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Making Meaning Out of the Meaningless

Dorchester Clemente Course Student Judith Foster Tells Her Story

I spent the first nine years of my life on my mother’s land along the beautiful Rio Magno in the district of Linstead, Jamaica. We grew all kinds of fruit and vegetables: peas, pineapples, sugarcane, bananas; you name it. I am so grateful to have experienced that idyllic childhood. It was like Eden. 

My mother migrated to the U.S. in 1969, and eventually each of us five children followed. When I arrived in Dorchester in February 1975, I remember asking her what all this dirty stuff was all over the street. It was snow. It was terribly cold. I remember crying all the time.

I had done very well at school in Jamaica. There, participation in class was both mandatory and praised. Not so in Boston. I attended the now-closed Lucy Stone Elementary School and the Champlain Middle School. Then I was bused to East Boston High. I remember angry people throwing things at the bus as it went by. In each of these schools, students were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted, including abusing the teachers. I remember one teacher advising me not to speak up in class.

I was often the target of bullying, and one such incident was bad enough to cause me to drop out just a couple of months before graduation. I managed to get my GED at Roxbury Community College a year later, and I went on to graduate from Hickox Secretarial School, in 1986. In the mid-eighties I had two sons and a daughter. I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with their father.

We moved to Florida in 1987 and I worked at a few different jobs while attending school to become a medical assistant. I didn’t graduate. In 1992, I fell four stories out of an apartment building. I spent four months in a hospital with many broken bones, and the doctors told my mother that they did not expect me to live, and if I did live, I would not be able to walk. I proved them wrong on both counts, but I suffer to this day from chronic debilitating pain and memory problems that have gotten worse over time. I haven’t been able to work for the past few years because of it. I am grateful that my mother, who is now 84, was able to step in and help raise my kids.

After the incident, I moved back to Boston and eventually was able to start a career in political campaigning, beginning with Mayor Thomas Menino’s campaign in 1999. I worked on campaigns for Shannon O’Brien and Jill Stein for Massachusetts Governor, and President Obama and Senator John Kerry when they each ran for president. The proudest time of my career was working with the late Boston Councilman Chuck Turner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and with the Boston Workers Alliance to reform the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system, which Governor Patrick signed into law in 2010. Among other things, the new law makes sure CORI reports are kept confidential and helps to protect the rights of the subject. Before that time, it was virtually impossible to get a job in Massachusetts if you had a criminal record of any kind.

In 1988, my son Paul was born. Like his siblings, Paul was a true blessing for me. He graduated from high school in 2006, and I promised him that if he went to college and got a bachelor’s degree, I would as well. He enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, majoring in computer science engineering with a minor in marketing.

February is a difficult month for me. Three months before he was due to graduate, on February 22, 2013, Paul was shot and murdered for no good reason outside a nightclub in Charlotte. It is still an unsolved case. The police told me Paul had been seen having a verbal altercation with an unidentified man inside the club. That’s all I know.

I can’t remember anything else that happened in 2013. In 2014, I found the strength to act and started trying to think of ways to get justice for Paul in some form, as I was not able to file for any legal damages. I made videos and had a press conference about his case in North Carolina. I convinced the university to award Paul his degree posthumously.

Around that time, woman pastor told me, “whatever good God is doing for you, you should go out and do for others.” My mother encouraged me to make a retreat, and take some time for myself.  So, I visited my childhood home in Jamaica for three months. I went to the rivers and beaches, enjoyed the fresh fruits and vegetables, and felt rejuvenated.

There I found the inspiration to establish the HERO Nurturing Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Paul. HERO stands for Healing Empathy Redemption Oasis. We built the Hope Garden, which my neighbors and I now use to grow our own fruits and vegetables right in the middle of Dorchester. We had lots of help from hardworking volunteers, my local state Representative Liz Miranda, and organizations like the Farmer Collaborative, Speak for the Trees, Farmers Food Forest Coalition, and American Forest. A video about the project in which I am featured can be found on YouTube (search “Community ReLeaf – Making Boston Vibrant”).

With the encouragement of my friend, community activist Kevin Peterson, in July 2018, I attended the Reading Frederick Douglass event on the Boston Common. It’s an amazing event that I want to organize here in Dorchester this year.  There I met Rose Sackey-Milligan, a Mass Humanities program officer who is now retired, and she told me about the Clemente Course in the Humanities. 

A light went on in my head. I thought, “This is how I can honor my promise to Paul and get my degree.” I am currently enrolled in the program. It is incredibly convenient, with classes right at Codman Square Health Center two evenings a week, and the professors are incredible. It’s also a way to get to know neighbors who have similar interests. Over the years, I’ve taken courses on and off at RCC, and I have earned about 36 credits. The six I receive through the Clemente Course will take me further along, and I plan to enroll again and work toward my bachelor’s degree in art history. 

Why art history? Because it takes me back to my childhood. In my house and neighborhood growing up, we had musical instruments of all kinds – banjoes, slide whistles, drums – all carved out of the trees that surrounded us. I want to explore and reveal for others that art, history, and culture. I’ll be using the skills, network, and confidence I’m finding in the Clemente Course to do for others the good that God is doing for me.

Edited photo: Chalmette FEMA Trailer, 4 September 2006. Credit: Wikicommons.

Turning to memories of post-Katrina New Orleans to fight COVID-19’s isolation.

