The National Endowment for the Art’s Big Read program has awarded over one thousand grants to nonprofits since its inception in 2006, according to its website. These grants, which can be as much as $15,000, are meant to assist nonprofits in creating community programming centered on a piece of literature. Joshua Feist, the programming director for the NEA’s Big Read Program at Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, says the goal of the program is to incite a love of literature with help from the community.
"The goal is to get as many people literally on the same page as possible through reading and to encourage reading through a series of events that happen around town to get them excited to dive in," Feist said. Hopeful participants choose from a series of books approved by the NEA and pitch their programming ideas related to the selected literature. Mark Christ, head of adult programming for the Central Arkansas Library System, said their grant writing process began after realizing a connection to Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War novel "The Things They Carried."
"Brad Mooy, who runs the CALS book festival knew somebody who knew Tim O’Brien and it turned out that I actually knew [someone who knew] him as well; Alex Vernon who is a writer and an O’Brien scholar, who teaches at Hendrix College," Christ said. This lead to a brainstorming session for programming ideas and the eventual writing of the application, a six-week process over what Christ called a "hectic holiday season."
CALS received $14,900 for its Big Read program, centered on "The Things They Carried," and slated to run from March 16 through April 26, 2020. CALS was one of over 100 organizations to apply for this year’s Big Read grant. Of that number, only 78 received it. Arts Midwest is in charge of the selection of the grants. According to Feist, a panel of 16 reviewers ranging from authors to community organizers, review the applications and give recommendations to the National Endowment for the Arts for approval. In reading the comments from the panel itself, Feist said the programming ideas were a highlight of the proposal.
"They thought they were varied and creative and include a lot of diverse audience such as veterans, adult learners and youths and that the activities themselves were inspiring and educational," Feist said. According to Christ, CALS’ Big Read programming involves several forms of media and partners.
"We’ll have book clubs reading the book. We’re going to do a series of films both fictional and documentary at the Ron Robinson theater. The MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History is going to do a 'Project Song,' where they bring in songwriters to work with veterans and they create a song based on their experiences," Christ said. The event itself will culminate on April 26th with remarks from O’Brien himself, a little more than 30 years after the initial publication of his book. According to Feist, a lot of organizations spend a portion of their grant money the same way.
"Books for sure, and then they often opt to bring the author in and those are the two main expenses," Feist said. Christ says a lot of the funding will go towards O’Brien’s fee, but CALS will also be spending the grant on buying plenty of books and on various programming. As grant recipients, the library system has gone through training about programing expectation as well has had the opportunity to talk to previous grant winners. According to Feist, CALS is also not the only one to pick "The Things They Carried" for this grant year.
"There will be one or two other organizations that have started and finished in the fall, and so they’ll have a more recent opportunity to ask they community that finished what challenges they faced or any recommendations they have," Feist said. "And of course since we’ve facilitated many grants around this book and others, we can serve as a resource for them as well."
According to Christ, CALS has reached out to school districts within the Central Arkansas Library System’s area to potentially “bring them into” the program. They are also open to further programming ideas and encourage organizations to reach out to them.
"The Big Read provides a mechanism for us to explore not just the book, but other aspects of literature around war and conflict and things like that. So it plants the seeds for a lot of creative thinking," Christ said.