California Humanities leader aims to amplify LGBTQ voices

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 2, 2023
Share this Post:
Rick Noguchi took over as president and CEO of California Humanities in May. Photo: Courtesy Cal Humanities
Rick Noguchi took over as president and CEO of California Humanities in May. Photo: Courtesy Cal Humanities

With LGBTQ issues again a flashpoint in the country's cultural and political arenas, the new leader of a statewide humanities organization in California is aiming to amplify the voices of LGBTQ individuals and organizations. The goal is to not just benefit those based in the Golden State, but those living and headquartered in states less affirming of LGBTQ rights.

For years California Humanities, the statewide nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been funding LGBTQ initiatives and programs. It continues to do so, recently announcing grants to several LGBTQ agencies in the state.

But the current backlash against LGBTQ rights sweeping across the country, from Republican-controlled statehouses in the South and Midwest to conservative-led school boards and city councils in California, has Rick Noguchi pledging to redouble Cal Humanities' efforts in support of the LGBTQ community.

A straight ally, Noguchi took over as Cal Humanities' president and CEO in May. In a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, the Los Angeles resident said he sees the agency as playing an important role in counterbalancing the anti-LGBTQ voices and rhetoric growing louder throughout the U.S.

"I believe that equity should be at the heart of the humanities. I am committed to continuing California Humanities' efforts for supporting, sharing and respecting stories from across the state and including those from the LGBTQ-plus community," said Noguchi, 55, formerly the chief operating officer at the Japanese American National Museum in his hometown. "We have a long tradition at California Humanities of amplifying those voices of the LGBTQ-plus community in California."

As an example, for its emailed newsletter at the start of Pride Month in June, the agency highlighted the Hi-Desert Queer & Trans Oral History Project, a recipient of one of its quick grants this year for smaller organizations. The project is working to preserve the history of the LGBTQIA+ community in Southern California's western Mojave Desert region.

"It was important for us to put that as the first story and to make that statement this is normality, or should be, in California. There are all these different stories, and we should celebrate the LGBTQ+ community," said Noguchi. "I am very aware of my colleagues across the states where it is difficult for them to take those positions. We see ourselves at California Humanities as able to take that position for those from across the country."

Daryle Williams, Ph.D., is dean of UC Riverside's College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and serves on the board of California Humanities. Photo: UC Riverside  

Backing him is the agency's board, which supports Noguchi's desire to see Cal Humanities "play a national leadership role in addition to doing the work locally," said Daryle Williams, Ph.D., dean of UC Riverside's College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. (Noguchi's daughter attended the school.)

"California Humanities is there to support, create, shape, and amplify so many different experiences and voices through the tools, disciplines, and avenues of the humanities," said Williams, "so LGBTQ voices, subject matter, and people should be in there and has been in there. Having an openness to different experiences and voices, including queer voices, is part of the approach I am drawn to in California Humanities."

A gay man born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area until the age of 7, Williams, 55, returned in 1989 as a graduate student at Stanford and lived in the LGBTQ Castro and Mission districts of the City-by-the-Bay. Now living in Riverside with his husband, Williams joined the Cal Humanities board in February just as it was concluding its search to find a replacement for Julie Fry, who stepped down after leading the agency since 2015.

"Julie left things in a really strong foundation," said Williams. "You get Rick coming in now who doesn't have to worry how to put out a fire and clean up the mess, but how do I continue to build on and tell these stories more by using some of the tools we have through media, education, and marketing to tell stories in a more savvy way."

Noguchi "represented a vision for the humanities in our state that was expansive and inclusive," said Williams. "He was someone who had done the work and thinks about what that work means in a state of such diversity and size."

Among Noguchi's plans is not only continued funding for LGBTQ programs but also using Cal Humanities' marketing prowess to take more public stands on various issues. The agency is in the process of hiring a new director of development to lead its fundraising effort to support such messaging in addition to its other work. (The deadline to apply is Friday, August 4.)

"We do see that as one of our platforms as a leadership organization, not to just be a grant maker that passively awards funds but takes positions on issues," said Noguchi. "We are here to support the diversity of communities in California and we strongly believe in equity. Right now, when we get applications from organizations that are lifting up those voices, they will be considered in our process. We are always happy when we are able to fund something that supports those voices."

In its July newsletter, the agency criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's decision allowing a Christian web designer to discriminate against engaged same-sex couples based on her faith. It called the opinion from the court's conservative majority "a dangerous precedent that will compromise civil rights protections in the U.S." and "inconsistent" with its own values.

The agency also highlighted its opposition to book bans and support of state leaders' efforts to block such policies in public schools and libraries, while also providing links to resources for those interested in getting more involved in pushing back.

"A range of perspectives are core to the humanities, so when diverse voices are banned and silenced, then we must step up and call out the dangers to our democracy," stated Noguchi. "The voices of people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals must be represented and heard."

Noting there are "pretty dark clouds gathering" in numerous states, Williams said Cal Humanities can serve as an example that supporting diverse voices results in myriad benefits.