My wife worked at a diner in the French Quarter in the months following Hurricane Katrina. I’d meet her after work, where we’d commiserate and joke with the rest of the staff, usually joined by their partners who were employed at hotels or in construction. The owner, a Greek man in his 70s, still worked the kitchen every day, but he was typically gone by close, so the libations flowed freely as waitresses and cooks slowly cleaned up. Anyone who’s worked in a restaurant knows the weary camaraderie of the closing shift.

We became good friends with the bartender, a woman from Northern Ireland, and her husband, a carpenter from St. Bernard Parish, the working class suburb abutting the Lower Ninth Ward. Oftentimes, the night would continue with a drive through the desolate city, out to their home, which, like all of “da Parish,” was utterly annihilated by the floodwaters. On lawn chairs outside their FEMA trailer, I’d listen as Anne Marie and Karl joked about hanging their cash savings on a line to dry out after the storm—“literally laundering money” went the punchline. There were ongoing battles with insurance companies and the federal government, rumors of their neighbors’ fates, and an ample amount of speculation about what was to become of the city of New Orleans and all of us.

I’ve always felt that the true story of the city’s recovery, such as it was, was the fortitude of the countless people of all backgrounds who, with minimal assistance from the government or big business, slogged away at rebuilding, depending only on the companionship of their families and neighbors. One could not hide his or her human failings, inequities persisted and unnecessary tragedies occurred, but the ability to meet at the end of the night, comparing notes, sharing in anger and bewilderment, downing cans of cheap beer—I learned a lot from that experience.

The crisis we face today is defined by our isolation. Certainly in Louisiana we felt stranded, forgotten, betrayed, but at least we were there together. Now, every human on the planet shares a common threat in COVID-19, but how do we build community while practicing social isolation? What does righteous indignation look like when we cannot see one another, but for thumbnails on Zoom? How do we burn off the frustrations of working from home, or waiting in line for a test, or listening to the latest news from Washington? We can turn to social media, a medium that offers at least as much anxiety as it does comfort.

I’ve made more phone calls than usual the last two weeks, for professional and personal reasons, and was grateful to talk without staring into my laptop. But this is empathy delivered through a device, not human touch. We are suddenly full time digital creatures, or as Mass Humanities board member Ramon Borges-Mendez told me when we talked yesterday, “Now everyone is a millennial!”

We can learn from those millennials. I’m certainly learning a lot from spending more time with my little ones, who have my wife and me just where they want us. And, like it or not, we must learn new ways to build community through our digital platforms, using the humanities to knit new ties through conversations, shared learning, and the exchange of ideas.

For now, we raise our glasses to our laptops, sharing gallows humor with loved ones across the country who, like us, sit isolated from their own communities. There must be a strength we can draw from the all-encompassing nature of this crisis, some way to feel that we are all in the same boat while not seeing each other in person.

Prone to nostalgia and optimism, I hope we can make this time meaningful by being more present with one another, whatever the platform. I’ll admit, though, that I wish we were cleaning up a diner together right now.

Brian Boyles is Executive Director of Mass Humanities.

Inaugurating our new At Home Film Festival series is documentary filmmaker Larry Hott of Florentine Films, a Massachusetts resident who has twice been nominated for an Academy Award.  

Larry will host and live stream his 2002 film Imagining Robert which received funding through a Mass Humanities grant. Please join us for this unique opportunity to watch alongside Larry and participate by submitting questions at the end for him to answer. 

We will live stream through Zoom and also offer the link to his film so that you can view it anytime between now and April 10 at 8pm. Click here to RSVP for the link and on Friday, April 10 at 6:45pm EST we will tune in to hear Larry introduce his film and then answer questions from the audience. Read below Larry Hott’s essay on how this film came to be made. 

It was February 2001.  I was at my desk in our film studio reviewing every grant application I had made for our film Imagining Robert.  I had started filming four years earlier, after getting to know Jay Neugeboren, who was then the writer-in-residence at UMass.  

I met Jay four years earlier while swimming laps at the Y.  He often spoke about his younger brother Robert, who had been on locked units of state psychiatric hospitals in New York for forty years.  Jay was desperately trying to get Robert off his poorly staffed and sometimes dangerous ward and into a half-way house.  The quest to free Robert had taken over Jay’s life; he’d even written a memoir about it, which was published in 1997.  I went to hear Jay read from the book and I was impressed by the response of the crowd.  They were parents, brothers and sisters of people like Robert and they recognized themselves and their difficulties in Jay and Robert’s story.  I was struck by the emotional power in the room; I immediately thought it would make a great film.

The following week Jay and I drove to Staten Island from Northampton, MA to take Robert out on a day pass.  I brought a consumer video camera with me to document the scout and to serve as a screen test.  The material from that day was so strong that seven minutes of it ended up in the final one-hour film.  At the time I didn’t know that, but I did know that we had a winner on our hands.  If only we could find the funding.

I started filming with no money at all, the first time I had ever done that.  What made it possible was the purchase of a broadcast quality camera for another production.  I hadn’t been the cinematographer on any of my films, but by shooting the film myself I could gather footage without having to pay anyone.  That was a huge advantage, besides the savings.  As the cinematographer, there was no one between me and the subject.  It provided a connection and a sense of intimacy with Robert, which comes through in almost every scene.

By 1999 I had enough footage to produce a sample and that helped us secure our first funding, $10,000 from the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy, now MassHumanities.   More MFH funding would come, but it was not nearly enough to finish the film.  So, there I was in the winter of 2001 wondering where the next grant would come from when my wife and filmmaking partner, Diane Garey, called to me from her office.  “Have you heard of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship in Mental Health Journalism?  It’s perfect for Imagining Robert.”

