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Alumna Helen Cox PhD '87 and her Human Pursuits program bring together town and gown for community-based conversations.

by Paul Almonte

The chairs may be arranged in a circle and the people sitting in them may be clutching just-read books, but this isn't your average book group.

The subjects reach far beyond the books themselves, the participants have wide-ranging interests and backgrounds, and the discussion may be in more than one language. The theme isn't Jane Austen's social constructs but "The Bridges that Unite Us – Los puentes que nos unen." The authors are not Oprah-chosen but classic and emerging Latino and Latina writers.

The result? "The real highlight," remembers one participant, "was when Chicano women began sharing their personal experiences in discrimination, particularly in the public school. Some Anglos were very shocked when they realized that they were the same age as these women and were in the same type of classroom, but had very different experiences. I thought we were really beginning to achieve the purpose of this program."

Operating throughout the Western states, these discussion groups are organized by Human Pursuits: The Western Humanities Concern, a nonprofit organization that promotes the study of humanities themes through reading groups for out-of-school adults. Funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, "The Bridges that Unite Us," the latest Human Pursuits discussion series, brings diverse gatherings of people to libraries, community centers, and schools. This past spring, local gatherings took place at three Salt Lake County library sites as well as in Ephraim. Across the West, cities from Espanola, New Mexico, to Del Rio, Texas, have hosted discussion groups.

The founding director of Human Pursuits, Helen Cox PhD'87, has long seen a need to bring communities together for conversation and to stimulate those conversations through provocative writers and ideas. "With the demographics of local communities changing rapidly, Human Pursuits saw the need to foster more understanding among the various populations coming to live among one another in the western United States," says Cox, who still directs the program. Reading series such as the bilingual "The Bridges that Unite Us," involving the study of works from such authors as Chilean Pablo Neruda, Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal, Cuban Cristina Garc'a, and American Julia Alvarez, bring people together to examine new or unfamiliar ideas.

Cox views the study of literature as "the perfect catalyst for discussion and cross-cultural understanding. What reading groups can do is help people explore the common ground we share – whether it be Ôfamily values,' a concern for our environment, or the simple question, 'What are we doing here?' Though we might initially see that common ground differently because the particulars of our lives may be different, hearing stories and sharing perspectives leads us to a better appreciation of one another."

Such appreciation has real social and political implications, Cox notes. Utah is a case in point. "Many of us think of Utah as a homogenous place, but it isn't. Often, though, the choices we make regarding how we conduct ourselves are still predicated on this belief that a Utahn is a singular type with singular interests. This attitude causes us to marginalize those individuals and cultures that don't fit the mold," she says.

"The 'Bridges' theme," Cox continues, "was borne out of the recognition that certain groups, here in Salt Lake and across the West, hadn't been understood very well. Latinos, for example, have a richly diverse culture and literature. They come from many countries, are of every racial group imaginable, and will soon be the nation's largest minority. They were here before the pilgrims landed, and they are part of the greatest wave of immigration in our country's history."

While a graduate student in American Studies at the U, Cox was hired to direct a community reading program through an NEH grant to the American Library Association. "Professor David Stanley recommended that I apply for the job" – put together through the combined efforts of the Utah Humanities Council, Utah State Libraries, and the Utah Library Association – "because it made sense to tie my ethnic studies interests to this project," Cox remembers.

Looking to build on the success of that program, Cox created Human Pursuits with the intent to expand its reach "both in terms of thematic content and audience. Having our own program, instead of simply presenting materials chosen by the national office of the American Library Association, allowed us to examine themes more relevant to our locale." The first discussion series Human Pursuits developed on its own, "Utah: A Sense of Place," established a strong connection with community members. Cox quickly noticed that "participants wanted ways to study matters closer to home." With "Utah: A Sense of Place" and subsequent western-connected themes such as "The Complex Dance: Landscape and People in the West" and "Concentric Circles of Identity: Individual, Family, and Community," Human Pursuits provided that opportunity.

Now in six western states, the organization has received seven NEH grants in the course of its 11-year history. The program brings together scholars, schools, and community members with facilitated discussion topics in an effort to bridge the gap between academics and society. Human Pursuits provides community institutions (such as senior-citizen centers) with multiple copies of the books under discussion, a study guide to prepare participants for the gathering, and a discussion facilitator.

The materials and books purchased for the various discussion series are also put to use by the "Literature in the Home" program which shares books (along with the study guides and discussion questions) with private, independent book groups. More than 400 book groups have used Human Pursuits resources to make their neighborhood book groups more appealing and less expensive to participants.

Cox recruits members of the local academic community to help develop and facilitate the gatherings. To a person, these scholars relish the opportunity both to share their knowledge and to learn from the people they meet. Liz Montague

BA'77, a longtime colleague of Cox's who teaches classes in folklore and writing at Salt Lake Community College and who has been involved in a number of Human Pursuits programs, calls the reading series "a most authentic form of communication and learning. Hearing the perspectives of different peoples and communities enriches everyone involved.

"Helen herself is a bridge," adds Montague, "in her own ability to eliminate the borders between humanity and the academe. Both are enlivened and made more vital because of her unique ability to express the most complex of ideas in an informed but accessible manner."

If one needs further evidence of how communities value such programs, Cox points to the recent "Bridges" gathering that took place in Del Rio, Texas. The border town has been ravaged by El Nino-caused floods that destroyed most of its buildings, and Cox expected the Del Rio library to cancel its upcoming sessions. Instead, the librarian organizing the local event used the meeting as a means to rally the community. A packed house came to share their thoughts – about the book under discussion, surely, but more importantly, about their community spirit, a spirit severely tested but unbowed. As the librarian explained to Cox, the Human Pursuits gathering "helped the community heal and move forward."

A lifelong educator and daughter of two teachers (who knew at the age of three that she wanted to teach), Cox has always placed community outreach and understanding at the forefront of her own academic and professional efforts. Her dissertation studied attitudes toward the Hawaiian landscape. These "conceptual geographies" were "not about studying Ôhigh literature,'" she points out, "but what people thought about and how they used their everyday environment." A native of Hawaii, Cox continues to work to forge links with her own culture's past as well as those of the other Polynesian communities in Utah. As an assistant professor of humanities at Salt Lake Community College, she has developed and taught a course in Polynesian Studies, as well as a course on the "philosophy of work" designed to help students examine the links between their work, their schooling, their community, and their selves.

Cox credits two of her professors at the U – Meg Brady and William Mulder BA'40 MA'47 – with encouraging her and "helping me recognize that academics shouldn't construct ivory towers but should be relevant to a student's life and to the community and the school the individual inhabits." American Studies was a perfect fit for Cox, whose interests were always interdisciplinary and who was – and is – always trying to discover common grounds among peoples and cultures. In 1990, she took her teaching efforts to Czechoslovakia. Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, Cox taught American Studies for a semester at Palacky University. The work she did there exemplifies her commitment to connecting the academic world with the real-life peoples and communities it is meant to serve.

Despite an increasingly busy workload – she was recently appointed chair of the division of humanities at Salt Lake Community College – Cox's Human Pursuits work continues full-steam. Currently in the planning stages is another discussion series, "Water in the West: Readings on the Environment," that is sure to spark interest and debate and sure to reaffirm the relevance of Human Pursuits in individual and communal lives.

– Paul Almonte is an assistant professor of English at Salt Lake Community College.

Check out Human Pursuits at www.humanpursuits.org

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