The Maryland Humanities’ Phoebe Stein wants to amplify the voices, perspectives and concerns of residents throughout the state.
The day I met Phoebe Stein, she was dressed conservatively — silk blouse, black skirt and heels, her slightly graying hair pulled back tight. But as we talked, I imagined Stein outside of the midtown Baltimore headquarters of the nonprofit Maryland Humanities, of which she is executive director, dressed more casually and engaging people from all demographics about such topics as life and literature, the arts and human emotions.
For more than four decades, Maryland Humanities has created and supported educational programming, events and experiences in the humanities across the state, allowing residents to participate in lifelong learning and an open exchange of ideas.
It’s a mission, Stein says, that extends beyond simply stimulating the intellect or nourishing the soul. “To strengthen democracy, you want to have an informed, curious citizenry,” she says.
Some would argue that Stein’s belief in the power of the humanities is embedded in her DNA. Her paternal grandfather was the first cousin of Gertrude Stein, the famed avant-garde American writer, art collector and iconoclast who moved to Paris in the early 20th century. Gertrude Stein, a onetime Baltimore resident, was known to host a salon frequented by Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse and other leading lights of the arts and literary worlds.
Like her distant relative, Phoebe Stein — a Montgomery County native who lives in Govans and is married to journalist/author Rafael Alvarez, who contributes to Jmore — strives to spread humanities-driven dialogue and interaction.
For a decade, she taught at DePaul University and Loyola University Chicago. “I loved teaching,” says Stein, 50, who has a doctorate in literature from the latter institution.
But one summer, she interned at the Illinois Humanities Council in Chicago. Later, a job as a communications officer for the council opened up and Stein decided to make a career change. She worked at the council for eight years and came to Maryland Humanities, then known as the Maryland Humanities Council, in July 2008.
Today, Stein is overseeing Maryland Humanities at a critical juncture in Baltimore’s — and the country’s — history. In the aftermath of the Baltimore protests of 2015 and the particularly contentious political climate nationwide, she says the need for the humanities is more crucial than ever.
“Taking the time to sort through a myriad of perspectives … sitting with others to better understand something you currently don’t understand, that is radical today,” Stein says.
Gaining the trust of individual communities paves the way for connecting people with seemingly disparate perspectives. It’s an area where Stein has been breaking ground, according to those who’ve worked closely with her.
“Maryland Humanities has been a leader in reaching beyond the usual constituents,” says Sheri Parks, founding director of the University of Maryland Arts and Humanities Center for Synergy. Parks worked alongside Stein in a 2016 citywide initiative, “Baltimore Stories: Narratives and the Life of an American City.”
The project included 20 events designed to examine the role of narratives in the life and identity of Baltimore. Two of them drew directly from the experiences of residents in Penn-North, a working-class neighborhood at the epicenter of the unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.
“[Stein] really led with her heart,” says Parks. “In Baltimore, you don’t have to scratch much to get pain. And I saw Phoebe cry.”
Another recent Maryland Humanities initiative was “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America.” The southern Anne Arundel town of Galesville, through a partnership with Maryland Humanities, hosted the traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition, plus a companion exhibit and program that showcased the history of the Hot Sox, Galesville’s semipro Negro Leagues baseball team formed in 1915.
Creating the exhibition — which involved Galesville students and community members collecting oral histories from former Hot Sox players, their families and fans — brought together the small town, expanded perspectives and deepened communal pride.
“We had over 600 people come through the community center,” says Gertrude Makel, a lifelong Galesville resident and retired grandmother of five who worked on the project. “Maryland Humanities supported us from the beginning right to the end when we had to pack up the exhibit.”
Stein says her goal is to ensure that voices of all Maryland residents are clearly heard and better understood. “We want to reach exponentially more people,” she says. “Of course, we want the same depth of engagement, but for many more people. I’d like to reach more than a million people.”
Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Top photo courtesy of Maryland Humanities
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