As director of programs and community engagement at Indiana Humanities, Leah Nahmias works to hit the sweet spot of designing smart yet fun programs that get Hoosiers to explore big ideas and take part in meaningful conversations. Since joining the team in late 2014, Leah’s been focused on scaling Indiana Humanities programs across the state—she’s a self-described process person—while also creating one-of-a-kind special events in Indianapolis. There’s nothing she loves more than sitting down with a partner to imagine a new program and figure out how to make it happen.
Leah believes deeply in the importance of the humanities and the power of teaching and understanding to enrich the lives and open the imaginations of ordinary people. This faith has guided her career in the broad, eclectic and emerging field of public humanities, including as a program officer with the New York Council for the Humanities and as resident history educator with the American Social History Project based at the City University of New York.
Leah started her career as a high school U.S. History teacher with Teach For America in Charlotte, North Carolina. Originally from Greensburg, Indiana, Leah holds an MA in public humanities from Brown University and a BA in history and East Asian Studies from Indiana University. She loves big trees, Peruvian textiles, old buildings and people and experiences that don’t fit neatly into categories. You can friend her on Goodreads to see what she’s been reading lately.
How long have you lived in Indy?
In November it’s three years as an adult (I also lived here for the first three years of my life — born at Methodist Hospital!). I moved back here after 10 years up and down the East Coast — as a teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, then in grad school in Providence, Rhode Island, and then five years in New York City. I grew up in Greensburg and went to IU, so my Hoosier roots are deep; most of my extended family live in Indianapolis and I grew up coming here regularly to shop, see family, go to baseball games and museums, and go to temple.
I currently live on the Old Northside, which I love — it was really important to me to live in a walkable neighborhood. I really miss that about New York, so I’m glad I landed in a neighborhood where I can walk to work, walk to restaurants and events downtown, etc. Honestly, the thing I’ve been most excited about in Indy since moving back here is how much denser the city is and the investment in bike trails, public transit and everything else to make the city more accessible without a car. I do have a car, but when I can avoid it, I like to. My favorite thing to do with out-of-town visitors is rent Pacers bikes and explore the greater downtown area; New Yorkers are always stunned by a) the size of my apartment, b) how good the food scene is (especially at the price compared to NYC) and c) that you can have a great car-free experience here.
Even though I grew up going to Indy my whole life, since I’ve moved back I’ve been fascinated to discover how this city works — like, we have this really unique culture of public-private partnership (often for better, sometimes for worse). I also find people and organizations are INCREDIBLY collaborative and generous with their partnership, rather than territorial — do you know how many times I’ve randomly emailed or called someone and asked if they’d help me with something and they’ve said yes?! Partnership and collaboration is in Indy’s DNA. In my experience, we also have an incredibly generous and risk-taking philanthropic community. It’s stunning how many small and medium cultural organizations have endowments, for instance. There’s a real culture of invitation here, from institutions and individuals, who will allow you to try ideas and get involved. I think people who’ve always lived and worked here take that for granted and don’t realize how special that is — you could bottle and sell it to other cities. I always describe Indianapolis as a really fun sandbox to play in.
Why have you focused on using your skills in the nonprofit sector?
It’s funny because I’ve honestly never been interested in a job that wasn’t in the nonprofit sector. It’s like my brain just doesn’t “see” all the kinds of corporate, for-profit careers and has filtered them out of my field of vision. A big part of my life and self-identity is my work, so work needs to feed my soul. Connecting people and working in a mission-driven environment does that. And I need space to geek out over ideas, in addition to being creative. As far as I can tell, those kinds of jobs exist in the nonprofit sector at arts and culture nonprofits and museums, or places like schools and universities. And while I think it’s important that nonprofit workers be compensated fairly for good work, I also know that at the end of the day, money isn’t my biggest motivator. I draw a HUGE amount of my motivation and energy from the sense of working with ambitious, smart people towards a shared purpose. The most dispiriting points of my career have come when I didn’t feel that sense of shared purpose.
How did you find your current position?
I love this story. For a variety of reasons I knew I was ready to leave my old job, though at the time I didn’t think I would leave the East Coast. I had just started a quiet phase of job searching when I got an email out of the blue from my college friend Sonja (perhaps you follow her food blog?), who had randomly been at a rehearsal dinner with someone who worked at Indiana Humanities. That person mentioned in passing that the director of programs job was open and Sonja made the connection to me, because I worked for the New York equivalent of Indiana Humanities. So Sonja emailed, I’m paraphrasing, “I know you’re happy at your job and all, but is there any chance you’d be willing to talk to the folks at IH?” She had no way of knowing that I was ready to leave my old job — sometimes the world works in mysterious ways.
I was super intrigued — Indiana Humanities had a good national reputation in my world and I’d met our CEO Keira Amstutz at our annual conferences and other gatherings and liked her a lot. In the humanities world, we’re a bunch of nerds, but the Indiana team was just so cool! They did these innovative programs and had beautiful communications; I was curious to learn more about it and excited by the possibility of joining a really high-performing team (like I said, that feeling of shared purpose with ambitious people is a huge motivator for me).
It also just felt right — the longer I stayed on the East Coast, the more my professional network would be out there; it was like, if I’m ever going to move back to the Midwest, this is it. So I said yes to doing a Skype interview. If you know Keira, you also know she moves fast, too — I had this great Skype interview with her and the team, another phone call with her, and then I had a job offer. I work with some incredibly talented people, but I also had some skills and experiences that IH really needed, so it just felt like it was meant to be. Being director of programs for a humanities council is pretty much my dream job, so to get to do that in my home state with a boss and a team that share my passion for making Indiana better and for taking creative risks — it’s been a really good fit!
