S5E6 The Maine Difference: Championing the Humanities in a Rural State

On this episode, Samaa Abdurraqib and Mollie Cashwell join us for a panel discussion on the importance of the humanities in Maine. The panelists discuss community care, technology’s impacts on the humanities, and much more.


[00:00:00] Mollie Cashwell: And I think in Maine, any kind of policy or any kind of economic plan that involves a shift in community relationship or the way we care for each other, going back to that, I don’t think it’s a wild idea to say, you know, we should be hiring humanities practitioners to be part of that process.

[00:00:19] Eric Miller: That was Mollie Cashwell, a guest on this week’s panel discussing the humanities in Maine.

Hello, and welcome back to Maine Policy Matters, the official podcast of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, where we discuss the policy matters that are most important to Maine’s people and why Maine policy matters at the local, state, and national levels. My name is Eric Miller and I’ll be your host.

Today, we’ll be interviewing Samaa Abdurraqib and Mollie Cashwell on the importance of the humanities in education and culture. Samaa Abdurraqib currently serves as the Executive Director of the Maine Humanities Council. Prior to working at Maine Humanities, Samaa held positions at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, the ACLU of Maine, and was a visiting professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College.

She has served on the board of several Maine based non-profits and has worked with many non-profits and organizations as a contract consultant, a leadership coach, and a facilitator. Since 2017, Samaa’s creative life has been focused on writing and sharing her poetry. Her recent writing can be found in Cider Press Review, Bigger Than Bravery, Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic and Writing the Land Maine. She is the editor of From Root to Seed, Black, Brown, and Indigenous Poets Write to the Northeast, published in 2023. She is a newly certified Maine Master Naturalist and loves to spend her time exploring the woods, waterways, mountains, and birds of the unceded territory of Wabanakiak.

Mollie Cashwell is the Director of Policy and Operations at the Cultural Alliance of Maine. She holds a master’s degree in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy from the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths and spent 10 years working with cultural organizations in New York, Lisbon, London, and Berlin before returning to Maine in 2019. Mollie serves on the boards of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society and the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor.

The humanities are a vital part of Maine’s culture. It connects Maine’s communities, empowers and gives a sense of pride and identity, and enriches Mainers quality of life in an increasingly technology-reliant world. While humanities programs have been known to face budget barriers in favor of an emphasis on STEM education, there is hope that liberal arts and sciences are getting more recognition for their qualitative nature-their way of making meaning and building a strong collective civic life that understands our need for connection.

Students in the humanities learn to hone highly valued and transferable skills attractive to employers, especially in leadership roles. Cultural organizations such as the Cultural Alliance of Maine and the Maine Humanities Council, two nonprofit organizations invest in programs that fall under the wide umbrella of humanities.

From the arts to the study of history, poetry, literature, and languages, supporting and promoting culture leads to diverse regional economies while bringing people together who are otherwise more geographically isolated in more remote areas of Maine. Cultural experiences also present massive opportunities, boasting local commerce, such as event spending and attracting long-term workers and visitors to more vibrant communities from the coast to rural areas.

From museums and historical sites to events like concerts and festivals, people come together to experience art and grow their understanding of each other and the places they live. According to the Cultural Alliance of Maine, about 46 % of Mainers reported attending some sort of cultural event in 2022, and of those 46%, the vast majority went to multiple events.

This means that Mainers attended cultural events at least 2. 4 million times in 2022. The reported ripple effects were wide-ranging. Quote, 70% rated belonging as one of their top impacts, followed by community collaboration at 49% and civic pride at 34%. These benefits can all have a hand in policymaking for they contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive future knowledgeable of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Maine’s unique culture.

Hi all. Thanks so much for joining us today. How have the recent advancements in technology, if at all, changed the ways we approach the humanities as a discipline, Samaa, we’ll start with you.

[00:05:17] Samaa Abdurraqib: Thanks, Eric. So I feel like it is probably really important to name the Triceratops in the room, or the, you know, something like that. And then go on to maybe some of the less obvious responses. And so I feel like the first thing is AI, artificial intelligence. And I feel like people who are in academic institutions and research institutions might be in a different place than say folks who are engaged in community based humanities work or who have and don’t have the resources or the space to do the kind of research, but for us, humanities councils, we are grappling with very open ended question about just how is it shifting the field?

We don’t have any real concrete answers yet. I know that there are folks who are considering the ways that artificial intelligence has changed how folks might write grant reports. It changes how folks are creating visual content. So I feel like that’s just a big Pandora’s Box as well. So we know that there are things in there, but we don’t know what all those things are and how they will impact.

I think about some of the changes that have been evolving over time. I know that when I was in graduate school, the digital humanities, that was the question. What are the digital humanities? My degrees are in literature and I can remember that transition from thinking about holding in your hand materials to materials that are existing in a digital format.

And I feel like the digital humanities really enhance our ability to reach more audiences. It’s changed accessibility. It’s allowed us to archive projects or archive research or, you know, archive histories in a completely different way that makes it more relevant and accessible to people who are coming after us.

