We are champions. We are also curators.

A letter from the Executive Director

IMG 1050 Spark Installation in Equality HERO January ED Letter

Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 4 minutes
January 29, 2024

When I scan the events on our website, I can’t help but think, “WOW!” The breadth of our work these days is local, regional, and it is national. 

Take a look at our map. Each dot is a star in the constellation of the humanities in action in Illinois. 

At a time when Humanities are under attack from inside - and outside - of the academy, and universities and their leaders are under duress, Illinois’ constellation of public humanities programming matters. 

But so does our voice. Because we are not just champions for the humanities underway throughout the state, we are also program creators and curators. 

From the books we choose, to the stories we tell, to the questions we ask, we curate knowing the power and necessity of the humanities for ensuring the strength of our state’s civic fabric. 

The books we choose 

More than 15 libraries, nonprofits, and community organizations across Illinois are hosting free book groups for this year’s community reading group series, Reconsidering the American Dream, funded by an NEA Big Read grant. 

Our director of Teaching and Learning, Rebecca Amato paired two titles about the "American dream," class, and inequality: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh, and Infinite Country by Patricia Engel. 

We’ve been inviting Illinoisians to join a book group near where they live and explore themes of community, migration, and belonging with fellow readers. When we read together, we broaden our imaginations and understanding of our world, our neighbors, and ourselves. We are finding these books help us connect the dots of what we are experiencing right now, to the lives of people who have lived for generations in Illinois, and to the experiences of our newest arrivals. 

The stories we tell 

I’ve had the privilege of visiting Equality, Hillsboro, and Havana, Illinois in conjunction with our travelling exhibition, SPARK! Places of Innovation. (We regularly partner with the Smithsonian to bring traveling exhibitions to small towns in Illinois to bolster local cultural organizations and their communities through Museums on Mainstreet. Our current exhibit highlights innovation in rural America from the perspectives of people who have lived it.) These visits have changed me. They’ve deepened my appreciation of the complicated histories at the heart of the founding and ongoing evolution of our state. They’ve knocked away assumptions about the flatness of the land. And they’ve given me joy. 

My gracious hosts have been generous educators on everything from the barge system along our rivers, to small-town politics, to demonstrating what it looks like to live a life filled with meaning and purpose. 

On these visits I’ve also had great coffee, and made some terrific thrift store purchases. The exhibition has garnered well-deserved press. Our Statewide Program Manager, Matt Meacham, captures the spirit of these places best of all. His recent piece about Havana will make you want to travel there if you haven’t already, especially if you’re a nature lover.

The questions we make space to ask. 

In this moment how - and what - we curate matters: from the distribution of programs to ensure equitable access, to the content around which we gather. 

But in this moment, in the election year we have ahead of us, our values are the foundation upon which all else will stand. Illinois Humanities’ values, developed over the course of a year by our board and staff together, are grounded in a commitment to curiosity.  We value: 

  • Centering people’s experiences, histories, and cultures. 
  • Actively promoting equity, uplifting diversity, and ensuring inclusion.  
  • Making and protecting space for the exchange of challenging ideas, meaningful dialogue, and personal reflection. 
  • Intentional, partner-centered relationships that build social capital and strengthen social cohesion, particularly for underserved and historically disenfranchised communities.  

We published these values in tandem with our new strategic plan. The plan outlines a vision in which the humanities are central to a state that is just, creative, and connected. I hope you will read our plan and consider the argument we make about why it is urgent to strengthen the cultural ecosystem of which we are part. I am planning to travel the state widely this summer and host conversations about the ideas the plan is built upon. I look forward to talking with you about what you think. 

As we come into our own with a vision and a statewide agenda, we will have (hopefully) increasing influence and, in turn, responsibility; I hope our values are always clearly evident in our work. I look forward to continuing to do what I can to ensure Illinois Humanities is the best champion our state, our partners, and you – a critical member of our committed humanities community - can have.