Describe your nonprofit’s mission.
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) connects people and ideas to explore the human experience and inspire cultural engagement. By supporting and producing cultural, civic, local, and global educational programs for broad public audiences, VFH encourages discovery and connection through the humanities. Since its founding in 1974, it has grown to become the largest and most diversely funded state humanities council in the country, producing more than 40,000 humanities programs including festivals, public radio programs, and digital resources, and contributing to more than 3,500 grant projects and 350 individual and collaborate fellowships. For more information, visit VirginiaHumanities.org.
What need in our community brought about the creation of your nonprofit?
In the winter and spring of 1974, VFH founding president Rob Vaughan traveled the Commonwealth to conduct community forums about the humanities and public life. Always striking out from Charlottesville, his destinations included Norfolk, Richmond, Newport News, Wise, Roanoke, Abingdon, Fredericksburg, Farmville, Northern Virginia, and Harrisonburg, which, taken together, are representative of the Commonwealth’s geographic regions, community size, and demographic diversity.
At these gatherings, usually two structured hours followed by informal conversation over coffee, VFH posed some basic questions: What is your perception and understanding of the humanities? What do you consider to be the major public issues facing Virginia in the next decade? Would you be willing to participate in programs bringing scholars, teachers, and the general public together to discuss public issues from the perspective of history, language and literature, law and philosophy, and religious and cultural traditions?
Such questions and such interaction with communities has shaped Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. For more than four decades, VFH has asked questions incessantly, with a committed Board and Staff who work with Virginians of all backgrounds to explore the Commonwealth’s extraordinary histories, cultures, and stories. Our work takes many different forms now—websites, podcasts, digital editing and publication, festivals, conferences, institutes for teachers and others—but our purpose has remained the same: through public scholarship and dialogue, we explore the past to discover our future.
How has your nonprofit made a difference in our community?
The imperative to tell the “untold” stories, in particular, has been a driving force for VFH. In the beginning, we focused on the history and cultural contributions of women and African Americans in Virginia. Our focus on African Americans has only deepened over the decades, with more than 150 VFH programs in the last year and a half alone illuminating aspects of the African American experience in Virginia. In 1987 we made a commitment to telling the stories of Virginia Indians, which led to a VFH grant that supported the first meeting of the then eight state-recognized Indian tribes since the 1600s. Our attention to these stories has been unwavering. Now in the twenty-first century, we are widening our lens to keep pace with a rapidly diversifying Commonwealth, with nearly 1 million foreign-born Virginians among our vast constituency.
Our way of learning about and telling these stories is also unique. Encyclopedia Virginia and Virginia Center for the Book programs, for example, take great care in telling stories for K-12 student and teacher audiences. We are the only humanities council that produces radio programs, which are an especially effective tool for bringing the work of scholars to the general public. The relevance of radio in the digital age is unquestionable— BackStory alone has registered more than 7 million downloads. Our grants program has supplied seed funding to projects ranging from the film Down in the Old Belt: Voices from the Tobacco South (2005), to the book Lost Communities of Virginia (2011); from oral histories collected from old-timers whose memories of one-room black segregated schools are in danger of dying when they do, to the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia Community House and Interpretive Center in Southampton County. The ethos of the grants program has community members and academic scholars coming together to produce enduring contributions to the humanities in Virginia. And the vast majority of all our programming directly involves scholars and interpreters who are members of the cultural groups represented.
How can community members help you achieve your mission?
Our work seeks to illustrate the great importance of the humanities at a time when many say they are under attack, and when civic discourse is increasingly critical to progress. As one of our Virginia Arts of the Book Center prints powerfully states, the humanities are our human ties. We hope you agree—and join us in a commitment to the humanities, a critical tool for shaping a more promising future in Virginia and beyond. Community members can get involved by signing up for our newsletters, volunteering for the Virginia Festival of the Book, listening to our radio programs and podcasts, applying for a grant, or supporting our programming with a donation to VFH.
Tell us a story that has come out of your work.
When we enter the world of a book, we may wonder if we will we learn something new about ourselves. Will our world view change by reading a book or poem? Do we recognize ourselves in the story? What happens when we don’t recognize ourselves in the books we read?
The Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and an affiliate of the Library of Congress, considers those questions with a unique classroom program called Letters About Literature.
Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing competition, asks middle through high school students to write any author, living or dead, about how the author’s book or poem affected them.
The Virginia Center for the Book works with teachers, librarians, and parents across Virginia to encourage students to participate. Winning letters in three grade levels are submitted to the national competition, and Virginia winners are invited to read at the Opening Ceremony of the Virginia Festival of the Book each March.
In the autumn of 2012, eighth-grader Christine Wang, of Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, wrote a letter to Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel American Born Chinese. Wang’s letter to Yang was selected as the top Virginia entry for the seventh- and eighth-grade level.
“I am Chinese and I was born in America, but China was all I knew since the age of four …” Wang’s letter begins.
When I was ten, my family moved back to the States. The skies were blue here. And there were trees everywhere, but my life would change drastically. After those few moments of excitement, I was jolted back to reality. I was the out-of-place Chinese. People like me used to be everywhere, now I am the “special” one. I was the Monkey King trying to fit in with humans and Jin Wang trying to blend in with his American classmates … Everyone else looks so much “cooler” than me, and has much more friends … Everywhere around me, the media and my friends’ mostly negative portrayal of Asians shrunk my confidence. Because of my surrounding and low self-esteem, I tried forgetting my identity, just like my fellow travelers—[the characters] Jin Wang, Danny and the Monkey King. I stopped writing out my last name, replacing it with my initials. I stopped speaking Chinese at home, even ignoring certain traditional foods. Being me, being just a “monkey” wasn’t enough anymore. I tried everything I can, and, in a way, I succeeded …
Your book was my handbook in my journey. It pushed enough to leave my comfort or discomfort zone. It took me through the entire trip, giving me hints and helping hands. It showed me the end, where I wanted to go. I once was a girl who ran away from who she was, tripping over her feet while attempting the impossible. But I had depended too much on what others thought, not who I want to be. Thank you so much for showing me I can be whatever I want, even if I am Chinese born in America. But I learned now. The Monkey King said, “I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.” I would have saved myself nearly three years of bondage under my imagined chains had I only realized how good it is to be an American Born Chinese. Thank you for rescuing me before it is too late.
Speaking at the pre–National Book Festival gala in August 2014, Yang discussed a number of graphic novelists who have helped readers from diverse communities see themselves in books. Yang shared his experience of discovering in a comic book an Asian American named Xombi, “a scientist who became a superhero after he was injected with nanotechnology”:
Xombi was inventive and fun, but he stood out to me because he was an Asian American male carrying in his own monthly title. And even more notable—he didn’t know kung fu. Xombi wasn’t created by Asian Americans—his writer was white and his artist black— but he did make Asian Americans a little less invisible.
We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree. (Source: Washington Post Sept. 1, 2014)
We who are believers in reading sometimes forget how important “seeing ourselves” can be for young people, and especially for kids such as Christine Wang. But the annual challenge to Virginia’s classroom students brings it so readily to mind each spring.
Learn more about the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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