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Philanthropy Chat: Janet Camarena Interviews Ralph Lewin of the California Council for the Humanities

San Francisco, CA
October 10, 2007

Listen to the audio recording »

Philanthropy Chat is a new online audio series featuring interviews with West Coast grantmakers and other philanthropy and fundraising experts, conducted by Janet Camarena, director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco library/learning center. For this pilot edition of Philanthropy Chat, Ms. Camarena interviewed Ralph Lewin, associate executive director for the California Council for the Humanities, to discuss the Council's current grantmaking programs, how the Council is integrating new media technologies into its grantmaking, and tips for artists who plan to approach the Council for support.

Ralph Lewin Ralph Lewin serves as the associate executive director of the California Council for the Humanities and oversees their statewide program. He has held many responsibilities at the Council, including opening the San Diego office where he directed an award winning cultural program. Active in several nonprofit organizations, Mr. Lewin is an advisor to Poets and Writers, is a co-chair for the Northern California Grantmakers Briefings Committee, and is a past board member of the California Studies Association. Mr. Lewin has served as a consultant to the California Civil Liberties Education Fund and the California Trust for Cultural and Historic Preservation. He is also a three-time winner of the international "Idea Prize" from the Koerber Foundation of Germany for his work to foster understanding between people.

To contact Ralph Lewin directly, please e-mail:


Janet Camarena: Greetings. This is Janet Camarena, director of the Foundation Center San Francisco office, with a pilot edition of Philanthropy Chat, the Foundation Center San Francisco's new online interview series, featuring one-on-one interviews with grantmakers and philanthropy and fundraising experts. For those of you not that familiar with the Foundation Center its mission is to strengthen the nonprofit sector by advancing knowledge about US philanthropy. Programs like this are just one of the ways in which we accomplish this mission. And we invite you to take advantage of our other onsite and online programs.

Joining me today for our first Philanthropy Chat is Ralph Lewin, associate executive director at the California Council for the Humanities. The mission of the California Council for the Humanities is to foster understanding between people and encourage their engagement in community life through the public use of the humanities. I recently learned that the Council is working to integrate new media technologies into its grant making programs. So it seemed fitting that, as the Foundation Center is also exploring ways to deliver our services through new media, that we launch this regional Philanthropy Chat series by featuring a grantmaker that is also in the process of experimenting with new media. Additionally, the Foundation Center is celebrating Funding for Arts month during October. So, given the scope of the Council's grantmaking, and that fact that we're offering a variety of online and onsite services to individual artists and arts organizations, there will be great interest among this segment of our audience to learn what's new at the California Council for the Humanities.

So, Ralph, let's start with an aerial view of the California Council for the Humanities. Give us an overall inventory of the Council's activities and programs, and how the Council might play a role in supporting the different kinds of artists and arts organizations who use the Foundation Center services.

Ralph Lewin: Right. Sure, Janet. Thanks a lot for including the California Council for the Humanities in this, I think, important program, and in recognition of Arts Month. Let me start off by giving you kind of a Reader's Digest version of who we are. The Council was established in the mid-70s as a nonprofit organization. We were established by the National Endowment for the Humanities when they realized, in their wisdom, that it would be hard to get people involved with the public humanities in all the different states and territories from Washington, D.C. So they set us up and we began as a grantmaking organization. And I think the impulse behind the California Council for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Humanities is the belief that the humanities are critical to our democracy, a knowledge of history, a knowledge of literature, philosophy. These are all things that we, as a people, should engage with on a daily basis if we're to be engaged with our democracy in an important way. So that's the impulse behind the Council. And how that impulse manifests is through many different programs. Over the years we've been a key supporter of documentary film and radio programs. We have a program called the California Documentary Project. And we've funded, I think, 15 films that have been nominated for Academy Award.

JC: Wow.

RL: One has won an Academy Award, a film called Common Threads, about the AIDS quilt. We have a program called the California Story Fund, which supports nonprofit organizations throughout California to collect stories from their communities and explore the meaning of those stories within a larger historical or cultural context. We have a program called The Youth Digital Filmmaker's Program, which is just starting. It's a new program for us that will support eight projects throughout the state that engage teenagers with professional filmmakers and scholars, to make short films about how they see their communities, and how they see California in their place within human history. The final new project that we'll talk more about, is a project called Coming to California. This project is an ambitious project that will look at the history of immigration to California. So that's a brief overview of our various programs and why we exist. We have offices, not only in San Francisco, but one in Los Angeles and one in San Diego. And we have people that roam the state, that are willing to work with individuals who are interested in applying for grants.