I think it’s really helped shift the perception of the humanities as this like antiquated thing that is about history, that is about literature, that is about old things that for some people feel like don’t have relevance. Yeah, I feel like we should start there.

[00:07:29] Eric Miller: I think that your response is so fascinating to me because if we were having this discussion five years ago, even the latter part of your answer would be dominant in that people are able to learn and connect so much more because of the internet in terms of storing works of art, literature, being able to learn more music, for instance, just at your fingertips, it really is incredible.

And now with generative artificial intelligence, so many proprietary questions coming to students that have to be creative and write. And if they outsource that effort into a machine, then what does that mean and all of that? But I will let Mollie continue and elaborate on to your points.

[00:08:09] Mollie Cashwell: You know, I think my caveat for this whole conversation with me is I think there’s so many smart people that we should be listening to talking about the dangers and risks of AI and for the purposes of this conversation, I think, you know, from my perspective, I’m really interested in thinking about the ways that it can be supportive to us. So I’ll, I just want to share that, that expressing some excitement about what it could do for us, you know, certainly doesn’t undermine the risks there, but I feel like this moment with technology and the humanities, like what Samaa was saying, this whole digital humanities push was super exciting to me as well.

And going from, let’s say boxes and boxes of paper documents, to they’re digitized. And that was like such a big leap of access. Nonetheless, time and labor remains an enormous barrier to like, who gets to explore and tell the stories that exist in those troves. Yeah, you can do a search bar or whatever, but, and you know, finding that sweet spot of how AI doesn’t replace our critical thought we don’t want to just say tell me about shipbuilding and Ellsworth and then take it at face value or whatever, but, you know, for uncovering more nuanced stories, or at least the wayfinding aspect I think is really exciting as an opportunity that it presents.

And I was thinking the other day about, if we think about like mapping and the technology of mapping, like once upon a time, you had to stumble into something and then you were able to draw it and make your best guess at how things connect. And then people got better at that and better at that. And then Google Maps has come along and like totally changed how we find our way. And I guess along the way, there was this period of printing out map quests and holding them on your steering wheel, as like some of us may remember, and I think nobody is like nostalgic for those days.

So I think, you know, the blue sky perspective on it from my part is like the navigation potential and the accessibility potential to finding your way through some of the troves and troves of information that’s out there that can help us make sense of ourselves.

[00:10:08] Eric Miller: That’s a really nice segue into our next question, which is what kind of examples are there of how Maine’s humanities programs connect with communities?

It sounds like AI could potentially be an opportunity while having some baggage and challenges along with it. But Mollie, would you care to elaborate on how the humanities engage with communities around Maine?

[00:10:28] Mollie Cashwell: I’m glad I get to talk first because Samaa is the absolute, like Maine Humanities Council, is the absolute like world class example of this, but I guess from my perspective, I think in Maine specifically, I feel like we’re both lucky and challenged in a lucky, fortunate way.

It’s just something we have to figure out right now, but we have libraries and historical societies and like probably every town maybe so we have such an amazing institutional footprint in Maine communities for things that are dedicated to the humanities, and if they weren’t already there, it’s probably in like 2024 they wouldn’t be created. Maybe not certainly with the geographic spread. So I think it’s an incredible opportunity. And certainly in my work, a big piece of this is to some of these libraries and historical societies have staffs of 10 and, you know, many resources and others are all volunteer, you know, limited hours, limited access.

And so I think it’s a really interesting opportunity to think about what do rural humanities programs look like in some of these communities? And I certainly don’t have answers, but I know that we have a lot of the ingredients. And we’re incredibly lucky for that. So I’m going to leave the rest to Samaa to talk about their work.

[00:11:42] Samaa Abdurraqib: Yeah. Oh, I love this question. I feel like oftentimes the humanities can seem really hard to define. And at Maine Humanities, we often end up saying, you know it when you feel it you know, when you experience it, you leave a program feeling like, oh, I now feel more connected to my community, the people around me, this place I’m in. And I understand more about different ways of life and certain cultural creations that tell us so much about what it means to be human. But, you know, it’s really hard to say that in a, in a nugget soundbite kind of thing. And, you know, one of the ways that I think humanities-based programming helps connect the community is by giving us a sense of place.

And so just as like a bridge to the first question about technology and Mollie, you brought up mapping and it made me think of this great program that was not funded by Maine Humanities, but was that the Curtis Memorial Library. And it was a project by the Pejepscot Portage Mapping Project. It’s a group of folks, some historians, some artists, some Wabanaki folks, and it’s called Two-Eyed Seeing, Moving Through Place and Story at Pejepscot.

And they were looking specifically at Main Street and Brunswick, which is where I live. This is why I found it so interesting, looking at Main Street and Brunswick in particular. And it’s a wide road, if you consider Maine, small-town roads. And they were looking at the, from the Mill to Maquoit Bay.

