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NHA Quarterly Column: Rallying Support for the Humanities Sector during the COVID-19 Crisis

by Beatrice Gurwitz, NHA Deputy Director | Jul 28, 2020
This Quarterly Column from the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), published in July 2020, discusses NHA's successful push, in collaboration with its members, to win relief funding for the NEH in the CARES Act, and details ongoing efforts to ensure that Members of Congress understand the enduring needs of humanities educators and institutions as the pandemic wears on, including ways you can be involved in NHA's Hill-based advocacy.

As museums, libraries, scholarly societies, colleges, universities, and other humanities organizations shut down in mid-March due to COVID-19, we, at the National Humanities Alliance, worked to understand and quickly communicate to Congress how the pandemic was affecting humanities educators and organizations.

Colleagues at museums, historic sites, and independent libraries told us that they were facing severe economic losses due to closures and were anticipating further losses due to cancelled festivals and fundraising events. Without additional support, they predicted that these losses would lead to layoffs and possibly closure for smaller organizations. These repercussions were likely to be all the more significant for organizations in communities that were already economically disadvantaged. Humanities educators reported strains as they worked to educate students in unprecedented circumstances, and we anticipated that educators who were casually employed or on contract would be especially vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis. Finally, we heard from scholarly societies who were concerned about the financial challenges associated with cancelling in-person conferences and struggling to support their members as they moved to virtual teaching and research. 

Early in the Great Recession, Congress did not include funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 even as it provided stimulus funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This time, after years of sustained work by advocates to communicate the public value of the humanities and build support on Capitol Hill, we were hopeful for a better outcome. 

We quickly identified advocates whose Members of Congress would play a key role in negotiating the relief bill and facilitated direct outreach to them and their staff. In collaboration with the Federation of State Humanities Councils, we sent a letter to the members of the House Appropriations Committee calling for funding for the NEH and the state humanities councils to provide direct emergency grants to support humanities organizations. We also called for non-profit eligibility for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans and support for casually-employed and on contract educators. We worked closely with the offices of Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and David Price (D-NC) as they wrote a letter to leadership in support of the NEH and the NEA.

When the CARES Act ultimately passed on March 27, it included $75 million in supplemental funding for the NEH and non-profit eligibility for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Of the $75 million appropriated to the NEH, 40% would be administered by the state humanities councils for cultural institutions in their states. 

And in late June, with an emphasis on preserving and creating new jobs, the NEH awarded 317 grants to support a wide range of cultural organizations and higher ed institutions. Pacific University in Oregon, for example, will use its NEH CARES grant to retain 14 humanities teaching positions in philosophy, English, and world languages. The University of Arizona Press will retain six permanent full-time jobs and create a temporary full-time position to expand the digitization and production of humanities e-books. Greenwood Community Development Corporation received a grant to add staff members to prepare an exhibition and tours at the historic site of the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

While this support will be important in sustaining humanities organizations, it is far from meeting the overall need. The NEH was only able to fund 14% of applications received, while on average the state councils have only been able to fund 38%. 

Anticipating this gap and the likely need for additional funding, we have been working to document the needs of the humanities community and share that information with Members of Congress and their staff since the CARES Act passed.  We have been hosting virtual congressional briefings—emphasizing ongoing financial challenges and the role of humanities organizations and educators in addressing current challenges, whether related to COVID-19 or racial justice and anti-racism. And now that the NEH CARES grants have been released, we will be collaborating with the grantees to document the impact of that funding through surveying students and program participants. Most importantly, we have been ensuring that Members of Congress hear directly from their constituents since late March. 

We anticipate that the challenges facing the humanities sector will be ongoing and that conversations on the Hill about the need for relief funding will ebb and flow over the next several months as the public health situation and related economic challenges continue to change shape. Our goal is to ensure that Members of Congress hear from as many humanities organizations and educators as possible so that the humanities sector is part of the conversation when Congress ultimately considers additional relief. Please be in touch if you are interested in contacting your Members of Congress. We are happy to help.




Founded in 1940, the Society of Architectural Historians is an international nonprofit membership organization that promotes the study, interpretation and conservation of architecture, design, landscapes and urbanism worldwide. SAH serves a network of local, national and international institutions and individuals who, by profession or interest, focus on the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life. SAH promotes meaningful public engagement with the history of the built environment through advocacy efforts, print and online publications, and local, national and international programs.
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