Cleveland Humanities Festival Explores the Topic of Immigration

click to enlarge Former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
The second annual Cleveland Humanities Festival will leverage dozens of the area’s most vibrant cultural, educational, and arts institutions to explore the theme of immigration.

Beginning on March 15 and running through April 2, the festival’s wide variety of programming will use the humanities as a lens to explore “the challenges and opportunities caused by the movement of people.”

The festival is organized by Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, yet the center serves only as a coordinator to highlight theme-inspired programming at some of the region’s vibrant landmark institutions and organizations, including theatrical and musical performances, lectures, exhibitions, symposia, tours and films.

“This is a cultural hub the likes of which you don’t find in very many places, especially in this country,” the center’s director, Dr. Peter Knox, says in a recent interview, “We’re privileged in ways that many other communities in the United States are not. There’s a lot to work with here.”

Through partnerships ranging from the Cleveland Museum of Art to the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage to the Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Public Libraries, the Baker-Nord Center presents collaborative and largely free programming throughout the festival that relates to each partner institution’s usual work.

“The idea is to engage the community, not simply the university,” Knox explains. “These are all institutions that work the festival theme into their regular programming. They do what they do best.”

At noon on March 23, the Cleveland Museum of Art will feature a talk about immigrant photography by the museum’s curator of photography, Barbara Tannenbaum. At 6 p.m. that same day at the Maltz Performing Arts Center, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the renowned Harvard historian and host of PBS’ Finding Your Roots, will deliver the Baker-Nord Center’s keynote address on the topic of ancestry.

At 5 p.m. on March 27 at Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Play House co-sponsors a conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, Justine Howe, from Case’s Department of Religious Studies and Robert Barry Fleming, Associate Artistic Director at the theater.

Other notable speakers include author and anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer, who speaks at noon on March 24 at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Peter Balakian, who speaks at 4:30 p.m. on March 24 at Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University, and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who speaks at 5 p.m. on April 3 at Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University. At 7 p.m. on April 5, the Cleveland Museum of Art, will host Indian-American graphic novelist, Nidhi Chanani, who will give a lecture.

While events cover global topics and reach back to ancient times, Knox presumes that Cleveland and its contemporary issues will also be central to discussion – and for good reason.

“There are a lot of challenging questions about the present state and future condition of the city that are affected by how we think about immigration as a cultural and social phenomenon, and how we treat it as a public policy... If this renaissance is going to continue, it’s going to need an economic engine to power it and people to drive that engine. Who are they going to be?

At the same time, there are large parts of this city that are not experiencing this renaissance. What’s the rationale for investing resources towards attracting immigrant or refugee populations versus investing those resources in parts of the city that are here and the people that have been here? How do you balance those needs?”

Knox believes that the humanities – especially by opening them up to a wider audience and communities through public humanities – are vital to addressing these questions and reinforcing some of the fundamental elements of civil society.

“I think we’re seeing the impoverishment of public discourse, an absence of historical perspective, a failure of empathy on the part of one person to another,” he suggests, “These are some of the virtues and skills that you learn in the humanities. When you apply them to serious problems of common interest, we all learn from it. Hopefully, people come to our festival and walk away thinking that they’ve heard some interesting ideas, started thinking about things they weren’t thinking about before or in ways they hadn’t before, and this energizes them to be more engaged on this issue and take advantage of the resources we have here. If it means you go to museum one more time that you otherwise would, I think that’s great for the community and us as a society.”

The Cleveland Humanities Festival runs from March 15 to April 24, with core events running from March 23 to April 2. The majority of events are free but require registration. To register for events and view a list of participating institutions, visit the website at
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