Week Eight Column from the President

Welcome to Week Eight of our 145th Assembly. Every year, as president, I have the luxury of picking certain themes because I think they are “mission critical,” and this week is the one that fits that bill. I have been probing the thesis that created this week since I arrived as president some 20 months ago.

The premise of this week’s question is both simple and profound: Why do we experience moments in history, and at their apparent conclusion, utter the words “never again,” only to find ourselves and our society back in the same place years later? Is it our naiveté that causes us to believe we’ve solved these issues, or is there something about the way that human beings think, process and compartmentalize that doesn’t allow us to bring forward the lessons from history to create a more just world? How can we be stewards of remembering, and what must we remember? We are responsible for the histories of our societies, our families and of our own individual selves. How can we preserve, honor and ultimately learn from what was and what is? This meeting of the past and present hinges upon what — and who — we must remember. This week, we’ll seek these answers by looking at some of the defining moments of the past century with speakers who will help translate what they mean for us today and how we should be learning from them for a better tomorrow.

Our guides include an incredible list of leaders, and their topics are not easy ones: Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, surveys the American historical memory; David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, looks at crime and racial injustice in America; Beverly Warren, president of Kent State University, takes us back to the shooting death of four students in protest of the Vietnam War; Abby Smith Rumsey, author and historian, looks at how we create, preserve and use memory itself; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights icon and president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, closes the week in conversation with the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, in a conversation moderated by the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson. It promises to be a powerful, powerful week.

The Jackson-Campbell conversation also connects to our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, which, in a slight twist on the week’s overall focus, will focus on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during this, the 50th anniversary year of his assassination. This is not the traditional lifting up of Dr. King’s life; rather, it looks at the later years when he expanded his focus from racial justice to the linkages of race, war and poverty. Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, author of the acclaimed book Just Mercy, launches this series. It seems perfect during this anniversary year to spend the week looking at what lessons we can still learn from this American icon.

I’m personally also excited about this week’s chaplain of the week. The Rev. Irene Monroe has a gripping personal story and has used that narrative to become a driving force for equal rights for all people in the nation. I’ll leave the rest to her and her own reflections, but she is a fresh and interesting theological voice you won’t want to miss.

It’s an incredible week for the arts and artists. We welcome our friends from the Nashville Ballet this week. They will be working privately on a new piece with Rhiannon Giddens, who takes the Amphitheater stage Wednesday, Aug. 15, with Francesco Turrisi. Joshua Bell joins us to bring life to the film “The Red Violin,” we have our Chautauqua School of Dance Gala, and Chautauqua Theater Company opens its final mainstage presentation of the 2018 season, Into the Breeches!.

As we celebrate this incredible range and diversity of programs and events, Chautauqua Institution continues on its journey toward creating a community that is more welcoming and more representative of the diversity that exists in our nation and world. Our staff recently participated in a professional development program designed to introduce the concept of unconscious bias and to invite them to pursue enhanced understanding of their own unconscious biases and the impact of bias on interpersonal engagement and the evolution of relationships. As I join them in this charge, I find myself startled almost daily as I recognize the “default settings” of my unconsciousness — those natural impulses that often send me down that highly traveled road paved with good intentions.

It is from this perspective that I offer a reminder about one of the more unique aspects of our community — the opportunity to engage with our artists, speakers and other program guests outside of the program venues. We typically invite program guests to consider spending time at Chautauqua beyond their contractual commitments so that they can better understand and appreciate the context of our community. Our hope is these experiences will be chief among the reasons they choose to return and actively advocate for our mission. Unfortunately, there have been a few circumstances this season when program guests have felt unduly imposed upon in our community. Cherishing this community as I do, I expect these interactions were initiated with good intentions. Nevertheless, I ask for a heightened level of sensitivity and care as we engage our program guests. We want to maintain our signature level of access while also providing space for them to feel at home here without the need to feel guarded — allowing them to be their authentic selves in our community.

I truly had a blast with Yo-Yo Ma on Friday. What a generous, thoughtful and fun-spirited conversation partner and artist. As he so compellingly related during his morning lecture, Chautauqua’s mission to explore the best in human values emerges as increasingly relevant in our world today. I relish the two remaining weeks we have to live more deeply into this magnificent calling.

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Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill