Commentary: Maintain full funding for National Endowment for the Humanities

Photos - local - HASSAM - EARLY MORNING ON THE AVENUE - ADDISON GALLERY
NEA insurance coverage helped bring Childe Hassam's "Early Morning on the Avenue" and other masterpieces to PAFA for the current blockbuster World War I exhibit.

If you were asked to invest in a project where the outcome included effective education, empowerment, a less-divided community, and citizens who are better equipped for employment with a renewed capacity for respect, you'd likely reach for your checkbook. That's exactly what the National Endowment for the Humanities, with bipartisan support from Congress, has done for decades.

But now, with recent reports that the Trump administration wants to eliminate the NEH, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, those benefits could disappear. And that would be a tragic loss.

An independent federal agency established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, NEH spends the money well. It provides grant funding to foster humanities education and programming at universities, colleges, libraries, and museums. And it supports 56 state and territory humanities councils, including one in Pennsylvania. Annual spending by the NEH amounts to .003 percent of the federal budget, yet that money has an enormous impact, largely through the work of the humanities councils.

Councils reach more than 5,300 communities across the country each year. Their impact is further extended through partnerships with more than 9,200 organizations, reaching students, teachers, veterans, seniors, youth, and citizens looking for a better future, providing programs that improve lives and transform communities.

NEH allocates 40 percent of its program funds to state humanities councils. And for every federal dollar received from NEH, state humanities councils leverage an additional $5.

For Pennsylvanians, direct benefits come through the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC), on whose board I've served for the past three years. One great example can be found in the city of Chester.

In 2015, the Humanities Council partnered with the city, Widener University, and local artists to launch Chester Made, an initiative to recognize and promote arts and culture in Chester and use their power for community revitalization. More than 1,500 residents participated. Chester Made gave these citizens a way to speak, to hear each other, and to take action. Both NEA and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage recently awarded additional funds to continue this effective program.

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council also works with libraries across the commonwealth to fund Teen Reading Lounges. This innovative program empowers groups of teens to style their own reading groups. They help select the books, determine the way in which they will study them, and design related activities. This creative approach has engaged hundreds of teens who might otherwise not have had access to a quality after-school program. The result has been improved learning outcomes for teens, as well as a realization that reading can help them understand different points of view.

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which receives slightly more than $1 million annually from NEH, leverages its federal funding wisely. It does so through strong leadership and dedicated staff, who work tirelessly to demonstrate, both in word and deed, what the humanities do rather than focusing on what the humanities are. PHC leadership and staff take pains to foster enduring change. In this way, a small investment of federal funds provides a return on investment that is invaluable to Pennsylvania's citizens, producing empowerment and education while fostering understanding and civic pride.

The 1965 legislation that created state humanities councils structured them to provide service to Americans through local programs. It is core funding from NEH that allows councils to do this. Without that core funding, councils like PHC would lose their capacity to serve. Citizens across Pennsylvania and the nation risk losing far more than funding.

We cannot afford to stand idly by while NEH is eliminated simply to cut budgetary corners. Please take action to advocate for the humanities in public life. Ask your members of Congress to maintain full funding for NEH.

Jackie Penrod is chair of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council board of directors. jbpenrod3@gmail.com