Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 2

by Kevin Donnelly

Kevin, pictured left, enjoying the company of one of his fraternity brothers after receiving the President's Cup for best Greek organization on campus.

Kevin, pictured left, enjoying the company of one of his fraternity brothers after receiving the President’s Cup for best Greek organization on campus.

As my internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the experience as a whole. This being my first internship experience, I really had no idea what to expect. I had heard all of the classic intern horror stories: Scurrying to get coffee, make copies, answer phones, respond to emails, the monotony goes on. I was determined that my internship experience was not going to be like that, so when my program coordinator at the University of Maryland sent out an email about an internship opportunity in the NEH’s Office of White House and Congressional Affairs, I took immediate interest. Being a government and politics major, an internship at a federal agency seemed like the perfect match for me. Moreover, working in a Congressional affairs office presented me with the opportunity to interact with policymakers on the hill, something I sought from an internship from the beginning. To say my curiosity was piqued is an understatement, and the fact that I didn’t even know what the National Endowment for the Humanities did wasn’t going to stop me for trying to become a part of it.

Needless to say, when I was offered an intern position at the NEH I was thrilled. Arriving in the Old Post Office Pavilion for the first time was quite an experience, one I would come to appreciate as time went on. The tourist-filled food court and bombastic lunchtime performances gave the old place a unique character I won’t soon forget. The first meeting I had with the three C’s (All three women I worked with had names beginning with C) and my fellow interns demonstrated to me that this office was somewhere I wanted to be. Even though I came into the internship wary of what might be I immediately felt welcomed by colleagues and the staff. Each of us interns was assigned to a specific task, mine being the development of content for reports highlighting how the NEH serves certain constituencies. Writing has always been a passion of mine, and it has played a huge role in my academic career. I appreciated being given an assignment that took advantage of my existing skills while simultaneously teaching me new ones.  In looking up grants, images, and other data for each report, I was able to enhance my research skills and utilize methods of inquiry previously unavailable to me. Often I had to maintain email correspondences with program directors, museum curators, artists, and nonprofit staff, and I enjoyed the opportunity to fine tune my professional communication skills. I was also able to learn so much about how NEH programs benefit people across the nation. From family literacy programs to veteran-related projects, the NEH funds initiatives serving every demographic in all of the humanities fields. In researching the NEH’s broad spectrum of grants I gained a better understanding of the agency’s immense purview and impact.

I was also responsible for setting up meetings with the offices of freshmen members of Congress, a task I had looked forward to since I arrived in the Office of White House and Congressional Affairs. Don’t worry – it’s not that I actually enjoy the logistics of setting up meetings, I’m not crazy – but I do support what the NEH does and jumped on the opportunity to spread the word on Capitol Hill. Because I potentially want to pursue a career in public service it was especially interesting to experience a Hill meeting firsthand. Though I’m not always the most organized person, scheduling meetings on the Hill taught me respect for an organized schedule, an invaluable skill if I want to succeed in the future.

I was also fortunate enough to have some great times thanks to my colleagues and the agency in general. Being able to attend the 42nd Jefferson Lecture featuring Martin Scorsese was a truly enlightening privilege, and one I won’t soon forget. Seeing the reports I had worked on for three months come to life before my eyes was totally gratifying. Covering our Director’s office in googly eyes on April Fool’s Day on the other hand was 100 percent fun. I can safely say that all of the internship myths about fetching coffee or answering phones did not apply to my experience at the NEH, which provided me the best of both worlds.

I have really found a place in my heart for the NEH. I’m so thankful that I was able to better myself and the agency, and am even more appreciative to gain the knowledge that I have. Before interning at the NEH I barely knew what the humanities were. Now I’m left with a deep and lasting respect for the humanities that will stay with me forever. I’ll miss the NEH and I’m so happy knowing that I’ve made lasting relationships with great people at a great agency. Thank you all!

Kevin Donnelly is working towards his Bachelors of Arts in Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. He is planning to pursue a master in Public Policy, focusing either on International Economic Policy or Education Policy. Originally from Rockville, MD, Kevin is a local who loves D.C. but resents taking it for granted. He loves cars and hopes to one day have a garage the size of Jay Leno’s. He plans on graduating in May of 2016 and pursuing a career in public policy.

