Interview With Chris Guzaitis
Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs
Read Time 10 minutes
April 8, 2022
Chris Guzaitis celebrated her last day as Senior Director at Illinois Humanities on March 18, 2022. Chris, who joined Illinois Humanities in February 2015 as Director of the Odyssey Project, is now at the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, overseeing grants initiatives at the national organization.
We caught up with Chris on a busy last day, March 18 2022, for reflections on her years at Illinois Humanities.
Q: YOU’VE BEEN AT ILLINOIS HUMANITIES FOR A LITTLE OVER 7 YEARS, AND I’D LOVE TO KNOW – BROADLY SPEAKING – KNOWING WHAT YOU DO TODAY, HOW YOU VIEW THE ROLE OF AN ORGANIZATION SUCH AS ILLINOIS HUMANITIES IN ITS RICHEST AND FULLEST SENSE.
Chris Guzaitis: I think the humanities councils are hidden gems, because even prior to coming to Illinois Humanities I had never heard of the state humanities councils. A lot of folks in academia aren’t familiar that these resources exist, which I think is really too bad. For all the work that’s been done over the past two decades at colleges and universities around the public humanities, not being connected to the places where the public humanities are really happening is a missed opportunity. The state humanities councils have been at the forefront of what it means to be a public humanities institution. And the fact that the work of humanities councils happens in collaboration with communities, and that communities are helping to inform and create programming, is vital to defining the public humanities. There is such a disconnect between how people understand and practice the humanities, in an intellectual and academic way, and how the public is actually activating and internalizing the humanities in the everyday, and the humanities councils are that bridge.
As someone who went from not knowing that state humanities councils exist, to working at a humanities council for the past seven years, I’ve just been transformed by the experience and what it means to do public humanities work.
Illinois Humanities, however, does seems somewhat exceptional amongst the humanities councils. Envisioning Justice really transformed who we are as a council, and how we understand the work that we do, and it really pushed us to be more intentional in our programming and to take more of a stand in the work that we do in a way that we hadn’t done before. I think it opened up the potential for what a humanities council can do in terms of amplifying the work of communities around really important issues that are at the heart of our democracy.
Q2: WHEN YOU THINK OF THE DEI (DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION) WORK THAT MANY GROUPS ARE TAKING ON, HOW DO YOU VIEW THE POTENTIAL FOR ADVANCING THAT WORK FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A HUMANITIES COUNCIL?
Chris Guzaitis: I think any DEI work that is really effective in what it does pulls on the humanities, since we need to understand historical context in order to be critical thinkers and to engage with one another around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We need to understand the kinds of theories about race, power, privilege, and inequality that have come out of the humanities. The humanities can really be at the forefront of helping to make sure that DEI work is incorporated into what we do as a public-serving institution. In our role as a statewide convener, and as people who have access to collaborating with communities across the state, from rural to urban communities, we are in a privileged position to be able to advance that work with the folks we are in community with, and who we collaborate with. I think it’s really great, for instance, that IH’s community grants program decided to make DEI work a part of the Vision category.
If we want to support organizations to be strategic and to think about evaluation and strategic planning, then we should also support their commitment to DEI work and anti-racism. There aren’t a lot of resources for that kind of work, and we know it takes a lot of time, resources, and a real commitment to DEI work for it to be meaningful and impactful.
Humanities councils also have to reckon with the fact that the humanities have historically been part of the inequality around power and privilege, especially as it relates to whose stories get told. We have to do work that acknowledges that; so we have to be honest about the fact that the humanities have contributed to the Western canon, and white supremacy, and the suppression of other kinds of cultural expression and knowledge production. We have to work on ourselves, to make our own organizations stronger, more equitable, and more inclusive while also helping enable that work to happen across the state.
Q3: YOU’VE USED THE TERM ‘PUBLIC HUMANITIES’ SEVERAL TIMES NOW. HOW DO YOU DEFINE THE TERM? AND BEYOND THE DEFINITION, WHAT DOES THIS TERM MEAN TO YOU?
Chris Guzaitis: For me, the public humanities refer to the ways we use the methods of the humanities as part of our everyday lived experience. The public humanities emerge from the disciplines of the humanities but is a more democratized version of the humanities. It is not a prescribed definition of what the humanities are. Instead, what is so exciting to me about the public humanities is that it really relies upon the public, and communities, to help make meaning of the humanities, which opens up possibilities, right? Because if we are just working with the same definitions that are being handed down to us from the academy, then it’s almost foreclosing the opportunity for people to make new meaning of things. The public humanities are more of a grassroots effort to instill new meaning into something we might have accepted a definition of, but when we upset that, and allow new voices, and new forms of knowledge, to come in and make meaning differently, then that gives us a new sense of hope and opportunity and points us towards a way to imagine a different future.
