Thursday, June 22, 2017

Nicolaas VanMeerten - Sharing Experiences Through Video Games

Nicolaas VanMeerten is the Senior Programs Director at GLITCH, and third year Ph.D. student in the Educational Psychology program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Nic is a data scientist by trade and his research focuses on learning behaviors in complex multiplayer video game environments.

Video games are an ideal medium for documenting and communicating the human experience. They allow us to take on the role of someone else and share in their experiences through a digital environment. For example, the game This War of Mine, which was inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, was developed to communicate what it was like to live as a civilian during war times in that city. While helping your group of civilians stay alive in the war torn city, you experience a whirlwind of emotions from sadness to fear and even depression at times. However, this game is only one of many that have been developed recently that are intended to serve as a way to communicate a person’s experience.

My first encounter with this type of game was Papers, Please. In this game, the player takes on the role of an immigration officer at a border crossing in a country that is reminiscent of the Soviet Union. As the officer, you are charged with completing fairly mundane tasks on a daily basis, such as checking people’s immigration documents, inspecting identification photos for fraud, and frisking people for contraband. However, your performance on these tedious tasks is directly related to the officer’s salary, which has consequences (food, heating, medication, etc.) for the health of the officer’s family. In addition, you are regularly charged with making decisions that question your morality. For example, do you let a person’s spouse into the country, even though they don’t have the correct paperwork and risk the loss of salary, or do you reject their spouse and send them back to their home country by themselves?

These are just a few examples of why video games could be used more often as an engaging, experiential humanities tool used to share stories across cultures. These games are capable of delivering a rich digital world that mimics the experiences of people around the world who we may never meet, allowing us a chance to perceive the world as they do and help us better understand our fellow humans.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Blues Vision Workshop for Educators

”An enlightening, transformative, and safe space to learn and grow as an educator. Crucial learning for anyone who teaches in Minnesota and beyond.” - Allison Merrill, Educator

Join other educators for a very unique professional development opportunity: Blues Vision in the Classroom,to be held at the Minnesota Humanities Center on July 25 and 26, 2017. This workshop uses Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota as the starting point for rigorous discussion and activities that will help participants create practical strategies for using texts from the book as catalysts for conversation and potential change in the classroom. This opportunity prepares participating educators for meaningful engagement with their students by encouraging a deeper understanding of African American experiences and the black literary tradition in Minnesota.

If you join us at this two-day workshop you will will receive supplementary resources, strengthened relationships with colleagues and authors, clock hours, meals, and a copy of Blues Vision as part of this experience. Space is limited so register soon!

For more information about this opportunity, visit

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Janice Gilmore - From Student to Educator to Collaborator: Creating Change

Janice Gilmore is a columnist, educator, popular motivational and inspirational speaker, and author. She took early retirement after a 31-year career in the Omaha Public School District (OPS) as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Janice writes a column for the Omaha World Herald newspaper and Revive, an African-American lifestyle and community empowerment magazine. She is also a consultant for Innocent Classroom, a part of the OPS - Minnesota Humanities Center professional development partnership.

I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in the 50s. My experiences as a little black girl during that time were many — not all of them good. And, unfortunately, many of the unpleasant experiences I had during that time were based on race.

I remember when I was in second grade the white teacher in a classroom with mostly white students and a few black ones read the book Little Black Sambo. The book’s illustrations showed exaggerated features of Sambo including huge red lips, big white eyes, and skin the color of coal — an offensive portrayal of any person of color. After the teacher read a page, she would turn the book around for all the children to see the picture. The white kids would snicker and point at us; the black kids would feel ashamed. The teacher seemed not to have a clue on the impact it would have on us black kids. And of course, there were no black teachers around, as black teachers were few and far between during that time.

When I became a teacher, and ultimately a principal, I wanted to guarantee that all children were treated fairly. I still carried some hurts from childhood, so I was especially sensitive about ensuring that these little children were not subject to some of the experiences that I had.

Then about five years ago, after I had been enjoying my early retirement from OPS, I became affiliated with the Humanities Center. I was so impressed with their professional development program that I was eager to become a part of it if possible. The passion that Humanities Center leaders Dr. David O’ Fallon, President and CEO, and Dr. Eleanor Coleman, Education Strategy Consultant, have exhibited concerning this program is contagious. And being a part of this organization has been exciting to me.

Not only am I a consultant for Innocent Classroom, but Increase Student Engagement Through Absent Narrative workshops, School Action Team, Story Circles, and Reconstructive Curriculum, are other workshop offerings that I have been able to see or participate in over the years. There are other programs that are touted by educators that I have not personally witnessed, but my understanding is that they are superbly designed to help teachers better educate students.

If my teachers had access to professional development of the magnitude that the Humanities Center provides, I would venture to say that no little child would have had to sit through the humiliation of Little Black Sambo as my friends and I did.  And that would be a good thing!              

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Randy Ellingboe - Our World, Our Water

Randy Ellingboe has been manager of the Section of Drinking Water Protection at the Minnesota Department of Health since 2008, working with the people who operate public water supply systems to ensure that Minnesota's public drinking water meets all federal health standards. Randy has also worked for a number of other state agencies on water quality issues and in agronomy on hayland and pastureland research projects. He is currently the president of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators and his agency was a state partner with the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Water/Ways exhibit and is a current partner in the We Are Water MN planning process..

Drinking water has been in national and local news a lot recently. Stories about lead, chemical spills, harmful algal blooms in lakes and rivers, and impacts from agriculture and industry on drinking water have captured our attention.

These news stories are alarming; contaminated waters pose threats to our health and the health of our environment, and safe drinking water is the foundation of community and business prosperity. At the same time, unless we are directly affected by one of those stories, we often take safe, plentiful drinking water for granted. It can be hard to know what we can do as private citizens to protect the drinking water that comes from our groundwater, lakes, rivers, and streams.

While valuable, statistics, facts, and theories are hard to grasp unless they are part of a larger context — part of a story. Often, it isn’t science that changes our views. Instead, change comes from the stories that touch our hearts and inspire emotion. Stories can help us connect the things we do every day in our jobs, homes, and activities to what we learn from science about our health and environment.

This year, Minnesotans had an exciting chance to share stories about water across the state as part of the Water/Ways exhibit. The exhibit, sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Center in cooperation with the Smithsonian and many state and local partners, travelled to six communities across Minnesota. It was a chance for these communities to come together around the stories of their water(s), to share what their water(s) mean to them and how they protect them, and to think and talk about what we all must do to protect them into the future. It was a new way for state and local government agencies with interests in water, like us at the Minnesota Department of Health, to connect with citizens and communities.

The Water/Ways exhibit blended stories from Minnesotans about how they value water and what water means to them with stories from agencies that monitor our waters and work with the people who manage our lands, businesses, and utilities. The exchange of these stories about water is crucial to help us connect as private citizens, businesses, government, landowners, and utility managers. We all play critical roles in protecting the health of our water — and by doing so — ourselves. We can learn from each other’s stories, to help us better understand our world and our water.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Meryll Levine Page - Memorial Day 2017: Why Remember?

Meryll Levine Page served on the board of Minnesota Humanities Center from 2004-2012. Following her tenure on the board, she served as a consultant, drawing on her thirty-nine years of teaching experience. Meryll also blogs at: Together with her sister, Leslie Levine Adler, Meryll is the author of the nonfiction work, Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception and Risky Business.

I am conflicted about war. To me some wars seem justified; others do not. I am not conflicted, however, about war memorials. Whenever I travel, I’m drawn to war memorials. Some are monumental like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and others are modest like the simple obelisks with inscribed names found in small villages throughout Canada and Europe.

I’ve heard the claim that by building monuments and setting aside a day each May to memorialize our war dead we celebrate war. I don’t agree. War memorials make us confront a very uncomfortable reality—that the cost of war is very high, not only for those who died and suffered, but also for their families.

Phil Ochs’s lyrics always play through my head when I stand before a war memorial. He wrote:
“It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all.”
Ochs’s question hangs in the air whenever conflict is possible—is a war and the death of soldiers and civilians worth it? That’s a question worth pondering before we enter another war. To negotiate the future, we need to reflect upon the past.

Walking the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, you’ll encounter a collection of war memorials that bear witness to the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers and their families. Some of the memorials may upset you, but they will also impel you to reflect. “I do not need to be told to remember,” writes Veteran Brian Humphreys. Many of us, however, do need to be told to remember.

The Minnesota Humanities Center has been helping all of us remember through its many programs focused on Veterans. Veterans’ Voices brings together Veterans in dialogue with each other and with literature through shared inquiry. I was privileged to write curricula focused on the memorials at the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, which are available to all at no cost via the Humanities Center’s website.

The humanities enable all of us to engage with the meaningful questions of our lives—why we remember the past, why we go to war, how we, as a society, treat our Veterans. Through civil discourse and a shared examination of literature, history, and the arts, together, we can tackle fundamental questions and begin to understand each other.

This Memorial Day, I encourage you to listen to Veterans’ voices. Take the time to visit a war memorial, drive along Victory Memorial Parkway, listen to the strain of ”Taps,” visit a museum, read a poem or book, or watch a film. Pausing to remember by engaging with arts, literature, and history can help us to build a more thoughtful future.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jennifer Tonko - Building Water Relationships through Stories

Jennifer Tonko is the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Program Officer for Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits

Over the last two years, the Humanities Center has been exploring the connection between the humanities and water through a partnership called We Are Water MN. The first phase of this partnership, where we shared the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, Water/Ways, with six greater Minnesota communities is now over. We did some tremendous things. We worked as a group of five statewide agencies to build a complementary exhibit, We Are Water MN, that tells Minnesota’s water stories collaboratively through personal narratives, historical materials, and scientific information, and more than 7,000 people came to see it. We helped host sites build and strengthen relationships with 125 organizations in and around their communities. We presented about the partnership to about 500 people.

Last October my colleague, Britt Gangeness (from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), and I were invited to speak at a meeting of the Basin Alliance for the Lower Mississippi in Minnesota (BALMM) to make one of these presentations. Whenever we present we strive to do a few things: remind our audience that we’re in an indigenous place, give the participants a chance to reflect on and share their own relationships with water, and to help them experience the We Are Water MN partnership by actually doing our work with them—instead of just talking at them. We do this primarily through story.

This BALMM meeting was a pivot point for me, because it’s where I learned to tell my own water stories. When we do these presentations, we always share some of the wonderful stories that our professional interviewers have gathered. (You should look at them too; you can find them all at Some of my favorites are the stories of Jim Rock, Emily Buermann, Sally Hausken, and Becky and Don Waskosky—but there are lots of good ones!) Then we ask people to reflect on what they heard and tell some of their water stories. Because I’m usually the one asking the questions, I don’t often share my own stories. But this time was different. I shared the story of when my dad and I got his truck stuck in deep mud at Dunbar Slough in Iowa when I was visiting home during one of my college summers.

It was one of those August days where even breathing makes you sticky, and we were four miles from home, three miles from my grandparents’ house. We walked and walked through the cotton batting air hoping that someone might drive by (which they never did). Then we came to the artesian well in the ditch that he and his brothers knew about from their childhood explorations on this same road. We climbed through the prickly grass and drank the cold, clear water—and it was the best water I’ve ever had! Sharing this story reminded me of my own relationships with water: visiting one of my special places from childhood, a love-hate relationship with humid Iowa summers, the refreshment and life that is the water we drink. This kind of exercise in reminding and reflecting is exactly how the humanities help shape the conversations that are happening about water right now. Sharing this story also built my relationship with the people from BALMM in the room—they learned a little bit about why I love the work that I do and saw the world from my perspective as they listened to me.

Even though the partnership is called We Are Water MN it could just as easily have been called We Are Story—hat tip to Mona Smith with Allies: media/art for making this connection for me. It has been my great honor to hear many Minnesotans’ water stories and to step into their hearts for those moments. I carry those stories with me now and they affect the choices I make every day. People here have a deep relationship to this place and to the water that shapes it and sustains us. I’m looking forward to learning more from people in additional communities throughout Minnesota. Looking ahead to phase two, we are hoping to engage a new group of eight host communities, where we can continue to learn from and amplify Minnesotans’ personal experiences with water in this place that we call home. If you think your community would be a good fit for this community-building exhibit, please let me know by reaching out to me:

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jason T. Garcia - The Humanities: Our Ideas, Values, and Beliefs

Jason Garcia is the Program Officer for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices program. As a 21-year Army Veteran and retiree, Jason is committed to serving our nation. His status as a combat Veteran, with first-hand understanding of the challenges and opportunities of transitioning from military life, makes him a welcome addition to the Humanities Center’s team and well-positioned to lead the Humanities Center’s Veterans’ Voices program.

For 21 years, I traveled the world as a soldier. Along my journey, I was exposed to countless conflicts of ideas, values, and beliefs. I witnessed the terrible destructive capacity of humans when diplomacy failed, and dwelt in locations of unimaginable dark desolation. When I reflect on my journey, I ponder the eternal question—Why? Why did I willingly place myself in harm’s way? Why did I voluntarily endure such hardships? Why did I expose my mind, body, and spirit to such hostilities? On an individual level, I relate to the humanities as a way of exploring those very personal and deeply emotional questions. As a member of the human collective, I think the humanities have the potential to allow us to transcend those conflicts in ideas, values, and beliefs.

The humanities allow us to experience different ideas, influence us to evaluate our values, and inspire us to challenge our own beliefs. They help us to understand one another by facilitating open-mindedness and illuminating culture, and empower us to share our individual experiences so that we may discover our commonalities. Artists like the renowned painter Francisco de Goya put pigment to canvas to expose man’s inhumanity, and the writings of spiritual leaders such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama provide insight into timeless cultural traditions of compassion. They have used the humanities to illustrate the full spectrum of our human potential. Throughout human history, the humanities have opened our minds and eyes to the world around us and have taught us to be teachable. The humanities relate to the issues of our current times by providing us with a means to explore the enduring question of what it means to be human.

“The arts and humanities are vastly more important in troubled times.” - Jim Leach

The Global War on Terrorism has been waging for over 15 years and has resulted in civil unrest and misunderstanding within our society. Today we are more disconnected from one another than ever before. As one soldier among a U.S. contingent of over 2 million troops, I often feel that disconnect and experience a deep longing to be understood. For I am a soldier, but I am a person too. I long to discover the differences and commonality among my civilian contemporaries. How does a civilian citizen experience our fight against terrorism and how do they see me? I yearn for an opportunity to express my story and I hope that the experiences of my comrades are not left unheard. I find faith in the humanities; for they are a means of expression to share how we individually experience the issues of our times. They are a podium from which to freely share our personal experiences and give us each a voice to whisper wind-gently or roar lion-loudly. Ultimately though, the humanities allow us to better understand each other’s ideas, values, and beliefs and “focus on what unites us, not divides us”.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Two Weeks Left to Nominate an Outstanding Veteran: 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award Nominations Close May 19!

Do you know an exceptional Minnesota Veteran? If so, you should consider nominating him or her for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award.

"Like many of my peers, I work tirelessly to improve our community through a continued commitment to serve,” said Paul Riedner, a 2016 Veterans’ Voices awardee. “The Veterans' Voices Award amplifies our efforts and provides a much needed platform for the incredible gifts that those who serve have to offer us all."

Now in its fifth year, the Veterans' Voices Award recognizes, amplifies, and honors Minnesotans who have honorably served in the military and are now thriving and making significant contributions to their respective communities. These actively engaged, former and current military service members go above and beyond to make positive contributions that improve the lives of people across Minnesota.

“My selection as a Veteran Voices Award winner was an incredible personal honor, but more importantly, it expanded awareness of the two non-profits that I work with: Women Veterans Initiative and Healing of Memories,” said Sheila Laughton, a 2016 Veterans’ Voices awardee. “It is a huge step toward changing the stereotype of the morally injured Veteran.”

To nominate a Veteran for this award, fill out the online nomination form, and submit the completed form along with a two-page (maximum) narrative of why you are nominating this individual for an award.

Completed nominations must be received by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, May 19, 2017. Nominees selected to receive an award will be notified by July 8, 2017. All awardees must be able to attend the September 11, 2017, dinner and award ceremony that will be held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Exclusions: Please note that Humanities Center staff, board members, fellows, and consultants are neither eligible to nominate an individual for, nor receive, a 2017 Veterans' Voices Award.

Nominate today! For more information visit:

Some of the Veterans’ Voices Awardees from past years have been featured bloggers for the Humanities Center. Following is a selection of blog posts shared by Veterans’ Voices Awardees:

Thursday, April 27, 2017

David O'Fallon - You don't need the humanities

David O’Fallon, PhD, is the President and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

You don't need the humanities
really—I’m not kidding—you don't,

if everything is settled,
if every problem is a technical problem, one that can be
best resolved with facts, with data.
(Big or little  or in between)

You don't need the humanities
if the fundamental questions
of what is the good life,
what form of community is best,
how we relate to each other,
what gives meaning to my life,
to our life, are answered forever.

You don't need the humanities
if there is nothing to learn,
from thousands of years of wisdom
from women and men all over the earth,
nothing of consequence, really,
nothing that can matter to your daily life or your week
or year, nothing that can be gained
asking these questions and gathering
answers and insights,

if their learning and questioning and works mean nothing
then we surely don't need to bother with the humanities.

You don't need the humanities
if you need no guide to a complex
question, such as,
how ought we use the resources of this earth?
Who does water belong to, all of else, anyone ?
What is the balance between private right and public responsibility?
Between private gain and common good?
What is the  essence of being human, is it changed by
gene manipulation, cloning, AI, and ...
forces we've not yet imagined,

but if this is all settled forever, all clear –
we don't need the humanities.

If we know what we ask of the men and women we send to war,
If we understand them, the full price of war, and how to honor
And support and work towards a mission beyond war
—if we know and practice this—we don’t need the humanities.

You don't need the humanities
if you are confident and competent in every culture
And faith, or no faith
–at ease with Mormons and Muslims and Dakota and
Tagalog and Branch Davidians and Nones and
Pagans and–add your own–then we don't
need the humanities for there is no understanding to be gained,
no empathy to be developed.

All is well.
If all is well. If we are done. Fixed. Set.

If life is just a few technical problems to be worked out,
which we surely can resolve.

If history is finished.

We don't need the humanities. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bruce Richardson - Vietnam War Perspectives: From the Battlefields to Shakespeare’s Warrior King

Bruce Richardson is the project leader for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Vietnam Veterans’ Voices project. He is a director of the St. Louis Park School Board, works with the Military Action Group in the Legislature, and is Chair of the West Point Student Leadership Seminar. He lives in St. Louis Park with his wife Audrey, and they have a brand new granddaughter.

In February 1969 I arrived in CuChi, Vietnam. It’s hard to believe that was almost half a century ago, but I was just a young soldier who happened to be one of the most highly trained warriors in the world. I was a U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger, artillery officer—and I thought I was tough. I was, however, also the closest thing West Point had to an English major at the time, and I loved Shakespeare.

One of my favorite plays was the history play, Henry V, written by William Shakespeare in 1599. After King Henry’s cousin complains that their men are outnumbered by the French (in 1415 they were—three or four to one.) Shakespeare’s Henry gives a rousing speech before the Battle of Agincourt. He explains why he fights: “If we are mark'd to die, we are enow. To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.”

Is it honorable to go to war? King Henry thought so, “But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.” As cadets at West Point we discussed honor often. It is the centerpiece of the Military Academy’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country.” Before I went to Vietnam, duty, honor, and country were all part of what I thought we fought for, but within a few seconds of our first contact with North Vietnamese soldiers, I quickly realized that we were fighting for each other. We fought for the guys in the squad, the platoon, and the company.

This change from fighting for our country to fighting for each other is not limited to men in combat. Army nurse Anne Simon Auger found herself building figurative walls to protect herself from the trauma of the war wounds of the troops she treated. As she told Keith Walker in her oral history, included in his book, A Piece of My Heart, “I got to realizing how vulnerable everybody was. And how vulnerable I was....every patient on that ward, when they left, took a piece of me with them.” I read her story when I was being trained for the “Echoes of War” project developed by the Minnesota Humanities Center, and I was amazed how an Army nurse could feel the same stress and pain and build the same walls as I had. When a North Vietnamese soldier attacked her, she realized that she was vulnerable to hate.

This feeling woke me up. I realized that I was not as tough as I thought I was. When one of my friends was killed in Vietnam, that hate became a reality for me. When I went to war, I was fighting for my country. Once I got there, I was fighting to protect my brothers. When my friend was killed, I started fighting for revenge. That motive is not healthy for any of us.

Shakespeare had King Henry continue to build on his soldiers’ relationships, “From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother….” Anne Auger’s story taught me that we are not just brothers—we are brothers and sisters. And trauma does not just impact combat Veterans—it hits us all, including our families.

The Humanities Center is doing its part to connect our communities, families, Veterans, and others through the humanities. We can all learn that war is not glorious. As Auger said, “I know I can’t forget those experiences, but I understand why I have them, and that they’re part of my life. I also know that I’m a better person, actually, for having lived them.”

Shakespeare said it too, “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin's day.’ Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day… And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”

In February 1970, 364 days after I arrived, I left Vietnam a very different person. Today the hate and arrogance are gone, and I will do everything in my power to never let this happen again. And I am committed to help our brothers and sisters make the transition from warrior to civilian without the trauma we had to endure and many still do.

Learn more about the Humanities Center’s Echoes of War project and apply to become a Discussion Leader.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

April is National Poetry Month - Blues Vision

Artwork by Ta-couma T.Aiken, “Speak”
Blues Vision
African American Writing from Minnesota 

Edited by Alexs Pate With co-editors Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell

Blues Vision is a groundbreaking collection of incisive prose and powerful poetry by forty-three black writers from Minnesota who educate, inspire, and reveal the unabashed truth.

In celebration of April as National Poetry Month two poems from Blues Vision are featured this week. This anthology was co-published with the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2004.

The Humanities Center offers educators a professional development opportuntiy focused around Using Blues Vision in the Classroom July 25-36, 2017 at the Humanities Center.

Apology for Apostasy?
by Etheridge Knight
Soft songs, like birds, die in poison air
So my song cannot now be candy.
Anger rots the oak and elm; roses are rare,
Seldom seen through blind despair.

And my murmur cannot be heard
Above the din and damn. The night is full
Of buggers and bastards; no moon or stars
Light the sky. And my candy is deferred.

Till peacetime, when my voice shall be light,
Like down, lilting in the air; then shall I
Sing of beaches, white in the magic sun,
And of moons and maidens at midnight.

by J. Otis Powell
There is no clean slate
No blank sheets of paper
To write our lives on
We palimpsestically erase
And rewrite existence like
Painters whitewashing
And rescaping canvas
With images telling new stories
Often by another painter
In some other time
With alterative visions
No story is complete
Life goes on in ways
That tells the same story differently
From other sides of truths
Celebrated narratives previously promulgated
Shading views ancestors left
Our stories don’t disappear under
Cover of news but hover like
Ghosts beneath dominant voices
Parchment establishes new anniversaries
With every twist of tongue
Every keyed in message 
Penned privet document
Of lives lived on a record 
Each year unrolls another scroll
Retelling stories to recover
From the pseudology of war
Every lesson confirms that fighting
Is the absolute right thing to do
In my rear view mirror I see
People with bad ideas
About what the world is made of
They will need to learn for themselves
I will need to fight where I can win
I never thought when
I was an undergraduate
Studying philosophy that aesthetics
Would become an over used word
But every time I turn an ear
In the direction of pop culture
Some artist is talking about life
Values and style
Flipping the script to post modernism
Uncomfortably confronting antiquated myths
Deconstructing master stories with
Post-traumatic truth 
Everyday is muffled
In acoustics
Of diamond sprinkled snow
Reflecting how hard
It is to be relevant 
We thought we knew
What we could not have known
And it made fools of us
Made us overreach and prevaricate
Had we known better we would have done more
But retrospect is false 
And the clock is relentless
Secretly I like the story so I’m perpetually
Telling it draft after draft in sequels

Available for purchase at the Minnesota Historical Society Online Store and

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Water/Ways Detroit Lakes: Things to See and Do

Original blog post by Pam McCurdy, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Friday, March 10, 2017. [Read the original blog post]

The Detroit Lakes area – about four hours northwest of the Twin Cities - offers a fantastic weekend getaway. Here are a few of the things you can see and do.



In Minnesota, water is a part of our identity, our culture, and our history. Water/Ways, a new and exciting exhibition and community engagement initiative from the Smithsonian Institution’s ‘Museum on Main Street’ (MoMS) program in partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center, will be on display at the Becker County Historical Society February 25 thru April 9, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the six-week run. Admission is free.

What to see and do

Visit Itasca State Park
Established in 1891, Itasca is Minnesota's oldest state park. Today, the park totals more than 32,000 acres and includes more than 100 lakes. Walk across the mighty Mississippi as it starts its winding journey 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Cross country ski, snowshoe, or hike to explore the park’s beautiful winter scenery. (Note only the East and North entrances are open during the winter.)

Bird Lover
The Northwest section of Minnesota is unique collection of habitats that provide homes for a tremendous variety of birds. Pine forests, deciduous woodlands, native tallgrass prairie, aspen parkland, sand dunes (remnants of Glacial Lake Agassiz), calcareous fens, bogs, marshes, large and small lakes, and rivers make up the transition zone that offers over 275 species of birds.

Lake Country Scenic Byway
Natural and cultural history has left a legacy in Lake Country. Visitors traveling the byway can visit local landmarks and learn the area’s unique stories. The route includes a 67-mile stretch of Highway 34 from Detroit Lakes, through Park Rapids to Walker, with a 21-mile spur extending from Park Rapids to Itasca State Park along US Highway 71.

There are over 400 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in Becker County. To download maps:

Local Brewery
Detroit Lakes has a locally owned microbrewery. Stop by to eat and drink local!

Downhill Ski, Tube, Snowboard, Cross Country Ski and Fat Tire Biking
This 200-acre Minnesota recreation destination features alpine skiing, snowboarding, tubing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat bike rentals during the winter. Detroit Mountain is located about four miles from the city limits. Find the entrance to Detroit Mountain on the south side of Detroit Mountain Road, which is along 8th Street SE or Otto Zeck Road (from Hwy 34).

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Nick Swaggert - Separating Veterans’ Work and Politics: The Minefield of Social Media

Nick Swaggert is a Veteran of the Marine Corps who served since 1999 as an infantryman and was deployed twice to Iraq. He is Vice President of Business Operations for Better Futures Minnesota, a non-profit dedicated to employment of men with a history of incarceration, homelessness, poverty, and other challenges to help them achieve self-sufficiency and a better future. Nick is a Pat Tillman Military Scholar and currently serves as a company commander in the Marine Corps Reserve. He is also a 2015 Veterans’ Voices Awardee.

I recently interviewed a candidate for a role at my organization. Following the interview, I reviewed their LinkedIn profile to better understand their professional background. Unfortunately, it was laced with numerous controversial comments about both political and social topics. This type of personal posting on a professional social media site gave me pause as I considered hiring them. The conflict occurs when personal opinions and professional experience co-mingle.

The organization I work for is non-partisan by nature. A visitor to our organization suggested that we post some politically-charged signage that aligned with some of our values. The challenge was that it did not align with ALL of our values and certainly ostracized a group of our stakeholders. My boss quickly dismissed the idea as he has a deep understanding of risk in mixing business and politics.

As a reserve military officer, I am constantly reminded of the need to separate work and politics. Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 itemizes what a service member can and cannot do, and specifically forbids a uniformed military member from publicly endorsing a political party or candidate. The challenge is that when you associate with a controversial topic in a public space—television, social media, or at a public rally—the perception can be that you are a spokesperson for your professional organization. Cyberspace is not a private forum to share your opinions and thoughts with no consequences. It is a space open to the public, even in so-called “private” rooms. This is especially true in the modern world of blog posts, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

I believe engaging in a thoughtful, literate discussion means that we respect others’ opinions, ideas, and challenges. We must be mindful of the perception that personal posts can be interpreted as representing our professional careers. Consequences exist in public spaces; cyberspace is a public space.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

2017 Educator Institute: Transforming Education Through Absent Narratives

Educator team from Stillwater Area Public Schools
participates in the 2016 Educator Institute
“The Educator Institute remains the single most powerful training I have participated in and has opened the path to ongoing changes in dialogue both in the classroom and with community members,” proclaimed one educator who participated in the Minnesota Humanities Center’s 2016 Educator Institute.