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Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 1

by Katherine Kipp

Katherine posing with a very photogenic camel in India, 2011. After her NEH internship ends, Katherine will head back to India for a six-week trip.

Katherine posing with a very photogenic camel in India, 2011. After her NEH internship ends, Katherine will head back to India for a six-week trip.

As I approach the end of my internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities, it occurs to me that the internship’s end coincides with my fourth year in graduate school, equaling the amount of time I spent as an undergrad. By the time I graduate with my Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing next May, I will have spent more time in graduate school than as an undergraduate.

It also occurs to me that my time at NEH, while my third time working as an intern, comes after a five-year gap from my last internship. Coincidentally, my last internship was also in D.C., when I was studying at the Washington Journalism Center for a semester.

I entered the NEH internship with really no idea of what to expect. Would I be stapling papers? Making coffee? Hailing taxis? My last two internships had been at newspapers, and I had spent most of my time interviewing, transcribing interviews, and turning interviews into stories.

Plus, up until the point I received an email from the Academic Coordinator in my Master’s program, advertising the internship, I had never heard of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I wasn’t even completely sure what the humanities were, and I’m an English major three times over! All I knew for sure was that my internship would be in the Office of White House and Congressional Affairs, the three women I would be working with all had names that start with a “C,” and the offices are located in the Old Post Office Pavilion, floors above where hordes of middle schoolers gather to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and cookies during their school trips to Washington, D.C.

I learned quickly that I, and my fellow interns, would all be assigned specific tasks to work on. Each task made use of a particular skillset of ours that we were already bringing to the table, and pushed us to expand that skillset and apply it to our day-to-day work at the NEH. I was charged to develop and write material for the new Congressional Affairs blog. I’ve been writing in some form or fashion since 2nd grade. This interest of mine has taken me from writing for my college’s newspaper, to writing short stories for local competitions, to freelancing for small-town newspapers, and, most recently, to obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing.

Even though writing the blog would allow me to use part of a skillset I’m comfortable with, I was tasked with developing material for blog posts in a field I was mostly unfamiliar with just a few months ago. Luckily, I work with some amazing people (not just in my office, but the whole of NEH) who were happy to share ideas for potential blog posts. Through this, I was able to learn about the Division of Education Programs’ Summer Institutes, the many documentaries and radio shows Public Programs has funded, and the ways people and institutions are combining humanities and technology to provide updated and innovative ideas. So, while I was writing blog posts informing congressional staff members and constituents about the amazing contributions NEH has made and continues to make to the humanities world, I was also able to truly understand the great impact NEH has had on society—and it was right underneath my nose the whole time. I even went so far as to research NEH-funded programs and events in my hometown: there have been 36, dating back all the way to the early 1980s!

In addition to detailing the good work NEH does on our blog, I was able to do so in person as well through visits with the staff of freshmen members of Congress. Of all the experiences I have had since beginning my time at the NEH, those meetings were the most unexpected for me. I had not been seeking out a Congressional affairs position, so meeting with Congressional staff on a regular basis was a pleasant surprise. I’m glad to be able to communicate the good work NEH does to congressional staff members, knowing they’ll pass the message along to fellow employees and constituents in their districts.

And then there was the fun stuff! I became friends with my two fellow interns, people I probably would never have met otherwise, and with them (and a little help from our advisors as well) covered our Director’s office in googly eyes for April Fool’s Day. I attended the 42nd Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities, featuring Martin Scorsese, and an event centered on the NEH-funded documentary No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII, featuring Soledad O’Brien. I trekked to the Executive Office Building for a meeting and came within inches of meeting Joe Biden. (Kidding—I just like to imagine that he was there.) From days with special events like the White House briefing to trekking through mazes of 8th graders on my way to grab Indian food, working at the NEH was always an adventure.

But the biggest skill I gained was a newfound respect for the humanities, an educated understanding of what NEH does, and admiration for the people who work every day to make the NEH great. I will miss this place once I’m gone!

