“C” is for Call to Action: There’s Much You Can Do, Part II

By Special Contributor posted 05-06-2016 09:51


by Callie Hawkins

For the last two decades, historic sites around the country have been engaged in a steady, thoughtful  discussion about slavery and race. This conversation isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it happens consistently and it happens with the authenticity and veracity that can only happen in an old place, in a place where history happened and history is preserved, and history is connected to the present. This year the Preservation Leadership Forum blog takes a look at National Trust Historic Sites and how their interpretation of slavery has evolved and changed over the years. The full series is available here

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we consider interpreting slavery a vital responsibility, and our training and education programs reflect that value. In Part I, I examined age-based presentations of slavery that guide moral development. Inculcating a strong sense of justice and emphasizing the intrinsic value of human rights can help students of all ages take an active, moral stand when they encounter modern-day inequity.

Students from Baltimore, Maryland, express their feelings about the recent violence in their city. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Whether we want to admit it or not, children are vulnerable to new forms of slavery and racial injustice.

One need not look very far to find examples of racial and social injustice stemming from slavery. And, despite the fact that the 13th Amendment ended legal slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago, slavery still exists within our borders. Certain social experiences, activities, or interpersonal relationships, as well as persistent racial and gender inequity, can leave today’s youth particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Historic sites provide unparalleled context for modern challenges and offer safe spaces for students to share feelings about their everyday experiences.

One month after police clashed with protesters over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, The Cottage welcomed a Baltimore City middle school on a trip that had previously been canceled due to the violence in the city. Cottage staff and school administrators believed that these students needed a safe place to express their thoughts about what was happening in Baltimore. Just as Lincoln often took to writing to help sort out his vision of America contrasted with the country’s reality, these 8th graders were given the opportunity to define their own visions and realities of Baltimore. Starting with the prompt “I want people to know that Baltimore is…,” students were encouraged to express themselves in a few words. Instead, many wrote paragraphs. They detailed their frustration with the police and protesters, revealed their anger at the mischaracterizations of their city in the media, and outlined their own responsibility to make Baltimore a better place.


Youth participants in Students Opposing Slavery strategize ways to take action against modern slavery. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

A primary goal of our interpretation of slavery to high school students is helping them understand it as an ongoing issue that requires big thinking and direct action, just as it did in Lincoln’s time. In 2013 the Cottage launched Students Opposing Slavery (SOS), a grassroots youth engagement program that encourages students to join the fight to end modern slavery. The cornerstone of SOS is the annual Students Opposing Slavery International Summit, a week-long summer program that engages high school students from around the world. This program inspires youth from diverse backgrounds to build a modern, international abolitionist network and movement. Throughout the summit, youth participants work together to cultivate an understanding of modern slavery; develop big ideas around ending it; and meet with antislavery experts, including representatives from nonprofits and federal agencies as well as survivors. This mix of experienced educators, working in concert with partner organizations and content specialists, creates a week of dynamic exercises, brainstorming sessions, and workshops producing achievable action items.

Today there are active SOS chapters around the globe: from Washington, DC, to Washington state, from Moldova to Myanmar. SOS uses an innovative approach—introducing young people to a contemporary problem with significant historical roots and providing them opportunities to play an active role in solving it—that enables participants to cultivate skills in historical and critical thinking, empathy, and global engagement. The program won the 2016 American Alliance of Museums EdCom Award for Excellence in Programming.

 The 2014 Students Opposing Slavery International Summit. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Young people need to understand that real change comes through an actively engaged citizenry.

In a 2013 blog post, Professor Kim Pearson provided teachers and parents with strategies to tackle the subject of slavery with young people:

“…[It] is necessary to be open and honest about the racism of the past and the present while also providing ‘children (and adults) with a vision that change is possible.’ With this in mind, I believe that it is also important to teach children about our journey as a nation from slavery to freedom, the heinous treatment endured by enslaved people, and the importance of becoming advocates and activists who work toward continued progress in race relations.”

Like Pearson, staff at the Cottage believes that hearing the personal stories of enslaved people who fought to secure greater rights not only for themselves but also for others can be inspirational. And there is power in learning about those abolitionists who fought against slavery even though they were not directly affected by it. As a “museum of ideas,” the cottage actively engages our youngest visitors in conversations about slavery and emancipation by providing them opportunities to explore valuable connections between the past and present. This focus on ideas and action—rather than a historical lesson about a long-ago way of life—provides an opening for guides armed with rich primary sources to engage students on issues that have both deep historical roots and extensive modern branches. Interpreting slavery to young people is vital to developing the next generation of abolitionists and humanitarian citizens; it furthers their moral development, provides valuable insight into modern forms of slavery and racial inequality, and presents an inspiring legacy of agency in the face of unspeakable violence.

Hannah Townsend’s Anti-Slavery Alphabet ends with a powerful charge: “Y is for Youth—the time for all Bravely to war with sin; And think not it can ever be Too early to begin. Z is a Zealous man, sincere, Faithful, and just, and true; An earnest pleader for the slave—Will you not be so too?” Surely there are countless other reasons to interpret slavery to young people, but if you’re looking for one, let this be your call to action. Society demands it, and our youth can handle it.

Callie Hawkins is the associate director for programs at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

#Interpretation #AfricanAmerican #Diversity #HistoricSites

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