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Getting to Why

From The President
Getting to Why


Why does an environmentalist protect a special prairie just outside of Eau Claire? Why does a poet find the beginnings of a sonnet in an orchard in Bayfield, or a novelist the plot-toend-all-plots in a Milwaukee café? Why does a team of research scientists seek their own eureka moment in Madison?

Searching for the answers to these questions helps me better understand why I am the new president of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. The short answer to the question of Why? is because I believe in the "why" of the Wisconsin Academy: To connect people and ideas for a better Wisconsin. It's a simple and noble purpose, and one that can help us transcend the daily divisiveness of politics, race, and class.

As the founder and creative director of the communications firm Good for Business, I've had the honor of helping businesses and organizations unearth, capture, and communicate their noble purposes. There is immense gratification in helping a purpose-led organization thrive and succeed. By putting purpose first, these organizations become positive- some cases transformative -forces in the lives of their customers, constituencies, and communities. Their real bottom line is making a meaningful difference in life.

About ten years ago the Wisconsin Academy asked me to help them refine and better communicate their purpose, and I've been a believer in this organization ever since. In fact, I believe there isn't a more important time than today-right now, in fact-for the Wisconsin Academy to fully realize its purpose; the success of the Wisconsin Academy is directly connected to the success of our great state. Let me illustrate this connection on a personal level.

This past September, my youngest daughter accompanied me to the Academy Evenings conversation entitled, Talking Resolution: A Conversation on Violence, Restorative Justice and Human Rights. We listened to Janine Geske, a Distinguished Professor of Law at Marquette University and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, and Scott Straus, an associate professor of political science at UW-Madison and coordinator of the school's Human Rights Initiative, discuss ways in which victims, their families, and entire communities can heal after unspeakable acts of violence. The informative and inspirational conversation had both global and local implications, touching on topics ranging from genocide in Rwanda to homicide in Wisconsin, from forgiveness to foreign policy, from the spiritual to the legal.

As I sat there with my daughter listening to these two remarkable people (who are from Milwaukee and Madison, respectively), I knew this Academy Evenings discussion would help make Wisconsin a better state in myriad ways. I believe these two prominent public figures enhanced their own respective bodies of knowledge through their interaction with one another and will certainly take what they learned back to their organizations. I would also say all in the audience that night were participants in this Academy Evenings discussion, too. All were impacted and enlightened in some way, if only from the stories of victims and their tremendous capacity for forgiveness, stories which listeners may well share with friends and colleagues. Then there is the live video capture and broadcast of this discussion on both television and the Internet, creating continuing connections between engaged citizens throughout the state. Such public events fortify our citizenship, making us more informed and better colleagues, better friends, and better Wisconsinites.

Other recent examples of how the Wisconsin Academy is continually connecting people and ideas includes The Fine Art of Children's Book Illustration exhibition held at the James Watrous Gallery last fall. The exhibition opener drew an overflow audience to listen to a panel of Wisconsin book illustrators discuss the ways in which words and illustrations come together to captivate and entertain readers both young and old. Also last year, professor Constance Steinkuehler led an Academy Evenings discussion of how playing video games can lead to higher order problem solving. And recently, the Wisconsin People & Ideas section entitled "Read Wisconsin" was conceived as a way to share the best of Wisconsin books and book culture. This is, of course, but a snapshot of the connections offered by the Wisconsin Academy to everyone, all the time.

I'll again have the opportunity to write to Wisconsin Academy members and readers of this magazine at the end of my term two years from now: I know I will then report that Wisconsin is a better state because of the Wisconsin Academy. In the meantime and to help get us there, the Wisconsin Academy will capitalize on technologies that let us expand both the breadth and depth of our connection to citizens. Even as we explore new technological avenues for enhancing our programs, we will continue to provide the kind of live, in-person exchanges necessary for turning creative and meaningful ideas into action.

Earlier in this article I made the claim that there isn't a more important time than now for the Wisconsin Academy to realize its purpose. In the spaces the Wisconsin Academy creates for civic engagement-whether intimate lectures or expansive digital salons, provocative gallery exhibitions or penetrating magazine articles-you will always find civil exploration of ideas, art, and culture. I really do believe these spaces are needed now more than ever. By winnowing through the vast amount of information that surrounds us, the Wisconsin Academy brings a crucial objectivity and clarity to the ideas and issues that affect us all. As a member of the Academy, you are as central to our purpose as I am. Together, we're part of a positive movement leading to an engaged citizenry-and a truly better Wisconsin.

P.S.: If you aren't a member of the Wisconsin Academy, you really need to ask yourself, Why not?


Jim Armstrong is a former president (2011-2012) of the Wisconsin Academy Board and a former Academy appointee to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. He is also Founder and Creative Director of Good for Business, a communications company dedicated to helping businesses and organizations unearth, capture and communicate their ‘cause’.

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Wisconsin Academy Administrative Offices and Steenbock Gallery
1922 University Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608-263-1692

James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608-265-2500