Katherine Kipp is working toward her Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing at the University of Maryland. She has a MA in English from Southeast Missouri State University (Cape Girardeau, MO), a BA in English and Journalism from Union University (Jackson, Tenn.), and worked for several years as a freelance journalist. A Tennessean at heart, even though she lost the accent (or never had it to begin with), she loves drinking coffee, smelling old books, running, and, obviously, writing. She plans on graduating in the spring of 2014 and pursuing a career in education.

Technology and the Humanities: the Fort Vancouver Mobile App

The NEH Office of Digital Humanities is a pivotal supporter of projects that pair technology and the humanities. Just this year, the Office gave 23 awards to new projects through the Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant – one of many ways the Office encourages the development of digital tools with a humanist purpose.

The Fort Vancouver Mobile App is one such digital tool that received a Start-Up Grant in 2011. Since then, the app has won numerous honors including the Historic Preservation Officer’s Award for media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and the John Wesley Powell Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government – one of only two projects nationwide.

Creation of the App

Dr. Brett Oppegaard, an assistant professor at Washington State University, assembled a team of historians, archeologists, and academics to create a mobile device for the Fort Vancouver National Historical Site. Though it was already one of the most popular historical attractions in the Portland area, the device has completely changed the dynamic between park and visitor.

Vancouver App 1

The app connects to landmarks at Fort Vancouver and encourages user interaction.

What it Does

The app – designed to suit most smartphones – lets guests learn about the people who lived at Fort Vancouver throughout its history. It includes maps, images of archived documents, and other interactive features such as video portrayals of interesting individuals. All of these materials can be accessed through visitors’ phones as they explore the Fort’s reconstructed village and stockade.

Vancouver App 4.png

Visitors receive a wealth of information about the Fort from downloading the app onto their phone. Photos courtesy of The Columbian newspaper.Vancouver App 3.png

As a 19th century fur trading outpost, the Fort was a hub of commerce and attracted a number of races and cultures, giving it the nickname “New York of the Pacific.” One character in particular – a Hawaiian pastor named William Kaulehelehe – is a star of the app’s Kanuka module, which explains the rich history of the Fort’s Hawaiian community.

A Model for Future Projects

Dr. Oppegaard and others call this innovation digital storytelling, and it has struck a chord with Vancouver visitors. Tourism in the area has skyrocketed, and the app’s website has been visited over thirty thousand times. The app uses open-source technology, which means other parks interested in digital storytelling can replicate Oppengaard’s work. The Fort Vancouver Mobile App marks the beginning of an exciting new trend towards interactive – and mobile – park programming.

 

Exploring the Constitution Across the Nation

Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, will be asking probing questions about the Constitution to Americans across the country on the new PBS show CONSTITUTION USA with Peter Sagal, premiering tonight.

Peter Sagal. Courtesy of Christopher Buchanan / Insignia Films.

Peter Sagal. Courtesy of Christopher Buchanan / Insignia Films.

With a grant from the NEH, Sagal explores contemporary constitutional debates about free speech in the digital age, same-sex marriage, and separation of church and state. He speaks with everyday Americans as well as legal scholars, historians, and public figures. To collect these intriguing and sometimes surprising insights, he travels on his beloved and patriotic Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The series will air every Tuesday in May. Each one-hour episode focuses on a central theme of the Constitution: “A More Perfect Union,” “It’s a Free Country,” “Created Equal,” and “Built to Last?” For more information on each episode, visit Constitution USA’s website.

The website provides video clips further resources on each of the four themes to be covered in the show. It also has games for younger audiences (take the citizenship quiz!), a summary of the show’s background and purpose, and the episodes themselves once they air.

Be sure to tune in tonight at 9 p.m. eastern time for the show’s premiere!

Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care

In order to better serve their patients, health care professionals in Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country are participating in a ground-breaking new program: every week, doctors, nurses, receptionists, and lab technicians sit together and discuss books.

The Maine Humanities Council launched Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care in 1997 with a grant from the NEH. It is a hospital-based, scholar-led humanities reading and discussion program that encourages health care professionals to approach their work from a different perspective. Through a carefully selected anthology of short stories, poems, and plays, hospital workers reflect on their role as caregivers to the men and women who serve in the armed forces.

