Editor: Since the dawn of the Scientific Age, the world – the western world in particular – has looked to science to solve problems. In many areas, science has met the challenge: In medicine and health, in agricultural productivity, in communications, in transportation, to name just a few. Our lives are immensely better thanks to scientific advances.
But not all human problems are amenable to scientific and technological solutions. As the world’s population heads towards an estimated 10 billion by 2050, it is becoming clear that humanity’s greatest challenges may come in how we relate to each other – within our local communities and nations, as well as globally.
Science offers no solutions to intolerance and prejudice. Technology cannot address fear and greed. Empathy and understanding cannot be delivered in a pill.
October is National Arts & Humanities Month, a celebration of those areas of life that enrich our existence and transform our souls – poetry and theater, literature and history, music and art. Robotics and artificial intelligence are destined to become entrenched in our daily lives. But while you may be able to teach a robot to recite a poem – or even to write one – no robot ever will be moved to tears by a poem.
Some experiences will remain humans-only.
But the arts and humanities are not just about enjoying life and enriching our souls – as immeasurably valuable as that is. They also offer ways to address those very human problems that are not amenable to scientific fixes.
For more than 40 years, Virginia Humanities – the commonwealth’s humanities council – has been helping Virginians engage with one another, share their stories, celebrate their cultures, cuisine and music, and empathize with each other’s struggles. The work Virginia Humanities does is simultaneously difficult and exhilarating, painful and uplifting.
Consider a project Virginia Humanities currently is conducting in Arlington and five other communities, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
This project – called “Changing the Narrative” – focuses on Virginia’s fraught racial history by creating opportunities for Virginians to share, listen, and discuss our history in ways that promote understanding, not only of how we are different, but of our shared humanity.
The goal of “Changing the Narrative” is to cultivate a more inclusive narrative in which all Virginians feel valued.
Much of this work centers on the Arlington neighborhood of Halls Hill/Highview Park, once a thriving African American community living under the harsh strictures of Jim Crow laws.
As more white people moved to Arlington in the 1930s, the county built a wall around Halls Hill, sections of which still exist, to keep its residents “in their place.” But they persevered, many becoming professionals, teachers, and government workers.
As part of the “Changing the Narrative” project, Wilma Jones, a local historian and author who grew up in Halls Hill, has developed a walking tour of the area, conducted programs in Arlington’s middle schools, and on Nov. 13 will host an event at Virginia Hospital Center.
One of the highlights of this event will be a performance by Arlington middle-schoolers who learned the history of the neighborhood and then wrote lyrics to traditional Virginia Piedmont Blues songs that they will play on cigar-box guitars they built themselves.
Working with local partner Challenging Racism, the “Changing the Narrative” project is also conducting community conversations (all free, all public) on racial redlining in Arlington, an issue that still resonates as our county faces a housing crisis.
And thanks to a grant from Virginia Humanities, Arlington’s prominent youth theater (Encore Stage & Studio) is developing and producing an original play focused on Arlington’s African-American voices, incorporating both historical and modern narratives. Challenging Racism is also helping with this project by providing facilitators to work with Encore Stage’s youth cast. The show will premiere in 2020 on Martin Luther King Day.
These are just a few examples of the ways Virginia Humanities, like similar state councils across the nation, has been creatively working to help address the human challenges that will only increase as our planet becomes more connected and interdependent.
During the month of October, I encourage you to learn more about our state humanities council (VirginiaHumanities.org) and to take some time to reflect on, participate in and celebrate the contributions of the humanities and the arts.
William Mark Habeeb, Arlington
Habeeb lives in Arlington and is adjunct professor of global politics and security in the graduate program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has been a member of the Virginia Humanities board of directors since 2016.