One of the things that we said we were going to do was be an advocate for the importance of the humanities at every level of education and throughout life," says Kristina Valaitis. Now the current executive director of the Illinois Humanities Council, Valaitis has spent twenty years working towards this goal.
"I joined the staff of the Illinois Humanities Council as an editorial assistant in March of 1979... I clawed my way to the top of the heap. From being the wait person to the maitre d' ... or something like that," she said at a recent NEH Federal/State Partnership meeting. Before coming to the Council, Valaitis's first job was teaching non-tenure track at Arizona State University after receiving her Ph.D. in English from Northern Illinois University. "Like many people in the seventies, when the job market dried up, I decided not to wait twenty years in order to find a job in academia."
Already familiar with public humanities work through her own project in Arizona, Valaitis was primed when an a position opened at the Illinois Humanities Council. Her first beat was in the heartland of the state, Champaign-Urbana. "For those who don't know much about Illinois, our western border is the Mississippi River, our southern border is the Ohio River. Illinois was in the way of everyone who was moving west, it was in the way of everyone who was moving north from the south. As a result, our state was left with an amazingly diverse population and a history that's challenging and enriching."
Illinois's demographic distribution makes outreach a difficult task. According to Valaitis, "Eighty percent of Illinois's population lives on 20 percent of the land." But the Council succeeds in providing programming to people in all parts of the state.
"All of our programs need to link scholars in the humanities with the public. There's no place in the state where we don't have a venue for a public program, such as the library or historical society. There's no place where we don't have access to scholars. And that's what makes up for the daunting demographics and the lopsidedness of the population."
One program that has been particularly successful in reaching the less populated areas of Illinois is the Road Scholars program, of the Illinois Humanities Council's Speakers Bureau. It brings speakers to nonprofit organizations around the state and includes scholars, writers, and musicians who discuss topics ranging from the poetry of the Vietnam War to contemporary Latin American piano music. …