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Chautauqua’s DNA is to pivot and not go away when confronted with challenges, says Robinson, final preacher for 2020 season

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If the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson had to write a school essay on what he learned this summer, it might begin this way:

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“‘I learned that a 147-year-old institution, that worships its past, is far more nimble and courageous than it is sometimes given credit for,’” he would write. “‘It was a reminder that, in spite of our love of tradition, in the Institution’s DNA is the ability to pivot instead of curl up and go away. I am proud to be a part of it; it has been exciting and humbling. Nothing short of a pandemic says, ‘Change or let it defeat you.’”

Robinson, senior pastor and vice president of religion at Chautauqua Institution, will be the chaplain for the final service of worship and sermon at 11 a.m. EDT Sunday, Aug. 30, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. The service will be recorded live in the Amphitheater. His sermon title is “Chautauqua: For Such a Time as This” (Esther 4:14), and the scripture text will be Genesis 32: 22-31.

“I am very close to our entire team: Maureen Rovegno, Zach Stahlsmith, Roz Dahlie and Justin Schmitz and Josh Stafford. It has never taken a team this large to do what we do in the Department of Religion, but it would not work if any one of them was missing,” Robinson said.

Robinson was elected Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire on June 7, 2003, becoming the first openly gay and partnered priest to be elected bishop in historic Cristendom. He served as the ninth bishop of New Hampshire until his retirement in early 2013.

A senior fellow at both the Center for American Progress and Auburn Seminary, Robinson is a celebrated interfaith leader whose ministry has focused on helping congregations and clergy, especially in times of conflict, utilizing his skills in congregational dynamics, conflict resolution and mediation.

He is the author of In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, published in 2006, and God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, published in 2012. In addition to being a popular speaker in the United States and abroad, he writes opinion columns on a variety of topics for The Daily Beast, Huffington Post and Time.com.

This program is made possible by the Marie Reid-Edward Spencer Babcox Memorial Fund.

Hill to reflect on the 2020 season in three taps closing ceremony

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Chautauqua Institution was built on traditions — both big and small. From front porch conversations, to Recognition Day for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, Bryant Day, Old First Night and the Three Taps of the Gavel. When it was decided the 2020 season would take place online, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill wasn’t willing or ready to leave any of them behind. 

“We had a conversation early on in our planning, where we talked about one of our goals being not allowing the arc of tradition to snap. I’m sad we couldn’t bring every tradition forward, but I think we really, really tried to get the biggies,” Hill said. “It was fun for me to see how many people showed up for them.”

Hill will reflect on the virtual season during the final Sacred Song Service and Closing Three Taps of the Gavel, “If We Knew Then …” at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday, Aug. 30, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform

I certainly think the closing ceremony and Three Taps — doing them from the Amphitheater with the Massey Organ — is a way to reassure people that the Chautauqua you know and love is still here,” Robinson said.

Aside from traditions, Hill said Chautauqua Institution is known for its “heavy sense of community.” Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson believes that the success of the season falls to both the Chautauqua staff and the Chautauquans watching from home “standing with the mentality that they are all in this together.”

“It’s one thing to produce the content, but if you don’t have people who are also willing to learn … and show up on a daily basis, then you don’t have as much of a program,” Robinson said. “I feel like we did our part and Chautauquans did their part, and that is a sense of community even though we weren’t together in one physical place.”

Preceding Hill’s remarks, Robinson will celebrate the completion of the virtual season through his final sermon “Chautauqua: For Such a Time as This,” at 11 a.m. EDT, also on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, and then as he leads the Sacred Song Service. According to Robinson, the focus of the morning sermon will be about the “extraordinary experiment we embarked on.”

“What do we have the opportunity to learn from all of this, and what do we do about all of that?” Robinson said. “People will probably be just fascinated to see and sort of get a progress report — how did it go? Was it exactly what we thought? What were the surprises?”

One of the benefits from the virtual season, Robinson said, is the ability to continue programming year round. 

“When we say ‘next season,’ we would normally be talking about next summer; but because of CHQ Assembly, next season begins the day after closing day, so we are looking forward to what happens in fall, winter and spring,” Robinson said. “To that end, I am putting together a once-a-month-lecture interview series on notable books … and authors, some of which we know and love.”

In terms of the next Summer Assembly, only time will tell how Chautauquans will gather together  — whether that is strictly virtual again, or in a hybrid of both virtual and in-person programming, according to Hill. 

“I am looking forward to ideally being with people in-person again, but if we can’t, (we know) that we have a vehicle that will allow us to hold the 148th Assembly,” Hill said. “Just knowing that it will happen no matter what is a great comfort.”

Regardless of what platforms next year’s traditions will belong to, Robinson rests assured the “symbolism” and sentimentality behind them all will carry through.

“I certainly think the closing ceremony and Three Taps — doing them from the Amphitheater with the Massey Organ — is a way to reassure people that the Chautauqua you know and love is still here,” Robinson said.

Institution announces new partnership with Mather to explore wellness and aging well topics

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Through a collaborative partnership between Mather and Chautauqua Institution, Chautauquans are offered a unique opportunity to add their voice to future research that will explore people’s influences, behaviors, and attitudes.