"We have an opportunity to demonstrate what can be successful in one state and inspire another state humanities council to continue that work, or adopt that work, even in the face of legislative hostility or civic activism," said Williams.

Telling diverse California stories
The humanities run the gamut from film, dance, and poetry to history, literature, and languages. It also encompasses a wide array of settings, from academia and large cultural institutions to regional museums and online-based archives.

The National Endowment for the Humanities awards grants directly for state-based programs and projects, announcing $3.6 million in such funding to California recipients in January. It also funds the statewide humanities agencies.

Thus, the federal agency awarded Cal Humanities $3.5 million this year, with $1,855,000 to be regranted to various applicants from around the state. Its total budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which ended June 30, was $4,644,660. (Noguchi's salary is nearly $180,000.)

"Our federal tax dollars are having a direct impact in our state through Cal Humanities," noted Williams, whose college has been a recipient of grants from the agency. "I think it is pretty important when we think about where our tax dollars go and how they benefit and enrich people's specific lived lives."

In June, the state agency announced $270,000 in Humanities for All Project Grant awards, with one going to Los Angeles County's ONE Archives Foundation, the oldest active LGBTQ+ organization in the United States. The grant will help support its upcoming anniversary commemoration "70 Years as ONE: A Queer History Festival," taking place in October during LGBTQ+ History Month.

Another grant went toward creating a ti'aat, or traditional plank-built boat used by the Tongva and Chumash (tomol) peoples from present-day Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, to be launched from the National Park Service's Aquatic Park in San Francisco, which sits on Ohlone land, during the city's 2024 National Queer Arts Festival. The project, 'Eyoomkuuka'ro Kokomaar (We Paddle Together), is a Two-Spirit centered collaboration between L. Frank Manriquez, the Queer Cultural Center, and Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS).

One aspect of Noguchi's vision for Cal Humanities that impressed Williams was his focus on not just agencies and projects in the state's larger metropolitan regions but also in more ex-urban and rural sectors of California. Geographic diversity is critical in a state of such immense size, noted Williams.

"Each of the different parts of the state have different feels and different audiences that all should be receiving support," he said.

Katherine Fobear, Ph.D., with the Qistory program associated with Fresno's Community Link, told the B.A.R. she hopes the grants that Cal Humanities awards to smaller organizations continue under Noguchi's leadership. A $5,000 Humanities for All Quick Grant her volunteer-run group received last year funded its "Mapping Queer Fresno" project.

"It is one of the greatest supporters of local arts and humanities all across California. It is also very accessible in regards to applying for grants and getting money to support a wide and diverse array of programming, from individual artists to documentarians, to help supporting public history initiatives like Qistory," said Fobear, 37, a queer cisgender woman who is the founder and coordinator of the new LGBTQ studies minor at California State University, Fresno. "Cal Humanities is incredible at supporting projects very locally based."

Katherine Fobear, Ph.D., teaches at California State University, Fresno. Photo: Courtesy Cal State Fresno  

Qistory's founder, Jeffrey Robinson, died in January 2022 months before the program learned it had received the grant from the state agency. Fobear and her colleagues used the funding to host a series of public talks last fall, which helped guide the creation of the website that went live in May.

"There are very few resources or grants out there to fund something that locally based," said Fobear, who lives in Madera and grew up in Michigan. "Qistory is this small program under Community Link with a focus on empowering people to collect and to become public historians, as well as try to preserve as much of our local history as possible for future generations."

Without the Cal Humanities grant, Fobear told the B.A.R. it is unlikely they would have been able to launch the online repository for Fresno's LGBTQ history. Because the state agency didn't require it to have matching funds, Qistory was able to apply, she noted.

"It is a lower barrier for collectives of individuals, whether local historians, artists or educators, to get some funds to support a project. From that, you can build," said Fobear. "For our program to grow, we needed that website. We didn't have space for a museum or capacity to do something like that."

The small grants Cal Humanities awards may seem insignificant, said Fobear, but they are critically important and should continue to be offered.

"We still have to fight for a seat at the table sometimes," Fobear said of LGBTQ organizations. "For me, I am very grateful for the opportunity Cal Humanities did for us. It has given us a launching pad to continue building our program."

Noguchi told the B.A.R. he wants to maintain and expand the smaller grants. To do so, he aims to increase the private dollars Cal Humanities is able to attract. It will also provide a buffer against economic downturns that result in less government provided funding.

"Any organization has to have a diverse stream of revenue, so I am looking at private donations," he said. "It will give us more flexibility in the work that we do."

For its grantees, having the support of Cal Humanities can be leveraged to attract other funders, noted Williams. For donors, even if making a less sizable contribution, they can support projects of importance to them that may otherwise go unfunded, he added.

"It provides a more direct connection to see themselves in the endeavor of the humanities," said Williams.

And it will assist in another goal of Noguchi's, increasing Californians' awareness about the humanities.

"Once people understand the power of the humanities, they will be very supportive of what we do, especially in bridging communities and developing empathy in individuals, so we can better understand each other," he told the B.A.R.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.