Gene Dobbs Bradford and Lois Conley

Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, and Lois Conley, founder and director of the Griot Museum, presented Friday at a forum convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is preparing a report to Congress.

A diverse sampling of St. Louis institutions providing education and programming in the humanities will help influence national policy for the humanities, thanks to the leadership of Gerald Early, director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University and the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2012 Lifetime Achiever in Education.

Last Friday, Early and Leslie Berlowitz, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, convened a public forum for the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, of which Early is a member.

The forum held in St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum was one of only four data-gathering events convened by the commission and the only forum held in the Midwest, Early said in opening the meeting.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences created the commission in answer to a bipartisan call from U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Vir.), and Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and David Price (D-N.C.), Berlowitz said.

The forum was documented in multiple media, which will be edited into the commission’s report to Congress that will “recommend specific steps that government, schools and universities, cultural institutions, businesses and philanthropies can take to support and strengthen” the humanities and the social sciences, according to the Academy.

Panelists reporting to Congress were chosen to represent a wide geographic and institutional range for the metropolitan area. Senior administrators in art and humanities from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Webster University all spoke, as did leaders of presenting organizations ranging in size from small (the Griot Museum), to medium (Jazz St. Louis, Circus Harmony) to large (Laumeier Sculpture Park, Opera Theater of Saint Louis).

Lois Conley, founder and director of the Griot Museum, spoke in very plain terms on behalf of both smaller institutions and the African-American grass roots.

“We should not encourage, we should require large institutions and universities to collaborate with small and developing institutions,” Conley said. She said this is required because of “the institutional capacity required for many funding opportunities,” which has the effect of starving smaller community-based organizations.

These smaller, often-overlooked organizations, she said, have unique value.

“Education is about study, but it is also about experience,” Conley said. “That’s where community-based institutions can help. We can offer real-time opportunities for human experience.”

Conley spoke immediately after Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, whose organization has major-league experience with just such partnerships. Jazz St. Louis under his direction has partnered with the Center for the Humanities at Washington University on national jazz education projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and locally Emerson has funded its Jazz in the Schools program.

“I just got an email this week from a jazz performance major at the University of Miami, and he said the jazz he learned from our program played a great role in earning his scholarship,” Dobbs Bradford said. “Unlocking that potential is what humanities is all about.”

Conley also spoke up for the importance of supporting institutions that represent a diversity of perspectives. Though she spoke with the frustration commonly experienced by the black grass-roots community in St. Louis – “there is a continuing racial divide” – her message was anything but black cultural nationalist. Her message was one of inclusion.

“We need to embrace a new paradigm of inclusion, rather than it being a second thought,” Conley said. “We need a genuinely inclusive education that is holistic.”

Early said he was proud to be able to add these local voices to the national conversation about humanities.

“I am proud St. Louis was chosen for this forum,” Early said. “It is a great opportunity for our community to hear from local people on the front line of doing things for the humanities and the arts.”

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