Chautauquans are invited to join the new Mather Institute Research Panel. This panel, made up of members from across the United States, will serve as the foundation for future Institute studies on wellness and aging well topics. Members of the panel will receive invitations to participate in several surveys a year, contributing insights and experiences on such topics as positive aging, hope, solitude, ageism, resilience, gratitude, wellness and motivators of healthy behaviors. 

Staffed by researchers, Mather Institute is an award-winning resource for applied research and information about wellness, aging, and innovations in aging services. The Institute is part of Mather, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1941 that is dedicated to creating ways to age well.

The first survey will open in late September. Each survey will be online and is estimated to take 10 to 30 minutes to complete. Survey participants will receive a summary of the research findings when they become available.

Mather Institute will use the panel’s responses to explore fresh insights into the experiences of individuals during these unprecedented times.

Anyone who is at least 18 years old is welcome to join the Mather Institute Research Panel. To join, simply complete a demographic online survey here. Answers on this initial survey will be used for future research in which panel members can participate. Please note that Mather Institute takes personal privacy very seriously. The information shared will be confidential and none of the information you provide will be attributed to individual survey-takers.

Chautauqua couple donate 113 acres of forest to forestry nonprofit

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Nestled in Ellery, there is a forest thick with towering trees and winding streams in the watershed of Chautauqua Lake. Birds chirp and float from branch to branch as the flora and fauna bask in the summer sun. Deer pass through, nibbling on greenery and bedding down in the brush. This is First Forest.

First Forest is more than a picturesque Western New York landscape. First Forest has made history. Year-round Chautauquans Ted and Deborah First purchased this property in 2013 out of their love for nature and hiking. But they longed to do more than just love the land.

“We wanted to see if we could do more than be active land managers. Preservation wasn’t enough, because with the global impacts of invasive species and climate changes, you really need to take a more active role in terms of building a sustainable forest for the future,” Ted First said. “Then, we realized in the process of getting involved in that we needed a partner. We needed the skills of somebody that was committed to sustainable forestry that was going to deal with not just the woodlot, but all these other conditions — the invasive species, the overrun of deer, the climate change, the planning for the future.”

But, that partnership could not exist in preservation alone. 

“What Ted and Deb have done for (FSF) is tremendously impactful, but I believe that the vision they have for the region is equally (impactful),” said Annie Maloney, executive director of FSF. “Their donation is quite visionary, to be the first that we’ve ever protected in New York State. To really want to see people come into the property to learn about sustainable forestry and to think in a different way about their property is a really big deal for the region, and of course is a big deal for a small organization like ours to be able to have a broader impact on our landscape.”

“In an area like Chautauqua County that has serious low employment opportunities — (to) integrate sustainable harvest into the long-term plan was the only thing that (made) sense to us. What people in this region don’t need is more land locked up in preservation that nobody can access,” Deb First said. “We wanted a management plan that would engage a handful of local people who would be able to make a living through the harvesting and processing of lumber. That was a pretty integral part. It should add to the community’s economic health, as well as add to the environmental health.”

While acting as a board member for the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, Ted First came across the Foundation For Sustainable Forests, a nonprofit land trust based in northwest Pennsylvania that protects and stewards 2,000 acres of working woodlands. By rehabilitating forests and setting up sustainable lumbering operations, FSF provides local jobs and improves ecological health to the regions it serves.

After two years of coordination, the Firsts finalized their 113-acre donation to FSF in 2019. Their agreement stated that the couple would maintain seven acres of meadow and a cabin, while FSF developed 106 acres. 

“What Ted and Deb have done for (FSF) is tremendously impactful, but I believe that the vision they have for the region is equally (impactful),” said Annie Maloney, executive director of FSF. “Their donation is quite visionary, to be the first that we’ve ever protected in New York State. To really want to see people come into the property to learn about sustainable forestry and to think in a different way about their property is a really big deal for the region, and of course is a big deal for a small organization like ours to be able to have a broader impact on our landscape.”

FSF moved in to make improvements. First, they cleared pathways and reinforced banks to ensure easy access for the horse teams they used while lumbering — one of FSF’s most identifiable lumbering quirks. 

“Horses are great, because they have less of a footprint on the forest floor when you’re getting logs out of a forest, but they can’t get out as long distance as a mechanical skidder — so therefore you have to improve … the access road so that a logging truck can get a little further so that the horses don’t have to get as far out,” Maloney said.

Then came the ecological improvements. FSF did an “ash salvage,” where they cleared white ash trees on the property that were dead or dying because of the invasion of the emerald ash borer — a beetle that’s feeding and egg-laying under the bark of ash trees and has decimated forests in 35 states in the last two decades. Some lumber could be used, some could not.

“There’s a little bit of a time sensitivity there, where it doesn’t take very long for those ash trees to no longer be commercially useful once they start to die,” Maloney said. “So we had to act quickly on that.”

After allowing the land to settle, land manager Guy Dunkle said he plans to selectively cut parts of the forest to allow new growth, giving the land structural and age diversity. Dunkle and his team will then create a strategy to diversify the trees in the forest as a response to the high numbers of hemlock and Sugar Maple trees, threatened by wipeouts due to disease and climate change, respectively. 

While these improvements were being done, FSF tentatively scheduled the inaugural public event for the land — a woods walk — for spring 2021. Initially, it was set for spring 2020, and fall 2020, but was repeatedly postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the walk, the public will learn about the FSF’s approach to sustainable forestry after the initial forest improvements are made. 