“When’s the deadline?” I asked hopefully.  “Tomorrow by 5:00 PM,” was the answer.  “’What, are you nuts?’ was what I was thinking,” but what I said was, “Too bad, we’ll never make it.”  “It’s only a one-page application and four letters of reference,” she said dismissively.  “If you can’t pull that together you don’t deserve the funding.”   This was before email was the norm, but I faxed all my trusty references, including David Tebaldi, then the director of MFH, with draft letters, which they faxed back to me by the end of the day.  I Fedexed the package to the Carter Center that evening and forgot about it.

In May of 2001 I got the call. “Congratulations, you’ve been chosen as Rosalynn Carter fellow in mental health journalism.”  The director gave me the details.  The fellowship included a $10,000 grant with a catch.  I would have to come to the Carter Center in Atlanta to pick up the first half of the award and stay for a three-day conference with the other fellows.  The first night included a dinner with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter.  The date, September 11, 2001.

Tuesday, September 11 was a beautiful day to fly to Atlanta.  I left Bradley Airport in Hartford, Connecticut at 8:00 AM.  A little bit after 9:00 AM, the businesswoman in the seat next to me was chatting on the seat phone when she suddenly turned pale and grabbed my arm.  “You’re not going to believe this, but my office just told me that the World Trade Center collapsed. Nobody knows what’s going on.”  Then the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker, “Air traffic control has informed us that we have to land in Charlotte.”  No reason was given and we descended suddenly.  As the airfield came into view we could see hundreds of planes parked every which way, with passengers disembarking from mobile stairways.  

In the terminal it was pandemonium.  After waiting online to get to a pay phone (cell phones weren’t working) I got through to the Carter Center.  They told me that the dinner was on, and that I should rent a car and come on down.  “It’s only a five-hour drive.” Easier said than done.  I made my way to the car rental pavilion, which had the feel of the New York Stock Exchange on the first day of the 1929 crash.  There were no cars available and no one wanted to give me a ride to Atlanta.  Then the airport police started closing the airport and telling everyone we had to leave immediately.

By now four hours had passed and I had no idea how to get to Atlanta or back to Massachusetts.   There were no busses at the airport, only cabs and the line for them was a mile long.  For some reason that line was moving lickety split; when I got to the head I found out why.  The police were shoving five or more people into every cab and telling us to hightail it out of there.  So, in I went with four other strangers, all hell bent on going anyplace else.

An older woman was next to me in the taxi.  She took my hand and said she was scared for her husband; they lived only a few blocks from the Towers.  We made a pact – we would help each other get out of Charlotte.  The driver dropped us all at the train station but when we entered the only clerk just kept shouting, “No trains, no trains.”  We called local rental car companies, “No cars, no cars.”  We ran back out to the street and flagged down another cab and headed for the bus station. 

As we arrived the Greyhound for Atlanta was just pulling out and I missed it.  The bus for New York City was leaving in a few minutes and I helped my new friend get her ticket and find the gate.  Just as she was boarding the bus she turned to me.  “Did you see that UHaul franchise we passed on the way here?  Try that, who knows?”  Then she was gone.

Another cab ride got me to the UHaul in five minutes.  Inside were four men gathered around a small black and white television watching the towers fall over and over again.  With difficulty I got their attention and asked if there were any vans available.  “Nope, just eighteen-foot trucks.  Take it or leave it.”

Five hours later, emotionally spent and physically exhausted, I pulled into the Carter Center in Atlanta.  Rosalynn Carter came out to greet me, took one look at the truck and said, “I have a bureau at my house that I need help moving.  Can you lend me a hand?”  

The dinner was moved to the next day, after a one-day conference.  The event was abbreviated so everyone could get home.  There was one hitch; no planes were flying and no one knew when flights would resume.  It’s a good thing I had that truck.  I drove one of the other fellows to North Carolina, stayed overnight at a Red Roof Inn, ate in restaurants with large parking lots, and made it to New Jersey in time for a big family bat mitzvah.  

I had called UHaul before leaving Atlanta and they told me they would waive all mileage and late fees, as all the other rental companies were doing.  But when I dropped off the car the attendant in New Jersey said he knew nothing about towers falling or fee waivers.  I had no choice but to pay in full.  The next day I wrote a complaint to UHaul on their web page and got a call back in minutes.  It was the secretary to UHaul’s president. By now I had found out that the Carter Center was getting refunds on the flights and would pay any extra costs, so when UHaul offered to cut the charges by fifty percent, it was easy to say yes.

Fast forward two years.  We received enough funds to finish the film through a collaborative grant between MassHumanities and the Animating Democracy Initiative of Americans for the Arts, which required us to organize a series of screenings and humanities programs across Massachusetts.   

Rosalynn Carter offered to host the Atlanta premiere of the film before the November PBS broadcast in 2003.  Jay and Robert came for the event, my mother as well, and we all sat with Rosalynn Carter for the screening and discussion.  When Robert met Rosalynn Carter, he bowed slightly and kissed her hand.

Dear Friends,

Three weeks ago, Mass Humanities celebrated a milestone. We gathered at the State House to honor the organizations receiving “The Vote” grants for projects that explore voting rights. Legislators joined our staff and board to learn about events planned for libraries, YWCAs, and museums.  In my remarks, I praised the grantees for their bravery. In a time of deep polarization, they chose to bring neighbors together in public spaces to discuss the past, present, and future of American democracy. 