JC: Great. Thank you for that overview. As I mentioned during the introduction, one of the reasons I thought the Council would be a fitting subject for this first interview in our audio download series, is that you're beginning to integrate Web 2.0 and emerging media technologies in your work. So you can you tell us about some of the new grants you're making that are expressly support digital media? You mentioned the Youth Digital Media, so maybe go into that a little bit and tell us about the procedures for applying for those grants, and if any work has come of it at this point that we should be on the lookout for.

RL: Okay. The Youth Digital Filmmakers Project has just started. We identified eight sites in California. And we had the first gathering of the project directors and kids. Now, what Youth Digital Filmmakers is trying to do is, with new media, we have this democratization of the capacity to become a filmmaker. So we have youth who are engaging with this new media. We thought we'd team them up with professional filmmakers and scholars to really document how they see California. It's been fascinating. Last week we brought these kids together. And you had kids from Long Beach who are descendents of people from Cambodia. You had kids from Happy Camp, which is in Northern California. It's right near the Hoopa Reservation, kind of near Eureka, and these kids are descendents of the Yurok. You have kids from Mt. Shasta, from Fresno, from Oakland, from Concord, San Francisco, Los Angeles…you had homeless kids from Los Angeles. So you had this great representation of California in the room. And these kids are all aspiring to be filmmakers. And they all have a story to tell. And we feel one of the reasons this project is really important is that, one, new media gives us a tool that kids can use to tell their own stories, and then we can get those stories out to all sorts of people. We can get them out, not only to their own communities, but we can get them out to people across California, and internationally. And one of the things that the Council is known for is providing really good content. We feel, at the end of the year, one of the things that will distinguish this project from other youth media projects is that the content, the stories that we have, will be outstanding stories. And, with the new media, we'll be able to get those stories out to people that otherwise may never have heard them. So that's one of the ways that we're using this new media.

Another way, for the California Council for the Humanities, it's often difficult to create a conversation statewide. I mean, think about the state of California if you were to superimpose that one the east coast, it covers from Massachusetts, I think, to North Carolina…I mean, just about the whole east coast. And so it's really hard to get people together in conversation. It's rare that you can bring participants together face-to-face. So what we're going to try out is using a Wiki to get these kids and filmmakers and scholars in conversation with one another over the course of a year about how their projects are developing: the challenges they're facing, and what they're finding out about their own communities, and how those things they find out compare to other communities, and how those discoveries fit within the larger conversation about human history. So we're very excited because it's a rare thing that you can bring people together to have this conversation and new media is allowing us to do that.

JC: Yeah, it seems like a very powerful medium for storytelling which is right up your alley. I have a couple of follow-up questions to what you just said, though. First, how are the youth selected? And, strategy-wise, how did you decide to focus on youth? Because after watching some of the Ken Burns' documentary on war, now, you know, I'm thinking that it's the people near the end of their lives that have all the great stories. So are you thinking about that in the back of your mind as you look at how you might grow this beyond the youth?

RL: Mm-hmm. Well, let me speak to the notion of story and who has stories to tell. I think you're right, thinking about Ken Burns' film. There's this knowledge that's in jeopardy; that is people are passing away with this incredible store of knowledge, and we're nervous that we'll lose that knowledge. Well, some of these projects that we've supported are really interested in doing intergenerational work, connecting newcomer kids-a lot of these kids are newcomers to the area-with old-timers, and having a conversation across generations about what connects people to the place in which they live or why people feel disconnected from that place: a conversation about history; a conversation about not only the elders' place within that history but the youth's place within that history. And we think that would be a powerful conversation to have.

Secondly, how the youth were selected. I think that, for us, we work very closely with the grantees. And the grantees really have the knowledge on the ground and you have to respect that knowledge, in terms of selecting the youth. The only parameters we really put on their selection was that we wanted the kids between the age of 14 and 18. We thought that, one, that age group would be able to grapple kind of the complexities of the humanities; would have a vision beyond their individual, into their community, and perhaps state and worldwide vision; that, we felt that that age group would be able to travel and communicate with one another. And it's an age group that can really take on seriously the role of filmmaker. Also they're at this critical point where they have to choose where they're going to go with their future: is college on the horizon? And so one of the ways we set up the project is that we've asked each project to engage with a local university or college. So that the kids not only will be introduced to filmmaking, storytelling, but during the course of the year they'll be engaged with the university or college in their community, and make that direct connection to forge kind of a pathway for them to that institution of higher learning.