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

Where Literature & Medicine is implemented, health care professionals and patients attest to vastly improved relationships. After reading Echoes of War: A Literature & Medicine Anthology one participant reported: “Our discussions have significantly reordered how I think about medicine. I live with the experience of the protagonist in one of William Carlos Williams’ ‘Doctor Stories,’ a physician who acted without listening. I do not want to be like him. I am learning to sit quietly and listen.”

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

 A survey conducted in 2008 found that participants between 2005 and 2008 reported a staggering 79% increase in empathy for patients, and a 62% increase in job satisfaction. Though the reading selections focus on issues prevalent in Veterans Affairs hospitals, the Main Humanities Council believes any group of health care professionals can benefit from the readings, or from discussing a similar anthology of their own choosing.

When the worlds of literature and science are linked, the human body and all of its physical and emotional wounds can be better understood. The Literature & Medicine program is one way of linking these often disparate fields at a low cost.

So far, Literature & Medicine is the only program in which hospital personnel on a state and national level read literary works to help them think more carefully about their jobs. More than 2,000 health care professionals from hospitals in 25 states have participated since its creation. Every year, new state humanities councils partner with the program, proving that the relatively simple concept of reading and talking in communion has the power to transform the experience of working in a veterans’ hospital.

Meet the National Student Poets

On Friday we posted an interview with Olivia Morgan, the founder of the new National Student Poets Program (NSPP). NSPP selects five poets from those who received a National Gold or Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards competition.

539029_485061978224579_1643518629_nThese five serve as ambassadors – each representing a different region of the country –   who encourage other young writers at schools with few resources for teaching poetry. During their yearlong tenure, the poets participate in readings across the country and organize a service event in their region. Below are short biographies of the first winners of the NSPP.

The inaugural class of National Student Poets from left to right: Miles Hewitt, age 17, of Vancouver, WA; Lylla Younes, age 17, of Alexandria, LA; Natalie Richardson, age 17, of Oak Park, IL; Claire Lee, age 16, of New York, NY; and Luisa Banchoff, age 17, of Arlington, VA. Each of these poets currently serve as literary ambassadors for National Student Poet Class of 2012. Courtesy of NSPP Facebook page.

The inaugural class of National Student Poets from left to right: Miles Hewitt, age 17, of Vancouver, WA; Lylla Younes, age 17, of Alexandria, LA; Natalie Richardson, age 17, of Oak Park, IL; Claire Lee, age 16, of New York, NY; and Luisa Banchoff, age 17, of Arlington, VA. Each of these poets currently serve as literary ambassadors for the National Student Poet Class of 2012. Courtesy of NSPP Facebook page.

Luisa Banchoff, 17, is the NSPP poet from the Southeast. She is a senior at Washington-Lee School in Arlington, Virginia. Her passion for poetry has already taken her many places. She edits her school’s literary magazine, attended the Kenyon College Young Writers Workshop, and has had the honor of reading at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In April she was a featured guest at Writers of Social Justice: How One Pen Changes the World, as part of the Red Mountain Writing Project in Birmingham, Alabama.

She has received the 2011 Scholastic Gold Medal in poetry, a 2012 American Voices Medal, and even a Girl Scout Gold Award (she has been a Girl Scout for ten years). Outside of receiving her many awards, Luisa also finds time to give back to her community: she led a poetry workshop at her former elementary school and set up an interactive poetry bulletin at her high school.

Miles Hewitt, 18, is the NSPP poet from the West. He is a senior at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics in Vancouver, Washington. An avid writer from an early age, he began songwriting in eight grade and has self-recorded two albums. Poetry is a new passion, and one that he follows while serving as founder and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and taking a high level Literary Arts class.

In April, Hewitt participated in workshops with middle school students at the Boise State Writing Project and read with three other poets for the Idaho Commission on the Arts “Coasts of Idaho” at the Log Cabin Literature Center. Along with Christopher Luna (the Clark County, Washington, Poet Laureate), Hewitt led a poetry workshop at Washington State University’s At Home At School program.

