New director looking to build bridges

By Dick Mason, The Observer October 30, 2013 10:54 am

The new executive director of the Oregon Humanities, Adam Davis, shakes hands Monday during a tour stop in La Grande. Davis was in Eastern Oregon to introduce himself and share his vision for Oregon Humanities. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)
The new executive director of the Oregon Humanities, Adam Davis, shakes hands Monday during a tour stop in La Grande. Davis was in Eastern Oregon to introduce himself and share his vision for Oregon Humanities. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)

Oregon Humanities director visits La Grande Monday 

The art of  conversation, if practiced adeptly, can build bridges that span generational and cultural differences.

Few people understand this better than Adam Davis. The new executive director Oregon Humanities was in La Grande Monday as part of a tour through Eastern Oregon to introduce himself, share his vision for Oregon Humanities and get input on the direction people would like the four-decade-old nonprofit organization to move in. 

One of the successful Oregon Humanities programs Davis wants to expand is its Conversation Project, which helps communities become engaged in conversations ranging from diversity, to current events, pop culture and literature. More than 400 Conversation Project programs have been conducted by Oregon Humanities since they started about four years ago. 

The conversations are led by scholars brought in by Oregon Humanities. Such events tend to build connections and goodwill among people who normally may not see or communicate with one another.

“Conversations build trust. When people trust they do better, there is less likely to be conflict,” said Davis, who has a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. “They are more likely to imagine solutions together.”

Getting people to work together to discuss and address issues is something Davis has a wealth of experience at. Davis came to Oregon from Chicago, where he served as the director for the Center for Civic Reflection, a national organization that uses the humanities to encourage people to “think and talk about the meaning, value and impact of their work in the world,” according to the Oregon Humanities website. Davis developed programing and materials on building community and strengthening commitment to civic life. 

Davis co-founded Camp of Dreams, a nonprofit organization providing year-round programming for underserved youth in Chicago.

Davis, who became the fifth director of Oregon Humanities in August, said there is a misconception regarding Oregon Humanities. 

He said that for years Oregon Humanities, which funds many cultural projects, has been perceived primarily as an arts organization. The arts are a big part of Oregon Humanities but that is far from its sole focus, Davis said. For proof, look no further than its magazine, which devoted its Summer 2013 issue to a look at the history of racial diversity in Oregon. Its 2013 Spring edition had an article about the tradition of the Pendleton Round-Up.

Davis wants Oregon Humanities to continue to strive to have the mix it has today. 

“My goal is to push art and culture and encourage the development of a community civics organization to complement the work we are already doing,” he said.

Oregon Humanities has a budget of $950,000. A little more than half of its funding comes from the federal government through the National Endowment for the Arts. Oregon Humanities also receives funding from grants. One of Davis’ goals is to expand the organization’s funding base to a grassroots level.

“I really believe that a $10 donor is as important as a $10,000 donor,” he said.

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