Last year at the Connell library, an unusual children’s story time took place. Parents and children gathered not only to listen to a storyteller read books like Where the Wild Things Are and Amazing Grace, but also to discuss deep issues like fairness, justice truth, and courage. The program, which has also taken place in Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland, is anything but child’s play: it has been shown to boost children’s interest in reading and encourage more kids to use the library.
Several months later, 30 musicians from the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers of the Tri-Cities entered Hanford’s decommissioned B reactor as part of a celebration of the new Hanford Unit of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and the centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service. The concert was the world’s first performance inside such a space, its towering concrete walls echoing back songs about the Hanford site, which explored themes of war, peace, and scientific achievement.
Similarly poignant and compelling examples of the positive impact of cultural programs, from free talks at public libraries to art education in classrooms, can be found throughout our community, our state and our country. Many of these opportunities were made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Yet last week, President Trump proposed elimination of these agencies and other important cultural programs such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
For those who advocate for more limited government, this may seem like a success. Certainly, we know tough choices have to be made. We also know that this proposal to cut the NEH/NEA (and other important cultural organizations) would do more harm than good.
The NEA and NEH, while based in Washington, D.C., are present in and a very vital part of the local cultural and educational ecosystem in Washington state and the Tri-Cities. Humanities Washington, our state’s NEH affiliate, and ArtsWA, its NEA affiliate, served 9,700 people in Franklin and Benton counties at in-person events in 2016. These programs were created by people in our state, for people in our state and local communities. In the Tri-Cities and the surrounding areas, community events like the Tumbleweed Music Festival, and organizations like Mid-Columbia Libraries, the Benton County Museum and Historical Society, and Columbia Basin College, have benefitted from NEA/NEH support.
What’s more, the majority of Humanities Washington’s work in the state takes place outside of major metropolitan areas. The loss of NEH and NEA funding will hit rural areas, which tend to have fewer cultural resources, the hardest.
Eliminating these federal cultural agencies means important programs designed to build community and alleviate the polarization that is tearing at the American social fabric are at serious risk. In an era when our Facebook feed filters our news and community dialog is reduced to an online comments section, Humanities Washington and ArtsWA, along with an expansive network of libraries, museums, and cultural organizations, create spaces where neighbors can gather to explore their shared heritage and celebrate their culture. The town square is still alive, in many cases it’s just moved indoors.
Beyond community building, these programs contribute to a town’s economy. On average in Washington, every $1 NEA/NEH gives out is leveraged by at least $4 — and in some cases up to $9 — from private sources in local communities.
Another economic consideration is a community’s livability. Cultural programs and the quality of life they provide help businesses attract talent, help a region attract employers with higher-paying jobs, and drive tourism.
And then, perhaps most simply, a community with strong cultural support knows the true meaning of freedom. Thomas Jefferson explained this best: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be."
This administration believes we should rebuild our infrastructure, but infrastructure is more than roads and bridges; it’s the libraries, schools, theaters, and museums — and the performances and discussions that take place within them — that create community.
More about what you can do to advocate can be found at humanities.org/advocate, arts.wa.gov, and at artsactionfund.org.
Justin Raffa is a Tri-Cities-based musician and arts advocate. He is a commissioner of the Washington State Arts Commission, artistic director of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, and chorusmaster of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Justin has also served as a board member with Mid-Columbia Musical Theatre.