Sitting in her new office in the old Trenton Trust Building, Carin Berkowitz looks out over West State Street and thinks about the American Revolution.
“I brought my kids here for the Battle of Trenton reenactment,” she says, referring to the annual Patriots Week commemorations in December. “It was so great. Usually when you think about battles from that time period, you think of big, open fields with lines of people standing and looking at each other. But to see how it transpired within a city is a really interesting and different way of understanding early warfare. It gives you an opportunity to consider what has changed over time.”
In her new role as executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH), Berkowitz has many opportunities to consider change and to help chart the course humanities education and practice will take in the years to come. Berkowitz was unanimously selected to head the NJCH in October. She leads a small but eager team of five professionals from the sixth floor of the 90-year-old bank building at West State Street and Chancery Lane.
Kiki Jamieson, NJCH Board of Trustees chair, calls Berkowitz “an effective and energetic advocate for the humanities and their importance to a successful and diverse community.” Berkowitz succeeds David Miller, interim executive director, and Briann Greenfield, who departed in June to head the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
Originally from Chicago, Berkowitz, 38, is the daughter of a lawyer and legal recruiter father and a homemaker-turned-librarian mother. She earned a B.A. in English from John Hopkins University in 2001 with a minor in the history of science, medicine, and technology. She earned a master’s in 2005 and doctorate in 2010 in the history and philosophy of science at Cornell University.
Her dissertation, “The Aesthetics of Anatomy: Visual Displays and Surgical Education in Early Nineteenth-Century London,” won the American Association for the History of Medicine’s Shryock Medal for the best graduate student paper in the history of medicine.
In 2010 she became associate director of the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, a division of the Science History Institute (SHI) in Philadelphia. She mentored doctoral fellows, directed public lectures and conferences, and assumed the directorship in 2013.
She also taught at the University of Pennsylvania and received awards from the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (now known as the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine) and the National Science Foundation.
Prior to arriving in Trenton, Berkowitz had assumed the directorship of the Center of Historical Research, another component of the SHI. She lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, with her husband, two children, and three rescue dogs and is active with several national associations relating to science history.
“My own work explores the intersection of art, anatomy, and religion in the 19th century,” she says, “and I still do a little work in this area, in particular in art and anatomy, when time permits.”
Challenges Facing the Humanities
One of the challenges facing Berkowitz at NJCH is to educate the public not only about the role of humanities in an informed society, but also to explain what the humanities are and why they matter. This is no easy task. Merriam-Webster defines the humanities as “the branches of learning (such as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) nd social relations (as in anthropology or economics).” On its website, NJCH offers its own nearly 300-word definition. But while definitions may vary, it is clear what the humanities are not.
“We hear so much about STEM today, especially in the schools,” Berkowitz says, referring to the push for career preparation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. “I would like to see the humanities promoted in the same way. I would argue that STEM disciplines only really work well when complemented by humanities.” In particular, ethics — a part of the humanities — is also integral to STEM subjects, she says.
According to the new director, the humanities are more than the study of history, philosophy, and the arts, though those are important subjects. “At the core,” she says. “It’s how we try to understand other people’s thoughts and where they are coming from.”
History, literature, and the other humanities “help us see the world from other people’s perspectives. At times, it requires stepping outside of ourselves, shedding our own point of view for a moment,” so we can really understand where another person or cultural viewpoint is coming from. In a sense, NJCH complements the work of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts in recognizing and supporting cultural expression and societal understanding at a statewide and local level.
This sense of inclusiveness permeates Berkowitz’s enthusiastic description of the humanities and her new role as an advocate and leader. The words “diversity” and “community” appear time and again as she describes her plans for helping NJCH achieve its goals.
What does NJCH offer?
NJCH was founded in 1972 as part of the mission of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Today there are 56 councils, covering every state and territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands.
New Jersey’s council runs three major programs: Grants, Humanities To-Go, and Humanities Lab. These programs embrace a new vision of humanities that links cultural ideas to practical, community-based outcomes.
The Grants program provides support for nonprofits to develop meaningful humanities programs for audiences throughout the state. NJCH recently awarded $45,000 in incubation grants to nine organizations statewide. One example is the African American Cultural Collaborative in Trenton. The collaborative will use its $5,000 grant to host public gatherings to collect community input about new educational programming on the African Diaspora. In addition to the celebratory aspects of the project, developers are working on an analytical and historical foundation that provides depth and context to the program.
The Humanities To-Go program includes the council’s largest offering, the Public Scholars Project. More than 100 scholars are available through this program to provide lectures throughout the state on topics as diverse as recent Supreme Court cases, animal rights, and suffrage and anti-suffrage movements. The current, leading-edge expertise of these scholars is no longer limited to the lecture halls of prestigious universities, but can be hosted at local libraries and community centers.
The Humanities Lab offers collaborations that result in programs that suit the needs of individual communities. An example is Black & Blue Together: Color, Perceptions, and Policing, a seminar for law enforcement professionals and youth that encourages both to better understand each other’s perspectives.
The Black & Blue Together seminar consists of five two-hour sessions that take place one afternoon or evening per month for five months. Ten to 15 young people and two to five police officers participate in an intimate conversation space. Each seminar is led by a humanities scholar trained in moderating difficult conversations.
“Black & Blue is run by Jason Allen, our director of community engagement,” says Berkowitz. “We offered it in Jersey City, Paterson, Bridgeport, and this year, Trenton. We match a couple of police officers with a group of youth already well known to us. They may be members of a youth group or have a history of engagement with the court system. We see them as potential allies, but that is not the reality of the world today. We are trying to change that reality.”
Berkowitz hopes not only to measure the success of the program through an initial evaluation, but possibly with follow-up surveys for a number of years after individual programs end.
Funding the Enterprise
A fourth area of focus not on the official list of NJCH programs is advocacy and lobbying. With a budget in the vicinity of $1 million a year, the NJCH gets more than 90 percent of its funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “We would like to see that (percentage) shift,” says Berkowitz, who acknowledged that the partial government shutdown (at the time of this interview) has had a definite impact on NJCH funding and would get worse over time were the shutdown to continue.
“We are a nonprofit, actively engaged in raising our own funds,” she says. Most of that now is through partnerships and services (space, volunteers, materials, etc.). “When the state councils were established, it was thought that the federal dollars would serve as a kind of incentive for local governments, individuals, and organizations to get involved.”
Still, there is hardly a corner of the Garden State that doesn’t have some positive impact made by the NJCH. “People are amazed when they look at our calendar and see all the events and activities in their area,” Berkowitz says.
Looking to the future, Berkowitz envisions a role of growing importance for the humanities in every aspect of human life. “Our strategic plan puts at its core celebrating a diverse society in New Jersey and also helping everybody participate in that society, in our civic and public life. In the coming years you’ll see exciting programming in specific areas. For example, under the theme of environmental programming, we may focus on water. And for the centennial of the suffrage movement next year, a theme of women in public life.” Even the most basic humanities disciplines have much to teach us about managing crisis and change in today’s world.
Despite uncertain times for nonprofits, especially in the governmental sector, the NJCH believes there is a growing understanding of the role of humanities in the lives of people and communities. New Jersey’s unique cultural and historical role, the importance of Trenton, Princeton, Bordentown, and other cities central to the founding of this country, all remind us that we have in common a great heritage and an even greater promise for the future.
For Carin Berkowitz, it’s an exciting time to be driving that future change.
New Jersey Council for the Humanities, 28 West State Street, Suite 6, Trenton. Carin Berkowitz, executive director. www.njhumanities.org.