Photo Credit: Carlos Torres
NAME: Renée Perry
TITLE: Operations Coordinator
PREVIOUSLY: Operations Manager for Be Body Positive
GUIDING QUOTE/TAGLINE: I have two, if that’s not cheating. “On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.” – Charles Babbage, mathematician and inventor of one of the earliest computers
“I like to deal with fragments. Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you. Nothing fully worked out could be so arresting, spooky.” —Anne Carson, poet
They represent the two main ways I think about the world. On one hand, you have to have the right data and ask the right questions to solve problems. On the other hand, there has to be this space for imaginings.
CURRENTLY READING: The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu and Saga by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples
FAVORITE MOMENT OF CALIFORNIA HISTORY: There are probably several, but the one at the front of my mind right now is the rise of the Black Panther Party in 1966. I saw the exhibit at the Oakland Museum a couple of weekends ago and I am still thinking about it. It was a moment with so much hope, so much courage, and so much beauty. There was such a deep connection and commitment to the African-American communities of Oakland, allied with this determination to change the world. Just awe-inspiring.
What was it about California Humanities that first appealed to you?
I have always worked for organizations whose missions were about making a positive change in the world. Usually this has been direct service, such as one of my first jobs in an all-women’s natural foods collective or one of my more recent positions doing operations for a reproductive justice organization. What was intriguing about California Humanities was seeing how starting all these conversations, telling all these stories is another way of going about this work.
Your background in ecology and biology is not something people automatically think as a connection to the humanities – is there a connection or cross-section between those disciplines and the ones that traditionally make up the humanities? How so?
People have often asked me how I put art and science together when they learn about my background, so I have thought about this. I started out as an art major when I was in high school. I even went to the School of Visual Arts for about two and a half, three years when I was in my early twenties. I wanted to be a painter. When I went back to school, after about ten years, I was all ready to combine the interest in art and an interest in ecology into a urban planning major. Because I was starting in the winter quarter, before the program began, I decided to take some distribution credits to get them out of the way. I took a biology course and it completely turned me around. I found this new thing to love and a new way to look at the world. Basically I think that the sciences, the arts, the humanities, engineering, all of it comes out of what we are as human beings. These ways of thinking and ways of seeing are all flowing from the same source, even if they’re manifest in very different ways. What they have in common is that we’re always looking for patterns. Those patterns can be manifest in art, in science, in how people are alike, how we’re are different and what makes meaning for each of us.
At California Humanities, we strongly believe that the humanities are a relevant and meaningful way to connect us to each other. How do you see this coming across in our everyday lives?
The humanities always seem so tricky to define. It’s one of those things that I have a feeling for, but when it comes to pinning it down, it’s like nailing mercury. There’s a definition on the Stanford University website that I like, “… the study of how people process and document the human experience.” We all do this every day. We are always making sense of the world, how we relate to other people, how we are connected or unconnected, where we come from, how our hopes and dreams are shaped. The humanities formalizes these processes and record them so that we (meaning the big we of all people) can share them and recognize ourselves across all sorts of differences, distances, and time.
That sounds really florid. What I mean is the activities that are gathered under the umbrella of the humanities are the normal processes of being a person in the world. As disciplines, they make possible a deeper look. They also capture, through film, through all the ways of telling stories, the experiences of regular people doing this processing and making these connections.
Tell us one thing that you would like people who don’t already know you, to know about you?
I was going to say something about being a big science fiction fan, but I guess that’s sort of obvious from the currently reading question. Stephen Jay Gould, whose writing deeply influenced my thinking about science, wrote a book called The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. The book builds on this idea that Isaiah Berlin introduced about the world being divided into two sorts of thinkers – hedgehogs, who know one thing very, very well and foxes, who know a bit about a lot of things. Putting aside the whole problem with the dividing the world into two for now, I’d say that I’m a fox. I like learning about new things, which has meant a number of abandoned hobbies along the way. I enjoy understanding how different things work or how different people think, but then I’m on to the next, new, shiny thing.