And they were doing this deep dive history to understand how Wabanaki people used to use that road and why it’s this wide and it, you know, it turns out that it used to be a portage and people used to bring their canoes and all of this history, all this archival work, and they turned it into an interactive mapping tool, which is really cool because you can go to the website and you can learn more about this place and how it was originally used and conceptualized and what settlers turned it into and what we do now.

And I feel like it helps you really get a better sense of the history of a place and of the current use of a place. And I think, you know, all sorts of humanities projects do that all over the state. So connecting to place, connecting to each other. One of our more popular programs that we run is called a discussion project and it’s a facilitated reading group.

People come together, you know, through their organizations or through their community groups and they choose texts to read together. And that’s where we provide them with the books or the texts and we provide them with a facilitator and so they can get to know people that they work with, people that they are sharing space with, wherever they are in all 16 counties and they get to talk with each other about these texts and how they connect to the text and how they see the connect the text connecting to Maine or to the larger world.

I think that the last thing that I’ll say which is really exciting for me, is that even though the humanities can sometimes feel like it’s hard to describe since being in this role or since being, you know, on staff at Maine Humanities, I’ve come to see how organizations that aren’t humanities based organizations that don’t consider themselves doing humanities can do work that is, that does the same work of the humanities and maybe they hadn’t thought of it in that particular way if they’re applying to us for programs or if they’re applying to us for grant funding.

Maybe they hadn’t thought about it in that way or maybe they hadn’t thought about how humanities work and how it can augment the harm reduction work that they’re doing in the communities we’ve funded projects. It’s based out of Lewiston organizations, immigrant-led organizations based out of Lewiston.

It’s a service based organization, but they were doing like a podcast where they were having elders in the community talk with younger people in the community, all of those kinds of things that help augment the work. It’s really exciting to see people engaging with the humanities and all of these ways that make sense to them and to the people that they’re serving or working with. I get really excited.

[00:15:52] Eric Miller: Samaa, so much of what you said resonated with me there. The road piece, like wondering why a road might be a little bit wider is very on brand for Maine. It’s a pretty hysterical observation, but that leads to such a interesting historical context of this, like seemingly innocuous, mundane thing, like a little bit wider road is actually this very significant historical piece of history, and especially the point you made about, you know, when you feel it, and I think there’s something about Maine that tends to resonate a lot in that sensation, that feeling that inspires artists and writers and folks that are either Maine born or come to Maine that have found refuge in a place to connect with nature much of the time, but they’re able to be pensive and articulate their thoughts through whatever medium they decide.

I think that’s something that’s quite unique, makes Maine’s unique culture unique and how do you two see that and how it influences our humanities programs? Samaa.

[00:16:55] Samaa Abdurraqib: Oh, Maine’s unique culture. So one of the things that maybe, you know, Mollie, you and I can go back and forth a little bit if you wanted to, but one of the things that pops up to me right away is our connection to the Canadian border.

It’s not unique to all the states, but right, but unique to many of the New England states. I’m going to be going to Fort Kent in June. It’s going to be my first. I’ve been in, spent time in Aroostook County before, but never that far north. And I’m really excited to go to the St. John Valley. Just the knowledge that border has such a- it is not a border that exists for so many people, Mi’kmaq people in particular.

And just the history of that, that it’s a porous thing, the porosity has shifted once you say that this is a, an official national border, it changes things, but the history of that, Acadians coming across that line to work and to live and to help build the infrastructure of this State, and it makes me think of in 2022, UMaine Fort Kent, they apply for a grant and we awarded them a grant for a project called Voices of the Borderland, the social impact of international travel restrictions in northern Maine.

And it was an oral history project, but it was looking specifically at the impact of the border closing during COVID, how that shifted economy, how that shifted people’s lives. And so I just, I feel like that is very unique to Maine and it’s unique to that region. I don’t think those of us who are in Southern Maine have a full understanding of the complexity or all of what that border means to life in that region and other parts of Maine.

[00:18:33] Mollie Cashwell: You know, my, my mother was born in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Her parents went through the arduous immigration process when she was five. In order to move five minutes away to Calais which is where I was born. And that was always like a very permeable back and forth, almost like a super consistent community.

And I’m sure that was the case in so many other border towns too. And then I think 9/11 was like the real first big break in that. And then as Samaa said, COVID after that, after 9/11, you needed a passport and it was like, what? I need a passport to go to that shop I like over there, you know, and I think that was a really lowercase t trauma moment, I guess, for those communities.

So I, I think this mapping thing is somehow really stuck in my head, but one of the, I think for me personally, something I’m really grateful to the humanities for and the, you know, Indigenous humanities, especially, as to it can’t be said enough how influenced we are by the colonial maps that have been drawn around us.

And that includes obviously the borders of Maine and the 19th century jockeying between certainly not super well versed enough to say anything more specific than that, but it was just like really eyeopening. And as Samaa said, you know, this is something that Indigenous communities live with every day, the arbitrary borders that enclose Maine.

