Last spring, children and their parents gathered at the Bellingham Public Library for an unusual story time. After listening intently to stories like “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Amazing Grace,” something even more magical took place: family discussions on things like fairness, justice, truth and courage – all through the lens of these stories. One night they discussed “dreams.” Who did they dream of becoming? What happens when dreams are lost or change? Children were eager to share theirs, but they were even more curious about their parents’ dreams. Each family melted into hugs and tears as the parents, in various ways, acknowledged that all their dreams were now embodied in their children.
Just a few months later, Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall visited Bellingham. In just two packed days, he met with schoolchildren, held a writing workshop and an evening reading. Here too, he drew a strong crowd of students and the local community for a lively and wide-ranging discussion of poetry and its importance in our society. His visit culminated in a keynote at WWU’s Poetry Camp. Tod’s gentle spirit, infectious love of poetry and passion for teaching profoundly impacted the hundreds of Whatcom County residents he encountered in that short visit. His work will inspire future generations of poets and writers.
These kind of discussions and performances – about poetry, literature, current events, history, and so much more – are examples of the positive impact of cultural programs that can be found throughout our community, our state and our country. The opportunities mentioned above were made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet, last week, President Trump proposed elimination of these agencies along with other important cultural programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
$4-$9 Amount, on average in Washington state, every $1 from National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts provides is leveraged.
For those who advocate for more limited government, this may seem like a success. Certainly, we know that these tough choices facing our legislators will spark significant debate. We also know that this proposal to cut the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts (and other important cultural organizations) would do more harm than good.
The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, while based in Washington, D.C., are present in and a very vital part of the local cultural and educational ecosystem in Washington state. Humanities Washington, our state’s National Endowment for the Humanities affiliate, and ArtsWA, its National Endowment for the Arts affiliate, served over 22,000 people in Whatcom county in 2016. These programs were created by people in our state, for people in our state and local communities. Many Bellingham organizations have benefited from this support, including the Firehouse Performance Center, the Mount Baker Theatre, Bellingham Community College, the Bellingham Public Library and more.
Further, the majority of that work takes place outside of major metropolitan areas. The loss of funding will hit rural areas the hardest, and, as we know, these are the very communities that tend to have fewer cultural resources.
Eliminating these federal cultural agencies means silencing important programs designed to build community and alleviate the polarization that is tearing at the American social fabric. In an era when our Facebook feed filters our news and community dialog is reduced to an online comments section, Humanities Washington and ArtsWA, along with an expansive network of libraries, museums and cultural organizations, create spaces where neighbors can gather to explore their shared heritage and celebrate their culture. The town square is still alive, in many cases it’s just moved indoors.
Beyond community building, these programs contribute to a town’s economy. On average in Washington state, every $1 from National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts provides is leveraged by at least $4 – and in some cases up to $9 – from private sources in local communities. Can you imagine that kind of company match on your 401(k)?
Another economic consideration is a community’s livability. Cultural programs and the quality of life they provide attract talent for local business, help attract employers with higher-paying jobs and drive tourism.
This administration believes we should rebuild our infrastructure, but infrastructure is more than roads and bridges; it’s the libraries, schools, theaters and museums – and the performances and discussions that take place within them – that create community. Cutting the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts would reduce the federal budget by .002 percent and that tiny savings pales in comparison to what we would lose as a community, state, nation and people.
Bellingham resident Elizabeth Joffrion in a board member for Humanities Washington, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which offers public programs and grants throughout Washington state.