The methods that are significant – like understanding historical context, being able to think critically and engage with one another, and closely read texts and objects – those are things that people are engaged with every day. That’s what they’re doing. They might not give it a name like the humanities but they’re interpreting the world using those tools, and bringing new ways of understanding and knowing to their lives.
Q4: IN YOUR TIME AT ILLINOIS HUMANITIES, HOW HAS THE IDEA OF IMPACT CHANGED FOR YOU?
Chris Guzaitis: Coming to Illinois Humanities as an educator, my understanding of impact has always been grounded in how people identify impact for themselves. For example, with the Odyssey Project, even though college credits were something that was part of the program and some students would go on to finish an undergraduate degree, that was just one path that students could take, and it was clear from the beginning that not everyone wants to take that path. So, it’s not helpful to just measure impact in that one way because the ways in which people have remained engaged with the Odyssey Project, who did not take that path, are really profound. Like their commitment to lifelong learning and being involved in informal spaces around knowledge production has been more impactful for them, and for me, rather than just being able to say that 40% of people went on to earn college degrees. That statistic doesn’t capture the magic of Odyssey.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the different skills we all bring to Illinois Humanities as a staff. The staff is this amazing group of people with really rich skillsets – but what really connects us is this commitment to community and to having communities define for themselves what is impactful, and we’ve really been taking the lead from our community partners. We might have been slow to adjust – we have to be shaken from what came before us, or what patterns we’ve fallen into. Like with the emergency relief grants, we did General Operating grants, because we knew this is what people really needed. And the fact that so many people reached out to us who never applied for grants before and now we’re using that to make the case to change the focus of the grants program, I feel that’s what impact should be about.
Q5: OVER THE YEARS, IS THERE A SINGLE PROGRAM OR MOMENT THAT STANDS OUT AS A HIGHLIGHT FOR YOU?
Chris Guzaitis: It’s hard – I love so many of the programs. I started at Illinois Humanities with the Odyssey Project, and that’s a program that has had such significant impact on who I am as a person. It’s amazing to see the possibility – when I was in graduate school the only kind of path for people was that if you wanted to be a college-level educator you had to teach at colleges or universities, and there was never any exposure to the fact that there are people who are doing that kind of learning and teaching in places outside of the academy, and so being able to find the Odyssey Project was really like a lifeline for me. I never experienced a learning environment like that before, where people just come together to learn collaboratively and have such immense care and love for one another and for their experiences and the knowledge they bring to the table. I wanted to keep creating more opportunities to keep this community together, so we started with alumni programming, and then did the long overdue book groups, and then expanded sites.
The Odyssey community’s love of learning inspired so much growth and innovation. It still brings me the greatest joy, and I’m still friends and collaborators with the educators (both students and teachers) from Odyssey. I can’t say enough about that experience and what it meant to me, and the ways it completely changed who I am as a person and as an educator.
Q6: ON THIS, YOUR LAST DAY AT ILLINOIS HUMANITIES, I’D LOVE TO HEAR A LITTLE ABOUT SOME OF THE SORT OF DREAMS THAT YOU PERSONALLY HAD HERE THAT WERE NOT FULFILLED.
Chris Guzaitis: One of the things that we talked about was creating a public humanities lab over at the Stony Island Arts Bank. That was something I thought could be really exciting, the idea that people come together and engage in a community-based learning space, whether around archives or materials or storytelling. And maybe there’d be fellowships for community members. A hands-on applied space where folks can come together and engage with the humanities. That might be the next frontier for humanities councils. I know it’s hard to have a place-based space when we are statewide, but perhaps there could be spaces around the state. Having a space where we interact and support this kind of work would be phenomenal.
Q: ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Chris Guzaitis: There is amazing work happening at humanities councils that is not being recognized to the extent that it should be. We deserve to have more support from the state, and to be seen as a state resource to be invested in, and I think the communities that are doing the public humanities work across Illinois are not well supported. There needs to be more attention and support going to the public humanities. Not to be alarmist, but I do believe humanities councils are fundamental to our democracy. I’d also like to add that every humanities council should have a program like the Odyssey Project. I know it’s an intensive investment, but it is a profound example of the public humanities and I wish every state humanities council had that. On a personal note, I love the people who do this work and the communities who are in community with us.