, is becoming more welcoming and collaborative, encouraging civic discourse beyond their Beacon Hill reading rooms. “We build empathy through an understanding of history,” said Bridget Keane.

Expanding access is also important. The Clemente Course in the Humanities offers tuition-free college-level classes to adults in underserved communities. It invites participants to talk about the challenges they face in the humanities. And the experience can be transformative; many continue their education or assume leadership roles in their communities.

Brian Boyles, ED of Mass Humanities in conversation at GMA, July 2020 from GMA Foundations on Vimeo.

Humanities organizations can look to health care’s emerging holistic approach—asthma treatments go beyond the medical to underlying social determinants, like housing. And programs at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and the Clemente Course, go beyond history to expand our understanding of what underlies today’s inequities.

Sparking a shared vision for a more just world

As the pandemic’s shutdown magnified economic inequalities, community organizations pivoted to give food and financial assistance. For example, out-of-school programs were transformed. We spoke with a group of out-of-school leaders who urged building an improved post-COVID normal where all students have access to opportunity. Technology may make that feasible, but it’s not possible without a shared vision and strong collaboration.

The humanities can do more. Organizations can lead community conversations that are instrumental to healing and conceiving of a more just world. But the field needs more collaboration, connection and urgency. Leaders in philanthropy and public and private sectors might ask, how can we help?


Phil Hall is director of grantmaking at GMA. His email is phall@gmafoundations.com.

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