JC: That sounds great. So, as far as the way the grant is structured then, you're working through an intermediary, like schools or some other institutions?

RL: It's really interesting that there are a lot of different organizations we're working with…different kinds of organizations. And they probably reflect both, the population that they're working with, but also the infrastructure of the place in which they are. So, for example, in Los Angeles we're working with the Covenant House. The Covenant House is a place that serves homeless youth. And so it makes sense that they would be a sponsoring organization. In Long Beach it's Khmer Girls in Action, and they have this strong history of working with young women to create interesting cultural programs. In Siskiyou County, it's the Siskiyou County Arts Council. So it's really different from place to place, and probably just reflects the populations and the geography that we're working in.

JC: Well, I bet. Like you said, in California it's such a big place, you need to have that flexibility as a grantmaker. Many nonprofits and some grantmakers are also thinking about incorporating blogs into their web sites, and Web 2.0 work. And I hear you've also joined the blogosphere. So, can you tell us a little bit about the Council's blog, its content, the intended audience, and how you're finding the experience is going for you so far? And, what advice you might have, either for a nonprofit organization, or a grantmaker, who might be in the planning stages of such an endeavor, and whether there are some good models out there?

RL: Sure. We've just started with the blog and for us it's a real opportunity to humanize our work. I think one of things about a blog is that it kind of takes people behind the scenes, a little less formal and perhaps maybe a little more accessible. And so I think, for us, in that way it works. We use it as an opportunity to tell our audience, which are people that are interested in cultural programming-both here in California and internationally-what's happening. So, for example, in July, two of the films that we supported, one called Following Sean which looks at the life of a kid who was filmed in the 60s, in the Haight-Ashbury and what happened with his life, where he is today. It received a national broadcast in June. And we also had a film called Prison Town, USA, which looked at the prison industry in a small town in California. We were able to tell people through the blog about the broadcast and what they would expect from the film. We also use it as an opportunity to highlight other special things that are happening with projects, the creation of a web site that people should checkout. So it's really helped us in that way. In terms of my advice, one, don't underestimate the amount of time it takes to do something like this. It takes a lot-especially if…my second piece of advice: keep it fresh. If you want to keep it fresh, which is what people expect in the blogosphere, it takes a lot of time. And it's not something where you can depend usually on one person. The institution has to buy into it, so that people from throughout the institution are feeding leads for information that would be interesting for the blog.

JC: Do you have one author in your organization, or do you share that responsibility for the blog?

RL: Right now we have one author. Her name is Maura Hurley, and she's a great writer. That's why she's doing it. So we feed her information and then she does a little research and writes up what she thinks is interesting in a way that's really readable to the audience. In terms of grantmakers, not just for a blog but just in general, engaging with digital media, engaging with Web 2.0 technology, my advice is, one, try it out yourself. Often, as grantmakers, we kind of keep a distance from things. Engage with that new technology. I think, also, after you engage with it, talk about it internally and get more people, internally, to try out whatever you're interested in. If it's a Wiki, get together a team of people from different departments to try things out. See how it works, what works. Always ask the question, "How would it work for our institution?" and "How might it work for the grantees?" After you've puzzled that through, and you have some ideas, then go out to people who really know. Talk with people who really engage with this material. And then try it out with your grantees and see what they think. Start small. We're starting out with Youth Digital Filmmakers, with our Wiki. We tried it out internally. Now we're testing it with them. And we're very hopeful.

JC: What has the reception been like from your audience? Is it the kind of blog people comment on? Or is it more "FYI" kind of information?

RL: Right now it's more "FYI" and we're hoping to move to more of an integrative approach where we have people commenting and there's a back-and-forth, and there are contributions. But we're starting small. The other thing, I think that there are so many foundations that are doing really good work around this. The Packard Foundation, I think they have a Wiki on nitrogen pollution, that's really interesting. I think the Macarthur Foundation has a digital media initiative that's really worth looking at. The Knight Foundation is really doing innovative work around digital media and journalism. So there are people that are much further advanced than the Council is in this. So it's really worth looking at what they're doing as well.

