Adding Star Power to the Fight for the NEH

By: Steven Kidd, Executive Director, NHA

The outlook for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is far more positive now than it was nine months ago when news leaked that the Trump administration would propose eliminating the agency, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

With the NEH under threat, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) mobilized grassroots advocates to send messages and make calls to Congress. We also encouraged college presidents, provosts, deans, and museum directors in key districts to make direct appeals to their Congressional delegations. Scholarly societies, including the American Studies Association (ASA), mobilized their members to participate in these efforts and to travel to Washington to meet with their Members of Congress as part of NHA’s Humanities Advocacy Day. These efforts were complemented by op-eds and letters to the editor that made the case for the NEH in local and national outlets around the country.

Amidst the administration’s call to eliminate the NEH, this advocacy stimulated even more bipartisan support for the agency than it has enjoyed in recent years. When Congress finally completed its FY 2017 spending bill in May (more than halfway through the fiscal year) it included a $2 million increase for the NEH—a sound rejection of the administration’s proposal. In September, the House passed a bill that would fund the NEH at $145 million for FY 2018. While this is a nearly $5 million decrease from FY 2017 levels, it is fairly proportional to the reductions applied to other agencies to conform to the tight FY 2018 budget caps. Most importantly: it is a solid rejection of the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the NEH in FY 2018.

We are still awaiting the Senate’s proposed appropriation for the NEH, and we are hopeful that it will be higher than the House’s. Even with these promising signs of bipartisan support, humanities advocacy remains crucial given the on-going risk that the administration’s proposal to eliminate the NEH could gain momentum on the Hill. At the same time, given growing bipartisan support, this is also a moment to push for further increases.

That’s why we were thrilled to add some star power to the cause a few weeks ago. When the budget cuts were first proposed, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis Miranda, approached us offering their help to ensure that the NEH and the NEA were not eliminated. Lin-Manuel was scheduled to receive the Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in September in recognition of his work creating Hamilton: An American Musical and the Hamilton Education Program. He and his team wanted to take that opportunity to bring a higher visibility to the humanities and arts work happening around the country every day.

Lin-Manuel’s advocacy started as he accepted the Freedom Award, when he noted “without humanities and arts programs, I wouldn’t be standing here today” and underscored the importance of ensuring that all youth, rural and urban, have similar access. “The fact is,” he continued, “that in places like Appalachia and California’s Central Valley and Native American reservations and the Mississippi Delta and vast swaths of the Great Plains, the private resources simply do not exist to provide kids with the kinds of programs that I was just lucky enough to grow up with. This is why the [NEH] and the [NEA] are so vital to our democracy. Without these resources, we are essentially telling these kids without access to the arts, ‘Your world is small. Don’t dream too big.’”

After the award ceremony, we moved on to the “Congress and the Humanities Showcase,” which the National Humanities Alliance produced in conjunction with the U.S. Capitol Historical Society for Members of Congress, members of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and other guests. The Humanities Showcase recognized Congress for its ongoing support of the NEH and honored the creative and innovative work the NEH supports in serving K-12 students, veterans, tribal nations, and rural communities. Five NEH-grantees presented their work: an archive of Native American music at the University of Oklahoma; a family literacy program developed by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities; a digital humanities center at the University of Nebraska; an immersive history program for middle school students located at Civil War battlefields; and a program that uses ancient Greek drama to help veterans reflect on the experience of war and homecoming. We invited a bipartisan group of Members of Congress to introduce these projects and underscore the importance of the NEH to their communities. See more here.

Finally, Lin-Manuel dedicated the next day to traveling around the Capitol with us (while singing and snapping selfies) to make the case for the importance of broad access to the humanities and arts. He joined a bipartisan group from the New York delegation and the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the NEH and NEA. He also thanked the chairs of the Senate Cultural Caucus, Congressional Humanities Caucus, and Congressional Arts Caucus. Check out pictures of these meetings, the one-on-ones, and hallway run-ins here.

Throughout these visits, he emphasized the importance of humanities and arts programs and highlighted projects from the previous night’s humanities showcase. He explained, “We had armed service members who work with ancient Greek texts, which is so left field. It’s about as weird an elevator pitch as a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, right? But when you realize that these ancient texts are written by people who fought in wars, the Peloponnesian Wars in this case, they were written by veterans, for veterans. So, by engaging these texts that are from thousands of years ago, they actually have a way to talk about their experiences, an ease to reentry in American society and American life. And it’s that kind of thinking, and those kinds of programs that represent a fraction of the national budget, but we get so much more back.”

We are grateful that Lin-Manuel has chosen to drawn more attention to the important role that the NEH plays in providing access to the humanities in communities around the country. His advocacy comes at a pivotal time, as FY 2018 funding is being finalized. It also comes as an increasing number of Representatives and Senators—from both sides of the aisle—are recognizing the important role that the NEH plays in the communities they represent. Lin-Manuel’s commitment provided an unparalleled platform to ensure that even more Members of Congress learn about the NEH’s important work. His time on the Hill, combined with the grassroots humanities advocacy that NHA members like ASA have fostered over the past nine months, lead us to be increasingly optimistic about the future of the NEH.

Posted for ASA Office in Press Releases
Post date: September 27, 2017