One pillar of their forestry style is the worst-first method. Instead of clear-cutting large swaths of forest, the crew will strategically select individual trees for harvest. Maloney noted that the status quo in lumbering is to take the highest-grade wood first. FSF, however, targets compromised or less successful trees first. 

There’s great joy in doing this,” Deb First said. “There’s a great joy in knowing that we’ve done something that lasts well beyond our lifetime — that will have a benefit to people who we’ll never meet and won’t care a fig if they ever know our names, but it will make a difference.”

“That’s always been an argument — like, ‘Oh, let’s take this beautiful healthy cherry tree and these two smaller compromised cherry trees next to them will thrive.’ Part of the reason that doesn’t really work for cultivating resilience and health in a forest is that then those already-compromised trees don’t do well. They’re more prone to wind damage or storm damage, and they also are the ones that are left to reseed the forest,” Maloney said. “Let’s send those (compromised trees) out, allowing the trees that have been more successful to continue to thrive and reseed the forest — but (also create) space for regeneration in the forest floor. 

Maloney noted that this approach is uncommon, because it does not offer an immediate flood of profit for the owner. 

“The difference of that approach is at any one time, there’s not going to be as big of a net revenue for the land owner. They’re not going to get as big of a check as you might get in … (a strategy of) ‘take the best and leave the rest,’” Maloney said. “But if you do the worst-first (strategy) in a more frequent, but less intense, manner over time, you play the long game. The economic yield can be comparable. Certainly, the ecological benefits … show themselves over time with healthier, more resilient forests.”

FSF believes lumbering efforts in Ellery will bring new jobs to Chautauqua County. The project will offer jobs for horse crews, log haulers, truck drivers, excavating crews, understory managers and invasive plant managers. 

Like the financial outcomes of this type of lumbering, the partnership of goals and values between the Firsts and FSF will have a lasting legacy on the economy and the ecology of Chautauqua County. 

“There’s great joy in doing this,” Deb First said. “There’s a great joy in knowing that we’ve done something that lasts well beyond our lifetime — that will have a benefit to people who we’ll never meet and won’t care a fig if they ever know our names, but it will make a difference.”

Final Virtual Opera Invasion takes Chautauquans on a trip through the Institution for grand finale

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For the last three years, the end of a Chautauqua Opera Company season has been marked by the company’s final Opera Invasion: the Grand Finale.

For this event, the Opera’s Young Artists usually spread out across the grounds. While singing, they slowly make their way to the center of the Institution, accumulating a crowd of listeners along the way. The Young Artists eventually unite at Bestor Plaza and lead Chautauquans in a rousing sing-along to help close out the season.

General and Artistic Director Steven Osgood was determined that this year’s virtual season would not end sans-finale.

“(Each Opera Invasion) has their own tone to them,” Osgood said. “Some of them have been drastically silly, and these last two in particular (are) really nostalgic, so as a set of four I think they really give Chautauquans the breadth of what Opera Invasions would be in the normal season.”

The virtual Opera Invasion Grand Finale will air at 10 a.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 21, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.

The 15-minute video will take viewers on a walk around the Institution, while highlights from all 20 of this season’s Young Artists play over the footage.

“The end of it brings us to Bestor Plaza,” Osgood said. “So, albeit digitally, we get to see all 20 of our Young Artists gathered around Bestor Plaza as we wrap up the season.”

Collecting the footage of the Institution was a community effort. Kendra Green, a Chautauqua Opera stage manager and CHQ Assembly production planner, spent time recording herself walking around the grounds and was assisted by Leland Lewis, the general manager of the Athenaeum Hotel, and Chautauquans Cynthia Norton and Rich Moschel, who all sent in their own footage for the Invasion.

Osgood said the community response to the season’s virtual invasions has been “really, really wonderful.”

“The responses to the silly ones have been really enthusiastic, (like), ‘Boy, that was fun,’ and the response to the nostalgic ones have been, ‘Oh, that was really what I needed,’” he said. “Opera Invasions have done what (they) needed to do in this virtual season.”

Alumni Association of the CLSC’s Online Auction ‘keeping the Chautauqua spirit alive’

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While the 2020 season at Chautauqua may have been drastically different from a normal year, not all of the changes brought on by the pandemic have been negative. Some have been opportunities for Chautauquans to learn, especially about the importance of having an online infrastructure.

“When we have these events — the Great American Picnic and the silent auction — not everyone gets to be here, in Chautauqua,” said Pat McDonald, the vice president of membership for the Alumni Association of the CLSC. “We’re thinking maybe even next year, we’ll do something like an online auction after the real auction, or before, so that people who aren’t able to come that week are still able to participate.”

The Alumni Association of the CLSC’s Online Auction, which began last Wednesday and ends today, Aug. 19, marks the first time in Chautauqua history that the Association’s auction has been conducted entirely virtually. And though the Great American Picnic, the Brick Walk Book Walk and Authors Among Us Book Fair have been canceled, the auction’s annual quest to raise scholarship funds remains.

“All of the money from the auction goes to scholarships for local teachers, students and librarians to take classes in the literary arts here at Chautauqua,” McDonald said. “This year, we didn’t have as many scholarship people come, of course, but our adult scholarship winners all have taken a virtual class.”

Among the many items available for bidding is an antique marble washstand from 1915, a loom and a book of Grecian History by James Richard Joy that was used in a Chautauqua course in the late 19th century. 