I’m sure you’ll understand me when I tell you: three weeks seems like an eternity ago. 

The COVID-19 crisis disrupts our way of life in unprecedented ways, not all of which we can fully understand. Governor Baker’s state of emergency prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people. Social distancing is a duty, so the best laid plans must change. 

Survey: Tell us How We Can Help

In the coming weeks Mass Humanities will focus on responding to COVID-19’s immediate impact on our partner institutions and the communities they serve. We invite you to fill out this survey to identify needs for your organizations.

Tell us how we can help you and your communities. Mass Humanities is committed to supporting you in these challenging times.

One thing will not change: Mass Humanities stands with its grantees. Projects currently funded by a Mass Humanities grants can request extensions at any time without penalty. We will continue to issue payments on schedule. Just as they are in calmer times, our staff is available and eager to work with grantees to find solutions. We believe the humanities can sustain us through this difficult time.

Due to this uncertainty and our focus on responding to the immediate needs of our grantees and partners, we have made the difficult decision to postpone our upcoming Spring Project Grant round until summer 2020. We regret the disruption this may cause for organizations preparing Letters of Inquiry for the March 23 deadline. Your Letter of Inquiry will remain open for you to edit in the online system. The next deadline for Local History grants is April 1. The next deadline for Reading Frederick Douglass Together grants has been moved from April 1 to May 1. Information is available at masshumanities.org.

Finally, while we cannot meet in person, we can stand together as participants in our democracy. The stresses caused by this crisis test all of us, but the heaviest burdens will fall on those already facing significant hardships. We’ve also read the stories this week about xenophobic outbursts targeting people of Asian descent. At their core, the humanities provoke us to imagine a better, more tolerant world, and to work toward making it a reality. In this difficult time, let us commit to that world and to each other. 

Wishing safety and good health to you and your families,

Brian Boyles 
Executive Director

Mass Humanities believes that public health and safety are top priorities. At this time, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been detected in nearly 100 countries around the globe. Several cases have now been confirmed in our region and Governor Baker has declared a state of emergency.

Mass Humanities understands the pressures this situation puts on our many partners, grantees, and their audiences. Effective today, if any public humanities events funded by Mass Humanities need to be canceled or rescheduled due to public health concerns, grantees and programming partners should feel empowered to make decisions that meet the needs of their public audiences. 

Mass Humanities will honor grant agreements with organizations that postpone or cancel due to public health concerns. We also support organizers reformatting their events for remote engagement. We ask all organizations to provide updates regarding postponements, cancellations, new formats, and revised budgets to Mass Humanities, so we are able to update our records and calendars. 

You can easily request extensions to your grant or submit significant programmatic changes by logging in here

You can update your events on our calendar here.  

Feel free reach out to your Mass Humanities program officer if you have questions.

We are monitoring the situation carefully and will provide any updates as they becomes available. In the meantime, resources are available from the State of Massachusetts, Center for Disease Control, Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and the American Alliance of Museums

Mass Humanities will continue to provide resources as they become available. 

From Berkshire Community College and the Falmouth Historical Society; from the Cape Ann Museum and the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts — on February 25, nonprofit representatives from 17 communities around the Commonwealth headed to the State House in Boston.  They came together for the first time to share best practices for getting the word out about their organizations’ public programs addressing voting rights in 2020, and to meet their districts’ state senators and representatives.

These organizations each received a grant from Mass Humanities through a special initiative called The Vote. Mass Humanities awarded more than $150,000 total for a wide range of programs that include over 50 upcoming public events. The crowd listened to inspiring talks by Senate President Karen Spilka, Mass Cultural Council Executive Director Anita Walker, and Mass Humanities Executive Director Brian Boyles. See photos below of the attendees at the State House.   

This year the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Plans ranging from festive parades to scholarly publications are underway around the nation. Coinciding with the 2020 presidential campaign, the anniversary year offers a litmus test for the role of history in our polarized political climate. The evolution of suffrage in America is complicated, and so, too, is the commemoration of 19th amendment. That’s a good thing.

“Woman suffrage in Washington, DC. Suffragettes bonfire and posters at the White House, Washington, DC.”, 1918. National Archives, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs

The most recent controversy erupted last month, when a Washington Post reporter visiting the National Archives exhibition “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” found a very specific alteration to one of the featured images. For the display of Mario Tama’s photograph of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, the curators blurred out signs mentioning President Trump as well as a part of the female anatomy.

A Twitter firestorm ensued and the National Archives quickly issued an apology for a decision, made “as a non-partisan, non-political federal agency,” to blur the President’s name and avoid engaging in “current political controversy.”

“Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records,” said a spokeswoman.

Government agencies serve the people of the United States. That mission gets exponentially harder when people are deeply divided. The National Archives is the property of every citizen, regardless of their political views. Yet by making the choice to erase portions of the historical record, the curators took their focus off the records and created just the sort of controversy they were looking to avoid. To begin choosing which parts of history are too complicated to risk telling charts a dangerous course.

