July 20 2024

National Humanities Alliance: Telling the Story of Your Work

by Stephen Kidd, National Humanities Alliance


The American Academy of Religion is a member of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). This is the first in a series of columns that NHA will author to provide our members with information about humanities advocacy and how to become involved.

Several years ago, the National Humanities Alliance invited Folger Shakespeare Library Director Mike Witmore to testify on Capitol Hill in support of federal funding for the humanities. In his finely-crafted remarks, Witmore drew on his experience teaching Shakespeare to engineering students at Carnegie Mellon University to make the claim that “a lot of what makes us tick cannot be stated as an equation.” At the end of his remarks, he posed a question to the committee: “What would happen if you subtracted Shakespeare from our world, from our schools, and from our culture?” He then answered, “… America would not have produced a Lincoln, a Frederick Douglass, or an Emily Dickinson, all of whom were steeped in the plays of this writer.”

When Witmore concluded, the Republican chair of the subcommittee—whom I paraphrase here—said: “I think I can speak for the whole committee in saying that we get it. We care about this. But, our constituents don’t ask for the humanities. So my challenge to the advocates in this room is: get our constituents to ask for the humanities.”

With the support of the AAR and our more than 170 other member organizations, the National Humanities Alliance is taking on this broad challenge. The NHA was founded in 1981 when the Reagan Administration proposed large cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities. At that time a number of humanities organizations came together to found NHA so that they could speak with one voice against these cuts. While throughout our thirty-five year history much of our work has focused on making the case for federal funding for the humanities, our mission has always included advocating for the value of the humanities more broadly. In recent years, as a narrow narrative on the financial “return on investment” for humanities majors has come to dominate national discourse on the value of the humanities, we have increased our focus on that broader part of our mission.

As the example of Mike Witmore’s testimony illustrates, those engaged in humanities research, teaching, programming, and preservation have powerful stories to tell, and NHA works to connect them with their lawmakers. Every March, we host an Annual Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. On the first day of this two-day event, participants connect with a growing network of humanities leaders from around the country and highlight best practices for communicating the value of humanities research, education, programming, and preservation. On the second day—Humanities Advocacy Day—participants visit members of Congress with delegations from their state to discuss the impact of their work and make the case for federal support for the humanities. NHA provides these advocates with key briefing materials targeted to particular states and districts, but we also emphasize that the best way to build relationships with Congressional offices is by telling the story of their work.

To extend the message about the value of the humanities beyond Capitol Hill—and ultimately to broaden the base of humanities advocates—we work to support our members in making the case for the humanities on their campuses and communities. We are in the process of organizing the first in a series of three National Humanities Conferences with the Federation of State Humanities Councils to consider how academic and public humanities communities, by leveraging their strengths, can showcase the fundamental role the humanities play in addressing both local and global challenges. The first meeting takes place in Salt Lake City, November 10–13, 2016.

Through our Humanities Working Groups for Community Impact Initiative, meanwhile, we work to build coalitions of academic and public humanities practitioners in specific communities so as to cultivate greater local recognition and support for the role of the humanities in public life. With groups of humanities partners working in six sites, we are developing strategies for engaging community stakeholders and the general public on a local level. 

Subsequent columns in this series will offer deeper discussions of these initiatives and other aspects of our work. We will also highlight ways to become involved in our efforts as we seek to mobilize humanities scholars and practitioners, and the communities they serve, to make the case for the humanities on Capitol Hill and around the country.  

Stephen Kidd is executive director of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). Before joining NHA, he was director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Smithsonian Institution's "Museum without Walls." As director, he oversaw the development of major, research-based exhibitions including, among others, Crisis and Creativity: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt (2012), Colombia: the Nature of Culture (2011), and Asian Pacific Americans: Local Lives, Global Ties (2010). Prior to his work at the Smithsonian, he served on the staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He holds a BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in American Studies from The George Washington University.