“We also have these really interesting oil paintings,” McDonald said. “They came out of one person’s condo — these oil paintings were in there. They’re very nice and beautifully framed. Nobody knows who did them, all we know about them is that they’re supposed to be scenes from Austria.”

For McDonald, helping to run the Online Auction — along with the auction committee — made her feel like she was contributing to “keeping the Chautauqua spirit alive.”

“She is the catalyst for the group and has pulled this all together, and she’s had the vision for the scholarships that was necessary to do all of this,” said Caroline Young, a member of the auction committee. 

McDonald said that at the very least, the Online Auction is “giving people something to think about, and clueing them in to things they might want.”

“We saw the Women’s Club doing a great job still collecting for the flea market and storing things, and we thought, ‘Gosh, they’re doing it, so maybe we can do something, too,’” she said.

‘We are who we honor’: Petina Gappah awarded Chautauqua Prize for novel ‘Out of Darkness, Shining Light’

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History cannot be erased. It cannot be changed. It is immutable.

But when it comes to erecting statues of problematic historical figures, Petina Gappah said, “we are who we honor.”

Gappah, whose book, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, won the 2020 Chautauqua Prize, is an author and international trade lawyer — and an astute observer of the historically marginalized.

Gappah’s book is the story of the people who transported the body of the explorer David Livingstone across the African continent, all so that his body could be returned to England.

Meanwhile, in 2020, statues of historical figures like Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist founder of Rhodesia, and Edward Colston, a slave trader and member of British parliament, are being removed amid great controversy.  

“Having public commemorations is a form of national myth-making,” said Gappah. “What are we telling the children of slaves if our public streets and parks commemorate those who enslaved their ancestors? What are we telling those whose ancestors died in colonial wars of conquest if we honor those who shared that blood?”

At 3:30 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 10, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, after remarks by Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and Sony Ton-Aime, Chautauqua’s director of literary arts, as well as Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, Gappah was honored with the ninth Chautauqua Prize for Out of Darkness, Shining Light.

Celebrating a book that creates a richly rewarding reading experience, the $7,500 annual Chautauqua Prize honors an author for a significant contribution to the literary arts.

The T.M. Gappah Foundation will give opportunities to the kind of child that my father was, and will provide scholarships for poor rural children who have what it takes to succeed against the odds, and for whom the only thing standing between them and education and a bright future is a want of money,” she said. “So I’m particularly grateful to receive this Prize, as the Prize money will go towards endowing my father’s memorial foundation.”

This year, roughly 80 volunteer readers collectively read more than 220 nominated books, the most nominees the Prize has ever received, to assemble the longlist for the award. That longlist resulted in seven finalists, announced this past spring. 

“One role of the fiction writer or the creative mind is to inquire and imagine a world of complex individuals, and giving voices to those left in the margins,” said Ton-Aime. “And this is what Petina intended and did in this novel.” 

Ton-Aime said that, in giving voices to those left in the margins, authors like Gappah are completing an important function of studying history: shining light on those corners left in the dark.

“Correcting the actions of the past is also a part of history,” he said. “It is important because those of us who look like her and are descended of her kind, too often are ashamed or enraged when we read about her kind.” 

In the past, Ton-Aime said that readers had two ways of dealing with racist caricatures in literature: Either accept them as truth, or separate themselves from those caricatures. 

“There’s a third way,” he said. “And that is what Ms. Gappah has found. And it requires empathy to see (the characters in Gappah’s novel) as one of us: To see (them) as flawed, yet talented and confident as human beings. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a novel that tries to do things similar to what the Chautauqua Institution’s mission aims to do: Explore the best of human values and enrichment of life, and reach and complete the lives of those who were worthy of their humanity.”

Gappah’s novel seems to act as both a doorway — a significant symbol in the life of one of her main characters, Halima — and a light switch for readers to access a distant, shadowy past, a comparison reflected in this year’s physical representation of the Chautauqua Prize: A door that seems to beckon readers in just as much as it carries them through; once opened, a brilliant golden light emanates from the piece, created by Ryan Laganson.

For Gappah, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year, the pandemic aside — she lost her father in January. 

“(My father) was born in 1940 and he died on Jan. 23, just a month before what would have been his 80th birthday,” she said. “And it gives me some solace that my father read this novel, not once, but twice before he died. And that one of the last long conversations we had was when he subjected me to an intense interrogation as to what was fact and what was fiction in the novel. He was passionate about education, about reading and about books.”

Gappah said that her father “emancipated his mother and his sisters from grinding rural poverty in Rhodesia,” and that her family is planning a memorial foundation in his honor.

“The T.M. Gappah Foundation will give opportunities to the kind of child that my father was, and will provide scholarships for poor rural children who have what it takes to succeed against the odds, and for whom the only thing standing between them and education and a bright future is a want of money,” she said. “So I’m particularly grateful to receive this Prize, as the Prize money will go towards endowing my father’s memorial foundation.”

Though Gappah said she’s mourning the loss of her father, she also said she feels for the thousands of people who have been denied access to their loved ones because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It seemed like such a neat number, 2020, but we’ll always remember just the year in which the world grieved while in a state of suspended animation,” she said. “We’ll remember 2020 as the year of broken hearts. The year of broken dreams. More than 700,000 dead across the world from the COVID-19 virus, many more dying because we’re not able to get treatment for other conditions. Global economies have shuttered to a hold. Companies are closing. Job losses are everywhere. A global recession is looming.”