The Humanities Center is thrilled to once again host our week-long Educator Institute at our St. Paul facility beginning on Sunday, June 25 and running through Friday, June 30. This experience immerses participants in the Humanities Center's educational approach of increasing student engagement by focusing on absent narratives—those voices often left out or marginalized. The Institute helps develop student-teacher connections, presents practical classroom strategies, and provides valuable resources, all while building a network of Minnesota educators committed to relationship-based educational change.

Our Educator Institute provides:
  • Rigorous, relevant K-12 professional development
  • Access to educators and community scholars
  • A field trip examining Dakota narratives in Minnesota
  • Classroom materials and resources
  • Year-round activities and support
  • Certificate for 45+ clock hours
  • All meals, plus lodging for those outside the Twin Cities metro area
We anticipate that graduate credit will be available at an additional cost through Metropolitan State University School of Urban Education.


The Humanities Center is pleased to offer the Educator Institute at a dramatically discounted rate of $300 per person. Funding for this $3,100 experience is made possible with generous support from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other private sources.

Ready to participate?

This professional development opportunity will fill quickly, so we encourage you to form a team and apply as soon as possible.
Application Deadline: March 31
Notification of acceptance: April 19
$300 registration fee due upon acceptance.

For additional information and to apply, visit

Thursday, March 16, 2017

David O'Fallon - Response to Proposed Elimination of Funding for National Endowment for the Humanities

You’ve probably heard today’s news that the President Trump’s proposed budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for fiscal year 2018, which begins on October 1 this year.

This is the budget we expected from the Trump administration. 
However this is the message that resonated from my visits to the Minnesota Congressional delegation in Washington last week. The President proposes; the Congress disposes. 

There is a long way to go in the budget making process.

Humanities council members from more than 40 states met in Washington, DC last week for Humanities on the Hill. The team from the Humanities Center visited every office  of our state’s Congressional delegation. What we heard from red states, purple states, and blue states is strong Congressional support for the state humanities councils. Some members of Congress even said “no way will NEH and NEA be eliminated—no way.”

It is reasonable to think that some appropriation to NEH will survive—especially something that directs funds to the states for their use. The NEH funds that come to the Humanities Center come without strings—except they must be used within the broad mission of bringing the humanities into our public life. We get to decide where to direct it—to Veterans or to education, to the crisis of water or to connections among our multiple cultures, to civic education or wherever Minnesotans think best.

Are we concerned? Certainly, and we have broad support across our state—as do many other state councils.

The Minnesota Humanities Center will continue to deliver strong programs that meet real needs of people all over Minnesota. Today we ask our partners and supporters to deliver the message of the importance and impact of our work with your Member of Congress. Your support of the Humanities Center is critical now. Thank you for supporting the work of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

David O'Fallon
President, Minnesota Humanities Center

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Recognizing Outstanding Minnesota Veterans

2017 Veterans' Voices On the Rise Awardee Linda Knox
and her family at 9/11 Award Ceremony

2017 Veterans’ Voices Award Nominations Now Open
Do you know an exceptional Minnesota Veteran? If so, you should consider nominating him or her for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award.

Now in its fourth year, the Veterans' Voices Award recognizes, amplifies, and honors Minnesotans who have honorably served in the military and are now making significant contributions to their respective communities. These actively engaged, former and current military service members go above and beyond to make positive contributions that improve the lives of people across Minnesota.

To nominate a Veteran for this award, fill out the online nomination form.

If you are interested in nominating a Veteran but are not quite sure of the process, the Humanities Center is here to help. Three information sessions will be held for interested nominators to answer questions and share tips on applying:
  • St. Paul In-person Information Sessions at the Humanities Center:
    10:00 -11:00 am and 5:30-6:30pm Thursday, April 20th
  • Little Falls In-person Information Session at Camp Ripley: Weekend of April 28-30, 2017
Completed nominations must be received by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, May 19, 2017. Nominees selected to receive an award will be notified by July 8, 2016. All awardees must be able to attend the September 11, 2017, dinner and award ceremony to be held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Exclusions: Please note that Humanities Center staff, board members, fellows, and consultants are neither eligible to nominate an individual for, nor receive, a 2017 Veterans' Voices Award.
Consider nominating an extraordinary Veteran in your life! For more information visit:

Some of the  Veterans’ Voices Awardees from past years have been featured bloggers for the Humanities Center. Following is a selection of blog posts shared by Veterans’ Voices Awardees:

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Jim Roe - The Places We Learn

Jim Roe is a consulting planner, helping organizations develop places and venues where people can enjoy a kind of learning that’s guided by their own interests, backgrounds, and motivations. He works nationally with a range of organizations—from historic sites and museums to parks, nature centers and other environmental-education facilities, science centers, and children’s museums.

On a cold day in November I took part in a Bdote Field Trip sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Center. The tour was led by Dakota educators and included stops at various Minneapolis-St. Paul sites of importance to Dakota people, including Mounds Park, Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, Historic Fort Snelling, Fort Snelling State Park, and Pilot Knob—all places I had been to many times before and thought I knew.

One of our guides, Mona Smith, asked us to consider learning from these places, not just about them. I get this. From the warmth of our own homes we could acquire a bounty of information about these places. Learning from them would take a different kind of relationship. The question remained, how do we learn from a place?

I’m used to learning from places that are designed to teach, such as museums and typical historic sites. But when a place is largely unbuilt and uninterpreted, what are the elements I’m supposed to learn from? In the weeks since that tour, I’ve been thinking about other ways to know a place—to learn it in a way that I can learn from it. I’m thinking now that it’s more like getting to know a person, which takes time.

A name is always good place to start. ‘Bdote’ is the Dakota name for the area around the confluence of two great rivers—described better in the sweeping gesture of our guide than by a pin stuck on a map. Mni Sota Makoce, Wakan Tipi, and Oheyawahi are some of the other names I learned that day.

When getting to know someone, I always like to hear their story. Where do they come from and what have they been through in life? Who knows, maybe we know someone in common. Every place we visited that day had a story, in fact many stories that helped me get to know them in ways I couldn’t have before.

In getting to know someone, I also like to hear about their families – brothers, sisters, parents, and others who have loved and cared about them. If I ask, they usually also share some memories of their childhood. During the Bdote experience, I learned that many people care about these places and that each of them hold memories, some from very long ago. People remember, but the land remembers too—and for much longer.

It takes many conversations over many years to genuinely get to know someone. And it takes shared experiences, which we value and remember together over time. I may never learn all there is to know about a place, but I think I can figure out what it has to teach me—given time.

I do know I’m just beginning to figure out what these places have to teach. For that I am grateful to our Bdote tour guides: Ramona Kitto Stately, Ethan Neerdaels, and Mona Smith. And to the land itself.