JC: Is the Macarthur one the most similar to what you're doing, since it's also focused on digital media?

RL: I think so.

JC: And did you structure yours similar to theirs? Or did you make conscious decisions to do something different than that model?

RL: Well, I think what we did is what we know best. We really focus on stories, as opposed to thinking about a digital policy. And we are also interested in measuring what impact the digital media has on the youth as they use it and think about how they can use it to engage with civic life. So I think in that way it's similar to Macarthur, but obviously Macarthur has many more resources than the Council that they can invest. So we're focused on the Youth Digital Filmmakers for that foray into digital media.

JC: And I think you may have mentioned this when we talked about the Youth Digital Media grant. But I'm curious, because I just remember the Macarthur and the way that's structured and what they require of their grantees as far as follow-up, using Web 2.0 tools. So, with yours, do you have something similar where it's written into the grant that you're requiring blog communications or…? I think you mentioned a Wiki, right?

RL: Right. I don't know that we require it of them. But as we talked with them, especially over the last few days that we met, it became clear that, one, when they met for two days there were incredible bonds that were made between the kids, the project directors, the filmmakers. They all expressed the desire to continue those relationships. And the way that we can offer to continue those relationships is through a Wiki. So that's where we've invested our resources using Web 2.0. And, we'll see. The jury's out. We've just created the Wiki. We met for the first time, last week. And over the next few months we'll see how it's actually used.

JC: So that sounds like you're taking a very organic approach…

RL: Yeah.

JC: …to letting what develops develop, but not trying to force anything.

RL: Yeah, I think one thing to think about with Web 2.0 technology is it's all exploration. It's all a test. There's no template about how to do it. And so it's really incumbent upon both grantmakers and grantees to try things out together, not impose things, and see what develops. It might be at the end of this we decide well, you know, Wiki doesn't really work for what we want it to do. It may have been something else. And maybe the answer will come from one of the kids. We'll see.

JC: And, are there other ways in which the California Council for the Humanities plans to integrate Web 2.0 or other emerging media technologies that I probably haven't even heard of yet into its work?

RL: Well, there's one really exciting project that we're engage with right now, in addition to the others. And that's a Coming to California web site. This website is going to tell the story of immigration to California, the history of immigration to California, through personal stories. And that, in itself, is innovative, but what is going to make this really interesting is we're working with a web design firm, Second Story, and they're helping us to create a technology that will allow people to upload their own stories, not just by using text, but also video and audio, images, that tell their own coming to California story, the story of their grandparents, their great grandparents, creation myth related to immigrating to California. There's so many ways to tell this story. And it was impossible, we realized, when we started the project, for us to tell all the stories. So what Web 2.0 allows us to do is create a project that invites Californians, all Californians, to include their story as part of the history of California, the history of this immigration to California. And without Web 2.0 we couldn't have done something like this. We couldn't have created a project that is that invitation and that has the potential of reaching all Californians. So that's exciting for us. We're going to have this project completed, we're looking at late February/early March. And we'd love people to come and look at the site. It'll be at, and comment, and put their own California stories…include their own California stories in the site.

JC: So, beginning in February or March, you'll be actively inviting the general public to post their stories.

RL: That's right.

JC: And then it'll be there as a living archive? Or how is it envisioned as far as this becomes really huge and you get this collection of stories from everyone?

RL: Well, it will be there as a resource for everybody. Particularly we're going to work with teachers across the state. We'll have a curriculum developed that will be evolving as the site evolves, that will focus on 11th grade students. And teachers will be able to use this curriculum and then, at the end of the project, ask their students to upload the stories that they've uncovered during the process of going through the curriculum. So we'll be involving schools throughout California, museums. The Oakland Museum is interested in using it as part of their exhibit in-house that they're developing on the history of California. So there's going to be many different ways, probably ways I can't imagine the project going. You know, we think that, in California there's a perpetual debate about immigration. And it's really important for us, when we engage in that debate, to have historical context. And this will provide that context.

