Magazine article Humanities

Executive Function with Angel Ysaguirre

Magazine article Humanities

Executive Function with Angel Ysaguirre

Article excerpt

Angel Ysaguirre is doing his second stint at Illinois

Humanities-this time as executive director. Following jobs arBoeing and the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, he was, he says, driven by a sense of alarm over the erosion of public discourse.

Ysaguirre was troubled by two things: the poor quality of the information people were getting from news media and the rise in political partisanship, "While away from the humanities council, I saw this need to present the humanities in a way that didn't just increase appreciation, as was our mission, but to use the humanities as a tool for social engagement," says Ysaguirre.

At Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, Ysaguirre saw firsthand how politically divided people had become, especially on hot issues such as the closing of 50 Chicago public schools. "The worst part, for me, was how [much] less people were willing to compromise or try to see things from different perspectives," he says. "I observed how poorly people talked about public policy."

Although Ysaguirre was proud of the work he had done as the director of programs at the council nine years earlier, he hadn't considered applying for the executive director position. But he began asking himself: What can state humanities councils do in a really different way? "The answer was," he says, "to get people who wouldn't otherwise reach out to each other because of race or socioeconomics or political ideology, to encounter one another in conversation." When the council's board chair called, asking him to apply for the job, "I decided to come back."

One of the influences on Ysaguirre's thinking was a 2014 report called "Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life." The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, concluded that partisan animosity had more than doubled from 1994 to 2014. More than 27 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans who responded said ideas of those from the opposing political party "are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being."

"I thought, if someone thinks someone else's views are actually dangerous, then why would they compromise? How could you compromise with someone whose beliefs you think are dangerous? That freaked me out," says Ysaguirre.

And thus began the council's efforts to increase conversations among diverse groups. Ysaguirre had already done similar work at the council years before, creating projects like"Brown v. Board of Education 50 Years Later: Conversations on Integration, Race, and the Courts" and the Odyssey Project, a free 32-week college credit-granting program for low-income adults with little access to higher education.

"When I left the council in 2005, we had shaped our programming to reach more diverse audiences, but we weren't really doing programming that was codesigned by those communities," Ysaguirre says. "Back then, we would gather a steering committee of 20 or so experts to design programs. Now, we design from the ground up. We still use a steering committee of experts, but have a broader view of who an expert is."

The council has finished a yearlong series on the future of public schools in Illinois called Continuing Ed, which has been running in Chicago, Elgin, central Illinois, and three small communities in southern Illinois,

Experts included a state senator, academics, sociologists, high school principals, students, parents, and many others who spoke at these public programs. …

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