The supreme irony, Gappah said, is that the very interconnectedness that we celebrate about our age is the “very thing that has endangered the world.”

Gappah said that just over a year ago — “in another life, in another world” — she embarked on a journey on a container ship so as to find time to write in tranquility. 

“As we found ourselves surrounded by an endless field of water, and I became (used) to the repetitive life onboard ship, and as I took daily walks on deck with the Atlantic in every view, I began to reflect on the many Africans who had made this trip to the Caribbean — not from Europe, as I had done, but from Africa and who made this, too, without the tools that I had,” she said.

Above all, Gappah said she had the “freedom and the will to travel,” and that when she arrived in the Caribbean, she had a moment of sudden realization.

“It came to me with a visceral shock that just about everyone I met was here because his or her ancestors were brought here as captives,” she said. “These are people living in what Nathaniel Hawthorne called ‘unaccustomed earth.’ Their ancestors were transplanted as cargo from Africa. Almost every Black person I saw was the descendant of a slave: entire nations, whole nations descended from slaves. There in the Caribbean, it struck me forcibly that what is considered by some to be the past is very much the present.”

Three vignettes: How Chautauquans came together with acts of kindness

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Ethan, Fynn and Landon Taliercio painted between 50 and 75 rocks this spring, leaving them around the grounds in a project they called “Acts of Kindness.” MARY LEE TALBOT/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY

One of the questions asked of Chautauquans who live here all year (sometimes called Winter Chautauquans or year rounders) is “What do you do the rest of the year?” Children go to school and adults volunteer to tutor students. People go to the library to play games or read, to the post office to see the friendly staff. We go to church and synagogue or other religious activities. There are at least three book clubs, a bowling league, and a play reading group. Chautauqua County in the fall is beautiful, and there are numerous harvest festivals around the area. 

We are not untouched by the events of the world beyond the gates. As many Chautauquans return to the centers of commerce and government, we follow the news of the day as much as others do. 

When New York State “paused” to slow the spread of COVID-19, we paused. But there were many, as elsewhere, who went beyond staying physically distant and quarantined and tried to make life better — and in Chautauqua, youth and young adults stepped up to make life a little better for everyone.

Acts of Kindness
The stones began to appear about the same time that residents of Chautauqua began to shut themselves inside during New York State’s pause to combat the novel coronavirus. Left around the grounds or on people’s doorstep, the stones were painted with messages like “Faith,” “Believe,” and “We are in this together.”

The Taliercio triplets, Ethan, Fynn and Landon, who painted rocks to place across the grounds. MARY LEE TALBOT/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY

These acts of kindness were the idea of the Taliercio triplets — Landon, Fynn and Ethan. When their school closed in Cleveland, they came to Chautauqua to stay with their grandparents, Mike and Marg Metzger. 

The triplets’ parents are doctors. Their regular caregivers were not available so the boys spent the weekdays on the grounds and would go home on weekends. “It was kind of annoying to have to switch houses. We were not used to going back and forth,” said Fynn.

Ethan said, “Grandma suggested we do something to help seniors who were at home and did not have much to do and might be feeling down. We all decided to paint rocks.”

Fynn had seen an article about a rock painting club in Ohio. Landon came up with an emoji for circular rocks. He would draw the faces. 

“We got the rocks at Barcelona Beach,” Landon added. They liked the rocks that washed up on the beach, as they have a smooth surface to paint on.

They painted many “doctor” rocks, with the face of a doctor on them. Their parents would take them to work and give them to colleagues.

The triplets walked around Chautauqua, putting rocks by people’s doors, on Bestor Plaza, in trees. One rock even got to the top of the fountain in Bestor Plaza, although they never figured out who put it there.

The triplets’ parents, who are health care workers, gave doctor emoji rocks to their colleagues in Cleveland. MARY LEE TALBOT/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY

While they have been playing baseball, sailing and exploring the ravine by Boys’ and Girls’ Club, they said they miss Club — especially the Club Carnival.

In all, the boys think that they painted between 50 and 75 rocks. Ethan used the stones as part of his final fourth grade project and called the project “Acts of Kindness.” They also included their cousins, Michael and Reagan, in the project.

“It was a way to make people feel joyous,” Ethan said. “It was like giving them a candle in a dark room.”

Community Service
The day after school finished on June 11, Josie Dawson and Eve Kushmaul, who live in Chautauqua year round, decided to do some community service — cleaning up the dog park near the Turner Community Center.

Josie and Eve had been walking a neighbor’s dog up to the park and noticed that “it was overgrown with plants on the fence,” Eve said. So they decided to fix it up.

“It took a while to make some progress,” she said. “We worked every other day for about two weeks.”

Asked if there was any poison ivy, Josie said that “there was, mostly up in the corner where the dogs like to hang out. We had to wear long sleeves and gloves and long pants to protect ourselves.”

Mostly there were vines wrapped around the fence and thorns on a lot of the plants. The girls found some holes that dogs were digging under the fence and they worked to refill the holes.

