The Humanities go to Washington: An Interview with Robert Bowen

On March 13, 2017, I joined approximately 200 humanities advocates in downtown DC to receive training in effective lobbying (the event was organized by the National Humanities Alliance and sponsored by the APA).  The purpose of this was to impact the current Congress’s budgetary discussions and to build relationships with my elected representatives, with the long-term goal of promoting the government’s support for the humanities.  I quickly found out that numerous other individuals had, like me, chosen to do this for the first time after hearing of the Trump administration’s plans to cut all funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Others had decided to participate after seeing their schools time and again cut funding to the humanities in the name of financial constraints while doubling down on vocational training because it brings in money.

The day of training was an enjoyable and motivating experience, but the day of advocacy following it felt more significant.  Off and on for approximately six hours two other advocates and I trekked through the recently fallen snow to the offices of three Wisconsin representatives and two Wisconsin senators.  Meetings with Congressional staff were short, congenial, and filled with as many compelling facts as we could fit.  The staff we met with were receptive, agreeable, but noncommittal. Yet even lacking firm commitments, the day helped to educate many working on Capital Hill of the role the humanities play in their districts (for example, the NEH funded the Madison, WI Odyssey Junior program to give impoverished youth of color access to the humanities; click here to find NEH grants in your area).

I found the experience useful if for no other reason than that it convinced me of the need to speak more forcefully for the humanities.  Even in the offices of elected officials who voiced support for Trump’s budget there were people who spoke highly of their humanities courses.  The implication was that while the humanities are valued, other issues—such as the national debt or foreign policy—are the priority.  We need to show that, without the humanities, these problems will likely become more intractable.

Robert Bowen, who helped organize the event, spoke with me afterwards.

What is Humanities Advocacy Day?

Humanities Advocacy Day is an event for people from across the humanities community, those engaged in humanities, teaching, research, programming, and preservation work, to come together to advocate for the humanities on Capitol Hill. We assign advocates to groups based on their state and arrange for meetings for their group with their Members of Congress. In scheduling these meetings, we strive to reach as many appropriators and other Members we have reason to believe are likely to support the humanities.

In their meetings, advocates talk with their Members about a range of federal humanities programs that provide grant opportunities to humanities scholars, particularly the National Endowment for the Humanities, international education programs in the Department of Education, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

How many people from the National Humanities Alliance are involved in organizing the event, and what are the various tasks they are doing?

Given how critical Humanities Advocacy Day is to boosting support for the humanities on Capitol Hill, our entire staff is deeply involved in producing the event. In advance of Humanities Advocacy Day, we create training materials to prepare advocates for their meetings, develop advocacy resources to leave with Members of Congress, create profiles of Members of Congress, and work with more than 300 Congressional offices to arrange meetings for our advocates.

Picture courtesy of Kwana Strong Photography

What are the meetings with the various offices like?  Are there any particular topics that advocates should bring up or stay away from?

Each meeting is different depending on the knowledge, background and interests of the staff member and the Member of Congress, as well as the advocates. We encourage our advocates to look at the Member’s background and the issues they are most interested in and try to make a connection between work in the humanities receiving federal support and what they are passionate about. We also encourage our members to discuss things they are passionate about and bring their personal experience to the meeting. In general, good arguments emphasize the impact that federal support has had, and the broader reach of the humanities work whether it is a program that has involved the public or reached students, a project that has preserved vital cultural heritage, or research that pushes forward our understanding of an issue.

What tend to be the biggest challenges in organizing HAD, and how do you try to address them?

One of the most significant challenges in organizing Humanities Advocacy Day each year is making sure that we are providing the best training and resources possible to our advocates to make sure they are in a good position to be effective advocates. In addition to preparing the training materials and Member profiles, we host an advocacy training at the end of the first day of the conference. Each year we go over the previous year’s experience and figure out how we can improve.

Can you describe the situation the humanities are in and why advocacy is so important?

The day before President Trump’s inauguration, The Hill reported that the Trump Administration was considering calling for the elimination of the NEH and the NEA. In mid-March, the administration released a budget blueprint recommending the elimination of not just the NEH and the NEA, but also the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Further, the document called for the reduction or elimination of the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays international education programs in the Department of Education. It is critical that advocates for the humanities mobilize to speak out against this effort to eviscerate federal humanities programs.

The Presidential Budget Request is simply advisory. Congress will determine funding levels through the appropriations process. We have been encouraged by bipartisan support for the endowments in Congress through the last few years. In particular, we believe that the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which drafts funding levels for the NEH, understands and values the Endowment. But in order to ensure that here is enough support in Congress to meet this challenge, it is crucial that Members of Congress hear from their constituents about the work that federal funding for the humanities is supporting in their communities and the depth of public support these programs have.

The Trump budget was certainly a concern for many during HAD.  Are Humanities Advocacy Days different during administrations that are friendlier to the humanities, and if so, how?

One difference is the level of enthusiasm and participation. We have been encouraged by the humanities community’s response to the proposed cuts, including the unusually large attendance at Humanities Advocacy Day this year. The particular challenges that the Humanities are facing also certainly shape the conversation during the Annual Meeting that occurs on the first day. However, the Congressional meetings on the second day are substantially similar. The emphasis, as always, is on how to build relationships between the humanities community and Congressional offices, and show Members the value of the work happening back in their communities.

Other than the American Philosophical Association, what humanities related organizations are involved in the event?

NHA has nearly 200 member organizations and their membership makes the work we do all year, including Humanities Advocacy Day, possible. In addition to their contributions, 24 organizations, including the American Philosophical Association, sponsored the event directly. Advocacy Day sponsors, and our members, represent the breadth of the humanities community, and include Colleges and Universities, scholarly societies, and associations of Universities, museums, and preservation institutions.

How successful was Humanities Advocacy Day this year? Are there any ways you’d like to see the event evolve in the future?

Despite some challenging weather, this was a very successful year for Advocacy Day. We had nearly 200 advocates join us, a substantial increase from previous years, and they visited more than 250 Congressional offices. The feedback from our advocates about the reception they received from the offices was overwhelmingly positive. Overall, it was an important demonstration of the broad support the NEH has and of the commitment to advocacy within the humanities community.

We are now focused on helping our advocates stay engaged with the offices they met with on Advocacy Day so that we can translate that engagement into more support in Congress at critical junctures in the appropriations process. We hope this year’s Humanities Advocacy Day participants will come back next year to continue building on these relationships.

I have many friends and colleagues who support the work of HAD, but couldn’t easily make it to DC.  How can they get involved if they can’t directly advocate?

Members of Congress maintain offices back in their communities, so if you can’t make it to DC you can always schedule a meeting with a staff member back in that office, or with the Member of Congress while they are in town. When you have an event at your institution, you could always invite the Member or their staff. You can also call the office to express your opinion about any humanities issue.

Each year we also release an action alert, providing resources to those who can’t make it to DC to call and write their Members of Congress, to coincide with Humanities Advocacy Day and amplify the day’s impact.

 

Robert Bowen is a government affairs associate at the National Humanities Alliance, a coalition of more than 200 organizations, including APA, dedicated to advancing humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs. Before joining NHA, he served on the legislative staff of Senator Carl Levin, working on issues related to transportation, labor, trade, government oversight and political reform. Prior to his work for Senator Levin, Bowen worked in the Office of the Provost at the University of Michigan, where he received his B.A. in History.

The picture at the top is courtesy of Kwana Strong Photography.

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