History is riddled with complications. The history of Massachusetts’ role in the passage of the 19th amendment is a perfect example. We can take pride in hosting the first National Women’s Rights Conference, which took place in Worcester in 1850. But we must not shy away from the resistance those leaders faced in the Bay State. As Barbara F. Berenson has noted, “Massachusetts led the deep and prolonged resistance to woman suffrage.” A state referendum to grant women the right to vote failed in 1915, just 5 years prior to the passage of the 19th amendment. Motivations on both sides of the debate were informed by attitudes towards religion, immigration, and race. And even after the ratification of the 19th amendment, many women of color were still effectively denied the vote for decades to come. The struggle for the vote was passionate, messy, and ultimately victorious, but there is no simple way to tell its story.

When we engage with history, we must commit to exploring its complexity. The political climate in our country might make this difficult, but there can be no authentic commemoration without the courage to talk openly about the multi-dimensional histories of the events we commemorate.

Fortunately, there will be opportunities to do just that this year. At Mass Humanities, we see the centennial of the 19th amendment as a chance for a statewide conversation about voting, including the history of battles over the ballot box and debates coursing through the nation today. Through a new initiative, “The Vote,” we’re supporting 17 Massachusetts communities in their plans to explore who gets to vote, how they won that right, and who else still strives for access to the voting booth.

Click here for a full list of “The Vote” grantees.

From Pittsfield to Gloucester, Cambridge to Brockton, “The Vote” projects will take place in libraries, museums, community organizations, and educational institutions. Residents will learn about the vote through documentary films, exhibitions, and other free public events, as well as through professional development workshops for teachers. Just as importantly, residents will have the opportunity to think more deeply about voting as a civic practice.

We applaud the National Archives for acknowledging its mistake. In 2020, we’d do well to remember the words of Frederick Douglass: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” The work begins with an honest, clear-eyed accounting of our complicated history.

Brian Boyles is Executive Director of Mass Humanities

The humanities are essential for understanding our democracy.

Through a special grant opportunity for 2020, Mass Humanities is proud to announce “The Vote,” a statewide conversation about the past, present and future of voting rights.

“The Vote” commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment through grants to 17 Massachusetts organizations. Through public events, workshops for educators, museum exhibitions and new research, “The Vote” provides Massachusetts residents with free opportunities to consider issues including women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, voter suppression, civics education, and teen voting. A full calendar of funded events will be available soon.

Mass Humanities accepted applications for “The Vote” in its Fall 2019 Project Grants deadline and Winter 2019 Discussion Grants deadline. A total of 17 projects received funding. 

Click here to see the list of events.

“The Vote” Grantees for 2020

Northeastern Massachusetts

  • $3,610 to Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester for public programming centered around “Our Souls Are by Nature Equal to Yours – The Life and Legacy of Judith Sargent Murray”, who was an early advocate for women’s equality. Scholars will speak in conjunction with the exhibit, and the museum will hold discussion groups based on her biography along with daily, docent-led tours January until April.
  • $7,521 to the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Tsongas Industrial History Center for “Every Voice Counts: Equipping Educators to Teach Civics”, a series of six online teacher professional development workshops highlighting local communities’ struggles for political representation.
  • $8,360 to the Reading Public Library for “The Vote: Exploring Voting Rights in America”. The library will explore voting rights in America through multiple community events, lectures and performances, facilitated discussions and book groups, documentary screenings, hands-on projects and performances.
  • $3000 to North Shore Juneteenth Association in Lynn for “Why Vote? Hat and Heels High Tea”, a lecture and discussion event with Civil Rights activist and author Rodney Hurst and legal scholar David Harris at the Lynn Museum.
  • $3500 to North Shore Community Development Coalition in Salem for “Why Your Vote Matters Forum” for a discussion of voting rights and experiences with voting, focusing on past and present immigrant communities with residents of The Point neighborhood in Salem.

Metrowest Boston

  • $7,550 to the Robert Treat Paine Historical Trust in Waltham for “Partners in Protest: Massachusetts Working Women and their Struggle for the Vote”. Humanities scholars will help create a classroom resource kit for 8th grade Waltham civics classes on suffrage and labor movements in their city.
  • $14,878 to Primary Source in Watertown for “Our Rights & Nothing Less: Struggles to Secure the Vote in the United States”, a professional development series for K-12 social studies teachers along with a seminar and webinar on historical and contemporary challenges to expanding and protecting voting rights in the U.S. through a humanities lens.
  • $14,983 to Tempest Productions in Brookline for “Soapbox Suffragists: Votes for Women and the Fight for Voting Rights 1900-2020 and Beyond” which includes a living history performance of suffragists in conjunction with centennial events in Boston, New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Roxbury.

Southeastern Massachusetts

  • $12,030 the Brockton Public Library for “The Vote: A Divided Movement that Brings Us Together”, for a free series on the history of voting rights including panel discussions, a traveling exhibit, workshops, and an outdoor installation highlighting Brockton residents involved in the suffrage movement.
  • $14,997 to the YWCA Southeastern MA for “Lighting the Way from Suffrage to Civic Engagement”, a three-part series with two panel discussions on voting rights and a youth artist showcase inspired the history of New Bedford.

Boston

  • $15,000 to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston for “Expanding Democracy: The 19th Amendment and Voting Rights Today”. The event includes a special half-day conference featuring three forums on the history and current relevance of the suffrage movement.
  • $15,000 to BCN Productions in Boston for the costs in the distribution phase of “Borderland- The Life and Times of Blanche Ames-Ames”, a film about the suffrage activist with curriculum guide development and scholar screenings planned.
  • $3,500 to Boston Review for “Women’s Right to Be Elected”, a panel discussion on the political theories and practical differences between the right to vote and the right to be elected, comparing the US with countries where more women hold elected office.
  • $3000 to YWCA Cambridge for “Voting Rights, Women’s Suffrage and Fannie Lou Hamer”, two discussions with Billie Jean Young, creator of a one woman show on labor and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Cape & Cape Islands

  • $2500 to the Falmouth Historical Society for “Gaining the Vote: The Road to Women’s Suffrage”, lectures with historians and authors on the history of women’s political participation.

