Inside Our Towns: PA Humanities

By Ben Speggen

Screenshot of PA Humanities staff during Inside Our Towns Podcast

This article first appeared on the Our Towns Civic Foundation website on June 27, 2022, which you can see here.

The power of storytelling. The importance of civic engagement. The role of humanities in the 21st century, and how it has evolved over the years.

What happens when you getting off the bus to walk through a town and see things at the street level. Why youth engagement matters. What superwomen without capes can accomplish through partnerships and collaboration.

Those are some of the things you’ll hear about in this episode of the Inside Our Towns podcast. Host and producer Evan Sanford talks with Laurie Zierer, Dawn Frisby Byers, and Jen Danifo, all with PA Humanities, an independent nonprofit and official state and federal partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which was formed, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1965 under the Johnson administration.

As Evan puts it, PA Humanities “brings Pennsylvanians together to shape the future through the power of stories, reflections and relationships. Their programs and brands put the humanities into action, generating avenues for civic involvement, community development, and personal growth.”

Some of those programs include the Teen Reading Lounge (an “award-winning, unconventional approach to book clubs that offer a safe space” for those ages 12 to 18, as the PA Humanities website explains here); and Chester Made (a “humanities-based initiative to celebrate and promote arts and culture and to harness their power as a force for community revitalization” that took place in Pennsylvania’s oldest city, Chester, as detailed here); and PA Heart & Soul (the council’s partnership with Community Heart & Soul®, a nationwide organization that supports local resident-driven community efforts, which is also a supporter of Our Towns), as noted here.

They also discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on humanities-based initiatives, and PA Humanities’ responses, including the new grant-making strategy, PA SHARP (Pennsylvania Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan), a $1.4 million recovery and growth program.

You can watch their conversation here:

You can also listen on Spotify here:

We provide the transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to, or watching, the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.

Inside Our Towns — Episode 2, featuring PA Humanities


Laurie Zierer, Evan Sanford, Jen Danifo, Dawn Frisby Byers

Evan Sanford 00:07

Hi there and welcome to this edition of Inside Our Towns. My name is Evan Sanford and I’m a contributor for the Our Towns Civic Foundation, and I’m the Executive Director at the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Today, our guests are with PA Humanities, which is an independent nonprofit and official state and federal partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The organization brings Pennsylvanians together to shape the future through the power of stories, reflections and relationships. Their programs and brands put the humanities into action, generating avenues for civic involvement, community development, and personal growth. And now it’s my very impressive guest today. Laurie Zierer, is an executive director at PA Humanities where she’s worked to strategically sharpened its focus on community building, education, advocacy, and research. During her tenure, she helped launch their three signature programs, which we’ll touch on in just a moment. Dawn Frisby Byers is their senior director of content and engagement. She’s a marketing executive with extensive experience in brand development and management, strategic partnerships, and both traditional and digital marketing. She recently led their rebranding and website redesign. And Jen Danifo is the organization’s Senior Program Officer and a certified level 2 Community Heart & Soul coach. She works closely with grantees to provide technical support in all aspects of public engagement, program development, learning and evaluation. We’ll get to much more of what each of them are working on in bear town later. But I’d like to welcome all of our guests to the program. Thank you so much. Thank you. Let’s start off with exactly what does the word humanities mean, in the 21st century? Laurie, how about you?

Laurie Zierer 01:56

Humanities in the 21st century, you know, at PA Humanities, a lot of folks talk about what we do as applied humanities. It’s taking the tools of the humanities, the practices of the humanities, for common good. Many times the humanities is defined as disciplines or content areas. And we easily you know, you know, literature philosophy, but we really think about the humanities as taking the books off the shelves and putting them in people’s hands to make changes in their community.

Evan Sanford 02:34

How has the work changed over the course of you know, the decades that you all have been involved? What has been some of the biggest changes?