And I think the way that it can really impact us is, you know, another, sometimes in different parts of Maine, certainly in other parts of the country. There’s this idea that America ends in northern Maine or whatever and in northern Maine it’s like we’re like in the middle of an enormous continent, you know?

And some people call it Turtle Island and other people call it like the border between US and Canada. And so I think there’s always been this felt reality on the ground in a way of storytelling, in a way of history telling. That can sometimes be so different from what the official word is, and I think that’s one of the greatest gifts of these rural humanities, if you will, is giving us another way to understand, you know, the different orders, not only between Maine and Canada, but also between our Indigenous nations that we have here, like we can in a single drive, driving day in Maine technically passed through I think, you know, five nations, right? That’s pretty remarkable, I think, to who we are and the stories we tell in the history that we create through our humanities work.

[00:20:55] Samaa Abdurraqib: I think about our coastal culture and our island cultures, and I, in some ways, yes, in some ways, no, might be connected to the Maine as vacation life.

The places where populations swell in the summers, and then they re-stabilize, whatever you want to call it, in the off season. When people come to visit me, or visit Maine for the first time, if we spend any time around any of that, you know, doing the tour of Casco Bay or if we go up to Penobscot Bay.

Just, I always have conversations with folks about the little bit that I know about living on an island and whether or not the island is connected to the mainland. I really love Deer Isle, for example, but I know that life there is very different than, say, Vinalhaven, you know, because there’s a bridge and there isn’t a bridge.

And one of the things that both shocked me to my core when I came here, because I’m a fairly private person and I found it very painful initially, but the thing that Maine is, it creates a certain kind of, culture, I think the way that Maine is so big and yet so small, so population-wise, it is so very small which I think can sometimes create feelings of familiarity from folks who have been here for a bit.

And it can be, it can feel a little hard to get connected when you’re just coming here or you’re just visiting.

[00:22:22] Mollie Cashwell: I want to jump off that about the, this kind of famous thing about Maine culture that I think you summarize really well the friendliness, but then you’re not quite like in you’re from away and then people would like plow your driveway for you but then maybe also be skeptical of you if your license plates are from certain places or there’s like this kind of very inconsistent back and forth about, you know, how we draw the lines around our communities and I feel like it’s getting a little bit better where we don’t really feel the need to flag people as not from here, quote unquote, because they’re from like three towns over, which is something I observed in a conversation like two months ago, right?

It’s but it’s very generational kind of thing. Again, going back to how some, so many of our, the cultural institutions that we rely on today, so many of them are founded by or founded through the philanthropy, for example, of people that are coming to Maine to enjoy it. For part of the year and maybe see a ton of value in it, but, you know, are based in New York or Boston or Philadelphia or whatever.

And people who maybe have roots in that time, obviously people who are quite older now, maybe, but, you know, sometimes remember this sense of much less like us and them. Yes, there were for sure power dynamics and yes, there were like economic and class hierarchies, like zero doubt about it. But you know, I live near MDI and I know that there were, you know, some, one of the mega philanthropists on that island was also part of the volunteer fire department, and that was just like a pretty natural normal thing that would have happened among some people.

So I think that’s always been a big swirling piece of this too, that this kind of mentality about who’s from here, who’s from away, who’s giving back, who’s not. Who’s doing enough, who’s not doing enough. And community engagement is like the phrase of the day for a very good reason. And I think we’re doing maybe a phrase of thinking about how to regenerate a lot of the healthy community relationships that are so required for any kind of future resilience.

[00:24:21] Samaa Abdurraqib: You were right on like the way that what you picked up on and kept going with was right on. But I want to say something else that connects to the second part of the question, which was, how does this influence our humanities programs? So I’ve been in Maine for 14 and a half years. And through most of my nonprofit working life here in Maine. I did often get the message that there were two Maines which meant, you know, there’s, rural Maine, which I think translated into like northern Maine. And then there’s, you know, I suppose it would be urban, but you know, I guess what urban ness looks like here, Maine. I know that not to be true. You know, Maine has shifted the way that I think about rurality and most folks who are coming to visit me from other places, even if they, you know, even if they, like my family, my immediate family is in the Midwest.

You know, we have rurality there, but when they come here it’s a whole different thing. Even the landscape, Aroostook County looks like the Midwest to me. There’s just so many different Maines. Coastal Maine is so different from western Maine and things like rurality look different in all of those places. Things like community, the ways that communities are able to connect looks really different than whether or not there’s like a town center. That shifts how people are able to connect. Poverty looks really different in all the different counties and so I think that there are multiple Maines. What that has meant for us in terms of the way that we do our work is one thing that gets me really excited is abandoning the idea of Portland as the center. This past year, we did our public programs and two of our big public programs in Bangor, which made me so happy because I think that, you know, if you’re running a nonprofit and you’re doing an event, there’s this anxiety about it, but if it’s not important, will they come?

