In The News

A Lifeline from the World

This article originally appeared in the blog, The Midwesterner.

As the global economy concentrates in cities, it has left behind a hinterland — too often a wasteland — of old factory cities and rural towns literally cut off from the global conversation.  

It’s easy –and wrong — to say that the people in these towns are globalization’s leftovers, men and women who can’t cut it in this new economy, refugees happily hiding from the rest of the world, with no interest in that world and nothing to say about it. Many do indeed feel like castaways, but they long for more links with a world that has passed them by.  

I spent two days last week with the Illinois Humanities Council, listening to what this council — one of 56 similar councils in the various U.S. states and territories — does to try to keep the humanities alive in a time of economic distress, local hardship and shrinking government support.  

The IHC, like other state councils, has a mandate to serve its entire state. In Illinois, where three-quarters of the citizens live in the Chicago region, this means that most funds and efforts go to Chicago-area activities: the same is true, if less dramatic, in other states where one city dominates.  

But what struck me most in the two days of conversations was the almost desperate thirst in the state’s isolated small towns for some link to the wider world, for the need to tap into minds and thinking beyond the town limits, if only to feel that they haven’t been totally exiled from life.  

The IHC and other state councils try to meet this need. Several persons called this a “lifeline,” and I felt they meant this literally.  

It’s easy for those of us city-dwellers to take urban opportunities for granted. We live surrounded by colleges and universities, by good talkers and talented artists, by people who not only are in touch with the world but are helping to shape it. Especially in segregated cities like Chicago, these riches too seldom extend into inner cities but, even there, the humanities are often a bus ride away for those who know how to tap them.  

Not so in the bypassed cities outside the metro area. Many people there are college-educated, read books, love music, know the humanities when they see them. But they too seldom see them. In most of these towns, the economy — a local mine, a factory or two, perhaps a nearby army base — has gone away. The towns are shrinking, sometimes dying. Young people leave at the first opportunity. Those left behind are people who love the place and decided to make their lives there. They aren’t old, necessarily, but they’re unlikely to pick up and build a new life in Chicago.  

Sure, they’ve got television, for what that’s worth. Often, the towns are on broadband. There’s often a college or university within a one or two-hour drive.  

But this is second-hand culture. All too often, that college or university looks inward on itself, almost embarrassed to be seen talking with its rural neighbors, making no effort to connect with its hinterland. In the little towns themselves, there is nothing.  

And then the IHC comes to town. The IHC sponsors Road Scholars, which is a speakers’ bureau of scholars who go to these towns for presentations in local libraries, schools, historical societies or other venues. But the most impressive is a program called Museum on Main Street, or MOMS for short, which provides support and venues for traveling exhibitions, mostly from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.  

These exhibitions tour the nation, stopping in libraries or historical societies in small towns, where local people, many of them volunteers, use IHC funding to stage the show, put on workshops and generate local enthusiasm. Unlike the Road Scholar presentations, the exhibitions stay several weeks. Often, their staging becomes a community project, in hard-hit towns that have begun to lose the idea of community.  

Among other things, this activity helps reduce the urban-rural gap that afflicts the entire Midwest, or at least forces Chicagoans to recognize the existence and needs of people outside the Chicago area.  

Far southern Illinois is closer to Dixie than to Chicago in its history and culture, and its residents are usually treated by Chicagoans as so many rednecks. But at the IHC meeting, one museum director from the region said that aid from IHC enabled his organization to “be a professional museum.” Among the MOMS shows his museum has staged was one on the role of black soldiers in the Civil War. The exhibition and its follow up have let the museum reinterpret the history of southern Illinois for residents there.  

All this is done on a shoestring. The Illinois state budget crisis has been a disaster for non-profits that rely on the state for part of their funding: IHC says it has lost two-third of its state funding.  

But IHC works mostly with small organizations, like small-town historical societies, where a little money can go a long way. The Chicago History Museum doesn’t need IHC, but downstate museums do.  

If the non-Chicago regions of Illinois hold only 25 percent of the state’s residents, they provide 45 percent of the attendance at IHC shows. This argues for more IHC attention to rural regions, where the council’s activities are especially valued.  

But it remains a hard sell. Like many state humanities councils, IHC finds it easier to raise funds from Chicago foundations and corporations for Chicago-focused programming. Outside Chicago, there aren’t many foundations and some of the state mightiest corporations, headquartered downstate, have been tight-fisted about sponsoring humanities programs in their own backyard. As noted, too many of the state’s colleges and universities value global recognition, not local impact.  

Illinois has seventeen public radio stations and IHC could profitably urge them to cooperate on programming, which would help shrink that urban-rural divide. More broadband programming would bring distant events into isolated small towns.  

But it is events like MOMS, happening right on Main Street, that convince these towns that the outside world really cares. We can watch circuses on TV but it’s truly a big deal when the carnival comes to town. The same with culture and the humanities, and IHC, like other state councils, is working hard, with a small staff and limited funds, to keep it coming. Bottom of Form