Laurie Zierer 02:42

Well, you know, at PA Humanities, I think that we’re really a great representative of a state Humanities Council across the nation, there’s 56 of us in every state and territory. And we’ve been called an ongoing experiment. We’re over 50 years old, the endowments, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts. They were created during the Johnson administration. And they were, the aim was, and it’s in the founding legislation that democracy demands wisdom. And for us at humanities councils that has meant something different in every state and territory of Pennsylvania, it means something that that it means in California where you are, or in Vermont, where the Community Heart & Soul was originally founded. And that’s an important part of the work, that we’re a nonprofit that responds to needs within the state and for us, big needs have been around education, particularly youth education, as well as in civic engagement in particular, engaging people across party lines to do and to do things together within their communities. I talked a lot about PA Humanities as a US finding our own identity and the state. And in during the economic downturn, we were faced with a fiscal crisis for us and how we were going to sustain ourselves. We have lost some funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We also lost all state funding we’ve never had. We’ve never been a line item in the Pennsylvania state budget, but we worked on through partnerships with state agencies and they had their budget slashed. So we really had to think about what was our relevance and Pennsylvania and we looked around and I colleges and universities, students were asking themselves Do I even want a liberal arts degree? What is that going to do for me in the market? placed, there was a, there was a real crisis in the humanities. And we said, Wait a minute, there is a real need, and really took a look at where we could make that difference with us with education and civic engagement. So I think that makes the big difference in the way that we really took our programs. And so with that start, we started to ask with the people of Pennsylvania, what was youth education going to look like? And what difference could it make, and we worked hand in hand with libraries, and with young people, to see what the kind of impact that our programs could have. And the the kind of impact was taking books, and identifying issues within the community to make a change, or with a program like heart and soul, to use stories in order to identify the values within a community and problem solve what that future would look like.

Evan Sanford 06:05

Dawn, let’s talk about that. And maybe Jen, you can follow up after that. How has your work been impacted by the pandemic? And also, how have you been working to do what Laurie was just talking about embracing humanity’s into the current, light and the current times and address those kinds of things,

Dawn Frisby Byers 06:24

the results of the pandemic, not withstanding the real reason for the pandemic, the health issues, but the pandemic offered an opportunity for us as a statewide organization to actually reach more people across the state. Up until then, our programs were primarily on the ground, one on one deep work, individual looks someone directly in the eye. But we but when that opportunity was taken away from us, we were able to take some of our learnings and some of and work with our partners to share information and create online programs, we were very quick to do that. And in back end, which allowed us to reach more Pennsylvanians, but more important for our message to get across to organizations, who now look at us in a different light. So I think we picked up some more fans. And we were able to illustrate how the what the humanities can do, and should be doing across various sectors, not just libraries, or just community groups, but throughout the state throughout the cultural sector of Pennsylvania. Jen, do you want to add?

Jen Danifo 07:57

Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, Dawn’s right, we probably have been more connected to some of our Pennsylvania’s a big state, it takes, you know, what, 767 hours to get for actually more than that, to get from one end to the other. So, you know, for a staff of 12, it is not always easy for us to go out and visit with people. The pandemic, of course, basically, you know, blew that off, we weren’t able to really go out, you know, no one was, so we had to pivot. And so I would say, in some ways, it actually, I know, because I work with the heart and soul communities, there are 10 right now that are currently running the program, three, of course, have kind of graduated on to like being done with the the actual process, but are still hard soul communities. You know, I felt like, I’ve gotten to know these people, because we’ve had like, weekly zoom calls. And, you know, people were just concerned, they were like, what do we do? And I also think, like, with are great. So you know, there’s a lot of talking about that, like, how do we do our work? Do we pause, I mean, a lot of people pause because they had to, you know, take care of personal, you know, issues a lot of people you know, it was just, it was just a little nutty at that time. But I will say the other thing, too, we have are sharp grants, the sustaining the humanities, through the American rescue plan act, we got some money through the federal government through the NIH in order to help organizations you know, recover and grow, you know, you know, from the impact of the pandemic and kind of recover from that and continue to grow. And it allowed us I think, the pandemic, in some ways asked us to slow down and listen to what they actually needed. We do programming and grant making and grant making can be this thing where you sometimes ask folks to like jump through hoops in order to get the money that they’re requesting. And I think for us, we really saw it as an opportunity, we needed to slow down and listen to them on what they needed. And in that way, we were able to kind of model the idea of the humanities, which is like, Let’s just not talk about the work, but talk about like what’s going on in your community. And so I think that was really valuable as well. And it’s something that even though like the pandemic kind of necessitated it. It’s something that we’re trying to weave into everything we do now. It’s like how do we understand the context of what people are working in and how the humanities actually supports that context.

Laurie Zierer 10:07

And Evan, you know, I just want I want to amplify it a point about the humanities, when we started on this journey to really think about what impact the humanities could have and a community, we were learning with folks. And we were told, as we went that these are really important tools, I never realized this, this would be so important to talk about race in my community. And right now, there is a realization in a different way that, you know, times are very complex, they’ve always been complex, but people are seeing it more than ever before. And how do I embrace this complexity? And that there are difference of opinions and perspectives and life experiences? How do we bring that all into the room and find what we can work together on with shared problem solving, that is the humanities. And folks are embracing the complexity. Because it’s not a simple narrative, when you get into a community about, you know, holding on to the past, and it used to be, oh, folks are holding on to the past. They’re looking to something that’s new, it’s more complex than that. And we’ve got to lean into the whole story and figure out what we can all chew on together and share and problem solve around.

