Art Works Blog

Announcing the New #NEABigRead Grantees!

One of Ray Bradbury’s most famous quotes is “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” If that’s true, it stands to reason that getting people to read would, on the other hand, restore a culture and help it flourish.

That’s the premise behind The Big Read, which announced more than $1 million in funding today for 77 nonprofit organizations across the country. Each organization will develop programming sometime between September 2014 and June 2015 that provides their communities with opportunities to read, discuss, and celebrate one of 36 selections from U.S. and world literature. Managed by Arts Midwest, The Big Read is an NEA program designed to revitalize the role of reading in American culture by exposing citizens to great works of literature and encouraging them to read for pleasure and enrichment.

To get a sense of the program’s impact, we recently spoke with Jan Schmidt from the Storytelling and Arts Center of the Southeast in Laurinburg, North Carolina, a newly minted grantee that will be participating in the program for the third time. Here are her thoughts on how the program affects different generations, what it means for low-income, rural communities, and how it can build partnerships at the organizational level.

NEA: Why do you think it's important to host the Big Read?

JAN SCHMIDT: It's built our partnerships with the library, with parks and rec, with housing authority, and the university…. We've had somebody each year from UNCP [the University of North Carolina at Pembroke] who has been involved in the book project. So it brings that into our community too, that intellectual discussion of the book but on a level that everybody loves…. It's been really great for the elderly in this community as well.

NEA: Does it help the elderly in any particular way?

SCHMIDT: It excites their minds. One of the most important things as you get older is not to let your mind atrophy by watching TV or just sitting there without having really stimulating conversations. A lot of times when you get older, people think that you don't care.

NEA: How do you think The Big Read affected younger generations?

SCHMIDT: I think it's helped them learn about different communities. The kids in the schools have been involved by doing the different contests, and the teachers introduce the books. Last year, when we did Fahrenheit 451, the schools had some choices of books, and they decided to do this one so they could be part of this community project.

NEA: This is your third year of partaking in The Big Read. How has your approach to the program changed?

SCHMIDT: The first year, we didn't know what would work and what would not work. So we certainly changed how we do things. We bring things to the community as opposed to expecting the community to always come to us. We've used things that were already going on in the community to let people know about it, and to present activities and book talks and things like that.

NEA: Do you think the Big Read has changed or affected the community through the years in any way?

SCHMIDT: One of the things it's done is it's brought people together to talk about the same book. It's also brought people into the library and into the center. People expect it now. They'll say, “What's the next book?” One of the reasons I applied for this grant in the first place was many years ago, we had a community book project that the university did. When I moved into the community, it was one of the things I really loved about it. So when I saw this grant about, in essence, doing another community book project, I was just delighted. So for people who are new to the community, it's something that brings them together and [offers] a place for them to come. People who've been here a long time also really enjoy it. 

NEA: Do you think the Big Read affects a more rural community like your own differently than it might an urban or suburban community?

SCHMIDT: I think it doesn't get lost in our community. When something's going on, people notice it a little bit more in a rural community. I think it's easier to bring people together in a rural community around these things, just because there aren't as many competing activities.

NEA: What has been your favorite Big Read moment through the years?

SCHMIDT: My favorite is when we do the [annual] tea. We have everybody come to the center and we have a professor from UNCP come and talk about the book. The [professors] we've had have been so good at what they do that the audience is just so engaged.

NEA: What advice would you give to a first-time Big Read grantee?

SCHMIDT: What you need to do is go to where people are as opposed to expecting people to come to you. People are busy. Try to find the places that they're going to gather and where it makes sense for you to be. 

NEA: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

SCHMIDT: We're a very low-income rural community, and we couldn’t do this without [The Big Read grant program]. We really appreciate how much they do for us by allowing us to do this and give books away…. In a low-income community, it's really hard to sometimes do these extra things, so it's really helped us a lot.



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