An impassioned defense of the Humanities in downtown Los Angeles

A record-breaking number of attendees – including a group of humanities scholars from UC Santa Cruz – converged on the 2022 National Humanities Conference last week

From left to right: UC Santa Cruz Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder, Meleia Simon-Reynolds, Markus Faye Portacio, Sharon Kinoshita, literature professor and director of The Humanities Institute at UCSC;  Mary “Miki” Arlen, Kate McQueen, UC Santa Cruz journalism lecturer and director at the Prison Journalism Project, and Laura Martin, Porter College lecturer and project manager at The Humanities Institute. Photos by Dan White.

Rachel Deblinger, former research program manager at The Humanities Institute at UCSC, and Savannah Dawson (Porter, ‘19, history/anthropology), both use the humanities training they received at UCSC in their current jobs at the Modern Endangered Archives Program at UCLA.

USC professor Natalia Molina, author of A Place At The Nayarit: How A Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, enthralled the NHC audience with a talk about the way her grandmother's restaurant fostered community in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Authors Susan Straight and Viet Thanh Nguyen in conversation at the NHC.

While millions of anxious Americans were watching election results, presenters at the National Humanities Conference drew attention to the humanities’ unique power to build coalitions, foster ethical thinking, and consider the shared humanity of people across different cultures.

The NHC drew record crowds at its first in-person conference in three years, held in downtown Los Angeles at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. 

A delegation from UCSC, including Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder, spoke about the strong applicability of humanities-related skills to 21st-century jobs.

In her introductory remarks before the presentation, entitled “Connecting Humanities Undergraduates With Community Projects And Future Careers,” Alinder addressed the fact that college campuses have noticed a steep decline in the number of undergraduate humanities majors in the last few decades. Enrollments have declined in part because students – and often, their parents – worry about getting jobs. 

In reality, training in the humanities gives students a broad range of essential problem-solving and critical skills that employers value greatly, according to the latest figures compiled by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).

Shortly after starting her work at UCSC in the summer of 2020, Alinder helped create a new initiative called Employing Humanities, which includes the newly launched “Humanizing Technology,” a certificate program that provides humanities training targeted to early-career engineering undergraduate students at UC Santa Cruz. 

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under their Humanities Initiatives at Hispanic-Serving Institutions program, the project brings humanistic methods and thinking to contemporary issues in technology and engineering. Humanizing Technology is led by Alinder and co-principal investigators Pranav Anand, professor of Linguistics, and Laura Martin, Porter College lecturer and project manager at The Humanities Institute.

“The goal is to create relevant, resonant humanities classes for non-humanities or STEM majors,” said Alinder.

Life-changing fellowships

Alinder also spoke about the impact of The Humanities Institute’s Public Fellows program, an immersive and competitive internship program that connects humanities scholars with research, programming, communications and other activities at non-profits, companies, and cultural institutions. 

During the panel, former THI public fellows talked about the ways in which their internships changed their lives and influenced their career trajectories. 

Markus Faye Portacio (Kresge, ’22, anthropology and history), had hands-on experience as a THI Undergraduate Public Fellow while serving as a digital archivist for Watsonville Is In The Heart, a community-driven public history initiative to preserve and uplift stories of Filipino migration and labor in the city of Watsonville and greater Pajaro Valley. 

“I am a Filipino-American who grew up in a white-majority city where we didn’t have a lot of exposure to our own history,” Portacio said.

Instead of just turning to history books to fill the empty spaces in his knowledge, Portacio interviewed the descendants of the Manong generation – the first wave of Filipino immigrants to the United States. 

The WIITH team is creating a new archive documenting the plight, struggles, vitality, and resilience of the manong generation of Filipino migrants who first settled in the Pajaro Valley in the early twentieth century. 

During his work for WIITH, Portacio was surprised to learn about his personal connections to some of the people he interviewed. 

“I realized a friend of mine was the niece of someone I interviewed,” he said. “But WIITH also changed my professional life, not just my personal life. Like many undergraduates, I didn’t really have a particular direction when I graduated. Watsonville Is In The Heart focused me.” 