Claire Lee, 16, is the Northeast NSPP poet. She attends the Chapin School in New York, NY. As a little girl, Lee chose writing stories over playing with dolls. That focus has staying with her into high school. She is the photo editor and a columnist for her school newspaper, Limelight, and is the editor-in-chief of an out-of-school newspaper, NY Girls’ Squash. In 2012, she attended the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College (Bread Loaf). Her hard work paid off; she won the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Regional Gold and Silver Keys for her photography and second place in the Ayn Rand’s Anthem Essay Contest.

In April, Lee was a featured presenter at the Academy of American Poets 11th Annual Poetry & Creative Mind gala at Lincoln Center. Her service project was working with the East Harlem Tutorial Program on developing a poetry workshop.

National Student Poets Miles Hewitt (far left), Lylla Younes, Claire Lee, Luisa Banchoff and Natalie Richardson (far right) pose with former U.S Poet Laureate, Philip Levine (center).

National Student Poets Miles Hewitt (far left), Lylla Younes, Claire Lee, Luisa Banchoff and Natalie Richardson (far right) pose with former U.S Poet Laureate, Philip Levine (center).

Natalie Richardson, 17, is the NSPP poet from the Midwest. She attends Oak Park and River Forest High School in  Oak Park, Illinois. Richardson has been active in her school’s Spoken Word Club and Slam Team for two years, and competed in the Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival in 2012. Her poetry has been featured on the radio station WBEZ. In addition to writing, Richardson enjoys painting and drawing.

From April 18-20, Richardson participated in 826 Michigan’s Feed Your Soul Poetry Festival in Detroit. The festival engages adults who are new to poetry, and includes schools and independent creative writing program. She is currently working on bringing Louder Than a Bomb to schools lacking a spoken word program.

Lylla Younes, 17, is the NSPP poet from the Southwest. She attends The Louisiana School, a public magnet boarding school in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and is from Alexandria, Louisiana. She credits her imagination to her mother’s storytelling when she was a child. Younes finds inspiration in works that span a variety of literary genres, and loves science and philosophy.

On April 24 and 27, Younes took part in a reading and poetry conference with inner-city youth in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On April 23,  she participated in poetry readings, performances, and workshops with the Sante Fe Indian School Spoken Word Team in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

For more information on the NSPP, visit its website. For another dose of poetry news, visit the website for the National Endowment of the Arts’ Poetry Out Loud National Competition, which features poets from all fifty state. The competition takes place in Washington, D.C. on April 29th-30th and is free and open to the public.

National Student Poets Program: High School Poets Serve as Literary Ambassadors to Poetry

In continued celebration of National Poetry Month, here is an exclusive interview with the founder of the National Student Poets Program (NSPP), which awards the country’s highest honor for young poets. Currently in its first year, the NSPP will annually honor five poets selected from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards national medalists. The awardees will serve as literary ambassadors for poetry. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) partnered with the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers to make the NSPP possible. Below, founder Olivia Morgan gives us insight into the NSPP’s creation and purpose.

NEH: How did you get involved with the National Student Poets Program?

MORGAN: I founded the NSPP. My professional work centers on women and girls, and when I was appointed to the PCAH I really wanted to do something with that honor. I felt called to engage youth in the work of the committee, and the PCAH has been really focused on the impact of arts education on kids in schools. Research shows that students engaged in school through the arts have better attendance, have better performance, better likelihood of graduation. So I thought about how we could do that in a way that doesn’t require great resources, and the amazing thing about poetry, or writing of any kind—you don’t need musical instruments, you don’t technology, it’s just a pen and paper. So anybody could do it, and it could translate into a life skill that would benefit you for a lifetime: that ability to recognize something, to observe the world in which you’re living and communicate it, whether to yourself or others.

