Humanities Means
— Josh Berk, executive director
Bethlehem Area Public Library

Humanities in action

Jun 11, 2015

In a series of recent PHC-sponsored events, community leaders from across the state learned how humanities-based methods can prove a valuable tool in community engagement, planning, and revitalization. Part of a new partnership between PHC and the Orton Family Foundation, the workshops introduced attendees to Orton’s Heart & Soul program, a resident-driven approach to community planning and development. Heart & Soul uses story sharing as a way to help community members gain a clear sense of the values that should drive community planning—resulting in plans that reflect the qualities residents cherish most about their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Tickets for the free workshops were all reserved well in advance, and feedback from attendees was extremely positive. “I think one of the clearest take-aways was that this is an effective way to engage people who normally might not be involved in community decision making,” says Mimi Iijima, director of programs and special projects with PHC. “In addition, people realized that story-gathering is quite a powerful tool of qualitative research.” Leanne Tingay, an Orton staff member who helped lead the sessions, stresses this point as well, referring to the stories the process yields as “data with a soul.”  “If you don’t like what people are saying,  you have to change the conversation.” - Orton Family Foundation staff member Gabrielle Ratté Smith, echoing the wisdom of TV’s Don Draper of Mad Men In the first half of each one-day workshop, representatives from the Orton Family Foundation introduced the four-stage process involved in implementing Heart & Soul. Later, individuals who have put the process to work in their own communities shared their firsthand experiences. Among these was Gabrielle Ratté Smith, now staff member with Orton and previously a founding member of the Heart & Soul project in Essex Junction, VT. Smith quoted a sentiment from Mad Men’s Don Draper in explaining the value of the approach: “If you don’t like what people are saying, you have to change the conversation.” Heart & Soul, she noted, helped her community shift the direction of dialog toward positive ideas and move forward with needed changes.  The workshops, held in Colmar (Montgomery County), Harrisburg, and Latrobe (Westmoreland County), drew participants from across the Commonwealth, some traveling a considerable distance. They included representatives of civic groups, municipal government, arts and culture groups, neighborhood organizations, and community foundations.  “We are delighted at the success of these events,” says PHC executive director Laurie Zierer. “With Heart & Soul, we’ve found an effective, proven method for putting the humanities at the center of community engagement, and it’s being met with great interest. What’s more, as we roll it out, we are steadily building the network of advocates and friends across the state, prepared to speak up on the practical value of the humanities.”   Mimi leads PHC’s program team in developing initiatives and resources that exemplify the humanities and their importance to Pennsylvania, and in promoting partnerships, networking, and learning about humanities programming.   She is currently directing the overhaul of PHC’s grant program. In her previous position as PHC’s senior program officer, Mimi was instrumental in strengthening PHC’s capacity to evaluate humanities programs and in launching Teen Reading Lounge. She also oversaw the Arts Commentary Fellowship and Humanities-in-the-Arts Grants. Mimi holds a B.A. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in museum education from University of the Arts, and certificates in Program Design, Management and Assessment from the University of Pennsylvania and in Executive Leadership from Bryn Mawr College. She is currently leading the Data Task Force, a collective of state humanities councils promoting the use of data, and is serving on the steering committee for Philanthropy Network’s Diversity/Equity/Inclusion initiative. In her free time, she co-chairs the planning committee for the Friends of Walnut Street West branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

