Last year Spokane’s Tod Marshall was chosen as Washington’s fourth Poet Laureate, and the news was a source of pride for the community. Since then Marshall has driven thousands of miles across the state – often through extreme weather – to serve children, elders, veterans, immigrants and more at libraries, schools, community centers and other venues.
Marshall has crafted poetry with young children that helps them to articulate the pain of living in families broken apart by substance abuse. He has helped a veteran find language to describe the trauma suffered during service abroad. Young inmates have described to him how writing poetry increases their sense of self-worth and inspires them to work harder to improve their lives. These are only a handful of moments out of thousands Marshall has experienced in the last year.
Across Spokane and Spokane County, hundreds of children and their families participate each year in Prime Time Family Reading. Says one librarian: “Prime Time helps gives parents the skills to approach books with their kids and talk about the story together. They discuss their lives, their thoughts, and their relationships as a family. Those skills build stronger readers and stronger communities in our rural and low-income areas, and make a difference that lasts long after the program is over.”
These programs, and so many others in Spokane and beyond, are funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities through their state affiliates, ArtsWA and Humanities Washington.
Yet in his draft budget, President Trump plans to eliminate the NEA and NEH, and with them, support for programs like these.
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. Humanities Washington and ArtsWA serve over 70,000 people in Spokane and the surrounding areas via in-person events and media programs. These programs were created by people in our community for people in our communities via partnerships with many local organizations.
What’s more, the majority of that work takes place outside of major metropolitan areas like Seattle. In Spokane alone, not to mention the rural areas immediately surrounding it, NEA and NEH have impacted such organizations as Spokane’s city and county libraries, Spokane Symphony, KSPS Public Television, KPBX Public Radio, Get Lit!, the Northwest MAC, Spokane International Film Festival and so many more.
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 dialogue 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 economic vitality. On average in Washington state, every $1 NEA or NEH gives out is leveraged by at least $4 – and in some cases up to $9 – from private sources in local communities. Further, cultural programs and the quality of life they provide boost local economies. They help local business attract talent, help our region attract employers that provide well-paying jobs. Cultural programs also drive local tourism.
In addition, and perhaps most simply, a community with strong educational and cultural values knows the true meaning of freedom. Thomas Jefferson said it well when he said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”
Certainly, there are many pressing challenges for our country right now. Health care, hunger, jobs and so much more. However, it is important to feed the mind as well as the muscle. . The humanities and the arts endowments enable us to do exactly that with a minimal per-taxpayer investment of less than $1 per year.
Yes, cutting the NEH and NEA would slightly reduce the federal budget. But that savings pales in comparison to what we would lose as a community, state, nation and people.
More about this issue and what you can do to advocate can be found at humanities.org/advocate, arts.wa.gov, and at artsactionfund.org.
Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak is a professor in Spokane and a trustee of Humanities Washington. Ginger Ewing is executive director of Terrain and a commissioner for the Washington State Arts Commission/ArtsWA.