From its inception, the program has had two goals: to recognize the value of the existing talent of our most dedicated teen poets and then to use their unique voices and experience to reach students and whole communities that don’t already have outlets and programs and pipelines to national support and recognition. Because what we realized in developing the program, the students that by and large are already writing poetry, they have great resources. Not all, some of them will say it was their school program that brought them to poetry, and others will say there was no poetry in their school, there were community programs. Or some of them will say it wasn’t their school or community, it was their parents. But the people I carried with me in my mind through the development of the program—I had this visual image of teens that have notebooks cramped with writing, but they’ve never shared it with anyone. They have these colorful images in their brain, but they’ve never yet put pen to paper, or their fingers to the keyboard to let them take shape on the page. We really want to reach those students, so their ideas have an outlet, so they learn the craft of writing and expression. And our culture is made more relevant and complete with the addition of their perspective.

From right to left: Susan Hildreth IMLS, Olivia Morgan PCAH, Mary Schmidt Campbell PCAH vice chair, NSPP Claire Lee, NSPP Luisa Banchoff, NSPP Natalie Richardson, NSPP Lylla Younes, Jon Carson, Margo Lion PCAH Chair, NSPP Miles Hewitt, Ami Aronson, Bernstein Foundation, Virginia McEnerney, Alliance Young Artists & Writers.

From right to left: Susan Hildreth IMLS, Olivia Morgan PCAH, Mary Schmidt Campbell PCAH vice chair, NSPP Claire Lee, NSPP Luisa Banchoff, NSPP Natalie Richardson, NSPP Lylla Younes, Jon Carson, Margo Lion PCAH Chair, NSPP Miles Hewitt, Ami Aronson, Bernstein Foundation, Virginia McEnerney, Alliance Young Artists & Writers. Courtesy of the PCAH.

NEH: What was the process in getting the program underway?

MORGAN: It was a long process. We started with a series of workshops with 826 DC. 826 was founded by the novelist Dave Eggers in San Francisco, and they now have programs around the country. They had literally just opened a storefront in Washington, D.C. in Mt. Pleasant, called the Museum of Unnatural History. In the back, there’s a writing workshop. It’s where teens from anywhere in the city can come for help with their homework, with writing, and they also hold writing workshops. Together with 826DC we put together a three-month series of workshops with students from four area schools. Students from each of those schools came every Wednesday night, and we did a poetry workshop. It was led by a poet-professor from Georgetown University, Carolyn Forche, and Kyle Dargen from American University; they put together the curriculum and they would lead the workshop, and other local poets would also come on Wednesday and help lead the classes.

So we did this workshop for months and ended with a book of their poems that culminated in a reading at the Library of Congress. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came, and Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and Washington poets. The poets came and talked to these kids about how they came to be poets, and what that life looks like and what their inspiration is. Two of our student poets from 826DC read and just blew them away. It was such an amazing, heartfelt experience, they just poured themselves out. It was so moving.

Then we worked with the White House and put together a poetry workshop in the State Room, so we got our students from 826DC, and we contacted similar programs around the country and invited them to bring their students. We had 80-100 students from writing programs around the country in the State Room for a workshop with Billy Collins and several other poets. It was good to be recognized for the time they spent learning a craft, and honing their skill as writers. One of the students who read that evening in the East Room—the White House had a formal poetry reading that night—was a Scholastic Award Winner, and I had spent some time with her on the phone, inviting her to perform at the White House. Then when she nearly fainted, I was working with her to prepare to read. This is someone who had won a poetry award, but she had never read her poetry; it had never existed except in her mind and on the page, so we worked on how she was going to vocalize it, and she pulled it off. It was amazing.

I got a letter form her mother afterward thanking me and saying it had changed her daughter’s life because she now saw herself as a writer—that was her identity, and she had so much more confidence. That really inspired me to see the NSPP through. It felt like a good indication that we were on to something. We partnered with the Scholastic Awards, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers that oversees the awards. They already had a system in place, where they get over 8,000 submissions from student poets every year. That was the toughest nut to crack, looking for that partner. Poetry out Loud is a great model, but we knew we didn’t have the same resources as them. So partnering with the Alliance—the light bulb went on, because they already had the system in place.