And that’s not true. You know, you have to talk yourself out of that, because Maine is a very big place. And so trying to, you know, abandon that idea in terms of humanities programming. But then also, just, we are getting back into our outreach work. So that we can better understand how communities come together, how people in the mid-coast, how they want to connect, how they’re caring for each other, how can our programs augment what’s already happening.

And so to me it means that you have to go to those places, if you can, to get a better sense of what humanities programming should look like in those places.

[00:26:47] Eric Miller: I’m really glad you’re touching on this because it really is making me think about how you’re getting out and getting into programming and engaging through events in various communities around Maine.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities when you’re trying to expand exposure to humanities around Maine? And what are some of the responses to potential like funding barriers and making sure that humanities programming can keep going in perpetuity?

[00:27:17] Mollie Cashwell: Cam’s work basically is to think about the sustainability and capacity building for, I love this phrase you just said, Samaa. I think it was like understanding the way people take care of each other. And I love that idea as the big purpose of all of this culture making, you know, whether it’s libraries or artists or writers or historians, or, you know, people who are kind of casual enthusiasts of all of those things.

And it is all rooted towards the way we take care of each other. And, you know, when we think about a lot of the arguments for culture relates to creative economy and cultural economy, and that is very true. This literally this morning, I was helped facilitate a meeting that was called together by a town’s economic development director and it was, you know, dedicated to this idea we just did this business attraction plan in our town.

And we know that all of that whether you know attracting biotech, attracting whatever it’s all based on creating a magnetic community that you enter and you look around and oh yeah people take care of each other here. Maybe it’s the mural, maybe it’s like the flower baskets hanging on the bridge, right?

Things we may not necessarily think of as culture, quote-unquote, but it all relates to the culture of the place which is kept vibrant and alive by, you know, all of these types of cultural organizations. How that relates back to the sustainability of those efforts and humanities being really central to that is just making that case and making that clear on a state level and on a local level that just like once upon a time, someone said, Oh, we should probably have clean water.

You know, it’s I think we’re at this moment where it’s like, Oh, we should probably be making sure that as digital connection opportunities and digital streaming opportunities and everything take off, like we’re going to be really hurting if we don’t continue to hold space and fund spaces to hold this fundamental act of caring for each other and understanding each other.

People who are remote workers who don’t know anybody are not going to join the volunteer fire department. And, you know, Netflix and Amazon won’t save us when there’s a fire. So it just all relates to each other so much about the way that we cultivate. I learned this phrase recently like civic love which sounds kind of hokey, but it’s just this like that going back to this, you know, once upon a time mega philanthropist that had so much love for the place, not only through funding, but through joining the fire department, right?

Like those things really matter and they’re actually in danger in a big way. So I would, I’m a hundred percent confident saying that support for the humanities will help our communities with so many other civic challenges. That is not a controversial statement.

[00:30:02] Samaa Abdurraqib: Yeah. And to add to that, Mollie, just a bit, not just civic love, but Maine, even since I have been here, Maine’s population is changing, which is beautiful because Maine for a long time has had the oldest, the most aging population and needs an influx of new folks from all over the place to be able to open businesses and create thriving communities and stuff. So I feel like that is happening rapidly. And so I feel like the humanities also, in addition to the civic love helps people understand each other. And we’ll strengthen communities in that way. I hope that Mollie maybe will say some words about the report that Cam recently did because of the numbers were shocking to me, shocking in a good way, shocking can mean lots of different things.

And I realized people can’t see my face. So shocking, like with mouth open, shocking the numbers, like the numbers of people in Maine who participated in cultural events over some time period. Maybe it was in the previous year and the numbers are really high. This is an opportunity. This is, if we can collate that data and put it all over the place in all the ways, right?

The way that people don’t necessarily sit around defining it, unless it’s their job. They aren’t thinking when they go to the theater, they’re not thinking to themselves oh, I am going to go to a cultural event. I’m going to put a checkmark in the book. I have done something cultural, but the truth is that all of those things, going to the historical society, going to the library.

Going to the, they’re in Oaks Park, there’s like the festival of nations that happens, going to all those cultural events is what helps make life worth living. It is cold and dark here, like how many months out of the year, right? If we didn’t, if we didn’t have cultural events to attend, we would be, where would we be?

Some people like the cold and they like the dark, for sure, but, you know, and so I feel like that’s such a beautiful opportunity to just help more of us, understand and recognize and people who make policy and people who make decisions about funding, you know, both like locally and nationally, the culture that we produce and that we… taken helps make our lives more full and more beautiful. And I think that the challenge in is as Mollie alluded to funding and sustainability, it’s also other things connected to capacity. I know for humanities-based organizations and other cultural organizations, when I think about capacity, it’s always time and money and people, you know, to go back to my previous point for the previous question where I said, you know, if you can, it’s good to be able to travel and go to these communities. But that takes all of those things to be able to do that. Maine is a big state, you know, you have to have folks who work for you who have funding so that they can take their car or they can rent a car to go wherever and spend several days in a place.

