Grants 101: Healing through the Humanities

A poem and artwork by a participant in an Untold Stories workshop

It’s through the reflection allowed by the humanities that we gain the perspectives that help us heal.

by Meg Turville-Heitz

We’ve been looking at measuring the impact of humanities programs through evaluation. Last time, I wrote about evaluating impact internally – how we improve our own programs with honest post mortems. This article focuses on our external impact and talking about why the humanities matter.

Evaluating our impact: Humanities play the long game

untold-_stories_brenegan_8At a recent 50th birthday celebration of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Charlottesville, VA, Pulitzer-award winning author Junot Diaz sold his enthusiastic audience on the need for a humanities frame to contextualize structural racism and the importance of the humanities in educating our souls. But such soul feeding, he said, can’t be reactionary quick fixes.

We tend toward cultural “hyperspeed” responses to things that require reflection, says Diaz. We need to see them in a broader context, and time to build the relationships that build our understanding. Quick fixes and the starvation of social programs, he says, create a constant “state of emergency” that forces us into a constant state of reaction. Instead, “we require slow lenses as much as we require immediate reactions. It’s hard to draw a bead on what happens in the present. We’re bearing witness to a moment that shoots away from us at the speed of light, but we can linger” and think about it. He notes that “sometimes we’re focusing on the wrong things” and thus our quick reactions go awry.

For example, at the same conference, war veterans talked about how they needed the last 20-30 years to process their experiences and learn from life’s milestones to find new lenses for understanding what they had seen and endured.

It’s through the reflection allowed by the humanities that we gain the perspectives that help us heal.

Because the humanities have a slow payoff, sometimes that payoff is dismissed. We tend to want to measure the outcomes, rather than measure the slower growing impacts of humanities work told in stories, not in numbers. We aren’t reflecting on how the humanities help us become better citizens, neighbors, humans.

In Taking Measure of Your Humanities Project I talked about how important it is to find ways to talk about those real impacts. When we talk about a humanities project we often focus the outcome in terms of numbers reached through an individual program and we’re thrilled if it involves any conversation. Only three people came to the talk because we scheduled against the Packers, oops. But what about the impact? What did those three people take away from the event? Sometimes it isn’t that immediate. Sometimes the “ripple effects” of a humanities-based experience can take years to reach fruition. Sometimes those ripples extend out so far we have a hard time even comprehending how important they may be, or even imagining how we might measure them other than to describe them narratively.

If we focus on numbers, we miss the big picture.

untold-_stories_brenegan_4For example, the “Untold Stories” series WHC has funded at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. The project reaches 15 individuals each fall who participate in the Voices and Faces Project’s nationally acclaimed testimonial writing workshop “The Stories We Tell.” The workshop was designed by humanities expert R. Clifton Spargo for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking. From post-event surveys, we can see important immediate outcomes. Participant evaluations capture responses such as,

“The reaffirmation that I am not alone,”

“I like that I get to share my story!”

“I wish that others get the opportunity to finally break free from their past and move forward and finally be able to live,”

“I wonder how long this program will continue to save lives,’

“You should know that I’ve changed my mind about what it means to be a survivor.”


These are important insights. They demonstrate incredible engagement.

We could look at the demographics, of participants, ages 23-55 in that session, or that they were racially diverse and include male survivors. We could look at the numbers from Arts @ Large participants, school-aged students who engage in experiential learning who attended the Spring Showcase, and the Mount Mary students, staff and faculty, 110, who came to hear speakers and witness testimonials. There were even important witnessing events, such as writers who for the first time told their stories to their families through their participation in the showcase, or an Arts @ Large high schooler who disclosed her own assault experience during the showcase.

But we don’t need to stop there. There are ripples that go beyond that writing event and showcase.

Workshop project director Rachel Monaco-Wilcox notes that at least a third of the writers at the workshop become or remain involved in advocacy work of some type related to sexual violence: public speaking or writing, mentoring other survivors or going on for advanced degrees in counseling and other fields, or volunteering in support of policy change or social justice work related to gender-based violence. These represent a different kind of number, including at least:

  • 4 graduate degrees in English/Writing pursuedStudents view the Untold Stories exhibit
  • 6 books published
  • 2 plays
  • 3 newsletters created
  • 8 literary journal publications
  • 4 scholarly articles
  • 12 news media articles
  • 47 public speaking events
  • 1 TED Talk and
  • 2 documentary films about survivors


Now we’re talking impact.

After the workshop, participants didn’t simply go home, tuck away the pieces they wrote and say, “wow, that was interesting.” They acted. They were empowered. They embraced this experience of the humanities to go out and make others’ lives better.

Untold Stories gave voice to those who had been silenced by the trauma of their experiences. The workshop taught participants how to use their words as a power.

Workshop participant Dawn Helmrich spoke out in the most public of ways, after talking to her children about why some situations triggered her panic attacks, she told her story to a national media outlet. She was prodded to discuss it with them based on her work to bring Denim Day USA to Milwaukee, an educational campaign for sexual violence prevention. Her advocacy garnered her a community award. She reports her children went on to become advocates as well and her words continue to resonate with other survivors, helping them cope.

She shared her words with WHC:

I didn’t realize how powerful words could be. How writing my thoughts and feelings on paper in poetry or journaling could take me on a healing journey so incredible and raw that I would be empowered to share my writings with other people. That is what Untold Stories did for me. It opened up my world to realize that sharing my experiences with others could help not only my healing but others’ as well. I just began putting myself out there. Saying ‘yes’ when asked to do interviews. Being real and honest and raw and allowing my emotions to control my thoughts and words without reservation. She just reached out one day. A Facebook message. Just to tell me that she felt validated, empowered and okay. My words. My words touched her and she was able to tell her son of her many years of child molestation. My words. Two years after the article was written. My words helped her. And in return her words helped me…”

Words are power. Dawn Helmrich’s story continues to inspire.

Read The Washington Post article (“‘I need to tell you something’: How Survivors of Sexual Assault Tell their Children“) and listen to the two-part podcast produced by the United way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County that followed:

Listen to Episode 1 of Dawn Helmrich’s story here

Listen to Episode 2 of Dawn Helmrich’s story here



La’ketta Caldwell, too, went on to publish her testimony:

In 2015 I was a 40under40 and MANDI Award nominee for the documentary work I did with youth at the Boys & Girls Clubs that gave them an opportunity to express the impact of trauma in their life. Recently, I shared the impact of suicide on my family at a TEDx experience. The opportunity was amazing and challenging for me because it was my story, not the stories of others I was privileged to write in the UNTOLD STORIES workshop. What I learned from the other participants would give me the courage to share my story.

There is a power in these testimonies, both internal and external, and the power in sharing them ripples outward, having impacts beyond personal healing.

After the Untold Stories workshop, I published a book about my life enduring domestic violence, facilitated writing-to-heal workshops, wrote testimonials for lobbying, and leant my voice as a public speaker to give my testimony, inspiring others. Since then, I have met many women who have stepped beyond the shadows of their pain and emerged as published authors, public speakers and strong community leaders lending their voices, writings and time to end violence against women. I’m a proud survivor who stands willing to be the voice for the hurting, a beacon for the cause and uplifting and coaching those ready to stand boldly with me to end violence against women. So says Roxie Hendon.

The humanities help us understand, educate, heal. The conversations go on beyond the end of exhibits, talks or events and come home to kitchen tables and living rooms where they help shape our lives. We need to capture that. Share that. And through evaluating our impact, document the stories that show that humanities matter.

About the images: Untold Stories is a two-part event the aims to bring awareness and healing to survivors of sexual or domestic violence or human trafficking.  These images are from the showcase, which comes after the workshop, and is open to the public. The Spring 2016 Showcase took place at Mount Mary University and included a panel discussion featuring key players in the fight against these crimes and the support of the victims.

More Evaluating ~ More Learning ~ More Reading

The WHC’s mission is to use history, culture and conversation to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin. How do we measure our efforts to make that difference? We look at the evaluations we receive back from our grant recipients. It’s through assessing the true impact of programs that give project organizers, the community and funders tangible ways to talk about why the humanities matter.

In the following articles, I explore the subject of evaluation further by sharing some examples of projects that evolved and improved through their self-evaluations and greatly increased their impact. I also share methods some groups have used to measure that impact on their participants, and discuss ways to think about why humanities programming matters.


Thanks for reading, caring, sharing, and letting me know what you think!

meg with beer

The Humanities make an impact

Picturing Milwaukee People & Places

Meet Meg Turville-Heitz, our Grant Program Director!

Evaluation Part I:

Tracking the meaningful changes

Evaluation Part II:

Evaluating your relationships

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