How you can use history to “effect social change” at home right now

I’m traveling to New Orleans in early November to present on the “Effecting Social Change through the Humanities” lightning round panel at this year’s National Humanities Conference. I’ll talk about the role local history has played in local change in the past and how to harness local history to effect change at home in the present. Since the conference is in November, and I’ll be preparing for it at the same time as the final stretch to the midterm elections, I can’t help but think about this and other panels at the conference in the context of what’s happening nationally right now. So many of us, myself included, are desperate for good news, for a wave of blue victories across the country, for any sign that attacks against human rights and progressive policies and will slow-down or stop.

It’s likely, given the fraught political atmosphere and the fact that the conference is scheduled for immediately after the midterms (it starts on Thursday, November 8), that discussion about election outcomes will permeate everything from conference sessions to casual conversations. It’s a fitting topic though, especially given the important role humanities education plays in preparing people for civic responsibility. Studying the humanities helps people cultivate understandings of human behavior, past and present, and how human choices and actions created the current political climate, among many other things. It helps us think critically about this behavior and navigate the seemingly-infinite arguments for or against any given issue. In short, studying the humanities makes us better citizens and voters by preparing us to make decisions about who we want our elected officials to be and what we want them to do.

It’s within this context that I’ll talk at the conference about how people have used local history to shape local debates and justify local political decisions in the past, for better and for worse. I’ve written about this before and so won’t expand here, but suffice it to say that local historical societies, other local cultural groups, and individuals used local history to build parts of the legal landscapes we live and work in today. More importantly, I’ll also talk about how we can use local history to effect local (and sometimes national) political and social change in the present.

What does this mean right now, as midterms draw nearer? How can we use local history to effect change at home at this moment? At its core, the humanities is about understanding human diversity, behavior, and experience, and we can use what this teaches us about human complexity to create spaces in which people can come together to discuss local issues in critical and reflective ways. We can build bridges between people who might otherwise struggle to meet or find common ground. For cultural organizations like local museums, historical societies, or arts groups, this might include hosting and/or moderating a debate between local politicians. Or it could mean organizing a panel or more informal gathering of local activists and experts to discuss the historical roots of local issues, like housing, homelessness, immigration, or policing. Or maybe it means hosting a voter registration drive (it’s too late for most to do that now, but keep it in mind in advance of the next local or national election cycle).

Here are just a few examples of what this can look like in practice– how people are using local history to “effect social change” by fostering dialogue and building bridges at home RIGHT NOW:

  • The Shelby County Historical Museum in Iowa opened an exhibit about voting in Shelby county in early October 2018 and plans to host “a viewing party for the first gubernatorial debate” on October 10. “’Voter turnout in midterm elections is generally lower than presidential elections,’ states Devin Sweeney, Grants and Development Coordinator. ‘We felt creating an exhibit…would be a great way to generate some excitement around this year’s election and highlight the importance of civic responsibility.'”
  • The Cambridge Historical Society is hosting “Who is Safe and Welcome Here?,” the society’s fall symposium about “The Past and Present of Immigration and Sanctuary” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of October.
  • The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago is partnering with the Chicago Police Department to offer cultural awareness training for new police recruits. (The Washington D.C. police department and the University of the District of Columbia Community college embarked on a similar effort with National Museum of African American History and Culture.)
  • The Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society in Chicago held an “Open Houses of Worship” event in late September. Attendees had the opportunity to visit a dozen local houses of worship from across the religious spectrum and learn about the wide array of diverse faiths practiced in the communities where they live.
  • This one’s not really “local,” but worth mentioning: The Minnesota History Center is hosting historian Michelle Nickerson for “The History of Fake News in the U.S.” in January 2019.

Whatever you do, whether on your own or through an institution you work or volunteer for, remember that historians and others in humanities disciplines have the ability– and really a responsibility– to foster dialogue about complex issues wherever we live and work. I look forward to hearing more from people presenting at the National Humanities Conference about concrete strategies we can employ to “effect social change through the humanities.”

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