And that is really, hard to do. So I think that’s, those are some of the biggest challenges, particularly for some folks who are decision makers and make policy. It can seem like there are other things like the trades is what really helps make life worth living, things that are connected to commerce and those kinds of ways.

So I think shifting the narrative is both a challenge and an opportunity.

[00:33:27] Eric Miller: Yeah, absolutely. It’s fascinating to me how the lack of investment in humanities can be very present in a specific town. It can really set the mood of your experience in that place and how long you’d like to stay. And I think, and we’ll dig into this next question, how there’s this drive within people to engage with the arts and humanities and the cultural experiences and that helps, but it’s hard to capture by nature. It’s hard to capture how meaningful that is in the decision maker context, but it sounds like the Cultural Alliance of Maine has a report that could shed some interesting light and figures onto it.

And how can humanities contribute to an informed and engaged population in addition to having places of engagement through experiencing some cultural event? How can the humanities help engage people with trying to tackle issues, policy issues, such as like social programs, organizing the economy and environmental conditions?

How can the humanities contribute to people’s thinking and the dialogue around these issues?

[00:34:34] Mollie Cashwell: Yeah, I’m happy to start. I had a pretty seismic shift in my thinking and the language that I use around things. I read this document produced by Canada’s national tourism entity called I think visit Canada or something like that.

But anyway, but they released something about the concept of regenerative tourism. And you know, what is behind that is like we talk about sustainable, but how do we design things, you know, the processes, the policies, economies around this concept of being regenerative, right? And you know, the spectrum of like conventional and maybe thinking about things as discrete parts thinking of our lives as machines that if you push a button called tax, and if you push a button called law and you push a button called regulation, everything magically comes together and we know that’s not true.

So from that going towards the sustainable which is managed the status quo don’t make things worse to regenerative right and so this document goes into how the tourism sector which is, as we know, is incredibly crucial to Maine’s not only economy, but as mentioned, our, certainly our cultural sector brings a lot of benefit to the tourism industry and also in turn can benefit from it.

But, you know, how do we design our policy and our strategies around the idea of let’s bring people to a place. And how does their presence there make that place better, not only in the sense of supporting local businesses, but just thinking in this really holistic sense. And so to really bring about that kind of policy shift, not only around tourism, but let’s say around housing or climate, you know, the work of the humanities is to just give language even to talk about stuff.

I think that’s like step one. You need people to be able to have like mental models that allow us to shift our thinking about things. And then we need to explore those together through conversation. There’s a community forums that happen around accessory dwelling units, right? There’s a policy, sounds good.

And then, you know, communities need to marinate on it and they need to think about what do we want our community to look like. Those forms often happen in our libraries, you know, we need to have ways to explain processes to people. The policymaking process alone is incredibly opaque, town meeting, even the materials that we present there can sometimes feel really opaque.

And so I think, you know, the gifts of the humanities, in terms of bringing historical context, bringing language, and then, you know, when you include the arts too, like creating single visuals that help us understand things in a way or visually represent here’s what the housing situation was in 2000. And this is what it looks like in the winter. And then you know you can show how many houses are dark in the winter now, and people don’t necessarily realize that when you say a number of yeah we’re losing housing stock and things are unaffordable. But when you really can create visual, engaging, human scale conversational ways to engage with things, it’s not going to solve everything, but it’s going to give communities the opportunity to actually think about how to change things.

And then, you know, that can hopefully, if you have good elected officials representing you, you know, trickle up into the policy levers and buttons and switches and so on.

[00:37:49] Eric Miller: Samad, do you have anything you’d like to add to the engagement of the general population and how the humanities influence the way we approach issues?

[00:37:59] Samaa Abdurraqib: Yeah, I think Mollie did such a beautiful job. The only thing I can do is really just add some, you know, concrete examples. So I think of, you know, the shorthand way of saying all of the beautiful things that Mollie said is that the humanities adds the narrative, adds the story that helps the numbers, the data settle with us differently.

I think about the climate crisis and there’s a string quartet called Halcyon Music and they’re not the only ones. This is just a great example. They did this project where they interviewed young people about climate resilience. It’s a really beautiful project. They applied for grant funding to Maine Humanities.

This grant that we share with Maine Arts Commission is called an Arts and Humanities Grant. So it’s got some humanities and some arts. So they interviewed young people about climate resiliency, and then they composed a musical and recorded the things that people were saying, really powerful, hopeful, painful things.

And they composed a musical score where they publicly performed the piece. They play the beautiful music and bring in the recordings of these young people. And I’ve seen them parts of it multiple times and the kinds of conversations that come. From just that, you know, then it’s left to the audience to sit with it and feel it and get curious and feel something different about the climate crisis or feel something different about how young people here in Maine are experiencing the climate crisis.

And maybe that can help them spur them into action or whatever comes next. So yeah I, that, just to give a little example of how Mollie said it’s so right on.

