The team at the Capitol. Left to right: California Humanities Board Member Oliver Rosales, President and CEO Julie Fry, Outreach and Advocacy Manager John Nguyen-Yap, and Board Chair Bennett Peji.
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California on the Hill

The annual Humanities on the Hill (HOH) sponsored by the Federation of State Humanities Councils (FSHC) this year was fulfillingly familiar while still providing new opportunities to reflect on the impact of the humanities across the country.

For California Humanities, the HOH trip consisted of two and half days of meeting with our state’s Congressional leaders to both advocate for the importance of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and share how our grantees and programs make an impact across the state. This year, our teams  completed 45 meetings with Congressional offices in both the House and Senate. California Humanities Board Chair Bennett Peji, Vice President at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation in San Diego, made his first HOH trip, and was paired with Julie Fry, our President & CEO. Bennett spoke passionately in each meeting about the importance of amplifying diverse voices across California.

“We were greeted in every Congressional office with tremendous respect, and the team delivered a strong message about the critical importance of supporting the humanities always and especially in these critical times,” Bennett stated. “Even though the humanities may not directly solve all of the issues that the legislators are dealing with on a daily basis, it is the humanities that makes those issues worth solving. And the arts and humanities projects that each generation chooses to leave behind tells future generations who we were and what we stood for.”

Our second team consisted of California Humanities board member Oliver Rosales, Professor of History at Bakersfield College, who was on this third HOH trip, and John Nguyen-Yap, our Outreach and Advocacy Manager. Oliver spoke as a passionate storyteller and advocate for the Central Valley who is also a former grantee of both the NEH and California Humanities. Every office we met with heard his personal account of seeing how NEH funding is a catalyst for community building and the economy. On average, every dollar of NEH funding generates at least four dollars in additional local investment. 

According to Oliver, “Meeting with various Congressional members and their staff offers great insight into what’s happening across our diverse state. I leave Capitol Hill with great energy, passion, and direction toward how I can leverage my own humanities networks to further expand our collective impact into the diverse corners of our state and ensure that every Californian has the opportunity to engage with quality public humanities programming.” 

Along with the information-filled meetings with our elected officials were new textures to this trip. The 2020 HOH event offered state humanities councils an opportunity to celebrate the retirement of Esther Mackintosh who has been the President of the FSHC since 2004 after joining the federation in 1986 as Vice President. The success of HOH and the Federation has been a reflection of Esther’s leadership, empathy, communication, and vision. We look forward to embarking on our future HOH participation with Phoebe Stein, incoming President, at the helm.

Being in Washington D.C. at this time provided another opportunity to reflect on the resonance of the humanities and the intersectional legacies of the people of California. In a wonderful coincidence, the play Mother Road, written by Octavio Solis, was ending its run at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. during the week of Humanities on the Hill. Mother Road is written as a continuation of the legacy of the Joad family and the Oklahoma migration to California told in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was loosely inspired by Jose Guillen, a Bakersfield artist, poet, and former student of Oliver’s, who invited us to watch the play with him, and it was a deeply moving and transcendent addition to this year’s HOH trip.

As Oliver said, “Mother Road weaves together beautifully the common destinies of the multiracial peoples who have toiled in the fields of the American West. It also shares a message of regeneration and a call for unity amidst a time of great divisiveness. The play is therefore incredibly timely and relevant.

The play encapsulated the purpose of Humanities on the Hill and our organizational mission to utilize the humanities and our collective stories to build understanding, generate civic participation, and help shape the future.

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