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Center for Lowell History/ 2019

Shifting Gears


by Stephen W. Nissenbaum

I arrived on the Foundation board in 1985, roughly in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president. By the time my first board meeting had adjourned, I knew what the work of the members was to entail. We would carefully assess and then forcefully debate the merits of 25 or 30 proposals, and agree to fund perhaps ten of them. I took immense pleasure in reading proposals that came from so many disciplines and were set in such an array of venues, from housing projects to college campuses to state prisons. This would always remain the work I found most deeply rewarding. I relished one of the enduring tensions we regularly faced: between what we somewhat vaguely termed “humanities content” and “advocacy” (read ideological commitment). It was ever my conviction that these two things could live together and flourish.

By coincidence my first board meeting also marked the arrival of David Tebaldi as the Foundation’s new Executive Director. From the start, David gently prodded us to begin staking out strategic positions. Within two years, we had launched the first large-scale project conceived and implemented by the Foundation itself —“Shifting Gears: The Changing Meaning of Work in Massachusetts, 1920-1980.” This project placed humanists in Heritage State Parks in five of the Commonwealth’s most depressed cities—Fall River, Gardner, Holyoke, Lawrence, North Adams—and in the Blackstone River Valley. The humanists worked with community members (many quite elderly by then) to create powerful ways to explore and express the memory of their collective experience. Conceiving and coordinating this ambitious project involved many Foundation members in new kinds of tasks, and it offered MFH enhanced visibility and a new sense of control.

“Shifting Gears” was the first of a number of Foundation-conducted projects. It set the precedent of cooperation with (and added funding from!) agencies such as the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Department of Environmental Management, and the state legislature. Indeed, by the end of the 1980s we were systematically seeking new sources of revenue in an effort to undertake more initiatives, and in the process to wean ourselves from abject dependence on the uncertain fortunes —and policies —of the NEH.

By the time my term ended, in the waning months of the first Bush presidency, the Foundation had come to redefine its strategy, and my work. At my very last meeting as a board member in 1992, the Foundation voted to hire a professional fund-raiser. And here, for the first time, I found myself hesitating. The minutes of that meeting show that mine was one of only two votes in opposition. I feared that the money quest would tip the precarious balance of our mission. In what may have been my final words as a member of the MFH board, I pleaded that we seek instead “the moral equivalent of fundraising.”

To this day, I’m not sure whether I was right or wrong. But one thing is clear: surely here was a worthy question, one that presented in new form the perennial tension that pitted “advocacy” against “humanities content!”

Stephen W. Nissenbaum is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He served on the Foundation board from 1985 to 1992 and as Chairman from 1987 to 1989.

Click here to view the Shifting Gears oral histories on the Internet Archive.