JC: Great. That does sound very exciting. Well, changing gears a little bit, since it's Funding for Arts Month at the Foundation Center, and we'll likely have many listeners who are struggling artists or arts organizations, let's leave Web 2.0 behind now and focus on some tips you might have, from the grantmaker perspective, for potential applicants to your competitive grants programs. Aside from following the guidelines, which we always tell people to do, and I'm sure are outlined on your web site, what "dos and don'ts" do you have for our audience regarding what makes a particular grant application compelling and exciting, as opposed to one that might signal "proceed with caution".

RL: Okay. That's a great question. I think the ones that-this may sound hokey, but the ones that-really grab, I think, the reviewer's attention are the ones that know the place and the people that they're talking about. And, so how does that manifest in a proposal? Well, there's one easy thing, and that is kind of census statistics. I think that really helps a proposal. If you're talking about the place you're from, be it Long Beach, or Mt. Shasta, there's statistics about who are the people in that place, what is that place about, that really demonstrates to the grantmaker that you know what you're talking about. The other piece that's part of kind of painting that picture of the place and the people you're from are stories. You should be able to tell a few stories about the people that you want to impact. And those stories should be stories that really grip the reader. You should be able to hand that story to a person on the street, and they read that paragraph, and they're moved. So I think those two things are key pieces of advice that I give every grant writer. Another thing that people often forget, because they're so close to their projects, is talking about why this is important: Why is it important for the people that will be affected by the project? But also, why is it important to a community? Why is it important within the context of California? Why is it important within the context of the United States and what's happening today? Why is it important within the context of where we live in this world? So, why is it important, and getting beyond that local sense of impact, which is important, but thinking about it in terms of the larger context. Those are the pieces of advice I give.

JC: Great. Well, that sounds very helpful. And, lastly, because of your job, you have the good fortune to see and experience a lot of exciting new work, from emerging artists and filmmakers. Are there any small films out there, upcoming broadcasts, downloads on your website, things going on about town, or around the state, that you want to let us know about?

RL: Sure. Since we were talking about Web 2.0, there's one project that everybody can look at. It's It's a very interesting project because you think about the Sierra Mountain Range, and it's probably the size of most east coast states. It's huge. And this project, it started out as a radio project, where they would create radio programs that looked at the people: the ranchers, the environmentalists, the school teachers, all sorts of different kinds of people that have engaged with the process of saving the Sierras, who care about the Sierras. And so they created these radio programs. But it didn't stop there, with the radio programs. They had a story booth that traveled different places around the Sierras and recorded people's stories. They've created a blog. So it's all on this web site, And people can look at it and really hear, firsthand, and engage with firsthand issues and stories that come out of this important movement to save the Sierra Mountains, which is so important to the state, and the world, in many ways. So that's one project. There's a lot of great films that we're supporting that are nearing their completion. One is called Hollywood Chinese, by Arthur Dong that was just at the Toronto Film Festival. It was at Sundance. If people go to our web site they can see and follow where that film is heading and when it will receive national broadcast. There is a film… I just spoke with a filmmaker, Dawn Valadez, called Going on 13, which looks at, really, girls coming into adolescence, four girls from immigrant families, from the East Bay. And it's just fascinating. It looks at their lives when they're nine years old and then when they're 13, and how they've dealt with change in their life. Another film is called Paperback Dreams, KQED is working on this project with a local filmmaker, Alex Beckstead, and it looks at the plight of independent bookstores. And it focuses on Cody's Books here in the Bay Area.

JC: Sort of as an endangered species?

RL: Exactly, and what does that mean for our society. And then, finally, there's a film that's being made called When Medicine Got it Wrong, and it's about schizophrenia. It's about how the medical establishment really accused parents of being responsible for schizophrenia in their kids. And when parents stood up to the medical establishment and said, "That can't be. You've got it wrong." and really turned the medical establishment around in terms of their thinking and treatment of schizophrenia. So there's some amazing projects coming up and that's just a taste. And they all can be found on our website at

JC: I think that really gives us a good sense or kind of the spectrum of your work and the very many different subjects the stories take us. So, Ralph, thank you so much for joining us today to help us launch our regional Philanthropy Chat series in San Francisco. Our audiences always appreciate hearing directly from grantmakers, and we appreciate your willingness to be the first of what we hope will be many lively and interesting Philanthropy Chats. If you enjoy this Philanthropy Chat, check the events archive on our website for access to audio and video files, featuring our popular Meet the Grantmaker series and other programming.
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