Redefining Our Value, Building a Community of Practice

Losang Samten, creating the kalachakra sand mandala duing his residency at the Philadelphia Folkore Project.  Photograph by Laurie Zierer, courtesy Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Losang Samten, creating the kalachakra sand mandala duing his residency at the Philadelphia Folkore Project. Photograph by Laurie Zierer, courtesy Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

This month we continue our occasional series by new leaders of humanities organizations with an article by Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Zierer describes recent projects supported by the PHC and suggests ways they are moving the Council toward greater collaboration and shared inquiry as it seeks to affirm the relevance of the humanities in people’s lives.

By Laurie Zierer, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Humanities Council

Dong Ni Ning Je Dag Ni Chen
Si Sum Kye Tang Chig Ba Me
She Dang She Cha Chig Be Ku
Panden Tulkur La Chak Tse

Homage to the Glorious Kalachakra
Whose nature is emptiness and compassion
Embodying the oneness of the subject and object
Free of birth and death in the three existences

We chanted with Losang Samten in homage to the mandala he had created during the course of week in late March.  There were about sixty of us tightly packed, standing arm to arm, in the first floor of the small house in West Philadelphia that the Philadelphia Folklore Project calls home.  We had all come to help Losang dismantle his miniature map of the cosmos – to brush the sacred sand to the center of this year’s Kalachakra mandala,  one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most complex works of art.  In keeping with Buddhist understanding of the impermanence of all things, we then transported  the sand to the banks of the Schuylkill River, so this body of running water could spread the blessings of the mandala – in this program supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

Losang had returned for his fourth annual visit as part of the Philadelphia Folklore Project’s Folk Arts and Social Change Residencies, which support local artists who explore the relationships between folk arts practices and social justice struggles. Losang is a teacher of meditation and Spiritual Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, who had escaped from Chinese-controlled central Tibet in 1959 with his family and became a philosopher and scholar of Sutra and Tantra in India.  He came to the United States in 1988 at the direction of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama to demonstrate the meditative art of sand painting.  For his public creation of mandalas, Losang has received folk arts awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and Pew Charitable Trust’s Fellowship in the Arts.  When Losang asked that the lights be turned off as he shined an electric lamp that he called his “magic light” on his creation, we stood in anticipation of what was to come, joining with friends and strangers of all ages and backgrounds in this sacred space to honor, to act, to learn, and – in our individual ways – to be transformed by the experience.

Such moments instill a sense of excitement, wonder, connectedness, and agency that are so vital to learning and true dialogue – to meaningfully engage us all in the humanities – in today’s society.  We are at a point of both reflection and anticipation as we consider our forty-year journey as a state humanities council and look to the future with our partners and communities like the one that gathered at Philadelphia Folklore Project.  At the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, we are asking ourselves how we can best build, lead, and learn from a vibrant network of organizations, individuals, and communities across Pennsylvania to make the humanities relevant and valued.  And, we expect to be redefined in the process.

Why embark on such a journey now?  It’s not news that the humanities are grappling with their relevancy.  We find reports of it regularly now in popular magazines like Time and within the academy in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  We’ve seen all the data that only 8 percent now graduate college with a liberal arts degree, compared to 17 percent in 1967.  We have read the reports that states like Florida are questioning the cost of liberal arts education when graduates cannot get jobs and those that do make substantially less than those with degrees in science, engineering, technology, and medicine.

I regularly hear from many teaching at colleges and universities that they are getting the same questions from parents and students – despite the fact that business leaders are pushing back, calling for graduates who have more than technical know-how, who can think critically, collaborate, communicate, and innovate. Within the academy, many worry what will happen to shrinking departments and graduate education programs if they now begin to train students for non-academic careers.  Penn State’s Michael Berube envisions it as “a seamless garment of crisis” where “[i]f you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels.”

In light of these concerns, the journey seems more important than ever for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.  The professional development report that PHC developed in cooperation with the Arts Education Collaborative in Pittsburgh found that area teachers and administrators did not clearly understand what the humanities are and their role in the classroom or in core educational standards.

Neither did they see any opportunities to learn how to incorporate humanities practice in their classrooms. These findings indicate that there is still work to be done to more clearly define what the humanities are and what their role is within the state- mandated Academic Standards for the Arts and Humanities. We know at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council that the humanities inspire us to think critically, creatively solve problems, understand and appreciate cultural differences, become informed citizens, and build a better world for the next generation. They provide the skills and knowledge that Pennsylvanians must master to succeed in work and life in today’s global economy.