Chautauquans Josie Dawson and Eve Kushmaul spent about two weeks cleaning up and making improvements to the dog park near the Turner Community Center. MARY LEE TALBOT/THE CHAUTAUQUAN DAILY

“It makes me proud that dogs can come here more safely. I was disappointed to find a pile of rotting tennis balls and dog poop in one corner,” Josie said.

Another added amenity is a treat bucket. “We would run out of treats, so we got a canister and filled it with dog treats,” Eve said. 

They said that the dog park should be a priority for Chautauqua. “The dogs need a place to go and play,” Josie said. “It needs more work, but it is still a very fun place, and will become better.”

Eve likes to come to the park and sit on the large pipe with some water when she is bored. This summer she has taken a break from violin lessons and is studying piano. Josie decided to “just wing it and go with the flow.”

The girls made another addition to the park — a stone, painted purple with “BLM,” for Black Lives Matter, painted in gold on it. The idea came from both of them. “We thought it would be a good spot because a lot of people come here and we made it big so they will see it,” they said. They used a rickety old wagon to get it to the park. 

Black Lives Matter
Regan Sims is a theater actor, trying to figure out what to do next. “I want to continue the work to be bold and brave and reflect the times I am in, like Nina Simone (did). I want to be bold and rock the world. As an artist and person, she reflected her times,” Sims said.

Sims is part of a mime troupe that does virtual content for kids and is teaching a high school summer camp class on acting via Zoom. She is finding her voice in this time of a pandemic and civil rights protests.

Chautauquan Regan Sims and her sister coordinated a Black Lives Matter protest June 19 on Bestor Plaza. They expected five people to attend; more than 200 turned out, masked and socially distanced, to support the movement. PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTIA ROSE

She led a protest for Black Lives Matter on June 19 in Bestor Plaza. Over 200 people came, masked and physically distant, to lend their support to the movement. 

A life-long Chautauquan, Sims’ family has owned the Rose Cottage for several generations. 

The family moved here permanently in June. 

“It was a joyous protest,” she said. “With COVID-19, we think about staying inside. Life goes on and it can be tragic, but it is also invigorating, New things are happening that I did not know I could be a part of. I am finding my voice. 

Sims talked with her sister, PJ, and they decided they had to do something. Regan was the speaker. PJ did the groundwork of getting the message out.

“There are not a lot of people here who look like us, and that was the reason we needed to do this action,” Sims said. “We have felt on the outside looking in. And we stand out. I have a voice and want to be heard where I stick out.”

PJ came up with the idea of chalk messages on Chautauqua’s streets and sidewalks to get the word out about the gathering. 

On the day of the protest, there were thunderstorms all around the lake, booming in the distance, but the rain held off at Chautauqua. 

Sims had bullet points she wanted to make in her speech, but it turned into a heart-felt, slightly rambling talk as she said what she needed to. She thought five people would show up and the whole thing would last five minutes.

“I was leading from love but there were some points I wanted to make. First, we were meeting to protest the death of George Floyd and others. Second was to say the names of those others killed. And third, was to protest police brutality and the lack of systemic empathy and love,” she said. 

She continued, “It is our job to be out in the streets and the desire of everybody to show up for their neighbor and love their neighbor as themselves. I can’t imagine how mothers feel — parents, sisters, brothers, children.”

Sims said reactions to her, PJ and their brother Joey have been different since the protest. “The conversation has changed. People say, “I know you,’ and start talking to me,” she said. 

“People can talk all day, but what are you doing?”

Her dream for Chautauqua is that it would be more of a reflection of the world. She would like changes to systems “that have oppressed people since the dawning of America.”

“I am not afraid of the work and the tough conversations. I want hearts to be open and to chip away at collective insensitivity,” she said. “I don’t want to be scared anymore. I don’t want to fear. I want to push through the feelings. That is the work.”Her latest project, A Kid’s Play About Racism, streamed on Broadway on Demand, Zoom and Theater for Young Audiences/USA the first weekend in August. The play was adapted by Khalia Davis from Jelani Memory’s book A Kid’s Book About Racism.

Pastries, coffee, kazoos, oh my! Smith Memorial Library to celebrate annual Library Day

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Chautauqua Residents Celebrated Smith Memorial Library’s 87th Birthday With A Kazoo Chorale On Thursday, August 2, 2018 Outside Of Smith Memorial Library. HALDAN KIRSCH/DAILY FILE PHOTO

Grab your coffee, your toaster strudels and your kazoos, and turn on those computer screens: It’s Library Day, people.

Chautauqua’s Smith Memorial Library turns 89 years old this year, and Scott Ekstrom is ready to celebrate. 

“We’re a community center: an iconic, beautiful building on Bestor Plaza,” said Ekstrom, the director of the Smith. “We always have as many books as we can get by those who speak at Chautauqua, and we encourage (Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle) membership. And our children’s room is an important space for intergenerational gatherings.”

At 9 a.m. EDT Thursday, Aug, 6, on the Chautauqua Institution Facebook Page, Library Day will commence, giving people from all around the country and the world a chance to honor Smith Memorial Library and to share their favorite books with each other, too.

“The library is the blood of the literary arts department,” said Sony Ton-Aime, Chautauqua’s director of literary arts. “It’s a very important day, because we want to encourage people to read, and the place to do so is the library. We want to keep this resource that we have alive.”

Library Day is hosted by the Friends of Smith Memorial Library, a group of library patrons who help promote and support the library in a variety of ways.