So what we’re able to do: they get their submissions, and then they send to us their top winners—their Gold and Silver winners—and we decided not to have one national student poet, but to have five, and make it regional. First of all, being the only national awardee was a lot to put on the shoulders of a 16-year-old. Secondly, we didn’t want it to be just a title, but for it to be an active position and for the awardees to be engaged with their communities. We wanted to spread that across the country. We do it regionally, and we took the scholastic winners and found five just extraordinary young poets for our first class of NSPP awardees. And they are amazing, they’re so earnest and talented and excited about the opportunity. They come from all over the country, and all different backgrounds. From a military family to NYC to rural Louisiana—just all over the place. We didn’t choose them based on their geography. We assembled the talent into five regions and selected a winner from each region. Their charge had been to look for communities where there isn’t already a flourishing poetry scene and to bring it there.

I have to say, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, along with the Alliance, have been equal partners with this. And the Institute really gave us a home for this. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. And the Library of Congress has been extraordinarily supportive.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the 2012 National Student Poets, Luisa Banchoff, Natalie Richardson, Claire Lee, Lylla Younes and Miles Hewitt in the Diplomatic Room of the White House following a Christmas holiday reception, Dec. 14, 2012. The First Lady is an Honorary Chairman for the PCAH. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson. Courtesy of NSPP's Facebook page.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the 2012 National Student Poets, Luisa Banchoff, Natalie Richardson, Claire Lee, Lylla Younes and Miles Hewitt in the Diplomatic Room of the White House following a Christmas holiday reception, Dec. 14, 2012. The First Lady is an Honorary Chairman for the PCAH. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson. Courtesy of NSPP’s Facebook page.

NEH: How do you see this award compared to the Poet Laureate program? Does it stem from the same idea?

MORGAN: Well, certainly the Poet Laureate program was a model, but it’s very different. That’s recognizing someone for remarkable contributions they have made and continue to make to American culture. What the NSPP is doing is really encouraging students—recognizing students who are already writing—and valuing that work, and really looking for the finest student writers. It then engages these young writers in the work of finding other students who aren’t yet writing. The awardees have gotten amazing experiences. They were invited to the Dodge Poetry Festival, which is the largest poetry festival in North America, which had never had high school students read before. All of them are doing community projects as part of their service. In April each of them participates in a National Poetry Month event in their region. Then they also take on a service project to bring poetry to a community that doesn’t already have an outlet. They’ve done that in totally different ways.

For more on the NSPP’s individual work and service, please return to the blog Friday for a post about the five NSPP awardees.

These young poets now realize that they have a responsibility. They have a gift, and resources are being invested in it. So they have to encourage others to develop their gifts as well. They each have organized one community service event somewhere in their region. The students are so different, and their regions are so different, the projects have taken on different characteristics.

NEH: Other than the connection to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, were there other deciding factors to give this award to high school students instead of college students?

MORGAN: We were really focused on K-12 education, and helping students at that age level, and actually the award only goes to 9-11 graders. The reason for that is we wanted our Ambassadors to still be in high school. We’re in the process of selecting 2013-2014’s winners now, because the Scholastic awards were given in March, so we know who the top poets were this year. The new NSPP’s will begin in the Fall of 2013, and the award ceremony takes place during the National Book Festival this coming September. That kicks off their year of service. We’ll do workshops with them, with the new NSPP awardees, around that weekend, when they’re inaugurated. So that they’re comfortable on the stage, and they understand the opportunities and obligations of their roles, and then they do their first reading on the mall. We wanted the students to still be in high school because we thought they’d have the most credibility with their peers, and again this comes back to the idea that the more engaged students are in their academic work, the more likely they are to stay in school and graduate. It wouldn’t be possible without the Library of Congress, they put it all together, the Center for the Book and the Poetry and Literature Center.

NEH: How do you see this award affecting these students as they graduate high school and move toward college?

MORGAN: I’m sure it has given them respect for themselves as writers, and certainly an understanding that, as they have this talent, and these resources have been invested in them, with that opportunity comes an obligation. I go back to the idea that artists and writers really add to the fabric of their communities. In this case, we were asking them to work with their peers, with other students, and help them hone their own writing skills and see the benefits of written expression. I hope they will take that forward in their lives. They are talented writers, and with that talent there’s some obligation to contribute to the greater good.