Jen Danifo 11:34

Yeah, yeah. And I would say to that, you know, I think that’s a great point, Laurie. And I think that what we’re hearing from all of our communities is that this building this muscle of being able to discuss the context, and the complexity is something that I wouldn’t say is lost, but it’s not always practiced. Right. You know, if you think about the traditional humanities, or the traditional way, sometimes the humanities are employed. It’s, you know, thinking about dates and people and like all that’s important, but I think the idea of like, being able to someone just I heard someone talk, it was his historian, and he said, you know, history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, because the context around the history is different. So each time something happens, even if it seems similar, like wars happened, but the context around the wars, always, there’s something different, right? Although there are patterns that you can kind of deduce from, you know, the past. And I think that that with our heart soul programs with our Chester made program with our teen reading launch program, even with our grantees, the relief and recovery programs, we’re hoping that people have the opportunity to dig into that complexity, because Laurie is right. I mean, the time is right for folks to be able to practice that muscle, it is not easy. But you know, every time we hear from our especially our heart and soul communities, thank you so much for giving us these tools. Because we would never have really talked about this had we not done heart and soul. Same thing with teen reading lounge, we hear that from libraries all the time, teens would never be able to talk about their identity in this way in a school setting, or at least it may not be as open. So that’s really, really important, I think. And one way we’re trying to go into the 21st century and make it a little more modern and applicable.

Evan Sanford 13:08

So Jen, you mentioned Community Heart & Soul. And listeners might remember that a previous guest in Iowa was a coach with Community Heart & Soul. And so I’d like to hear a little bit more about how that program is working in Pennsylvania and what you’re doing with the foundation itself.

Jen Danifo 13:25

For sure. So I will say, you know, we started this journey, I think it was about 2015 or 2016. Right? So it’s been quite a journey. We started with three communities. We we you know, like Laurie said, we decided that civic engagement was an area that we as a Humanities Council wanted to lean into, and explore. And so we, you know, discovered Community Heart & Soul, then they were called the Orton Family Foundation. And we reached out to them and we said, you know, storytelling is really a big part of the human like we see the humanities in this process, is there a way that we might be able to work together and see if we can bring this to Pennsylvania, for example, you’ll hear stories about how people really love the downtown because of all the recreation and were maybe back in the day, there were a lot of local businesses, and they want that to come back. So what does that tell us about what a community cares about and what the history of a community was, and then how we can maybe move forward and build on that. So it’s a really, really amazing process. And, you know, we work very closely with communities and really walk them through that process, their life experience becomes the text. You know, sometimes in the humanities, you think about like a text that you’re exploring their actual experiences, stories become that text that they’re, you know, kind of unpacking together and discussing together. And that creates a basis for a community action plan that goes beyond us. And you know, we’ll take them years and years, sometimes decades to implement.

Evan Sanford 14:47

Dawn, I’d like to ask you some something about how is this organization able to do the kinds of things that you’re all doing this does not seem like something that at least the three of you can accomplish on your Oh, what kind of partnerships do you have? And have you had over the course of so many years to ensure that you can actually accomplish all these amazing things that you’re doing?

Dawn Frisby Byers 15:11

Well, we are super women. So right there, you will just not wearing our capes today

Evan Sanford 15:19

was refusing.

Dawn Frisby Byers 15:22

But now it is a great question. But the this type of work can only exist. When we have on the ground partners no matter what, what what type of work we’re doing, we see on the ground partners, one stack is small and to the our our philosophy of working in communities means working with people who know the communities, the last thing we would do is come into a community and say, We’re the Humanities Council, and we’re here to help you, it’s you know, we don’t know what’s happening on the ground. So part of the discovery is what’s really going on here, good, bad, and, you know, and anything in between. And in order to be authentic in that work, you have to work with people who are trusted partners, who can help you navigate around certain certain situations. And also, who were who were there, were there before you came and will be there after we leave so so our partnerships, and our success is based a lot on who we work with, on the ground. And, and that they believe in what we’re doing, you know, and can help or at least help in the sense of help bring people together. For for their own good because we are one of our philosophies is people want are not problems to be solved. People come to people have assets everybody has has assets, and has something to contribute. We think people sometimes ask the wrong questions. So if you add if you come in and have invite people to share their stories, that’s when you really can get information and agreement and a new light, a new path will be will be revealed. You know,