“Usually, the in-person version (of Library Day) includes inviting librarians from Western New York to the grounds,” Ekstrom said. “We’ll have no in-person physical gathering because of the pandemic, but most other things we’re trying to do digitally, with one exception — we will not have digital coffee or donut holes. So bring your own coffee or toaster strudel to your computer.”

A highlight of Library Day for the last six years is the kazoo chorale, Ekstrom said, which involves a group of Chautauquans — armed with kazoos — playing various songs on the library’s front steps.

“There’s not really any reason for it, except that it’s fun,” he said. “Obviously this year, we’re not going to be on the front steps, spitting on each other. So instead, we’re inviting people to email 30-second videos of either themselves or of so-called ‘quaranteam’ bands playing kazoos, to library@chq.org. We’ll be posting those videos on Facebook.”

Ekstrom said other Library Day highlights include a temporary Facebook profile frame that users can add to their profile pictures, as well as an opportunity to join the Friends of the Smith Memorial Library or make a gift to the library at smithlibrary.com.

A new frontier: CLSC Class of 2020 to graduate on a virtual Recognition Day

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RILEY ROBINSON/CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION

Though its customary parade to and from the Hall of Philosophy may be absent, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s Recognition Day will carry on anyways, bringing the pomp and circumstance of its predecessors to a virtual setting.

This year, for Recognition Day, the CLSC Class of 2020 will don white outfits and flip open their laptops as the class — also known as “The Visionaries” — prepares to graduate.

“I’ve been part of Chautauqua all of my life,” said Margo Stuart, the president of the Class of 2020. “My father was born here, so I spent my summers in Chautauqua. So it’s important to me to be part of this history, to be part of the CLSC.”

And although the majority of festivities surrounding Recognition Week have been canceled, Stuart said she looks forward to unveiling her class’ banner, which bears the words, “The past, our legacy. The present, our responsibility. The future, our challenge.”

“I would like people, especially women, to view the banner as a walk through our stages of life,” she said. “In our past, the suffragettes fought for the right to vote and to organize protests, and they won.”

In order to honor the suffragettes, graduates — this year totaling 85, in addition to 92 graduates across all six levels of the Guild of the Seven Seals and 10 in the inaugural Vincent Echelon level — were asked to add an element of gold or yellow to their ensembles, and at 3:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 5, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch, the CLSC Recognition Day Ceremony will commence, honoring a more-than-a-century-old tradition of reading. Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill will deliver an address to the graduates during the ceremony.

“When we learned that the season was going online, it wasn’t a question for us that the CLSC Recognition Day would go online, and that it would be a priority for us,” said Sony Ton-Aime, Chautauqua’s director of literary arts. “It’s very important for us to honor and celebrate the graduating class.”

The virtual ceremony will strive to imitate its real-life counterpart in as many ways as possible, Ton-Aime said, because “we want graduating from the CLSC to feel the same as it has for the last 100 years.”

“The ceremony is quirky and charming, and it’s really what draws a lot of people’s attention to the CLSC here on the grounds,” said Stephine Hunt, manager of the CLSC Octagon. “But we’re hoping that with this virtual ceremony, we’ll reach a wider audience than would otherwise be possible.”

Hunt said the CLSC has attained such longevity and importance in part because of the values of the Chautauquan ideal.

“We started out as a degree-granting program mostly for women who were looking to get a position as a teacher or a secretary in townships, as people moved westward in the U.S.,” she said. “Once we stopped being that correspondence degree program, I think it’s the Chautauquan spirit that has really fostered a zeal for lifelong learning.”

RILEY ROBINSON/CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION

For 2020, Hunt said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was chosen as the class honoree, because “she’s celebrated as a visionary and an inspirational woman.”

Chautauqua Literary Arts, housed in the Department of Education, chooses nine books of literary merit for each CLSC summer season, Hunt said, that address the themes of the week as well as the theme of the year — which, for 2020, was “This Land.”

“The books need to cover the literary and scientific fields that are in our name,” Hunt said. “Our goal is for these books to continue to encourage our members to pursue lifelong learning, through a love of literature. I think the CLSC has continued in part because of that Chautauquan spirit, which really propels people to continue lifelong learning.”

Hunt said that the class attributes and symbols are decided the summer before graduation in class formation meetings.

“We’re now in the process of forming the Class of 2021,” she said. “So if anyone is interested in graduating next summer, now is the time to take part in those decisions. They’ll really inform the creation of the next banner and everything the class stands for and celebrates.”

Institution to celebrate Old First Night, welcome fundraising match program

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People watch as the Chautauqua community Band performs during the family-friendly Chautauqua Birthday celebration and Annual old First Night Concert. BRIAN HAYES/DAILY FILE PHOTO

Geof Follansbee knew Chautauqua Institution needed Old First Night this year more than ever before. 

As a sixth-generation Chautauqan and the Institution’s vice president of advancement, Follansbee felt that the celebration was too integral to the summer season to skip, even when the Institution’s board of trustees voted unanimously to move all programming online in May. The celebration may not look the way it always had — but Follansbee and the executive team worked to reconstruct the annual celebration online. 

“I don’t know if 10 people are going to watch or 500,” Follansbee said. “I hope that people, in what is a difficult time for sure, see this as a positive step forward for Chautauqua. This is an optimistic moment and optimistic, brief little program that says we are 146 (years old), and we’re looking forward to 147 and way beyond that.”

