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A Conversation with Ann Volin, South Dakota Humanities Council

Ann Volin
South Dakota Humanities Council
/

South Dakota Humanities Council Executive Director Ann Volin is featured in Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the magazine's "Executive Function" profile series.

Hear Volin in conversation with SDPB's Lori Walsh in this interview.

The following transcript is auto-generated.

Lori Walsh:

I want to start by talking about books.

Ann Volin:

Okay.

Lori Walsh:

Because ... And we'll get to programming and the pandemic and grants and three years in South Dakota and some of the rural challenges we have, but I can't think of another time, other than childhood when I first discovered reading, that reading became so life saving to me as during the pandemic, like of all the books that I'd hoarded over the last-

Ann Volin:

Did you have a stack, Lori?

Lori Walsh:

I had a stack.

Ann Volin:

I have a stack, too.

Lori Walsh:

And so I was just wondering when we started shutting things down, there was so much work to be done. And yet, we had roadmaps, and those roadmaps were poetry and books and conversation and the sort of things that were right in the wheelhouse at the South Dakota Humanities Council and humanities in general. What was that like for you on a personal level to face a world that we hadn't quite imagined, but to face it with the foundation as a reader and a writer?

Ann Volin:

I think it came so naturally for me when I had time to turn to books, that I was okay. I could do things away from work obligations centered around reading and doing writing, and that made me really happy. But we had to figure out how to move, obviously, from we were so used to doing everything in person and having a scholar meet with people or having people come into our office and pick up books. And all of a sudden, it was time to tap into those ways that technology had made other ways of getting in touch with people possible. We took a look at the books we had on our shelves, and we asked libraries if they needed them and libraries figured out how to set them in bags outside their door so that people could pick them up and they could be safe.

Ann Volin:

And we had to figure out how to help people tap into their computer and their phone or whatever, so that they could start meeting virtually. And it worked so well for South Dakota and going forward is such a good change because it's hard to reach out across this really geographically big state, but small population state. And we have to fight with the weather for, oh, frankly, six months out of the year and we help people learn how they could do it virtually. And so we can be more in touch with them and do more reading and do more talking about books and have them listen to someone who can talk with them about, "Oh, let's do some obituary writing. Let's do some poetry writing." And we can do that even if we're not in the same room together.

Ann Volin:

And it can be very fulfilling to have the opportunity to do that. And I think that did happen for a lot of people during the pandemic. Like I said, I had a really big stack beside my bed and I still do, and I made it through a lot of them. It was really nice, and it was this different topic and that different topic. It was nonfiction. It was biography. It was poetry always for me. And being able to say, we share so much through the written word in our culture, that we had a little extra time to spend with that extra written word.

Lori Walsh:

And for me, I just knew immediately how urgent and I guess urgent as the healthcare coverage was, poetry became that urgent for me. Why poetry for you? Why is that? How long has poetry been part of your life and how does it sort of weave into the way you live life now in the midst of all these things that have nothing to do with poetry? Filling out grant applications and figuring out how to plug the computers in and get them to work and yet there's this through line for you, that is poetry.

Ann Volin:

Poetry is the happiest place for me to be other than with sweet family moments. I remember reading Mother Goose as a child. I still have some of those rhymes in my head. And I also remember when I was in early grade school, for my birthday, my parents gave me a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, this little yellow, hard backed book that I still have. And I remember reading The Swing. "How would you like to go up in the swing up in the air so blue? All I do think is the pleasantest thing ever a child can do." And that just worked for me. I like to be outside. I like to swing. I like that feeling when you're up at the top for the swing and you feel like you could just jump out and be part of the world, and then you come back down again. And I like to being outside in the sunshine.

Ann Volin:

And that point worked for me because it was about my experience as a child. And it said it in such a graceful pretty way for me. The colors were there. I like the movement of the lines. I like the rhymes that were part of it. So it was very enjoyable for me. I like that book. I have found, I think, that Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child Garden of Verse actually translates well into looking at some of his later works. I gave a presentation once about some of the similarities between different images in A Child's Garden of Verses and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's there. You can find them. So, it was a gateway book for me, you could say, my gateway drug to this really great place for me, poetry.

Ann Volin:

I returned to college when my children were growing up. I had received a bachelor's degree and it was in human development and it was a great field of study. It taught you to think a lot about people and where they're at in their lives. And what's going on in a particular moment. What's really important to a teenager? What's really important to someone who's aging? And I think it made a really good foundation for life, for being part of a family, for being part of a culture and a community. But I always also knew after, as I was getting that degree, that someday I would come back, that I wasn't done with school.

Ann Volin:

And again, then I started back taking some classes and one of the classes was I'd always been into in psychology and I'd always been interested in literature. And so I was trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that as I step back into the education setting and I had a creative writing class and we did poetry, and it, for me, it was just that moment of confluence. Everything came together. My love for language, my ... I prefer being brief and poetry will allow you to do that. Of course, there's Iliad, and things are not always brief with poetry.

Ann Volin:

There's such a way of being succinct, but saying things sideways and saying things directly and all the different ways that, all the elements of language can be used in poetry, the sound, the rhythms, the length of words, the way you can look at connotation and denotation, and you can put it all together, and it's this little package that gives you just this moment of intensity. And that just always resonates for me. I have never been disappointed with it.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah. We needed those civil conversations, not just because of the pandemic, but because of politicization. It was a very difficult presidential election year. It was a difficult time in South Dakota. We had people coming to city council meetings, screaming at each other about mask mandates. And yet, there's a river that's running through that state, which is the Humanities Council continually putting out opportunities together and talk to one another in a civil way. Particularly during the pandemic, but broadly speaking, what do you think the role is in South Dakota for the Humanities Council to sort of gather people together for conversation and what is that providing for the people of the state?

Ann Volin:

I think we need to know that there's a place we can come together and think about ideas, where can hear other ideas, and where no one is saying, "You have to follow this idea" or "You have to believe in this person," but where we can say, "Hey, here's a speaker and here's a book" or "Here's a panel and here's some ideas. And we're going to have people who think about things this way, and we're going to have people think about things that way." We need a place, always, I think, in a civil society where we can do that, where you can gather, and where the opportunity is to get a chance to be more thoughtful, to actually hear what somebody else is saying and thinking, and then to decide for yourself how that fits into your thoughts.

Ann Volin:

But saying, "I believe this, and I don't want to hear anything else" is not conducive for any type of forward movement. It's not conducive for any type of community and consensus building. And I think that that's a role that we have played before and we will continue to play in the future. We tried to put together lots of different panels and opportunities during these recent tumultuous times, and we'll keep doing that.

Lori Walsh:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). You also have, during these past year, three years, really, a huge responsibility for finding, making connections between CARES Act money, other federal money, to places that have been hit very hard, rural South Dakota especially by the pandemic. Tell me some of those stories because it's a lot of administrative work, but then some feedback from people as well. Tell me a little bit about that.

Ann Volin:

I kept a file in my computer under CARES last year, and I think it was just a series of names. It was Alice and Chuck and Chuck and Dwayne. And that's why I kept emails from people from some smaller museums, smaller humanities groups who were trying their best to figure out how to get CARES funds. One thing that we learned is that we have a lot of organizations in South Dakota that are run by retired volunteers, and they maybe have not had the chance to get in and create a grant application before. And they're very much heartfelt leaders of this organization and their intelligent and capable people, but come on. These forms can be long and a little intimidating. We try and make them as concise as we can.

Ann Volin:

So being able to get a phone call from somebody or get an email from somebody who said, "Well, on this page, it says June 30th. Does that mean I have to have this in by date?" Or "It seems really short." It's like, "No, let's look on the next page. And that's where that deadline is" or something like that. So being able to say hello and talk to them, always fun, always nice.

Ann Volin:

When we sent out the funds, we heard some stories back from people. We got a few thank you notes. We got a phone calls. And after the months of working together and trying to put together as a team within our office everything that we needed to so that we could get the grant money out to people. And during those times, other than a few phone calls or emails, really not being in touch with how this was going to have an impact, it made all the world of a difference to have even just one or two calls.

Ann Volin:

Some libraries, I think, were kind of a ... It was a little bit of surprise to me that so many libraries were really working with equipment that was just not very useful to getting through the pandemic. They had a computer that was 10 years old that a friend had given them when that person got a new computer. And when they got two laptops from us, they were able to have a place where people would come in and check out email and do Zoom meetings and be part of the larger community that they couldn't otherwise. We got a phone call from one librarian whom, after she'd received her grants, said, "I about screamed the house down I was so excited." She said, "You have no idea how much money, how much difference this will make to us." She said, "Please let people know that we will use every penny well." It's just like, "Oh my gosh."

Ann Volin:

That was just ... It's in the terms of larger budgets when you're looking at a federal government budget and they're providing money to so many different places and they provide money to the NEA and to the NEH, and it's a small amount compared to other parts of the government, but it's still a lot of money. And then it comes down through you and it goes through your organization and it ends up with $6,000 for a library. And it means all the difference in the world to them. This is what you hope funding will do, and it did do it.

Lori Walsh:

And scream down the house funding.

Ann Volin:

Yeah. Scream down the house. Oh my gosh, to be so excited that you just don't know how to handle it, that it will make all the difference in the world for your community.

Lori Walsh:

This next year, 2022, "A More Perfect Union." South Dakota One Book has been been announced, which is my favorite day of the year, by the way, to finding out what's [crosstalk 00:15:26] new in South Dakota One Book and what you guys will choose and kind of it defines so much of what the rest of the state's going to do. So in my work, on my show, I think, "Boom, that's it. This book. Now, what else can we do that is going to feed into those kinds of stories?" What are you thinking some of the big questions we need to be asking ourselves as a state around the one book that you've chosen by Nick Estes and the idea of a more perfect union and where we're at as a state is we kind of emerge from the pandemic, but yet we don't? We have this collective grief. It's intergenerational from our relationship with our indigenous neighbors, sovereign tribes that live right here, and our land overlaps in many ways, our cultures overlap. What are some of your visions for the next year for the South Dakota Humanities Council?

Ann Volin:

I hope this book lets people think about where we're really at today, that it's not something in another room, that racism isn't something in another state, that issues with getting along and understanding what's going and in tribal communities aren't something that only portions of the state in certain counties need to pay attention to, that we need to read through the book and think about it and think about the parts that we accept, the parts that we have questions about, the parts that we hadn't thought about before, the parts that, it's maybe parts that we don't think fit in with our mindset. But that providing that opportunity to say, "Here we are today. Here's a young man, a gifted writer, who's writing about his experience as a native person and writing about the historical understanding of what's happened before, what's happened recently, how this has implications for the future" is really worth reading.

Ann Volin:

And again, the humanities are a place where we can say, "Hey, here's a place for you to think about something. We don't want to tell you what to think. We want there to be lots of different ways that different people can say, 'Oh, let me me tell you how this matters to me' or 'Let me tell you why I've got a problem with this part in it,' that it's a place for a conversation." And that conversation will go where it goes. It will be a dynamic conversation. It's not something where we have an answer. We don't have a yes. We don't have a no, but in the humanities, we have to be open to there's some different points of view. There's some things that are part of our history that we can talk about throughout the state.

Ann Volin:

And a book is a nice way to someone has taken the time, someone has done a lot of research, someone has thought about things, someone has experienced them, and now they're sharing that with you, and what can you do with that? I don't know what people would do with it. You know, I don't know where this will take us and I don't know what other or side conversations that we'll bring in or what other speakers or writers or authors will suddenly become part of the conversation with that. But why not think about this and why not have this written document that we can say, "On page 57," or "When I was reading the siege section," I would really like the humanities to be that safe, good spot, where we can open up those conversations about issues that are going on right now, and that we do need to talk about right now.

Lori Walsh:

And that book is called Our History is Our Future by Nick Estes. Anne Volin, thank you so much for the work that you do for the people of South Dakota, for your partnerships with organizations like South Dakota, Public Broadcasting, the museums, the libraries.

Ann Volin:

Libraries make me cry. I know librarians [crosstalk 00:20:10] thank so much. They are the center is a humanities in small towns, in large towns.

Lori Walsh:

We appreciate your time. Thanks for sitting down with us today.

Ann Volin:

You're welcome. Thanks for the conversation.