by Lucia Anaya (MA 2014)
The humanities are often regarded as existing solely in the world of academia—disciplines scholars and intellectuals research, ponder, and discuss among one another—not accessible to the public. But for the past 24 years, the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) has been working hard to trump this assumption, creating a platform where cultural, artistic, and educational opportunities in the humanities are open to everyone. No one is more in tune with CHF’s mission than Corrina Lesser (MA 2010), who is among the 18 individuals planning and organizing one of CHF’s biggest events of the year—its fall festival.
As the Assistant Director of Programming, Lesser has been working around the clock booking fiction writers, poets, and other literary figures for a multitude of public events across the city between October and November this year. "Our organization is the largest public humanities organization in the country, and the public piece is what really sets us apart,” says Lesser. "We’re trying to make these conversations community-minded and community-oriented.”
Every year, Lesser digs into her extensive network of artists, writers, and teachers to curate the events that heed CHF’s mission. Her past roles working at Houghton Mifflin Company and for the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University gave her a diverse understanding of the literary arts, while her time as a graduate student in SAIC’s Arts Administration and Policy program helped her connect to the cultural community of Chicago.
"From going to First Fridays to having projects where I needed to interview people in other arts organizations—those relationships have served me incredibly well in my role in the Humanities Festival,” says Lesser. "So much of what we do and what’s at the core is about partnerships, whether they’re idea-driven or venue partnerships, and I feel SAIC set me up really nicely for that.”
One such partnership has been with Sara Levine, chair of SAIC's Writing departmet, who Lesser met while a graduate student at the school. Together they’ve worked to co-curate writers who are both a good match for the theme of the festival, as well as appeal to Levine’s students. Those writers often have workshops where students submit their work ahead of time and have their work critiqued by the writer. In the past, writers such as Claudia Rankine, Cristina Henriquez, and Etgar Keret have participated. This year, Justin Torres, author of We The Animals, will do the same.
Outside of the classroom, a partnership with Poetry magazine will bring literary star Lemony Snicket to Chicago, while other partnerships will help present authors such as Junot Diaz and Anne Carson. Lesser says she is always mindful of booking individuals for the festival who are passionate, knowledgeable, and want to engage rather than just be heard.
"The humanities underline human existence and our interactions with people,” says Lesser. "For me, being an intellectually curious, compassionate human being is about having the types of conversations that our presenters want us to be having…. These are people who are dedicating their lives to that sort of exploration.”