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How to Get Funding for Public History

In an age of budget cuts, how can public history programs emerge victorious in the continuous struggle for funding?

By doing what public history does best, says Paul Ortiz, associate professor of history at the University of Florida and director of the Samuel Proctor oral history project: sending students out into local communities, building bridges, emphasizing hard skills, and above all aggressively advocating for resources.

“We've made the argument to administrators,” he said Thursday in a session at the American Historical Association annual meeting, “that public history is actually a STEM field of sorts, because students learn skills about social networking, writing, researching, and audio/visual production.”

Ortiz was a presenter at a panel entitled “Public Universities and the Need to Rethink Public History,” where he discussed, along with his co-panelists, the various public history initiatives at his school and successful strategies to get funding and expand public history programs.

Ortiz's department at the University of Florida released in October Siempre Adelante a feature-length documentary on the lives of Latin American immigrants in Alachua County, Florida, which received funding from both local and national grants and significant support from the community in and around Gainsville. Students were heavily involved in the production.

Jennifer Brier, who teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago, takes a different approach. Her Chicago history project, History Moves, is still on the drawing board, but has received nearly $60,000 in funding. The concept is disarmingly simple: a public history project on wheels, likely housed in a converted cargo container. The project will document the history of segregation in twentieth-century Chicago.

“We aligned ourselves with practicing artists” in developing the design for the [mobile] installation, she said. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has been a proponent of the concept of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics).

Students also played a critical role in assembling artifacts for the installation, Brier added, and have been a critical entry point for academics to engage with the local community.

Ironically, students at regional campuses like UIC or land-grant universities like the University of Florida are in many respects better situated for public history work than students at more elite institutions, because they often have deeper connections with the local community. Professors benefit from this situation as well, because students give them a point of entry into communities that would otherwise be suspicious of their motives and methodologies.

Local public history work also gives universities an opportunity to come to terms with past discriminatory policies. Florida, as a one-time “all white, male, Protestant university,” has had a difficult time connecting with the African American community, Ortiz said. The oral history program “went directly to the Office of the Provost and said that we need to invest in a project interrogating this. We asked for funding for it. And believe it or not, we got the funding.”