By Michael Bielawski
Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup has been appointed as the new executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, becoming only the third person to hold the position in 44 years. He replaces Peter Gilbert, who retired after 16 years.
The primary roles of the organization include reading programs and public speaker events. One of their cornerstone programs is called “Vermont Reads.” The council promotes books with social and historical significance for communities to share and teach in schools and colleges.
“We are on one side a literacy organization working with young people from age zero right up through high school and college,” Ilstrup said. “Our primary programs in that area are called ‘Never Too Early.’ We’re teaching early care education providers basic literacy tools to work with very young kids. Teachers can get continuing education credits for it, they can get extra points on their [assessments] with the state by participating in these trainings.”
Before joining the council, Ilstrup was chief operating officer for VTDigger and spent 10 years at the Vermont Community Foundation working with donors and nonprofits. As with his new job, he said that work included doing a lot of community outreach to garner support, including grant writing and other fundraising.
Part of a large national organization, there are Humanities Councils in all 50 states and six territories. In addition to local funding, about half the support comes from the National Endowment for Humanities. Ilstrup said one of his goals is to expand the local support.
The Montpelier office is next to Union Elementary School and has nine full-time employees, and it also contracts with scholars and trainers who help with the various programs.
One such program is called “Reading Frederick Douglass,” which explains what Independence Day means for African-Americans.
“It’s a public reading of a lecture that he gave well over 100 years ago about what it means for African-Americans to celebrate the Fourth of July,” Ilstrup said. “It’s been a powerful program and grown over the years that we’ve been doing it.”
History is one popular topic, but Ilstrup said the council covers a wide spectrum.
“We work broadly across the humanities field within literature, drama, poetry, history, and religion. Civics is a particularly big topic right now, including journalism and First Amendment issues. We have nine lectures over the next year for a project called ‘Data and the Informed Citizen.’”
Ilstrup said another signature program is called the “First Wednesdays Lecture Series,” in which the council works with nine libraries that each do eight monthly lectures from October to June for a total of 72 lectures a year.
The council also manages 14 camps around the state for students who are having a challenging time in the conventional classroom setting.
“Kids who might be having a hard time in a traditional classroom setting can come and spend a week with the humanities teachers from their school doing a whole different modality of learning around reading,” he said. “They typically come back with a much more improved sense of themselves and greater interest in humanities topics.”
Another big event on November 16 features Ibram X. Kendi, professor and director for the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University as the keynote speaker for the council’s fall conference at the University of Vermont.
Juggling all these programs and projects while working on public outreach, Ilstrup was asked what the biggest challenges are.
“The challenges are the same as what Vermont faces as a whole,” he said. “There’s a lot of nonprofits that compete for people’s attention and dollars, it’s all very competitive.”
When asked if he will stick around as long as his predecessors, Ilstrup said time will tell.
“It’s big shoes to fill…we’ll see,” he said. “I don’t have any reason to think that I wouldn’t be, we certainly talked about that. But it is a place that people stick with, and I think it’s become a real institution in Vermont both for the people who work with the organization directly but also for the people who come to our programs.”
Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for The Bridge. He can be reached at email@example.com.