Cal Humanities

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more when it is in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

3 Questions With Julie Fry

Above image: Julie Fry (center), with California Humanities staff in Oakland on February 9, 2023.

This month we talk to outgoing President & CEO Julie Fry about – of course – the humanities, what she’s packing for her move to Paris, and some of the highlights from her eight years at the helm. Prior to joining California Humanities in early 2015, she was a Program Officer in The Performing Arts Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the first Director of Arts and Culture at The San Diego Foundation, and a lot of other things before that, in a life that has so far included a corporate career, two kids (now grown), and a decade in the Northwest of England. 

How has your view of the humanities and public humanities work changed or evolved since you joined California Humanities eight years ago? 

Woman in a matching blue blazer and pants posing for the camera
Julie Fry. Photo by Sabrina Bot, courtesy of Villa Albertine SF. Artwork: Photograph Reine Ruthza by Sophie Comtet Kouyaté

Even before my first day at California Humanities, people were happy for me when I told them about my new job, but many asked me a variation of the question “so…what ARE the humanities, anyway?” The question was never really about the academic disciplines that we recognize as such – history, literature, art criticism, philosophy and the like – but rather wondering what a statewide nonprofit grantmaker and programmer means by the humanities. I understood the hunger for this, the desire to pin it down to something measurable and definable. We even did a We are the Humanities video campaign several years ago, asking prominent Californians from different fields what the humanities mean to them.

But if I have learned anything during my time here, it’s that the humanities are gloriously and infinitely vast. They defy definition – though we continue to try – and they welcome everyone at any age. For me the humanities are about curiosity, about a way of being open to the world, past, present, and future.  They go beyond storytelling while keeping stories and voices at the center.

The humanities are about us – our traditions, ideas, families, connections, creativity, grief and joy – and our shared experience of living.

What are a few California-centered books, art, or pieces of media that are making the trip with you to Paris, and why? 

I’ve lived in California for over 23 years, the place I have lived the longest in my adult life. It’s just a tad more than the number of years that I lived in Wisconsin, where I grew up. I lived in San Diego and Palo Alto and Mountain View and San Jose and Oakland and traveled to various parts of the state with my children on vacations. But it was my eight years at California Humanities that really helped me to explore – and better understand – all the different and diverse regions of California. I will carry everything I have learned about this glorious golden state with me for the rest of my life. 

Julie’s hand-painted stool from the King’s Mountain Art Fair is making the trip with her to Paris.

Besides a lot of memories and connections, what else is going with me to Paris? The hand-painted stool that I acquired under the redwoods at the annual King’s Mountain Art Fair. The cookbooks I have been collecting from California-based chefs like Alice Waters, Tanya Holland, and yes, Julia Child. The t-shirt from Masumoto Family Farm that I wore when I’ve picked peaches and nectarines in their orchard in the heat of Central Valley summers. A slimmed-down vinyl collection that includes albums by iconic California musicians like Etta James, Tower of Power, and Fanny. And many, many books by California writers. All of them will serve to remind me of home. I know I will need some remembered California sunshine from time to time, for comfort and inspiration. And I’ll come back and visit often, for some of that real California sunshine.

At the risk of being too meta in this “3 Questions” blog, what are “3 Highlights” from your time at California Humanities?  

Really, I can only pick three? That seems impossible, but without hesitation, the top highlight has been the opportunity to work with the people on our staff and board over the years who care so deeply about making sure everyone has access to rich humanities experiences. My colleagues have always been keen to try a new idea, consider a different approach, and figure out how to expand what we do to more people. It has also been a great privilege to collaborate with our grantees and partners, our colleagues at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and the rest of the state humanities council community. I’m not sure that it’s hit me yet that my time with this amazing group of people is coming to an end, but I know I will follow their successes for many years to come. 

The second highlight was the development of our framework for strategic thinking in 2015, the result of all the miles that we traveled, both metaphorical and actual, to meet with people in different parts of the state to listen to their stories and learn how we could better bring the humanities to them. What has followed over the years has been the research and development of new initiatives and programs, some short-term and responsive to what is happening in the world, like our two years of $4.6 million in COVID-related relief and recovery grants, and some that are building public humanities muscles in libraries and community colleges and beyond, such as the Library Innovation Lab and Emerging Journalist Fellowships. It has been gratifying to seek ways, through our equity lens, to serve the wonderfully different communities across California.

It was also thrilling to achieve the first-ever funding for California Humanities from the State of California: $1 million in 2019 and $2 million in 2021.  Our efforts started back in 2016 with a reception we held in Sacramento for elected officials, the magical night when Senator Ben Allen attended and immediately understood our goals. He has been our champion ever since, along with then-Assemblymember and current Attorney General Rob Bonta. We worked hard over the years to make the case for how an investment by the state would help us deepen our impact across California. Our efforts included a humanities advocacy day at the Capitol, meetings with many state legislators in their districts around the states, a humanities hearing before the members of the Joint Committee on Arts, State Senate budget meetings and the opportunity to stand up at the end and mention California Humanities. I loved every minute of it. Many people are part of this success story, from seemingly tireless legislative staff strategizing with and connecting us, to our grantees and partners who added their names to letters asking for support, and everyone along the way.

I’ll finish with 3½ words that exemplify the experiences I have had as President & CEO: Fun. Invigorating. Life-changing.

Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart to the top of my book pile.


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