Laurie Zierer 17:33

when we started this work, I remember way back when we embarked on a project that came to be known as Chester made, it was named by the community when it first started, it was called the downtown Chester corridor project. And we were invited in by the city of Chester, and local Weidner university to do some civic engagement kind of thing. They needed some town halls because they wanted to do. They had a grand idea to connect the downtown with the university and it was going to be an economic driver, and they knew that arts and culture had to be part of it. So couldn’t the PA Humanities come in, have a couple town halls, figure out what the community really wanted with arts and culture? We said, well, you know, we’re gonna have to do this a little bit differently, we’re gonna have to work with the community. And we all got together and whitener University put us all on a bus. And you could walk from whitener University to the downtown, but they put us on a bus to take us downtown. And there were some community members on the bus and we got very close to the downtown and community members turned to us. I remember this distinctly. And an artist said, I really think we should stop and get off the bus. And that’s the key, you got to stop and get off the bus to really engage with people. And we started to go into downtown stores. And I met an artist Devin walls, who was sitting in the back look and who the heck has come into town to look at us. Like we’re a problem to be solved. And we’ve been working behind the scenes here for a long time. And that’s when the conversation started. Because that’s an invitation for everyone to engage and sort out what the what we want to work on together and move it forward. It’s getting off the bus.

Evan Sanford 19:40

We in our previous conversation getting ready for today we we have talked about how you’re using mapping technologies to interact with other organizations that may not actually consider themselves to be humanities organizations. Talk to us a little bit more about what that looks like.

Dawn Frisby Byers 19:56

Sure. And to be clear, it’s more of a mapmaking project, it’s not so much technology we’re not. We’re not that savvy. But what

Evan Sanford 20:06

we are doing, don’t underestimate. That’s

Dawn Frisby Byers 20:09

right. That’s right. I forgot put my cake back on. Um, what? What we, what we’ve learned as we go throughout the state can speak with people, and particularly through our grant making efforts over the last two or three years, is that when you say, Are you a humanities organization? People say no. But then when you read what they do, you’re like, Yeah, you know, you are or you’re using humanities practice. Right. So we are doing a project in conjunction with Drexel University out of Philadelphia, their arts administration, department, to identify organizations throughout the state, who are using tools, humanity tools, like storytelling, and sharing, and reflection, and conversations, who are using these tools within their communities for for sharing, for community involvement, for community growth. And even though they don’t call it the humanities, we actually are calling the thing we don’t call it the humanities. So we are we are looking at developing a network of organizations who do this work, and have been doing it for years. So that we can illustrate again, how important this work is, and how, how it impacts this type of approach to work until like, so that we’re not the only ones carrying that banner.

Evan Sanford 21:55

Speaking of banners, is not here, great transition at Laurie, and Dawn, maybe you can also touch on this. Next year is going to be a banner year for you. It’s a big anniversary. So tell us what’s in store what’s what’s on tap for next year?

Dawn Frisby Byers 22:10

Well, it is our 50th anniversary is in 2023. And we have several things lined up. One is a bunch of research that we’ve done on these topics, one for team meeting, round one in community, heart and soul and several on this connections of other humanity like groups, we will be pushing those out, and probably do some programs around that. We have an idea to do a tour around the state where we will be very visible, hopefully with you know, COVID, never, never ending and never and always changing. But the idea is to take the PA Humanities on the tour and stuff in a lot of places, and, and show the power of storytelling in conversation by gathering people who are not like minded on the paper. But we all agree that people are more alike than they are different. And exercising and facilitating conversations like that. And then we have, we also will have a project that will illustrate the conversations and the works of Pennsylvania playwrights, particularly August Wilson, and his reflections of life in Pennsylvania in the 20th century. And we’ll use that to spark community conversation and dialogue

Laurie Zierer 23:57

as well. You know, I love the way that David White Pope, he puts it you know, every conversation is an invitation and our 50th year anniversary, there’s going to be a lot of conversations and really invitations to engage with the humanities and to you know, bring people together across what many people think our divides. We don’t see as many divides, we see a lot of commonalities, we see individual perspectives, and opportunities to bring people together to talk about what those differences are and how we can share to problem solve and work together on the future.

Evan Sanford 24:46

How can people find out a little bit more about the humanities?

Dawn Frisby Byers 24:50

Well, we have a brand new website, PA Humanities that org where our work is featured. There’s a also links to stories that we collect from our grantees, and also our program partners. We actually employ a part time storyteller who writes the stories for our, for our website, and also on the website are ways for people to get involved and to join us.

Evan Sanford 25:26

Well, I thank you all for joining all three super women. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for being with us today. And for all of you that are joining us at home. Thank you for listening to this edition of Inside Our Towns.