Western Massachusetts

  • $15,000 to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield for “The Right to Vote: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage 1848-1920 University Day”, a day-long program for multigenerational audiences, featuring panels, performances, and an exhibit on women’s suffrage.
  • $3,500 to Forbes Library, Northampton for “The Right to Vote: Past, Present, Future”, four panel/discussion events on four aspects of voting: women’s suffrage, civil rights movement, current barriers to voting, and teen voting.

About the 19th Amendment

Victory Map, 1919
National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co.  “Victory map 1919.” Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of a person’s sex. Ratified in 1920, it marked a major victory in the women’s movement by extending the vote to women.

But with racism and xenophobia on the rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many women of color, like their menfolk, could still not vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests effectively barred many African Americans from voting, especially in the South, and Native Americans in 1920 could gain the right to vote only by severing their ties to their tribes. Many states had passed laws making it illegal for noncitizens to vote, and Chinese Americans were barred from citizenship. Clearly the ratification of the 19th Amendment represents a complicated moment in our nation’s history, one that warrants thoughtful reflection on how to commemorate it.

The year 2020 arrives at another pivotal period in our nation’s electoral history. Some states are considering extending the franchise to felons and younger teens, while others have increased the hurdles to voting. As voting rights, voter fraud, and electoral security are being debated across the country, the humanities offer essential resources for deepening our understanding of this moment.

Support for “The Vote”

Funding for The Vote grant initiative comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and from individuals including the following:

Funding for The Vote grant initiative comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and from individuals including the following:
Al and Sally Griggs
Lia and William Poorvu
Jack and Joan Regan
Gail Reimer
Laura B. Roberts and Ed Belove

Before “The Vote”

“The Vote” marks the latest effort by Mass Humanities’ to commemorate the 19th Amendment.

Until 1999, all of the many works of art displayed in the Commonwealth’s most important public building depicted men, and white men at that.

In 1995, sparked by the 75th anniversary of the 19th amendment, the Massachusetts State Senate asked Mass Humanities to coordinate the Statehouse Women’s Leadership Project. An advisory committee formed to create “Hear Us,” a monument to six women who contribute to the government of the Commonwealth.

Today, visitors to the State House can stop just outside Doric Hall to see the bronze busts of Dorthea Dix, Lucy Stone, Sarah Parker Remond, Josephine St. Peirre Ruffin, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, and Florence Luscomb. As part of the initiative, Mass Humanities also created educator tools and a brochure about the women portrayed in “Hear Us.”

The humanities provide essential skills for an informed citizenry, in particular the critical thinking and rhetorical proficiency necessary for participating in the exchange of ideas. Mass Humanities recently received a grant for $33,600 from the Mellon Foundation and the Federation of State Humanities Councils for “Writing Our Democracy: Media Literacy, Local Voices, and the Shaping of Public Opinion.”

The project, made possible through the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative, will offer courses in media literacy and op-ed writing for graduates of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program that serves adults in traditionally underserved communities. Mass Humanities will partner with media outlets in Dorchester, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester to publish student writing, with a culminating event planned for fall 2020 at WBUR’s CitySpace in Boston.

The project seeks to deepen public understanding of the historical and philosophical foundations of a free press; create opportunities for local journalists to engage directly with community members to address issues of concern; and build media literacy and skills in neighborhoods often excluded from public view.

This marks the third time that Mass Humanities has received funding through the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative since 2013.

Funds support 31 Massachusetts organizations around the state.

Mass Humanities is excited to announce that it has awarded $244,391 in support of 31 humanities projects in communities across the state. Seventeen of these grants support projects concerning Massachusetts Voting Rights history and the 19th Amendment centennial. From panel discussions to original theatre performances, oral histories, and traveling exhibitions, funded grants in 2020 will instigate dialogue centered on voter’s rights and inclusivity.  

Northeast

  • $3,610 to Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester for public programming centered around “Our Souls Are by Nature Equal to Yours – The Life and Legacy of Judith Sargent Murray.” Funding will support three free public lectures events and one book discussion for an exhibit on the 18th-century writer and advocate for women’s equality, Judith Sargent Murray.
  • $7,521 to the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Tsongas Industrial History Center for “Every Voice Counts: Equipping Educators to Teach Civics”, a series of six online teacher professional development workshops highlighting local communities’ struggles for political representation.
  • $8,360 to the Reading Public Library for “The Vote: Exploring Voting Rights in America”. The library will explore voting rights in America through multiple community events, lectures and performances, facilitated discussions and book groups, documentary screenings, hands-on projects and performances. Events will highlight the experiences of African Americans, recent immigrants, and residents of U.S. territories.
  • $3,000 to North Shore Juneteenth Association in Lynn for “Why Vote? Hat and Heels High Tea”, a lecture and discussion event with Civil Rights activist and author Rodney Hurst and legal scholar David Harris at the Lynn Museum.
  • $3,500 to North Shore Community Development Coalition in Salem for “Why Your Vote Matters Forum” for a discussion of voting rights focusing on the experiences of past and present immigrant communities.