[00:39:41] Eric Miller: Sounds like such a beautiful event and such a fascinating way to take on one of the greatest challenges in our time. And it doesn’t all have to be intergovernmental panel, climate change reports and scientists pleading with policymakers and discussion being feeling shallow and full of despair. It can be something else. Mollie, you have anything you’d like to add to that?

[00:40:09] Mollie Cashwell: Yeah, I just want to, I think when we think about policies. And the ways that, you know, voting right is like the classic example of our ability to influence policy, even in an indirect way. You know, in Maine, we have a very direct policymaking action on a local level called town meeting.

But town meeting attendance is so low that it’s like a minority of well-organized residents can influence the budget, the decisions, the policies of their community because, you know, often residents either are not inclined or not able to attend this one off event, you know. And so to the report that Samaa mentioned, you know, we analyzed the census every year does some, I think they call it arts participation information and it’s not just about the arts.

It’s about libraries and outdoor recreation and things like that. But basically, it’s like the leisure activities of the American public. And from that, you can see that in Maine in 2022, 68% of Maine residents engaged in some sort of local cultural activity. So I think when we, if, I guess I should say if, not when, but if we want to make our democratic process, magnetic to participation, the whole civic duty thing, the whole, it’s the right thing to do thing, the whole I voted sticker thing, this is not going to cut it. So I think that’s an enormous crisis and local decision-making is going to be incredibly crucial. You know, it’s which waterfronts are, you know, going to be resilient to incredible storms and king tides and which communities are going to have schools that have access to a whole wide variety of books that kids need in order to make their own decisions and have a free mindset and which ones aren’t. That’s all local decision making. And you know, we’ve designed, we’ve somewhere along the way decided that we need to make all of those things complicated, inaccessible, boring to many people, not everybody. Some of us are very nerdy and love those things or just show up to them because they’re right. But if you probably took an age survey, I think we all know what it would look like at many of those local democratic processes. And there’s a lot of discussion, like how do we get more young people to show up?

And that’s happening in boardrooms. That’s happening in town meetings and town committees, fire departments. So we’ve got to change something. And I think we have to embrace the fact that younger people are just looking for creativity and compassion and inspiration as the driver for how we make decisions.

And I think we’re going to get in trouble if we don’t start to integrate that into our policymaking processes.

[00:42:46] Eric Miller: So it’s interesting the way, finishing up discussing that question, humanities can drive people to pursue their dream job of being an artist or writer, or that’s what so many people say when they’re younger, maybe they change their minds, maybe they don’t, but if they are a younger person, older person, what have you would like to further the mission of engaging in humanities perhaps by profession, by trade, what types of career opportunities are there for students and professionals?

[00:43:18] Samaa Abdurraqib: Eric, so this is actually, I’ll start by, by doing like a, kind of a, did you know there was a circle? The magic of the circle, we’re going to come full circle to thinking about humanities, research, and, and technology, like technological advancement.

So some of this is like fresh on my mind because we have a, you know, Humanities councils across the country and in the US occupied territories, we have an annual convening every year. And this year I’m on the committee that is on the subcommittee that is picking the panels. So many panels about humanities students coming out of college, what kinds of work career opportunities are available.

And it seems like the answer for many of the people who are submitting panels of doing work in the digital humanities and doing work around technology and research around artificial intelligence. So there’s that, but then there’s all of the really impactful and important public-facing careers in the humanities at museums, at historical houses, at historical societies, at libraries.

You know, and I think that some of those things you will need, you know, you may need advanced degrees and some of those things you may not need advanced degrees. We just recently at Maine Humanities, we just recently hired for a community history program. And this person has a degree in history and has spent all of his time since graduating college working in historical societies and working in historical houses and doing tours and because it’s his passion.

And that’s what he loves and loves helping other people connect to history. And so I think that those, all of those careers are out there and available, and there’s just a multitude of pathways to those kinds of public facing careers.

[00:45:05] Mollie Cashwell: Oh my gosh, the career opportunities thing is so fascinating. I think gosh, in 2019, somebody graduating with a degree in like programming was like, world’s their oyster.

And five years later, they’re like, Oh, AI can do everything that I spent four years learning. And I’m exaggerating, obviously, but, you know, there’s, it’s, I feel like we’re going back and forth between career in the arts, what are you going to do with that? And, you know, but I think the technology-proof skills are, you know, the ability to stand in a room and look someone in the eye and listen to them or build trust with them or communicate with them.

You know, there’s, certain types of sense-making that are inherently creative that are not just about analyzing available data. So it’s going to sound like fake given the context of my job and the context of this podcast. But I think humanities are extremely future-proof skill set. They don’t necessarily result in like the series of transactions that give you a paycheck and a pension automatically.

Like you got to find your way. I don’t know what that way is going to be five years from now, because every five years ago, we had no idea what was coming. And I think it’s fair to say right now, we also have no idea what’s coming. But I think that the skill sets that are going to see us through, especially when we enter this world of, in this world, maybe in November, where it’s did that candidate really say that? Or is that a deep fake video? We are in this era of real uncertain information landscapes. So I think this humanities, the human to human sense-making process is going to be like a crucial piece of all of our industries.