What would you say to another young professional considering a nonprofit job?
You have to learn how to be an advocate for yourself and learn how to set boundaries. Because we’re mission-driven, there’s a real martyr complex where it’s typical to work crazy hours for low pay, for instance. Entry-level jobs pay terribly and/or are short-term, contingent or lack benefits. A lot of these conditions are unsustainable for workers and lead to burn out, which a real problem in our sector. I wish I had learned earlier how to ask for a raise and how to value my skills, to feel comfortable and confident asking for what I needed and felt was fair. It doesn’t help that our field is dominated by women — women’s labor is typically undervalued and underpaid, and we’re often acculturated to feel guilty for putting our needs ahead of others’. I tell early-career professionals in my field that two years is your time-horizon — two years and you need a pay raise and/or a title change/promotion.
I’ve also learned how to set boundaries — am I checking email when I’m not at work or on vacation? Personally, I often work long past 5pm (I like the quiet, and there’s always lots to do), but once I’m home, in the evenings or on the weekends, I’m not checking email, so if you need me, you should text. If I’m on vacation, I’m truly unavailable — I actually texted a coworker “I’m on vacation” when he texted me a non-urgent question when I was out on personal time recently. That’s how I recharge my batteries and I couldn’t put in the time, focus and creativity otherwise. I also know myself — if I read an email on my phone, I won’t retain much detail and I’m a total disaster at writing anything cogent on a mobile device! I respect that some people either don’t mind or even enjoy being on or do lots of work on their phones (I work with people like that!), but I’ve learned that doesn’t work for me and helped my coworkers understand my limitations.
You also have to build a culture of celebrating success, because what we do is hard and it’s so typical to move on to the next thing quickly without reflecting on what went well, what was learned, and thinking about the big picture of your impact. This is one of the things we do really well at Indiana Humanities, whether it’s sending affirmative text messages to each other before and during events, celebrating personal milestones as well as professional growth, or toasting ourselves when we get a grant, award or some other external validation of our work. It’s something I didn’t know was missing from my work life until I experienced it!
Okay, one more thing I read on Twitter that is VERY TRUE: A meeting with more than five people is not a decision-making meeting, it’s an update.
If you could learn a brand new skill, what would it be?
It wouldn’t do anything for me professionally, but I really wish I knew how to identify trees and plants. I get so much out of a hike with people who can read the landscape in that way. I’ve attended talks and I listen intently when naturalists point things out to me but it’s in one ear and out the other. I’m good at retaining how people have used plants or even their niche within an ecosystem, but when it comes to looking at bark or leaf shapes, I’m a total dumb-dumb.
If you were an inanimate object, what would you be and why?
On the weekends, I kind of am an inanimate object, to be honest. I saw this funny tweet recently that really spoke to me: “I don’t understand people who do things on weekends. You just did things all week. What’s next, more things?? That’s how they get you.”
What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
This question is triggering some existential dread in me. I’ll keep it simple and say that I’m ready to join a board of some other nonprofit.
Share a little-known treasure of Indianapolis with us.
The Etz Chaim Sisterhood Bake Sale. Etz Chaim is the city’s tiny but awesome Sephardic congregation, that I grew up a part of (my last name is weird, but it’s super recognizable within this small community). The ladies of the Congregation make all these really delicious Sephardic treats — homemade baklava and a whole bunch of cookies and other treats that have multiple names and don’t have easy English spellings (e.g., taarlikous or bicochos). There aren’t a lot of Sephardic communities in the United States and Indy’s is one of the most significant, so take advantage! It’s usually in the fall — check their Facebook page. I recommend pre-ordering.
Most important question: We’re creating a 2018 To-Do list – activities that will make us better, smarter and kinder (to start)! What three soul-touching, mind-expanding creative works (in any medium – song, novel, poem, street art, speech, etc.), should we include to look at, listen to or read in the next 12 months?
I recently had one of the most profound and moving art experiences of my life at SFMOMA’s Soundtracks exhibit — and I don’t typically respond to sound art. The piece was this giant, multi-screen installation of a performance by Ragnar Kjartansson called “The Visitors”. Nothing online really captures it, so I guess I’d say seek out opportunities to see it or others of his work and give yourself over to it. It’s a bucket list art experience.
Follow Robert Macfarlane on Twitter; he’s a scholar who studies place names and words for natural phenomenon in old languages, especially the British Isles. So, for instance, “fret”, which refers to a “light, wet mist that moves in from the sea to haunt the coastal lands” or the precise Finnish words for different degrees of light on the horizon between sunset and nightfall. Each post of his is a meditation on nature and language, and often an insight into the worldview of another culture.
Hoosier native Michael Martone’s essay “The Flatness”, about the effect of our “flat” landscape on us, helped me understand myself as a Midwesterner.
"I’m really high on our Books, Booze & Brains, a book club for the scientifically curious. It’s a collaboration between Indiana Humanities, Central Indiana Science Outreach, March for Science Indianapolis and the Indiana State Museum. It was a quirky little idea to have folks read popular science books and bring in a scientist with expertise in the field to help folks understand it. It’s gone over like gangbusters (it was mentioned in a Washington Post article about the after-effects of the March for Science movement!) and I’ve met so many great people and encountered so many big ideas since it started!
We’re doing it as part of our Quantum Leap initiative, which explores the intersection of the humanities with science and technology. Books, Booze & Brains is a perfect embodiment of our belief that “smart doesn’t have to be boring and fun doesn’t have to be frivolous” at Indiana Humanities, and the partnership with the other orgs has been a true joy — a great example of the collaborative culture I described. We meet monthly but we skip December, so you can catch us in 2018! We’re talking about Ready Player One on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at Broken Beaker Distillery downtown."