Bringing Humanities Training to Professional Storytelling and Public Engagement

By Estevan Rael-Gálvez, PhD. Former State Historian of New Mexico, Executive Director at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and Sr. VP of Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Dr. Rael-Gálvez, writer, strategist, and principal of the consulting firm Creative Strategies 360°, received his PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 2000.

Along with my upbringing in a mountain village of northern New Mexico, where I formed my core values and learned my love for storytelling, an especially important part of my journey was my graduate studies in American Culture. My dissertation, “Identifying Captivity and Capturing Identity: Narratives of American Indian Slavery,” revealed the story of American Indian slavery and its complex legacy and identity in the Southwest, and garnered support and recognition, including from the Ford Foundation. Although I never imagined working outside of a university setting while in graduate school, that is precisely what happened, when I chose a pathway serving as a practicing scholar immersed in both the humanities and arts.

When the position of New Mexico State Historian opened up for the first time in nearly two decades, I happened to be on the job market. Though not immediately responding when encouraged to apply, I finally realized this opportunity was precisely the grounding of my scholarship for which I had been hoping. For the eight years I immersed myself in the role, establishing several initiatives, including the New Mexico Digital History Project, which received the National Council on Public History’s Best in the Nation award. Always looking to make history more accessible and interesting, I also worked with the Santa Fe Opera and the History Channel to produce an opera about Japanese internment in New Mexico.

Dr. Rael-Galvez

I next served as Executive Director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the largest Latino/a cultural center in the United States, with oversight of a 51-acre campus, including a Performing Arts Center, Art Museum, Library-Archive, and Educational Department. There, I opened a major international exhibit on contemporary Cuban art, fostered new collaborative efforts with artists, educators and cultural organizations that doubled the programming from previous years, and began a new artist and scholars-in-residence program, the Center for Creativity, Consciousness and Community, supporting the development and creation of new work and points for engagement.

In 2011, I was recruited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. as a key member of the executive team, leading the Historic Sites Department in overseeing a nationwide portfolio of museums and sites. My immediate goals centered on raising the historic sites to higher levels of financial sustainability, structural integrity, and programmatic quality. One of my key initiatives in this role was a project funded by the Innovation Lab for Museums to propel the sites past static portrayals of history toward more vibrant community assets.

Wanting to extend my passion to an even broader base, I have forged a new independent path as a creative strategist, establishing my own consulting firm, Creative Strategies 360°. An enterprise dedicated to stimulating generative ideas as well as their applications to propel change in the world, the firm has engaged in transformative work with a range of communities and cultural based organizations. Girl Scouts of the USA was among the first of my clients, where I led strategic visioning culminating in the design and implementation of new and imaginative installations. First, in Savannah, GA, in that site’s library, we transformed the room into a space that empowers girls of all ages and across cultures. In another project, I designed and implemented a refreshed visitor experience in the organization’s Manhattan headquarters.

Most recently, drawing from my training as an anthropologist and my deep experience as a community organizer, I moved into cultural planning for municipalities, and was engaged by the City of Santa Fe, where I designed and developed the City’s first cultural plan, Culture Connects Santa Fe – A Cultural Cartography, a road map for how culture can be leveraged for the vibrancy, health and wellbeing of the community.

Throughout my career, I also have served on numerous boards, most currently as a trustee for the Santa Fe Opera, where I led the development of a new strategic plan for the internationally recognized company. Other participatory work of note includes membership, under the appointment of the Secretary of the Interior, on the Latino Scholars Expert Committee, advising on the “American Latino Heritage Initiative.”

Dr. Rael-Galvez meeting President Obama

While serving as the State Historian among my proudest moments in board service was my role as the Chairman of the Cultural Properties Review Committee,which establishes preservation policy for the State of New Mexico. In this capacity, I led the committee to set international precedence by fostering inter-cultural dialogue and implementing best practices toward a sustainable policy on tribal consultation. During my tenure, I supported the effort to protect many sites, including an 11th century indigenous Puebloan village, ancient petroglyphs threatened by highway expansion, and finally a sacred mountain, when I led a highly politicized and contentious effort to list this site as one of the largest Traditional Cultural Properties in the United States.

I credit my interdisciplinary PhD training for my commitment to critical thinking, research and writing that has defined my entire career. I value the credentials I received from Michigan and recognize that the PhD allowed me to more effectively navigate the political and professional waters in my career.  Life has twists and turns, so it is important to be open to new and different possibilities and be flexible. Above all, it is important to do what you love. Find your passion and pursue it, no matter the obstacles.

There are certainly obstacles, including the present social-political climate. Although federal funding for the humanities and the arts is less certain than ever, I remain more steadfast than ever before. Culture is so vital to the health of our communities and I recognize that it holds the power to open minds and hearts and to change the world and make it better.

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