Metrowest Boston

  • $7,550 to the Robert Treat Paine Historical Trust in Waltham for “Partners in Protest: Massachusetts Working Women and their Struggle for the Vote”. Humanities scholars will help create a classroom resource kit for 8th grade Waltham civics classes on suffrage and labor movements in their city.
  • $14,878 to Primary Source in Watertown for “Our Rights & Nothing Less: Struggles to Secure the Vote in the United States”, a professional development series for K-12 social studies teachers on debates over voting rights, including lessons that highlight Massachusetts stories.
  • $14,983 to Tempest Productions in Brookline for “Soapbox Suffragists: Votes for Women and the Fight for Voting Rights 1900-2020 and Beyond”. Funding will create living history performances and discussions rooted in the words of suffragists, civil rights activists and contemporary advocates. Events will take place in New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Roxbury.

Southeast

  • $12,030 to the Brockton Public Library for “The Vote: A Divided Movement that Brings Us Together”, for a free series on the history of voting rights including panel discussions, a traveling exhibit, workshops, and an outdoor installation highlighting Brockton residents involved in the suffrage movement.
  • $14,997 to the YWCA Southeastern MA for “Lighting the Way from Suffrage to Civic Engagement”, for two panel discussions on voting rights and a youth-artist showcase inspired by the history of New Bedford women.
  • $3,500 to New Bedford Whaling Museum “20 Ripples. Through a Wampanoag Lens” for two events interpreting Indigenous history, culture, and environmental perspectives connected to the art exhibit “Ripples.”
  • $3,500 to Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford for “Southcoast Seven”, to connect a play about women from around the world to women from New Bedford. Students from Bristol Community College will develop a public presentation on 7 local women who have made a significant contribution to the world around them.

Boston

  • $15,000 to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston for “Expanding Democracy: The 19th Amendment and Voting Rights Today”, a special half-day conference featuring three forums on the history and current relevance of the suffrage movement.
  • $15,000 to BCN Productions in Boston for the distribution of “Borderland- The Life and Times of Blanche Ames-Ames”, a documentary film about the Massachusetts suffrage activist, with curriculum guide development and scholar-led screenings planned.
  • $7,500 to 826 Boston, Roxbury, for a “Young Author’s Book Project: A Student’s Perspective on Grove Hall, Dorchester.” This funding will support student editors and professional designers to publish and showcase student writing about the Grove Hall neighborhood of Dorchester.
  • $9,900 to Roxbury’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) “Neighborhood Voices: DNI Community Land Trust”. This funding will support training, collection, sharing and archiving of oral histories from 1st families who moved 25 years ago on to the largest community land trust in Boston.
  • $14,195 to Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center’s Pao Arts Center for “Homeward Bound: Global Intimacies in Converging Chinatowns”, community programming and an exhibit highlighting stories of migration, displacement, and resilience in Chinatowns around the world.
  • $3,500 to Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston for “Words from the Street: Readings and Conversation with the Black Seed Writers” for writing workshops with those who are homeless, transitional, and recently-housed, culminating in publication of their works in The Pilgrim magazine and four public reading and discussion programs.
  • $1,757 to Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences for “Theater for Adult Immigrant ESL Students” to fund a theater class for ESL students in which they will learn about Americans’ experience of the home front during WWII, perform a play on that topic for other ESL students, and then engage in small and large group discussion after the performance, developing their language skills and their knowledge of history.
  • $3,500 to Boston Review for “Women’s Right to Be Elected”, a panel discussion on the political theories and practical differences between the right to vote and the right to be elected, comparing the US with countries where more women hold elected office.
  • $3,500 to Company One, Boston for “Our American Stories”, 3 panel discussions led by accomplished women of color, following 3 different plays in Company One’s 2020 season, all connected by the theme of American stories. Two of the panels follow performances where the ticket cost is “pay as you can.” 
  • $3,450 to Arts Connect International, Boston for “Arts Equity Summit”, a 4-hour panel and discussion event focused on problematizing the creation of monuments to memorialize historical events.
  • $3,000 to YWCA Cambridge for “Voting Rights, Women’s Suffrage and Fannie Lou Hamer”, two discussions with Billie Jean Young, creator of a one woman show on labor and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
  • $3,000 to Jaara Inc., Boston for “Evolution of Black Dance Across the Americas”, for a panel discussion on the history of Black dance forms, kicking-off the Black Dance Festival.

Cape & Cape Islands

  • $2,500 to the Falmouth Historical Society for “Gaining the Vote: The Road to Women’s Suffrage”, lectures with historians and authors on the history of women’s political participation.

Western Massachusetts

  • $15,000 to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield for “The Right to Vote: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage 1848-1920 University Day”, a day-long program for multigenerational audiences, featuring panels, performances, and an exhibit on women’s suffrage.
  • $15,000 to the Bhutanese Society of Western Mass Inc., Springfield, for “The Untold History of Bhutanese Americans in Western Mass: A Community Oral History Project.” Funding supports oral history gathering and cross-generational dialogue among Bhutanese refugees in greater Springfield.
  • $14,500 to OneHolyoke Development Corporation, Holyoke, for “The Diary of Anne Frank 2020 Project”, to bring a traveling exhibit on the Diary of Anne Frank to Holyoke High School. The program provides community discussions, professional development for teachers and opportunities for students to become exhibit guides.
  • $10,000 to WAM Theatre, Lee, for “Roe Reproductive Justice Education and Dialogue Across Difference Training”. Funding supports preparation by cast and staff to lead facilitated post-performance dialogues on the contested issue of reproductive justice.
  • $3,500 to Springfield Museums forOh, the Thinks You Can See! Exploring Ideas and Images at the Springfield Museums”, discussions with kids and caretakers of Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, the Thinks You Can Think, led by a graphic facilitator who translates children’s ideas into pictures at the Museum’s Dr. Seuss Birthday Party.
  • $3,500 to Forbes Library, Northampton for “The Right to Vote: Past, Present, Future”, four panel/discussion events on four aspects of voting: women’s suffrage, civil rights movement, current barriers to voting, and teen voting.