To learn more about the Bdote Field Trip and upcoming trip offerings visit

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Dr. Bradley Sidle - Veterans' Voices Found

Dr. Bradley Sidle teaches 7th Grade U. S. Studies at Folwell School (Performing Arts Magnet) in Minneapolis, MN. The student body at Folwell is urban, diverse, and committed to learning in and through the arts.


Stop talking.

I'm not interested.

Talk to the hand.

And so it is, when our voices are silenced, our stories cut short, our contribution squashed.

The Minnesota Humanities Center offers a course, the Veterans’ Voices Workshop for Educators, which I was honored and pleased to take, on giving place to a too often neglected voice—namely, the voice of the Veteran. We in the social studies discipline study wars and war plans; we count the number of fatalities and clearly communicate the final outcomes of the battles waged on the field. But the voices of the Veterans we too often overlook.

Our class was held at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota. I have driven past this area many times, and had no idea of the vast resource for military training here in my backyard. I checked in at the gate with the slightest twinge of fear and trepidation. I certainly did not know quite what to expect. My first real inclination that I was in a different world was when we came out of our first plenary and went to the dining hall. Everywhere were uniforms and insignia that I did not understand and could not interpret. The Veterans in our group were quite familiar, and told me that though I felt like a thousand eyes were on these non-uniformed civilians, I was underestimating the truth! Many eyes were on us, but it turned out the vast majority were friendly eyes. Many conversations took place with women and men on active or reserve duty, and the narratives that had long been absent were already being spoken in a sense of honesty and frankness that I greatly appreciated.

We toured the facilities of Camp Ripley, and the Veterans in our midst were quite entertaining as they told of their own experiences at camp and in service. I rather expected a monolithic sharing of the same old, same old. I think my first major learning was that there is not one Veteran's voice, but a wide variety of Veterans' voices. I certainly knew that multiple sources and multiple attestations of a narrative give that narrative verifiability, but I also learned with new confidence that no voice accounts for all voices. Hearing the highly individualized and significant narratives of a wide variety of Veterans brought a vitality and personal representation to the truth.

The plenaries themselves were filled with extraordinary bursts of insight. I will never forget the passion in the story of an officer speaking about the Minnesota First in the battle of Gettysburg. I wanted to thank him for what felt like his personal presence at the battle! We were all visibly moved. The resources I received from the experience were also tremendously valuable and immediately applicable when teaching about the behind-the-scenes experiences of war. The extraordinary resource, Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian by Donald H. Whitfield, ed., contained short readings I could use to examine a wide range of reporting on the Veterans' experience. Each reading contains a brief introduction and discussion questions that provided ample material for use in my seventh grade classroom. Interestingly, the History Theater in St. Paul recently staged a show, "The Things They Carried," which is represented in this anthology with a nice excerpt.

I left the professional development with a profoundly greater appreciation for the sacrifices and accomplishments of all who engaged in military service. On a more personal note, it also gave me the opportunity to talk to my 100-year-old father about his service in World War II and hear his response to the lectures I heard and the articles I had read. This was a tremendous workshop offered by the Humanities Center, and I encourage anyone who is able to take part in the Veterans’ Voices Workshop for Educators. I am confident in stating that no one will leave without their professional and personal sensitivities engaged and enlarged.

The Humanities Center is offering the Veterans’ Voices Workshop for Educators at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, April 28-30, 2017. To learn more visit:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Derek Wilson - Combatting Exclusion with Humility

Derek Wilson is a husband and father of two children. He has been teaching Social Studies for 15 years at Roseville Area High School, where he currently serves as curriculum leader. Derek participated in the 2016 Minnesota Humanities Center’s Educator Institute.

I am trying to replace ‘exclusion’ with ‘embrace.’†

Patterns of exclusion stain hearts and minds, and blind institutions. Without check, the cognitive reflex that files and sorts—creating implicit bias—has become a weapon of power, pushing people to the margins. This reflex builds patterns of thought, ways of being, and entire systems that privilege some over others.

Since the Enlightenment era, we have increasingly relied on data, analysis, and strategies to solve social problems. A growing body of science suggests that exclusion within our institutions cannot be fixed without first acknowledging and addressing the biases that exist within us. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt used Daniel Kahneman’s (Thinking Fast and Slow) research to create a metaphor of a rider on an elephant to describe the automatic and controlled processes of the brain. While we like to believe the rider controls the elephant with logic and analysis, reality is often quite different. Habits, biases, and intuitions are quick automatic processes and are as difficult to direct and control as a six-ton elephant. We need more than effective strategies to combat exclusion.

Much of the solution, then, lies in noticing and shifting our unconscious processes. How do I stop habits, combat biases and challenge intuitions that create and perpetuate systemic exclusion?

My answer starts with affection, rather than indifference. Affection for others emerges from a conviction that what binds us is greater than what divides us. This binding agent transcends the fluidity of identity and is at the core of every human being; it is the divine spark we all share. It levels the playing field, and does not bow to moral or merit.

Pressing into this conviction leads me to listen and learn from the stories of others. Early in my adult life, I can recall listening in order to respond, repeatedly categorizing and analyzing others’ words. Truth be told, it still happens, but I am working on suspending this kind of judgment, and listening with humility and solidarity. I agree with Paul Tillich when he wrote, “In order to know what is just in a person-to-person encounter, love listens. It is its first task to listen."

Listening like this is dangerous, though. It exposes and threatens habits, intuitions, and biases. It creates uncertainty about those things of which we were once certain, and challenges our place as central arbiters of knowing and being. It also means holding cherished ideologies and metanarratives loosely. Finally, this act of humble listening will eventually require action.

These are the risks of embrace, but they are worth it to end exclusion.

Note: I first learned about the contrast of exclusion and embrace from theologian Miroslov Volf.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Max Rayneard - Home

Max Rayneard is the Senior Writer / Producer of The Telling Project. He has written and/or directed 27 Telling Project productions across the United States, including Telling: Minnesota, Telling: Minnesota 2015, and Telling: Minnesota 2016 in the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theatre. In 2017, he and Jonathan Wei will co-write and co-direct She Went to War (premiering March 17) in The Dowling Studio, as well as a Vietnam War-themed production in collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon and lives in Houston, Texas. The Humanities Center has partnered with The Telling Project on Telling: Minnesota.

I think about the meaning of home a lot. I am a foreigner in the United States, a transplanted South African who misses the complexities of my beautiful country. I also think about the meaning of home because I work for The Telling Project — a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that uses storytelling to bridge the gap between military veterans and the civilian communities in which they make their homes.

Coming home after military service is not easy. There’s an entire literary tradition, spanning back to the great nostos texts of the Ancient Greeks, dedicated to its complexity. Simply put, many veterans have a difficult time adjusting to civilian society because military service is an intense overload of experiences. It has a way of reprioritizing everything you think you know. For many veterans, returning to a civilian world that doesn’t get it and doesn’t seem overly interested in understanding, it doesn’t feel like a homecoming. It feels like loss. It feels like being a foreigner in your own country.

So, what does home mean? I’ve come to think of it as a fleeting thing – an alchemical moment that happens when hearts align. Striving for the next such moment and holding to the memory of the last holds the world together.

