Chalk up another COVID-19 casualty. The North Carolina Humanities Council has cancelled their Road Scholars speakers bureau.
Road Scholars, founded in 1990, allowed groups throughout the state to book speakers to discuss a variety of topics at little or no cost to the hosting organization.
The Road Scholars program catalog included presentations by more than 60 speakers which focused on issues of American history, literature, philosophy, ethics, religious studies, linguistics, jurisprudence, nature, history and criticism of the arts, sociology, and certain aspects of social science. All programs were offered to the public free of charge.
I was one of the Scholars. I am grateful that for the past eight years I had the opportunity to address groups from Burnsville and Brevard to Greenville and many places in between. Every speaking engagement allowed me to meet interesting people and to visit a new part of the state. I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of Southern literature and American history, especially my talk about my great-grandmother as an orphan train rider.
Over the years I took home far more than honoraria. I was able to interact with the audience and answer questions, sometimes being challenged as to why I believe certain things, or how I knew what I claim to know. The thrust of the program was to discuss topics of importance to us as human beings. But like so many performance-based functions in our life, the challenges of COVID and social distancing–and the lack of funds—has deemed the program unviable.
By the way, I wasn’t the only Road Scholar from Catawba County. My friend Sylvia Payne of Newton served as a Road Scholar for 18 years. Her specialty: storytelling and oral traditions, preserving family and personal stories—the stuff that makes us fully human.
For 30 years, the Humanities Council coordinated appearances by college professors, writers, activists, pastors, historians and more. Among last year’s speakers were Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s poet laureate, broadcast journalist Scott Mason, author Randall Jarrell and Walter Ziffer, a Holocaust survivor.
Last week, each Road Scholar received a box in the mail from the Humanities Council: an acrylic plaque in the shape of North Carolina, appreciation for our service to the Humanities Council. It was a nice tribute, but the program’s end is North Carolina’s loss.
Public libraries, retirement communities, and other nonprofits depended on this NC Humanities Council speakers bureau as an accessible and affordable resource for programming. And what better time than now to address and discussion about topics that matter! In today’s unsettled times, exploring justice, ethnicity, race and values are perhaps more important than ever.
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 will mark all aspects of our lives, even those aspects that we are just beginning to fully comprehend: education and faith definitely, but also the arts, human service organizations, civic organizations, and all those entities that underscore our quality of life.
Hopefully by next year, COVID will have passed, but its wake will have altered life in ways we can’t imagine. Such exclamation points stop us in our tracks and refuse to let us go back. There will be the time Before COVID and After COVID—much like life before 9-11 and after.
Maybe groups can find an effective way to meet in person and process what happened to us in 2020. I hope it’s something better than a Zoom meeting. We need personal interaction. That was the beauty of Road Scholars.