May 06, 2015

At some point, creating a new cultural corridor in Chester, Pennsylvania, will likely take some construction work, or at least ambitious renovations. However, the first step in this process of revitalization is not to frame buildings, but a narrative—a story of the arts and culture and their place in the life of this city. It’s this evolving story that will guide the progress to come. With leadership from the PHC, the City, Widener University, Chester Arts Alive!, Gas & Electric Arts, and The Artist Warehouse, collaborators of many kinds are now working to write this story—or actually to transcribe it. The authors are the people of Chester themselves. Through a process called story-gathering, a ten-member team, the Chester Made Ensemble, have been meeting with residents, asking careful questions, and listening to what their fellow Chester residents have to say.  Some of their stories capture highlight moments: A woman tells of visiting a club where James Brown performed live to a thrilled audience. Decades later, her memory remains vivid of a once-thriving music scene.  Others describe an ongoing involvement in creation and expression: A young woman grows up singing Gospel music in her church choir, hearing concerts in the park, and performing plays in school. She remembers the arts as a life-saving force—a weapon against sadness in times of family trouble. Residents share their stories in groups called story circles or through story interviews, led by members of the Chester Made Ensemble who have been trained as facilitators. Participants—from school kids to senior citizens—gather in a church or library, at the Boys and Girls Club or at City Hall. A session might involve 30 people, five circles of six, or a series of one-on-one exchanges. The facilitator leads with a question, for example, “Tell us about a significant experience of arts, culture, and creativity in your life.” Then, in turn, each member of the circle has the chance to speak. Dr. Lisa Jo Epstein, Executive Director of Gas & Electric Arts, is a theater innovator, director, and educator who helped plan the project and was responsible for training Ensemble members along with Don Newton, a local resident and member of Chester Arts Alive! Epstein explains two key features of this story-based approach. “The stories were timed at two minutes,” she says. “Each person had the same amount of time, so all their stories would be given equal weight and value. Epstein points out how unusual it is to have the chance to share a story of personal importance, with a rapt audience, and without others interjecting. “We wanted to be sure that every person was heard and all stories honored,” she says. A highlight of the sessions were the “gift-backs” when members of the Chester Made Ensemble took a story they heard and brought it spontaneously to life in an act of instant, improvised theater. Don Newton, a member of Chester Arts Alive! who has helped lead the Chester Made Ensemble, notes the power of residents’ stories. “People remember a time that was, describe their city today, and express their hopes for the future. The idea that their views and values will help shape the city’s plans is extremely important.” Sometimes the stories residents share capture uplifting moments: A child is dropped at a summer day camp. She’s unhappy, not fitting in. She wanders away, through the park into the museum nearby and experiences an epiphany. Encountering the art on the walls, her eyes and mind open. She feels she can breathe freely. Many of the stories are tinged with loss: After the demolition of Deshong Mansion, a magnificent local landmark, a city worker helps carry away slabs of marble, wrought iron, and old flower pots. She feels a moving sense of “touching history,” contact with pieces of her city’s physical past that stood before her grandparents’ time. The goal of the story-gathering is to gain an understanding of the power and value of the arts and culture in the lives of the people of Chester, to give voice to their aspirations, and to lay the foundation for future plans. Planning for the Chester Cultural Corridor is moving forward with funding from Pew Charitable Trusts, PECO, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A key next step is to develop a Cultural Assets Map, marking places of significance across the city revealed by residents’ stories. This map will be both a visual celebration of creative life and a visioning tool. Now being developed by partners from Widener University, Chester’s City Planning Department, Chester Arts Alive!, Gas & Electric Arts, and The Artist Warehouse, the map will soon be presented to the community, along with live performances by the Chester Made Ensemble “As the city makes plans for future arts initiatives, the stories of Chester’s residents need to be central in the process, not an afterthought,” says Epstein. Newton, a life-long resident of Chester, agrees: “Community participation is key. The people of Chester know their voices are being heard, and for too long, they did not feel that way.” “Story-gathering is a powerful tool in community engagement and revitalization,” says PHC executive director Laurie Zierer. “In fact, we’re only beginning to see its full potential.” She adds that through a recent partnership with the Orton Family Foundation, PHC will be offering training sessions to community leaders across Pennsylvania in a highly effective story-based community engagement model developed by Orton called Community Heart and SoulTM. “This is a wonderful chance to spread this approach to many more Pennsylvania towns and cities,” she notes. In Chester, several weeks of story-gathering have revealed a remarkable variety of experiences and perspectives. A striking number, though, share a common thread: a note of aspiration, a desire for a renewed richness of arts and culture:  In their youth, a twin brother and sister take music classes at Frederick Douglass Junior High School. He goes on to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and to tour the world as an opera singer. She stays in Chester and sees her city change. She ends her story by describing a fierce desire for greater possibilities to open to the young people in her community today. MAJOR SUPPORT FOR THE CHESTER CULTURAL CORRIDOR HAS BEEN PROVIDED BY THE PEW CENTER FOR ARTS & HERITAGE, WITH ADDITIONAL SUPPORT FROM PECO AND THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES PHC’s Chester Made Project Partners include: The City of Chester, Widener University, Chester Arts Alive!, Gas & Electric Arts and The Artist Warehouse.  

Apr 16, 2015

PHC has been recognized for helping to meet an important need—providing high-quality afterschool programs for Pennsylvania’s kids. On March 3, the Pennsylvania Statewide Afterschool/Youth Development Network (PSAYDN) honored PHC as an Afterschool Champion for its outstand­ing work in developing meaningful afterschool/out-of-school time programs. The award recognized the impact of PHC’s Teen Reading Lounge, an interactive book discussion series for kids ages 12-18. Both substantive and fun, Teen Reading Lounge engages teens in book-related discussions and hands-on creative activities, helping them build literacy, critical thinking skills, and a sense of community. Held in more than 39 libraries throughout Pennsylvania, the program is expanding to 17 more locations this spring. “We are thrilled that PSAYDN sees the future in the same way we do,” said Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “At PHC, we strongly believe that including teen audiences in the public humanities is the first step in building a community of well-informed, highly-engaged adults.” “As an Afterschool Champion, PHC leads through example,” said PSAYDN director Kacy Conley. The champions’ outstanding commitment and hard work were recognized by the peers, leaders and community members who nominated. We are thrilled to shine the light on these inspiring accomplishments.” Afterschool programs pick up where the school day leaves off. They offer kids a safe, supervised place to go before and after school, on weekends and during summers and provide a variety of activities such as art, music, dance, sports, science, service learning, and career exploration. According to the landmark America After 3PM study conducted for the Afterschool Alliance, more than half a million Pennsylvania children currently need, but don’t have, afterschool programs.

  • jackson park
Jackson Park, Team Reading Lounge

Our Belief & Vision 

At the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, we believe that the humanities are a uniting and empowering force. They bring people together and provide the knowledge and strength they need to have an impact on their neighborhoods, cities, and towns.

The humanities develop essential thinking and social skills through the exploration of history, the arts, culture, literature, and music and through meaningful conversation. They help us make sense of the world we live in. Through the humanities, we learn to understand one another, to see new possibilities in our future, and to work, play, and live in more fulfilling ways.


Pennsylvania Humanities Council

What We Do

Promoting Essential Education—We help people develop abilities key to leading successful lives in the 21st century—from critical thinking, to creativity and collaboration.

Sparking Civic Engagement—We empower people to join together and make their communities stronger, using the tools of the humanities.

Championing the Public Humanities—We demonstrate and celebrate the value of the humanities and advocate for their support.