Thursday, September 18, 2014

Catherine Allan - How do you see the humanities growing and active in your life/work?

Catherine Allan is a Senior Executive Producer at TPT National Productions. Her executive producing credits for PBS include two Peabody Award-winning productions: Liberty! The American Revolution and the acclaimed feature-length documentary Hoop Dreams. Allan’s American history productions for PBS also include Slavery by Another Name which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, Constitution USA with Peter Sagal, the Emmy Award-winning Benjamin Franklin, as well as Kinsey, Dolley Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

The humanities were always part of the fabric of my early life and education. My father was a journalist and writer, my grandfather a historian, my mother, an artist, and in college I studied those humanities stalwarts—English and History. And yet, I’ve always felt that my real education in the humanities didn’t begin until I took a job in television.

I was lucky enough to begin my career at a fortuitous time in the late 1960s. Lyndon Johnson had recently signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act providing financing to public TV and radio through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and another law creating the National Endowments for the Humanities (NEH) and the Arts. These two acts had a big impact on my work life. My first job out of college was with public television; I have never wanted to work anywhere else since. Here at Twin Cities Public Television (tpt), I have overseen a body of history series and specials, many with funding from the NEH.

As it turned out, public television and the humanities were meant for each other, as anyone knows who has watched history come to life through a Ken Burns documentary or an episode of American Experience on PBS. Over the years here at tpt, we’ve produced an extraordinary body of humanities content on the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and slavery in the post-Civil War South.

One of our most recent series for PBS was Constitution USA in which host Peter Sagal travels cross-country on a Harley to find out how the Constitution works in the 21st century. Peter visits Americans caught up in modern-day constitutional debates over same-sex marriage, gun control, affirmative action, voting rights, and immigration. He also talks to some of the leading constitutional thinkers in America today. Our goal with the series was to inform people about what is actually in the Constitution—turns out most of us have not read it—and then get people thinking and talking about the role of the Constitution in America’s history and in our lives today.

It is every producer’s dream to have the content of a program live on after the television broadcast, especially when that content is so rich. So when David O’Fallon first approached tpt about using Constitution USA as a springboard for a series of statewide conversations about the Constitution through the Minnesota Humanities Center, we were thrilled. The Humanities Center’s Toward a More Perfect Union, project, taking place throughout 2014, is a series of dialogues in communities across Minnesota, in which people have a chance to explore the Constitution as a living document in their lives. Few pieces of writing are so chock full of humanities themes as this slim document that forms the basis of our government and sets out our rights as individuals. Toward a More Perfect Union will get people thinking about the values and beliefs embodied in our founding document and, in the process, the essential importance of the humanities in our world today. For me, personally, the partnership between tpt and the Humanities Center is another great example of the missions of public television and the humanities coming together.

Learn more about the Minnesota Humanities Center and tpt's collaborative program, Toward a More Perfect Union, and find an event near you.

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