Allow me to explain: I grew up a privileged white kid in the waning years of Apartheid. The townships were on fire while Apartheid’s white beneficiaries lived mostly insulated lives. When Apartheid ended, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] was established. I came into my young adulthood, sheltered as I had been, watching national broadcasts in which the mostly black survivors of human rights violations told their stories.

The success of the TRC is hotly debated, and so I only speak for myself. I was opened up. I had to admit my own racism and complicity, my own ignorance. I hurt with the people that were hurt in my name. I reveled in their resilience. I was in awe of their generosity. They made themselves publicly vulnerable in the act of telling. The very least anyone could do was to listen. South Africa remains a broken country, and I remain accountable, but for those few moments; I felt like we were all home together.

When Jonathan Wei, the founder of The Telling Project invited me in 2007 to help develop the Telling Project process, I didn’t know that I was being invited to come home. The Telling Project asks veterans to tell their stories in interviews that are recorded, transcribed, and shaped into play scripts. We provide performance training and rehearsal. And then the veterans step onto stages and gift civilians with the opportunity to listen to stories of loss and triumph, of laughter and grief, of guilt and pride, of disappointment and patriotism.

When people make themselves vulnerable to each other by telling their stories and listening, they become home to each other, whether or not they served, no matter where they come from.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rachel Schmitt - The Win-Win-Win Scenario

Rachel Schmitt is pursuing her Master’s in Evaluation Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is currently at the Minnesota Humanities Center as their in-house evaluator and Graduate Research Assistant. Rachel, who is native to Excelsior, Minnesota, also teaches English to adult non-native speakers and studies flamenco in her free time. She is fluent in Spanish and comes from a beautiful blended bilingual family. Rachel believes in the importance of community participation in decisions, and inclusion of absent narratives in education and evaluation.

Following 2016’s tumultuous election season and the ensuing months, I have been trying to reclaim the word “win.” Rather than a term with a shallow, holier-than-thou connotation, I am working on underscoring the essence of positivity that lies in “winning.” I want to get back to the burst of warmth that wraps around you after achieving something and working hard, and de-emphasize the fame and grandeur that comes with winning.

In reflecting on my role here at the Minnesota Humanities Center, it is truly a win-win-win situation. Here’s why:

I win:

I have the opportunity to develop and refine my evaluation skills at the Humanities Center. Not only is it a beautiful building with rich history, I get to interact with and learn from talented and insightful people. The Humanities Center is home to an astute staff well equipped to have evaluative conversations, which makes my role as an evaluation research assistant much easier.

I also ‘win’ because I have found the Humanities Center to be the ideal environment for the kind of evaluation that I hope to focus on in my career. I am drawn to the approaches known in the field as Utilization-Focused, Interactive, and Developmental Evaluation. Basically, this means that all the techniques and approaches I keep in my “evaluator toolkit” are relationship-driven, use-based (because what’s the point if the work isn’t going to be used?), and continuously evolving.

What’s more, I have had the chance to participate in some paradigm-shifting, deeply impactful programming like the Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives workshop, the Bdote Field Trip, and various Veterans’ Voices events. These experiences have both required and encouraged me to listen to authentic, courageous people, all while learning, unlearning, and relearning stories of place, privilege, and voice.

Finally, I win having an amazing professor who is my advisor as well as my mentor. My mentor is the quintessential teacher/role model, who deeply values people in the work she does. Her contagious passion for evaluation is what first steered me in the direction of this career. Her work and teachings in interactive evaluation practice continue to inspire me. My mentor is one of those rare gems you encounter in life. She is sincere and incredibly humble, all while blazing a beautiful trail for evaluators around the world to follow. It is quite the privilege to work alongside and learn from her.

My mentor wins:

And finally, if you were to ask her, my mentor would say she wins by having one of her advisees here working on the ground with the organization.

The Humanities Center wins:

With a new evaluator’s perspective and my developing skills, the Humanities Center wins, too. I hope that my energy and dedication to the work goes somewhere. I want to be asking the right questions. I want to develop my practice and use my heart, mind, and spirit to better understand the Humanities Center’s role in Minnesota’s legacy, and in the lives of those who are fortunate enough to be in relationship with this human-centered organization.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sheila Laughton - Another Side of Storytelling

Sheila Laughton works with Veterans and their families to address the spiritual dimensions of reintegration, moral injury, and other life issues. She is a facilitator for Healing of Memories Workshops, providing one step on the healing journey for anyone who has experienced trauma. Sheila is a 2016 Veterans’ Voices awardee.

I am a professional listener; it is my job. But sometimes, I get to tell my story.

A few months ago I, along with fourteen other individuals, mostly strangers, drove though the first blizzard watch of the season to sit in a circle and share our life stories in an effort to deal with some memories that were affecting our lives. We were an eclectic bunch — young and old, male and female, Ph.D.s and high school dropouts, African- and European-Americans, alcoholics and abstainers, pillars of our community and homeless. We had been promised a safe place to tell our most traumatic stories. For some, this would be the first time; while for others, the stories were well-rehearsed. We thought we knew how much we would be willing to share, but we would all be surprised by the depths we actually reached. This time we would not only tell our stories, but we would be heard, believed, and acknowledged by multiple witnesses. We would be affirmed as valuable human beings. And we would see that it was our pain that connected us.

Storytelling has been a part of every culture for longer than recorded history. It entertains, educates, transmits culture, and creates community. But it can also reinforce a climate of “us-versus-them” to create an “other,” or strengthen existing negative stereotypes. And then there are the personal stories we have never told which have become self-destructive, overpowering our otherwise rational mind.

Each of us sees life through the lens of our unique experiences, but sometimes our perspective is clouded by trauma or physical, emotional, or spiritual injury. Are we aware of the ripple effects of family and community stories? Which stories do I share? Do I remember what actually happened—what I did, what was done to me, or what I failed to do—or could the ‘facts’ be distorted by time or trauma? Does how and what I tell convince me the ‘other’ always has the upper hand or that I’m somehow not worthy—or, do they help me make meaning of my life? Can I see the positive in life, or is everything negative? And what about those stories I never share—the ones where I am the shameful victim or the villain? Can good listeners help me put my stories into a context beyond my vision?

Now each time I tell my story, it’s different because I have seen it through the perspective of my listeners. I can see cause and effect between my past and present because I have been able to tell my story to multiple people who honored it. I learned to no longer judge yesterday’s actions by today’s insights. I’m even learning to forgive my worst critic—me.

I cannot change the past, only my interpretation of it. But I can change the story I tell.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dr. Juanita Hoskins - Place

Dr. Juanita Hoskins is the Director of Educational Equity for the Roseville Area Schools; she brought in a team of educators who participated in the Humanities Center’s 2016 Educators’ Institute. She works with a group of teachers of color and American Indian teachers who are part of a group called F.O.C.U.S. (Future Oriented Collaborative United Support). Juanita believes in the importance of providing a diverse staff of teachers to our students.

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee in a small rural section of town called Shepherd. It was a predominately black neighborhood. It had four small full-service grocery stores, four churches, an elementary school, a community center, a motel, and two gas stations.

On my side of Shepherd there were five streets where families lived. On each street, ninety percent of the people were related to each other. It was like each street belonged to seven different families. While the streets were represented by different families, we depended on each other. We knew each other. We cared about each other. If one family was in need, we all pitched in to help.

