City’s Rebirth Showed Brian Boyles the Power of the Humanities
Brian Boyles: The humanities can enrich and transform lives and build a more equitable society. (Photo by Zack Smith)
After a stint in the publishing business, Brian Boyles helped rebuild New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, which ultimately led him to become executive director of Mass Humanities, a Northampton nonprofit that advocates for the humanities to enhance and improve civic life.
This is his story.
I grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh, in the house where my mom grew up, in the same home where her own mother was raised. My mom worked as a secretary, my dad was a roofer. In a time when the sun had recently set on the steel industry, I was fortunate to have a great AP History teacher who opened my eyes to the broad canvas of world history and the lessons it holds.
After enrolling at Tulane University in New Orleans, I lived in Afro-Creole neighborhoods where I was part of a distinct minority. I learned about the history of the city, not from books, but directly from my neighbors. I learned how to be a respectful outsider, how to participate while knowing that the rules and tempo weren’t up to me. Music became more than assembling a record collection; it was a way to understand a place, its tragedies and its genius. Culture wasn’t a bastion of elitism, but the way you and your people lived and survived.
Upon graduation, I headed to New York to embark on a publishing career, starting as supply chain manager at Simon and Schuster. My position required me to balance the competing interests of editorial, production, marketing, and sales staff as a book traveled from an idea to a bookstore to, hopefully, a reader. I learned to be diplomatic and realistic, to see the bigger picture while attending to the many details of book development, production, and sales.
Outside of work, I dove into the arts scene in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. One evening, a friend mentioned she was helping to launch a “pirate radio” station, and needed DJs to host weekly shows. Among the first “livestreaming” stations, East Village Radio was housed in a tiny storefront on First Avenue and First Street. For the next three years, I stood in that window and interviewed everyone from underground hip-hop legends to activists to playwrights. I learned to create space for people to speak their truths and share their work.
A hurricane changed everything in 2005. After Katrina hit New Orleans, I followed someone (she later became my wife) who moved there to help with the recovery. More than a year after the flood, substantial parts of the city still lacked a steady power supply. Whole neighborhoods remained in ruins. After a few weeks, a recruiter mentioned an opening with a cultural organization and asked if I’d be interested.
Like Mass Humanities, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I joined at the end of 2006 as assistant to the executive director, who had grown the organization into one of the nation’s most respected and ambitious state humanities councils. My responsibilities included managing a new event space in the organization’s historic downtown headquarters. “Rent it out and earn some revenue” was the direction I received.
It was a unique opportunity for a humanities organization to develop a fresh public face in a time of upheaval. I learned how the humanities could provide a platform for people to share their stories, listen to their neighbors, and heal. We began hosting events and convened conversations—at no charge—about political history and the environment, immigration and civil rights.
Over the next 10 years, we brought this approach to the rest of the state. I learned that this grassroots approach to the humanities—participatory, inclusive, locally grown—could spark civic engagement, and help communities understand themselves and what members owe to each other. From an entry-level position, I worked my way up to director of communications and eventually vice president of content, a role that brought together our grants, public programs, and publications.
As my portfolio grew, I became fascinated with the work of other humanities councils, among them Mass Humanities. When David Tebaldi announced his retirement after 30 years, I was immediately interested. My conversations with the board centered on raising the organization’s visibility and reimagining the audiences for the humanities.
I believe Massachusetts is uniquely positioned to lead the way through this era of crisis. We live in a state with great resources, but one with persistent inequities. We are home to thought leaders whose ideas for advancing equality are heard around the world; we need to live those ideas in every corner of this state.
At Mass Humanities, we see how change begins at the local level – through the work of our grantees and partners, through museums, libraries, and community centers that serve diverse audiences. Most importantly, we know the humanities can enrich and transform lives and build a more equitable society.