The African American Heritage Corner Week Nine

The beauty of Chautauqua rests in its otherworldliness. From the rustling of the oak trees as you sit within the Hall of Philosophy, to the quiet peace of a walk along the lake before the sun has risen, this place holds a special combination of beauty and peace. For thousands of people, over almost 150 years, the Institution has been an escape from the reality of daily life. Imagine a dinner table at any house on the grounds. It is 6 p.m. and the porches are bustling with a steady stream of conversations and laughter. You begin to set the table for a large dinner party placing cutlery, glasses, napkins and plates at every chair. Once the guests begin to arrive, you meet them at the door welcoming them warmly into your foyer. “Make yourself at home,” you say as each person replies with a grateful smile.

In my role as the program director for the African American Heritage House, I am often asked by extremely well-meaning Chautauquans, “Why don’t more Black people come to Chautauqua?”

I attempt to tactfully reframe that question by suggesting that the question itself is problematic. The question we should be interested in is:

Why is Chautauqua unable to retain African American guests? Why do so few return once they have visited?

These questions, at times, ruffle feathers though they are asked with the same kindness and idealistic curiosity. The point of the questions is to move the onus from Black people to the Institution itself. 

Simply put, it is time for Chautauqua Institution and all Chautauquans to set the table for all who walk through the Main Gate.

So, what does it mean to set the table? 

In crafting a culture of inclusion, we must begin on an interpersonal level. Foundational relationships occur through a cultural shift towards openness and locating similarity before difference. This is central to the work of the AAHH, which is passionate about strengthening Chautauqua by encouraging and welcoming diversity and fostering honest conversations. This season, we have worked to set the table of inclusivity for all through our weekly programs including our speaker series, porch chats and diverse community events. Additionally, our historical archival work, focusing on African Americans’ experiences and contributions to the intellectual, artistic and physical foundation of the Institution, works to center often unheard historical narratives. The AAHH has grown tremendously this season through the continued support of enthusiastic audience members eager to engage in dialogue.

Importantly, the work of creating a better Chautauqua begins in the hearts, minds and actions of our neighbors. It may be hard to know where to begin. The overwhelming pressure and issues of our world lead to stagnation. We have set out three discrete strategies which every Chautauquan can incorporate into their daily lives. These have come from our experiences over the last 10 years, but have been more sharply focused by our experiences this year as we have sought to reach more through our efforts. 

Begin with commonalities: Setting the table for a more diverse Chautauqua begins with how we approach those different from us. When we begin with common connections instead of differences, we create room for authentic connections and dialogue.

Be OK with becoming better informed through correction: No one is perfect, and we all have unconscious bias. Therefore, mistakes and missteps will be made. Be open to listening to ways in which we can show up better, as people with multiple identities in this space is crucial.

Be an active bystander: When the behavior around us does not reflect the shared values of the Institution, it is our responsibility — if you feel comfortable — to prevent, discourage and mitigate behavior of exclusion and othering. 

As we work together as a community moving forward through compassion, honesty and vulnerability, these strategies help to guarantee that everyone has not just a seat at the table, but everything they need to enjoy their dinner in community with each other.

Bon appétit

— Camille “Mimi” Borders, AAHH Program Director

—Erroll Davis, AAHH President 

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