[00:46:43] Eric Miller: I think that was a great answer. It’s amazing how technology, it’s touted as something that will universally improve condition of X, Y, or Z, but it can do some of that as well as these other things that are knock-on effects that tend to blur how beneficial it is that technological contribution is to society where the human to human connection is like a recentering re clarification, a re humanization of whatever context is at hand here.

Thank you Samaa for bringing it full circle with bringing technology back into the discussion. Love to hear a couple of thoughts from both of you about your hopes for the future of the humanities in Maine and what you all would like to know about something you’re working on or your organizations are working on as we close out.

[00:47:31] Samaa Abdurraqib: Thinking about technology and outdated thing as it evolves and will be outdated. I agree with Mollie, like the humanities skills will serve us regardless. And if you want to tip into, which I do a lot, post apocalyptic thinking, if all the technology goes away, what do we know from all of the television, all of the books that we’ve read, all of the films that we’ve seen we’re gonna need storytelling.

We’re gonna need people, we’re gonna need culture, like arts and humanities, we’re gonna need traveling people to reenact plays. I recently saw this great performance at the Penobscot Theatre, something called Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Okay, I can’t, I’m not even gonna say anything about it, but we need storytelling, we need traveling people performing things. We are going to need musicians. We’re going to need books. If we don’t have books, we’re going to need, you know, we need… so all of those things for a very long time. It’s the humanities is that the foundation of how we, yes, how we connect to each other, how we communicate with each other, how we make sense of our lives and the lives of others.

So that is the future. More immediate hopes for Maine, at least is that we continue to evolve in terms of our thinking about who the humanities is for and what it looks like to quote unquote do humanities or be engaged in humanities. I think there’s been a lot of shifts. Humanities is not just housed in libraries and museums anymore.

And that’s my hope. And even more locally my hope for Maine Humanities is that we can continue to reestablish, reconnect, or connect for the first time to communities we have not reached before, or communities we maybe had a connection with and no longer have a connection with, and that we can continue to work collaboratively with other cultural organizations to help build a beautiful, soft cultural infrastructure in the state.

[00:49:23] Mollie Cashwell: Yeah, my hope for the future. I attended the event in Bangor, one of the events that Samaa mentioned called The Big Question. And it felt like because of the topics that they brought in, which were not exclusively about the humanities, they were about many things, the feel of it, it felt like something between a family reunion and like a therapy session and really interesting program. I literally cried in one session in the best possible way, but there was a lot of laughter too. When I think about all of the change and technological upheaval, there’s going to be a lot of people that don’t like that change.

There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t like that their jobs that existed don’t exist anymore. There’s a lot of pain, I guess I would say, coming down the pike for one reason or another. Maybe just pain at the transition into a new kind of economy or pain at things just not being the same as they were 20 years ago.

You know, and I think navigating that and making sure that people have a voice and they’re not discarded. You know, one example is if you move from a coal based economy and coal miners are losing their jobs, that’s a net good, but we need to center their humanity in that change. And I think in Maine, any kind of policy or any kind of economic plan that involves a shift in community relationship or the way we care for each other, going back to that, I don’t think it’s a wild idea to say, you know, we should be hiring humanities practitioners to be part of that process.

I think it would be incredibly foolish not to, and I think the January 6th rage is burned into so many of our heads, right? So I think it’s like, how do we have conversations that build trust and build empathy on local scales with people that we’re accountable to at the grocery store and our kids go to school together?

And how do we navigate this? Through those kinds of conversations. There’s this quote that I love that my co director at class shared with me. That she heard somewhere, which is conflict is the soul of a relationship asking to deepen. And so if we can maybe treat incredible conflict in our political system, in our economic visions, in our different priorities, if we can just have the humanities, help us treat that as a request to deepen our relationship with each other and with our communities then we can speak our minds freely and in a healthy way and know that we’re heard and not just need to shout the loudest or have the sassiest political sign on the yard or whatever to get our points across.

[00:51:59] Eric Miller: That’s a beautiful way to close out this conversation. Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk with us and discuss the humanities in Maine.

I hope you all have a wonderful rest of your day.

Our team comprises Barbara Harrity and Joyce Rumery, co-editors of Maine Policy Review. Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. Thanks to faculty associate Kathryn Swacha, professional writing consultant. Maine Policy Matters intern, Nicole LeBlanc, and podcast producer, editor, and writer, Jayson Heim.

Thanks to Nathanael Batson for composing our podcast music. Check out mcslibrary. org to learn more about Margaret Chase Smith, the library and museum, and education and public policy. The Maine Policy Matters website can be found in the description of this episode, along with all materials referenced, a full transcript, and social media links.

You can give our team your topic suggestions and recommendations by filling out the form at the bottom of our webpage. Remember to follow Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Thank you for listening.