J. J. Lendl, teen specialist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Beechview, recruiting teens for the Teen Reading Lounge.  Photography courtesy J. J. Lendl.
J. J. Lendl, teen specialist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Beechview, recruiting teens for the Teen Reading Lounge. Photography courtesy J. J. Lendl.

To demonstrate the relevance and value of the humanities in education, we are building a new model in partnership with the Pennsylvania library community for out-of-school “connected learning” called Teen Reading Lounge.  Connected learning promotes the idea that if students’ interests, extracurricular activities, experiences, and passions are brought into the classroom, they will excel. Teen Reading Lounge uses comics, graphic novels, and fantasy to foster creative discovery outside the classroom and deep learning experiences for teens, who actively create the program with librarians and educators.  The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is the anchor institution for this innovative program, which is being tested now in eight regional branches in collaboration with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Western Pennsylvania Writers Project, a teacher-centered professional development program that works to improve the teaching and learning of writing in schools and communities in eight Western Pennsylvania counties.

Moreover, all our partners – from grassroots arts and cultural organizations like the Philadelphia Folklore Project to universities, museums, history societies, and art galleries – are wrestling with how to make their work meaningful for the public in the face of shrinking budgets and public debates about their relevance.  We believe it’s time to elevate the profile of our sector, building deeper statewide partnerships that can leverage resources and result in statewide policies that more strongly support humanities education in and out of the classroom.  Innovation is key to our case-making, and we see the Pennsylvania Humanities Council leading and learning from a community of practitioners across subject areas who are creatively providing people from all walks of life the essential humanities tools to learn, engage with one another, and build a better future.  And, such innovation is seen in participatory programming like our Teen Reading Lounge and the Folk Arts and Social Change Residencies at the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

The recent collection Letting Go? Shared Historical Authority in a User-Generated World brings together leading innovators in public humanities to talk about visitor-generated experiences – how they can transform our cultural spaces, empower people to tell truths not previously told, and compel cultural organizations to co-create and change our content in an ongoing conversation with our communities.  “[All] people have a narrative role to play in the exploration of human experience,” writes contributor Kathleen McLean. Undoubtedly, such a position creates tension not only for experts and artists but also those audiences used to the lectures and didacticism of the past.  But we will do better, as McLean suggests, to consider our participants not as “novices” but as “’scholars’ in the best sense of the word – people who engage in study and learning for the love of it.”

Together, we need to share in the inquiry, change as new ideas and voices surface, and build communities of on-going learning.   We need to be open for something magical to happen to foster once again the wonder and curiosity that is at the heart of learning and the humanities.

Laurie Zierer, executive director, Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Photography by  Daniel Burke Photography, courtesy Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Laurie Zierer, executive director, Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Photography by Daniel Burke Photography, courtesy Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

My experience at Philadelphia Folklore Project certainly transformed me, as I and others in that tightly-packed room physically joined in the ritual dismantling of the mandala Losang Samten had created during his residency. We used the chakpu – a long narrow metal funnel through which the sand had flowed as he and other visitors created this Wheel of Time  – and small paddles to push the intricately colored sand diagram to the middle of the table. As Losang mixed the now mostly gray sand by hand in a pile, he briefly explained how his creation and dismantling of the mandala was part of his spiritual journey and central to the Buddhist belief in impermanence and how such sand mandalas are used to communicate the experiences of Tibetans and celebrate their cultural heritage in Philadelphia and throughout the world.

As I drove to the banks of the Schuylkill, I knew that those of us who gathered for the dismantling of the mandala had gained – in our own terms – a greater acceptance and valuing of diverse people and ideas.  Importantly, this event was a beginning for the Philadelphia Folklore Project.  It launched an ongoing dialogue with the local community of Tibetans about their journey to America and their folk practices that will culminate in a co-curated exhibition at the end of 2013.  When Losang returns for his fifth annual mandala residency, this exhibition will contextualize his story along with the stories of other Tibetans in the Philadelphia community.  I hope that you will join with us at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council as we redefine ourselves to make the humanities relevant and valued throughout the state.

For more information about the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, go to:

For a look at previous articles in this series, go to:

Laurie Zierer, appointed executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) in November 2012, joined PHC in 1995, and has served in a variety of roles during her years there, including acting director (2011-2012), assistant director (2003-2011), senior program officer (1999-2002), and program officer (1995-1998). During her tenure, she produced the Telly Award-winning television show Humanities on the Road with PCN-TV and Humanities Live with WHYY-TV.  Other special projects have included library book programs for adults and teens, lectures with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, museum interpretation projects, and a call-in radio program on women’s literature. She holds a B.A. from Temple University and an M.A. Penn State, with additional certification in nonprofit management and fund raising.