In Focus: North Carolina's Shelley Crisp

Article excerpt

THROUGH HER OFFICE WINDOW. SHELLEY CRISP CAN SEE the humanities in action. We are looking at Greensboro's Center City Park, the walkways, grass commons, stone benches, fountains, and concert stage - an ideal place to escape, if briefly, from the workaday world.

"You see people of every stripe playing, attending concerts, reading, and talking - the humanities are right there," says Crisp, executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council. A native North Carolinian with a strong affinity for "place," Crisp tends to see the humanities in the stories of the many peoples who make up the quickly changing and fast-growing state. There are the stories of tobacco farming and fishing families, who have lived off the land and ocean for generations, and newcomers who might speak Spanish, Hmong, or Arabic. People don't realize that 264 languages are spoken in the homes of North Carolina, says Crisp.

When the council was established thirty-eight years ago, the state was about to go through a major shift, from a rural lifestyle to a more urban one. 'At such times, there's a transitional crisis," says Crisp, and the council's founders wanted to do humanities programs that might ease the tension between tradition and transition.

Crisp, who became director in 2007, works from a spacechallenged office suite on the sixth floor of a downtown high-rise reserved for nonprofit agencies. Her "amazingly committed staff" stays busy as a partner on a myriad of projects, including one involving Harkers Island, a fishing community that has been threatened by development and pollution. A photographer named Larry Earley had been taking pictures of the Core Sound workboats, and he realized there was an opportunity to record more than images. Working with scholars, the local people had a chance to explore and document how "people are part of the history of their place." says Crisp.

A documentary project has delved into the history of the Beacon Blanket Mill in Swannanoa. once the largest blanket factory in the world. "When it shut down, the community life as the textile workers knew it shut down," says Crisp. The North Carolina Road Work program, a new undertaking, has participants discover the stories about a road in their community and offers the possibility of moving from the personal story to larger themes. The "road" that Elizabethtown chose was the Cape Fear River. Eighty-eight-year-old Horace Butler, who still works in timber, was the last logger to take a log raft down the river in 1 957. He is the repository of a life intimately linked to the river. His story is now posted on the Bladen County Library's website. …