Friends—

As the year draws to a close, I thank you for your support for Mass Humanities in 2019. Before we open the book on the new year, I’ll share a few thoughts on what I’ve learned and what you can expect from us in 2020.

Image of Brian Boyles

Throughout my travels, I’ve been struck by the energy and innovation coursing through the cultural life of the Commonwealth. Bold ideas reverberate through performance halls and inside the walls of museums, catalyzing changes in our towns and cities. Leaders in the public and private sectors understand that the creative economy can revitalize a neighborhood.

At Mass Humanities, we know the humanities are key ingredients in the cultural renaissance underway in Massachusetts. We work with residents who turn to storytelling, dialogue and scholarship to spark the imaginations of their neighbors.

In 2019 we marveled at the way historians and community members in Holyoke and Worcester joined together to reshape the stories of their cities.

We joined in the applause when neighbors of different faiths in Somerville gathered to understand each other through music.

We learned from the sixth grader in Pittsfield who dreamed of becoming a doctor but needed help navigating the obstacles she faces due to her gender.

We felt hope for the future when teenagers in Springfield, surrounded by hundreds of adults, asked tough questions about the roots of the achievement gap in public education.

We admired the working people in Brockton who debated literature with classmates from different walks of life, different countries of origin, and different ethnicities. They spoke with genuine respect for each other, and for the way the humanities force us to consider other viewpoints.

That unfailing search for common ground, combined with the genius bubbling up from our communities, makes the humanities ecosystem in Massachusetts so exciting and so deserving of more attention. These projects not only drive change—they allow residents to consider the impact of the many changes we face as Americans.

In 2020 Mass Humanities will champion this work through several key initiatives.

First, we’ve increased our annual grants budget by 25%, raising our grant making to the highest level in our history. Our grants serve as catalysts for residents crafting humanities-based approaches to local decision making, cultural institutions reimagining their missions and audiences, and the many scholars who are more engaged than ever in public life. They deserve as this additional support, and we thank Governor Baker, the legislature and Mass Cultural Council for making it possible.

In 2020 we’ll also offer more ways to access our resources. Our Local History and Reading Frederick Douglass Together grants are now available through monthly deadlines, a change aimed at sustaining the grassroots organizations that depend on those funds. You’ll find these deadlines and our revised Grants Guidelines on the recently relaunched MassHumanities.org.

As we make more funding available, we must grow the audience for the humanities. Since our founding in 1974, we’ve worked to fulfill the promise made by Congress in the founding legislation of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.”

In 2020 we’ll create more opportunities for families in traditionally marginalized communities. New grants will allow students in our signature educational initiative, the Clemente Course in the Humanities, to host their own public readings of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” this summer. With funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Federation of State Humanities Councils, we’ll offer summer courses in media literacy and writing for Clemente graduates to bring their voices to local editorial pages.

This spring, Mass Humanities will partner with The Care Center in Holyoke for a pilot of the PRIME TIME family literacy program. The program, recognized for excellence in early childhood education by the Library of Congress and the American Library Association, will bring caretakers and young children together to read children’s books and discuss themes like courage, dreams and equity. Families will share meals, take home books, and begin a lifelong engagement with the humanities.

Our network of partner organizations stretches from Adams to Eastham, from a community center in Roxbury to a college classroom in Lowell. We want to activate this network to build more resources and more visibility for the humanities in Massachusetts. As the humanities community grows and diversifies, Mass Humanities will serve as a convener. In 2020 we’ll continue our support for the Mass History Conference and Mass History Day, and we’ll host our second annual summit for Reading Frederick Douglass Together project directors. Our new Humanities Lab series kicked off this month in Worcester, with plans for more grantee showcases in the coming months along with a grants workshop next fall.

Next month we’ll announce the first grantees to receive support through “The Vote,” our special funding priority for 2020. Sparked by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, “The Vote” is our contribution to the unfolding conversation about our democracy. Instead of rancor and partisanship, communities responded to “The Vote” with big questions and fresh ideas. I’m excited to watch our grantees turn their talents towards the important issue of voting. Regardless of your party affiliation, the humanities can help you on the way to the election booth.

Entering my second year on the job, I’m thankful for the many people who share in this work, in particular our dedicated board, talented staff and friends like you. As we wrap up 2019, I’ll repeat the promise I made in my first letter to our supporters: I’m here to listen. And as our plans for next year should make clear, Mass Humanities is here to serve the people of Massachusetts. I hope you’ll join us in making sure the humanities continue to thrive in 2020.

Happy New Year,

Brian Boyles
Executive Director
bboyles@masshumanities.org

LOI’s for Spring project grants are postponed until Summer 2020. New dates coming soon. For more information on the dates and guidelines for grants, click here.

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