PBN: What is the value to the council of you maintaining a seat on the board of directors of the R.I. Commerce Corporation?
FRANCIS: As a member of the board of directors of the R.I. Commerce Corporation, I am able to connect with leaders – in business, non-profits, and innovation – who are charged with stewarding the state’s economic development resources and overseeing opportunities for new enterprises. Though we come from different backgrounds, the board shares the essential goal of creating the basis for an economy that contributes to the well being of all Rhode Islanders. Sen. Claiborne Pell foresaw how important it is for historically informed and reflective thinking to infuse planning and policy making when he encouraged the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish the state humanities councils over 40 years ago. Serving on the board of Commerce RI is a way of carrying out that vision.
The humanities also belong to the public as a sector of our society and thus our economy: libraries, museums, schools, historical societies, universities, galleries, and all sorts of other organizations are employers and many of these are highly sought out because they provide creative, challenging and civically engaged work environments. The opportunity to be part of the statewide economic development planning that has taken place over the past six months has provided a forum for articulating the needs of the humanities sector. Generating an environment for sustainability, resilience, and growth is essential in order for the public humanities to help the state move forward.
PBN: As a co-author of the state’s “2014 Actions for Economic Development in Rhode Island,” what perspective did you provide on the humanities’ role as a catalyst for growth here?
FRANCIS: Through the process of drafting the plan, more than 300 people from business and non-profit communities contributed ideas and input. Participants included leaders in the arts, history and heritage, preservation, cultural, and design areas. Together, we were able to showcase the importance of the “place-making” approach to urban and community development, which is a nationally recognized strength in Rhode Island. We have only to look at what’s happening on Empire and Washington streets in downtown Providence, where the Humanities Council is happily located, to see how effective place-making can be as an economic and cultural engine.
Another theme that rose to the top is workforce development. I have voiced how connected humanities education supports a healthy 21st century economy, thriving marketplace, and environment for growth. In recent national surveys, employers say that the qualities they are looking for in new hires are critical thinking, the ability to analyze information and make connections, and the ability to collaborate. Humanities engagement develops these abilities, and so we should incorporate the humanities as we act on the recommendations to include more art and design thinking into Science Technology Engineering Math curricula.
We also stopped bemoaning the state’s negative self image and recognized that the state’s longer history of innovation and tolerance of diversity is a real asset. This is not just a question of rhetoric; it has tremendous implications for the expansion of tourism, inspiring and deepening the maker movement, and developing the state’s built environment, including how and whether to find new uses for its many historic buildings. The Humanities Council plays an important role here.
PBN: The council is updating its website and yet also promoting “The Art of the Book,” a program that aims to perpetuate the value of the printed word in a world transformed by online innovation. Why promote books in the face of increasing web dominance?
FRANCIS: I love this question. The council’s new website, which we will launch in early fall, will be a portal for the public humanities, an information hub for our diverse network of grantees, board members, and partners, and a way for Rhode Islanders to learn more about what we do, including the activities of the R.I. Center for the Book and programs such as “The Art of the Book.” It will also host the Humanities Council’s own digital library, which provides access to 40 years of grant projects.
So why promote digital access and call attention to the book-as-physical object, too? One common theme is technology itself. Robin Sloan, this year’s “Reading Across Rhode Island” author, vividly made that connection at the Center for the Book’s annual May breakfast when he talked about why it was so meaningful to him to write about actual books in the age of Google. Just as the smartphone is a symbol and medium of innovation today, he said, the production of small, printed books that you could hold in your hand was the leading edge of information technology in 1500.
By promoting digital access to the public humanities as well as the beauty and ingenuity of print, paper, and binding, the Humanities Council is part of the maker movement here in our state and also amplifying the work that libraries and museums do to preserve the techniques and representation of the past as we forge new ways to communicate, connect, and create.
The fact that both the “book” and the “web” are technologies does not mean that they are the same or that they have the same effect. As we increasingly read in digital formats, how does the reading experience change? In a broader context of digital data and social media, access to information and connectedness dramatically increase, but what happens to focused analysis and close interpretation? Do we care? What do we do about it? The Humanities Council and the Center for the Book provide opportunities to address these questions as we celebrate the continuing, probably inextinguishable, love of reading.
PBN: Describe the size and focus of your grant program. How is it an economic driver?
FRANCIS: Grant-making is the council’s largest program, and through mini grants (up to $2,000) and major grants (up to $15,000) we spend a significant portion of our operating budget on direct support to people and organizations throughout the state to undertake public programs, media production, and civic education, including k-12 and lifelong learning. Over the past five years, the Humanities Council has made over 250 grants and distributed nearly $1.2 million.
There are several ways in which the grant program is an economic driver. First, as an independent non-profit affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities, the council leverages our NEH funds with private grants and gifts to support Rhode Island organizations. The grant program overall matches each federal dollar by about three to one. Second, by attracting audiences, the grant program also generates revenue for organizations and communities. Third, as Rhode Island’s only supporter of public humanities, the council helps to create an environment where employers and employees want to stay – by catalyzing opportunities for creative, intellectual, and community involvement, public humanities projects make Rhode Island a vital place to live and work. Fourth, council-funded initiatives often seed much larger and long-term projects. Finally, the council advances the use of cultural data to understand the humanities sector, including, but not limited to, the collective economic impact of our grants. We expect the analysis of this data to grow.
PBN: What is the Rhode Tour and when does it officially launch?
FRANCIS: Rhode Tour is a statewide mobile historical smart-phone application that tells stories by and about Rhode Islanders and places in the state. Using the capabilities of the smart-phone interface – especially being able to move easily from one medium to another and to geo-locate – Rhode Tour brings mapping technology, sound, images, videos and well-told stories together to engage us in learning about the places we live, work, visit or perhaps simply pass by in Rhode Island. You can visit rhodetour.org now to take a thematic tour on your computer, or download the mobile app for free from the App Store or Google Play.
The council developed this project in partnership with the Brown University Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, and it grew out of a grant to use a database and mapping software called Curatescape to create a tour of Tiverton and Little Compton. For the initial phase of Rhode Tour that is available now, we chose projects that represent diverse approaches to Rhode Island history, including notable sites of African American history, Revolutionary War forts, orphanages, asylums, and almshouses, the environmental and social history of an urban pond, and stories of Pawtucket and the state’s industrial history.
For the next phase, the Rhode Island Historical Society is joining the Rhode Tour partnership, and we are establishing an advisory board that will include scholars and professionals throughout the state. The next tours will include: the State House, Benefit Street, North Burial Ground, the Elmwood neighborhood, and places where Thomas Dorr’s Rebellion occurred. The Council’s aim is to make Rhode Tour a premier source for locally produced, place-based history tours, and we seek funding partners to help us build it.