Olivia Morgan is the managing editor of the Shriver Report and the founder of the NSPP. Morgan is a Private Member of the PCAH.

Please visit our blog again next Tuesday (April 30) to learn more about the five NSPP awardees.

Happy Earth Day!

Throughout the year, the NEH funds libraries, colleges, and media programs that often have an environment focus. In honor of Earth day, here are two recent projects that promoted the spirit of preservation in different ways.

John Muir Documentary

The documentary John Muir in the New World takes a brilliant and in-depth look at one of America’s first environmentalists, John Muir. Narrated by Jane Alexander, Academy Award-winning actress and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, the film features Muir’s personal journal entries as well as interviews with historians dedicated to studying his legacy.

The NEH’s Division of Public Programs funded the documentary, which aired on PBS on Earth Day in 2011 and is still available on PBSvideo.com. The film went on to be featured at D.C.’s 2012 Environmental Film Festival. It is a beautiful and insightful homage to one of the founders of America’s national parks system.

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John Muir as portrayed by Howard Weamer.
Photo courtesy of Bob Roney, Global Village Media.

 Eco-Friendly Museum

Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library holds an unparalleled collection of American antiques from as early as the seventeenth century. Its sprawling grounds bloom all year, thanks to founder Henry du Pont, who wished to present nature as a work of art. After receiving a Cultural Heritage grant from the NEH, the Museum now protects its collection with updated, energy efficient heating and cooling systems.

The Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections allows museums such as Winterthur to improve the preservation of their collections and save on energy costs. Museum directors can then put money towards better programming and continued research. Visitors benefit from the richer exhibits and the environment benefits from lowered energy use.

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An example of the gorgeous artifacts on display at Winterthur Museum.
Photo courtesy of Winterthur.org.

Illinois Humanities Council’s Challenge to Strengthen American Democracy

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This month, The Illinois Humanities Council asked: how can we strengthen American democracy? Looking@Democracy is the Council’s national contest for creative media pieces that answer that important question.

The challenge—which is open to all Americans, not just to citizens of Illinois—looks for submissions that demonstrate why government is important to daily life, or how the government might be improved. The catch? Responses must be in media form. Any digital format will be accepted, including audio stories, iPhone apps, short videos, and others. As long as the political discussion is in digital form, the entries can diverge from or personalize the original question.

The Council has already received 300 submissions, and the projects are as diverse as they are creative. One is a guitar song about diversity written by fifth graders in Michigan, and another is a video produced by students in New York urging people to take action outside of social media:  “Don’t just like it, go to it.”

The challenge offers $100,000 in prize money, with $25,000 going to First Place for Best Entry. The submission deadline is April 30. Go join the discussion.

Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry

national_poetry_month_logo_blackAs National Poetry Month moves along, we’d like to share a NEH-funded poetry program.

In response to renewed interest in contemporary poetry, the University of Kansas Project on the History of Black Writing, in conjunction with the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, has initiated the fifteen-month program Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry.

The program will focus on the history of African American poetry. Three critical periods—1900-1960, 1960-80, and 1980-present—will be covered. Don’t Deny My Voice features a three-week summer institute, part of the Division of Education Programs’ Summer Institutes for College and University Teachers, as well as subsequent public events and webinars.

The summer institute will take place July 14-August 3 at the University of Kansas’s main campus in Lawrence. The program will enable twenty-five college and university teachers to learn about the history of African American poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. The institute will be led by experts. Institute participants will collaborate in teaching and research projects and will explore the depth and diversity of African American poetry.

Don’t Deny My Voice will also offer events that are open to the public. These events will take place in late July, including a poetry slam in conjunction with the American Jazz Museum’s poetry forum and festival. More information about the events can be found here.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan. Photo courtesy of Jalissa Gray.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan. Trethewey was named Poet Laureate in Fall 2012. Photo courtesy of Jalissa Gray.

In addition to the summer events, the program will host a series of public discussions online with a group of well-known poets. These discussions will take place in the fall of 2013 and will feature poets such as Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Terrance Hayes, Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, and Leigh McInnis.

If you are interested in learning more about Don’t Deny My Voice, or participating in any of the in-person or online public events, please visit the website.