These days, Portacio is seeking archival and museum work while applying for graduate school. 

“In history majors, you don’t get a lot of immersive, hands-on experiences,” said Meleia Simon-Reynolds, co-director of the Watsonville is in the Heart Digital Archive, and a PhD Candidate in UCSC’s Department of History.

“There is a need to fill that gap.” 

Often, internships are stepping stones to fulfilling careers that draw from skill sets that students developed, including interview and research skills. UC Santa Cruz lecturer and Prison Journalism Project director Kate McQueen spoke about former THI fellows and other UCSC students who have worked on the PJP’s newspaper and have used that experience as a jumping-off point for post-collegiate opportunities, including work as a local news reporter in Santa Cruz. 

Preserving history and amplifying voices 

The former THI public fellows touched upon a theme that was emphasized again and again at the conference: those who work in the Humanities have a unique power, skill set, and responsibility to protect, sustain, preserve, and amplify the histories of underrepresented groups. 

Savannah Dawson (Porter, ‘19, history/anthropology) emphasized one of the recurring themes of this conference: a grounding in the humanities prepares students not just for future careers but for rich and fulfilling lives.

“My grounding in the humanities helped restructure my brain,” said Dawson, who attended the conference. “Diving into ancient humanities and thinking about how people developed societies, I realized that the people I was studying were just like us.”

Dawson now works at the Modern Endangered Archives Program at UCLA, which aims to digitize archival material that would otherwise be lost, including print, photographs, and audio recordings from all over the world, and make these items accessible to the public.

A grants specialist, Dawson worked closely with MEAP director Rachel Deblinger, who also received an immersive education in the Humanities at UCSC. Deblinger served as the research program manager at The Humanities Institute at UCSC, and was also the director of the Digital Scholarship Commons.

Sustaining this theme, Natalia Molina, an acclaimed scholar, author, and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, gave an opening plenary speech about her grandmother’s generation of immigrants who left west-central Mexico and settled in Los Angeles. 

 Many of those immigrant stories have not been well preserved. But Molina, distinguished professor of American history and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, realized that Nayarit, a beloved Mexican restaurant that her grandmother Doña Natalia Barraza opened in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood in 1951, was a rich source of family and regional history, and an inspiring example of “placemaking.”

 More than a restaurant, it was a place that fostered community. 

“Nayarit was where people ate, drank, argued sometimes, and made up,” said Molina, whose new book is A Place At The Nayarit: How A Mexican Restaurant Nourished A Community. “This is what I mean by place-making. If we look at its history, we start to see a city not as city planners envisioned it but as people actually occupied them.”

“We all have places like this in our communities,” Molina said. “We urgently need to preserve their histories as they change with gentrification and wealth-ification,’’ she said. “This is a call to tell those stories – to share your stories.” 

A storyteller’s job

The authority and responsibility of storytellers came up again during an on-stage conversation between Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, and a professor at the University of Southern California, and the writer and UC Riverside professor Susan Straight. 

Nguyen was a Vietnamese refugee who came to America when he was four. In his talk – the annual Capps Lecture at the NHC – he spoke of art’s unique power to promote understanding of cultures that readers may know nothing about.

When he was younger, he often idealized the lives of people in far-off New York while wondering if anyone would ever want to hear the story of an immigrant who grew up in San Jose – not realizing he would one day have the power to share that story with millions of people.

“What I ultimately learned was the importance of the story itself,” Nguyen said. 

“When I was a little boy in the San Jose Public Library, I never read about someone like me in those books. The people who were writing these books probably never thought a Vietnamese refugee boy would read them.”

“Should they have thought about that?” Nguyen continued. “I don’t think so. When I write my books, I don’t think about whether this book or this story will need to be translated or interpreted for someone who has no relationship to me or the Vietnamese people. My obligation is to tell the story with absolute honesty, artistry and truth. 

“The story will reach all kinds of people, and I take great inspiration from that,” Nguyen said. “As much as we want the story to be about us, we also need stories that are not about us.”