This place has meaning for me because it is where I was taught to love everybody. This is where I was taught the importance of education. This is where I was taught to fear a loving God, who would forgive me for anything. This is where I was taught to forgive others.

Most of the mothers and fathers in this community worked as domestic help and factory workers, and were mostly poor. As all good parents do, they took care of us without complaining, so I did not fully understand the level of poverty around me until I left home. I describe it as a different kind of poverty, because we owned our own land. In the summer our families grew vegetables and shared them with each other. We had chickens and hogs and goats that provided the meat we needed. There were also apple, plum, and peach trees in the neighborhood. When those things were in season, we did not go hungry. My brother tells a story of not having enough to eat, but I don’t remember that. I was the youngest of nine, so I can imagine that I got a few things that they did not get. I also lived across the street from my uncle and his wife who never had children and I was their favorite niece. I remember eating at their house every once in a while. I can not recall ever wanting for anything. The community had high expectations for us. They taught us what things in life were important, with family being at the top.

What makes this place so special for me was its focus on education. My elementary school principal lived on one side of the neighborhood. The first grade teacher lived on the other side of the community. One of the elders in the community named the streets when the community was being formed. The streets had names like Talladega, Walden, Atlanta, Fisk, and Shaw. What I did not know growing up was that these were the names of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It was as if by giving the streets these names we were destined to do great things. From that little elementary school, many of us went on to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, principals, businessmen and -women.

Place matters.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Laura Benson - Finding Warmth in Unlikely Places

Laura Benson is the Grant/Contract Projects Manager for the Minnesota Humanities Center, overseeing all grants and competitive processes for the organization. Laura, who is a native of Northern Virginia, managed the professional development and grant opportunities for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, a national service organization for the performing arts field, based in Washington, D.C. She believes in the enrichment of cultural life and that we should all pet more dogs.

If I can share a secret with you…I wasn’t sure what to write about for this blog post. The Minnesota Humanities Center programs (and the staff who work on them) highlight our experiences as humans, as community members, as parts of a whole, and all of those things resonate with a certain way of being in relationship to one another. I’m the Grant/Contract Projects Manager for the Humanities Center; I spend most of my days reviewing Federal Cost Guidelines, preparing check requests, and finessing contract language, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to read a blog post about that. And yet, there are a couple of significant intersections between my role and our mission and values that won’t put you to sleep:

(1) I process a lot of payments for the organization; and it’s because the organization values compensating individuals for their time. If you’ve been involved with the Humanities Center in the last year and a half, I’ve probably asked you to fill out some kind of form or paperwork, which doesn’t exactly exude warmth. Our system isn’t perfect and there’s always room for improvement, but financial compensation is one way we can honor the personal cost that often comes with speaking from the heart and sharing of one’s self. Even the term ‘financial compensation’ feels cold and institutional, but when it stands for an expression of thanks and gratitude from another person’s heart, perhaps there’s a little more warmth there after all. (I’m also here for hugs, if anyone wants one. I’ll understand if you just want the check, but the offer stands.)

(2) As you may already know, the Humanities Center manages Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment grant funds on behalf of the state of Minnesota for 12 different organizations. Because they are state funds, there are a significant number of guidelines and policies involved. When I first started here at the Humanities Center, I was able to set aside time to meet representatives from all of the organizations face–to–face, in their individual organizational spaces. Before we dug into the state guidelines, contracts, payments, etc., I wanted to hear their personal stories, and I shared my story with them as well. I like getting to know people — especially if they have pictures of their dogs they can share with me** — and I consider this relationship-building an important part of the grants management experience. The Humanities Center isn’t here to simply enforce state policies (although we do that, too; don’t worry!) — we are here to be humans with one another.

So I guess, when you take the time to look for it, there is always warmth and humanity to be found, even in unlikely places.

**Fine, yes, I’ll share a picture of MY dog…his name is Pepper, and I think you’ll agree that he’s the cutest you’ve ever seen.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Adam Wiltgen - Water/Ways Amplifies Community Solutions in Lanesboro

Adam Wiltgen, a native of Southeastern Minnesota, is Program Director at Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization that has engaged the rural town of Lanesboro, Minnesota—population 754—in diverse programming, including visual art galleries, performing arts, theater, artist residencies, public art initiatives, and educational outreach, working to enable access to the arts while providing innovative solutions to community challenges. He has lived in various river towns for the past twelve years and relishes the rich culture, character, and history that river towns of all sizes possess. He is the project lead for Lanesboro's cross-sectoral and collaborative experience hosting Water/Ways.

In many ways, Lanesboro is a town defined by the river that runs through it. The town's past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined with the winding Root River. Founded by the Lanesboro Townsite Company of New York City, which envisioned building a resort destination within the steep and scenic limestone bluffs, the town's initial growth ended up being propelled by industry that sprouted up beginning in 1868 as a result of the completion of a railroad and the Townsite Company's construction of an unmortared, dry-laid stone arch gravity dam. And while the visitors did not come, commerce in Lanesboro entered a new era in 1895 when the dam became a hydroelectric power source.

Fast forward nearly 150 years to the present day and Lanesboro has come full circle. During the summer months, it is not uncommon for me to hear wild squeals of joy and laughter emanating from the window near my desk on the 2nd floor of the Lanesboro Art Gallery as tubers, canoers, and kayakers pass by on the river below. At the end of the day, as I walk from the Gallery building to my vehicle in the Poetry Parking Lot at Bass Pond, it would be entirely ordinary to find myself giving directions and chatting about trout fishing spots with a group of cyclists from India entering town on the former railroad bed -- now a paved state bike trail. On my ride home, I'm not surprised when I encounter trucks from Colorado or Nebraska, in town for a cattle auction at the Lanesboro Sales Commission, competing for parking with patrons of the professional Commonweal Theatre Company (whose slogan is "Drama unfolds where the Root River bends").

Lanesboro is an historic destination for the arts, outdoors, and agriculture. And whether it will continue to be in the future depends partly on the fate of the Lanesboro dam, as well as the health and vitality of the Root River. Flagged by the MN DNR as an "unstable...high risk structure," action needs to be taken to prevent the catastrophic loss of life, environmental havoc, and economic devastation that would result if the dam were to fail. While sitting at the dam after heavy rainfalls this past September, I couldn’t help thinking about the many setbacks Lanesboro has endured in trying to secure its future. Still, I felt hopeful and optimistic about Lanesboro's resiliency and ability to amplify community solutions for change.

The process of organizing and planning for Lanesboro's six weeks as a Water/Ways host site has been an incredibly rewarding and inspiring exercise in community building. A town of 754 people could not host a Smithsonian exhibition without working closely together. And because of the unique cross-sector collaboration between five local non-profits (two arts organizations, a history museum, and two environmental and stewardship groups), the many local programs and events developed in Lanesboro will utilize the arts and the humanities–individual human stories and experiences–to make complex, varying, and, at times, divisive water issues more relevant and accessible by focusing on how we are connected. After all, knowing each other better and discussing what unites us will help secure our common future and keep our water safe, clean, and flowing freely.

Learn more about the Water/Ways traveling exhibit and explore all Lanesboro has to offer January 7 through February 19, 2017 by visiting: