A Conversation With Julie Fry

As a child growing up in Wisconsin, Julie Fry practically lived at the library, reading about history, places, and people. “My interest in literature and cultures has been a through line in my life,” she says, leading her to a career in the nonprofit world focusing on the arts. After a stint in the corporate world here and abroad, she has focused her talent, leadership, passion, and creative energy into positions as director of The San Diego Foundation’s arts and culture programs; Performing Arts Program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and since 2015, President and CEO of California Humanities, a nonprofit organization with offices in Oakland and Los Angeles. 

How would you describe the work of California Humanities?

Stories are at the heart of what we do. We seek to help amplify those voices that aren’t often heard, and tell stories about people in order to see what we have in common rather than what divides us. Through our work, which includes grant making, programming, and public conversations, we connect the people of California to ideas and to each other, and get to the heart of what it means to be human. 

Why is that important?

In order to have a vibrant democracy, we need to truly listen to each other, understand each other, come to agreement, and make decisions together. We believe that by engaging the people of California in conversations, events, and storytelling about our history and very different cultures, we can help build empathy, discover joy and beauty, spark curiosity, find ways to talk about difficult issues, plant seeds of change, and encourage lifelong learning about what it means to share in the human experience.

What do you see as California Humanities’ biggest achievements?

For more than 40 years, we have been one of California’s few statewide grant makers, and we have supported projects and delivered programs in every county and corner of the state, through libraries, arts organizations, veterans’ organizations, museums, and more. From students performing a version of Romeo and Juliet set on the streets of Richmond to the oral histories of the homeless living in Nevada County to photographs about the border experiences of young people in San Diego, our funding—which is often the first seed money a project receives—helps people share their experience in ways that make them meaningful to others. By encouraging sharing as well as listening, we help build empathy and understanding.

Does OMCA play a role in those cultural conversations?

OMCA is a gathering place for the humanities, with its convergence of art, history, and natural sciences. One of the exhibits I visit every time I’m at OMCA is Forces of Change in the Gallery of California History. These time capsules contain narratives and related items of 1960s and 70s Californians and illuminate what it felt like to be in this place, at that time, in those clothes!  Those stories just come alive for me.

OMCA is a place where we can see, explore, and discover history through human experience; understand cultural differences; and begin conversations that open minds. 

How will your work be affected by the possible decrease in government funding for the arts and humanities?

California Humanities is a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—one of 56 similar state humanities councils across the country—and a great deal of our work relies upon the federal dollars that the NEH provides, and which we leverage 5 to 1 in local resources. A decrease in funding for the NEH means that California Humanities may have to reduce the number of grants we award, cut valued programs we provide (such as Literature and Medicine, which helps improve caregiving in VA hospitals), or pull back on public events around the state. 

Over the past six months, we have been meeting with state legislators to introduce ourselves and our work, and to learn about their district priorities. More recently, with the real possibility of fewer federal dollars in our budget, we have turned to those legislators to ask for assistance in obtaining modest state funding—something we have never had—and those efforts are still in progress.

Photography: Terry Lorant.

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