Thursday, September 30, 2010

"You have got to lift others as you climb"

-Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole
Celebrating our 30th Anniversary with Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Michel Martin and Vincent Gray

On Thursday, September 23rd the Humanities Council continued its 30th anniversary festivities with a fascinating conversation featuring two prominent Washington scholars and our Distinguished Service to the Humanities honorees – Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole and Peggy Cooper Cafritz.  The discussion, held at Hogan and Lovell's law offices and moderated by NPR’s Michel Martin, focused heavily on issues of race, power, and education – not surprising given the course of this year’s Democratic primary in Washington. The evening included performances by students from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts (co-founded by Cafritz), African drummers from Soul in Motion, and dancers from the National Hand Dance Association.

A long-time advocate for education reform, Cafrtiz began the evening by discussing her reasons for founding the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and how the humanities play a constant role in shaping the school's graduates whether or not they choose an arts career. When she and her co-founder, Mike Malone, first developed the idea for an arts school, the goal was to give DC youth the opportunity to use the arts in the same way that many use sports; as a safe and constructive medium through which to concentrate their talents and energies. Cafritz noted that all great artists have a strong foundation in the humanities; a prerequisite for making their work relevant and enjoyable for a wide audience.

Dr. Cole, who currently serves as the Director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, believes that the humanities are also a means of introspection; they allow us to know and understand ourselves, and how we relate to others. Cole stated that during gala openings at the museum she likes to begin by saying, “Welcome home.” The museum, is “a place that collects, conserves, exhibits, and educates about the visual arts that come from the only place on earth that birthed all of humanity.” Cole suggests that in this way, the arts and humanities can allow people to see themselves as part of a larger world community. Thus the Smithsonian Museum of African Art provides a tangible argument in favor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “World House Concept” in which the civil rights leader outlined a global community that transcended racial, ethnic, and sociopolitical borders.

As moderator Michel Martin pointed out, both honored guests strayed from their assumed or early career paths to pursue lives devoted to the arts and humanities, and thus it is not surprising that both advocated strongly for the inclusion of these disciplines in the development of Washington, DC's youth. Cafritz earned a degree in political science before attending law school at George Washington University, but became famous for her devotion to education and her world-class art collection. Dr. Cole's family owned and operated a successful real estate business, but after attending Fisk and Oberlin Colleges, she decided to study anthropology, a path that was not easy for some of her family to accept. Cole reflected fondly however on her mother's insistence that she “follow her passion,” advice that she has since passed down to her students and proteges.

During a heated election season, it is perhaps not surprising that Martin eventually turned the discussion towards the recently decided mayoral race. Throughout the DC mayoral campaign, polling numbers have suggested that the election was fought largely along racial lines with Adrian Fenty  garnering support from white voters in upper Northwest, and African-American voters favoring Vincent Gray. Peggy Cooper Cafritz reassured the audience that this division is a “now moment,” and not “what truly defines our city.” She insisted that, despite the tensions, the singular focus should be on education. Education is what gives people identity, it is the “great liberator.” Cafritz also believes that improved local media coverage could remedy the District's latent racial divide. When communities of people begin reading about what is happening in one another's daily lives, they cannot help but become more interconnected  and mutually understanding.

Martin wrapped up the discussion by asking both of the honored guests to set the audience to a task aimed at bettering the city and its people. Dr. Cole, looking around the room of successful overachievers implored them each to “go ahead, climb, get more and more famous, but you have got to lift others as you climb.” Cafritz's similarly charged the audience to give the tools of advocacy to as many underprivileged families as possible. While recognizing the importance of education, the humanities, and mutual understanding, both women know there is no substitute for the human connection; people helping people directly.

Adding to the nights excitement was a surprise visit from DC's Democratic nominee for mayor, Vincent Gray. Like Cafritz and Cole, Gray, a long-time supporter of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC,  insisted that the arts and humanities have the ability to bring diverse peoples together, a necessity now more than ever in the District. Gray pledged continued support for the humanities and thanked both Cafritz and Cole for their contributions to quality of life in the city.
The Humanities Council will broadcast segments from the discussion on our Youtube channel over the next few weeks.

For more photos, check out our Facebook album!
For more information on our 30th Anniversary, please visit:
For press coverage and other links, please visit: 

(PHOTOS: The Humanities Council of Washington, DC was honored to be in the presence of our 2010 Distinguished Service to the Humanities Recipients: Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, NPR's Michel Martin, and Chairman Vincent Gray who pledged to continue his support of the Council. Also pictured, Chairman of the Board, Marianne Scott, Executive Director, Joy Ford Austin and the amazing Soul in Motion African Drummers. Photos by LJ Creaations)

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