Follansbee will kick off the celebration livestream at 7 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 4, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch. The program will include remarks from President Michael E. Hill, musical performances, and traditional practices like the drooping of the lilies and the roll call. 

The roll call will be conducted by eighth-generation and lifelong Chautauquan Dick Karslake, who has emceed this practice for the past three decades.

“What’s supposed to happen is that we will run two roll calls. The first one is the number of years that you have been coming to Chautauqua,” Karslake said. “I remember growing up at Chautauqua, how thrilled I was to stand for the number of years (I had been attending), but more importantly in my case — the number of generations (your family has been attending the Institution), which is the second big roll call.”

The roll call typically involves physical audience interaction in the Amphitheater. But this year, audience members can participate through an on-screen poll during the livestream. 

The Old First Night celebration will also welcome remarks from Bill and Debbie Currin, volunteer co-chairs of the 2020 Chautauqua Fund.

“The importance of the Chautauqua Fund is that it is the main philanthropic base for the Chautauqua Institution,” Debbie Currin said. “The gate passes, the (revenue) that comes in from other Chautauquan properties do not pay for the whole season, all the speakers and performances. It’s imperative that the Chautauqua Fund be very strong and lend support to make up the difference in this year, more than ever.”

In a traditional year, philanthropy accounts for somewhere between 20% and 25% of the overall coffers. This year, we’re relying on it to be around 54%,” Downey said. “We’re much more reliant on philanthropy this year than we’ve ever been in the past. Our revenue from ticket sales from parking and other revenue generators (like the golf course, hotel and bookstore) is taking a hit.”

The Currins will draw the audience’s attention to the chance to have their donation doubled. This year, the Edward L. Anderson, Jr. Foundation is matching every donation or pledge to the 2020 Chautauqua Fund up to $500 per donor that is made between Aug. 1-10, until funds are exhausted. 

“It should inspire a number of people to think, ‘Oh gosh, as opposed to giving $10, maybe I’ll give $25, (but actually give) $50. Or, I’ll give $50 and it’ll be $100.’ Hopefully, it will inspire a few people to increase their donation during a special week,” Bill Currin said. 

This match opportunity comes in a year where donations are increasingly essential. Tina Downey, the director of the Chautauqua Fund, pointed out that the reliance on donations for the 2020 season has doubled. 

“In a traditional year, philanthropy accounts for somewhere between 20% and 25% of the overall coffers. This year, we’re relying on it to be around 54%,” Downey said. “We’re much more reliant on philanthropy this year than we’ve ever been in the past. Our revenue from ticket sales from parking and other revenue generators (like the golf course, hotel and bookstore) is taking a hit.”

The Chautauqua Fund underwrites lectures, worship services, youth programs and more at the Institution. If a donor wishes to pledge their gift to a certain program, Downey said that the Fund will honor that. Otherwise, the Institution will allocate those funds where they deem necessary.

“I cannot stress enough … This year is the year to (donate). We have to be successful this year to ensure Chautauqua’s continuation,” Bill Currin said. “(The community) have stepped up. Some people have increased their giving, some people are on the fence right now. We’re encouraging (those on the fence) to please donate. We are well along the way to reaching the goal, but you don’t reach the goal until you reach the goal.”

BTG, volunteers, gardens staff inventory all plants in Institution gardens

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PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGELA JAMES

Every Wednesday and Friday since June 16, dozens of red-T-shirt-clad, smart-phone-wielding gardeners have peppered Chautauqua Institution’s gardens. 

The mix of Chautauqua County Master Gardeners and Bird, Tree & Garden Club members gather to inventory each plant in the Institution’s dozens of public gardens: the flowers, shrubs, vines, trees, ground cover and more. 

On their devices, volunteers log the individual plants by plant type, scientific name, state of growth, and more. This information, along with photos of each plant, is compiled into a master spreadsheet of the plant life on the grounds.

BTG President Angela James describes this plant census as a “fact-finding mission” for Betsy Burgeson, supervisor of gardens and landscapes at the Institution. 

“We want to know: What are the assets that the Institution has purchased or what are the assets that we can quantify and qualify (how much it all costs)?” James said. “That’s why we differentiated the various types of grasses, the various vines, (and) the ferns since there’s a bajillion of them.”

Burgeson sees this as more than just as assets inventory — compiling this data will allow her to streamline plant care. Having this information at her fingertips will allow her to prepare and strategically manage plants in the case of an invasive bug species, harmful fungi, or species-specific disease. 

“From a personal and supervisor management standpoint, just being able to know where all the types of a particular plant are (means that) if I know somebody really good at taking care of (a specific plant), I can send them to do that,” Burgeson said.

The volunteers completed their first round of inventory about a month into the project. But, with 25 gardens covered by July and nearly 300 types of perennials logged already, the work is only beginning. 

“The cool thing about the plant census is that we’ve done the first pass,” James said. “We’ve been to every single garden, and now we’re going back because we look at three characteristics: is this plant emerging, in full bloom, or is it spent?”

The census will continue until around late September, once plants begin to wither as Western New York enters autumn. In the offseason, Burgeson will scrub and organize the data for accuracy. In the spring, volunteers will cover the grounds once again and start tracking garden growth from the first sprout.

Burgeson will use this data to map out the lifespan of plants. If someone is planning a visit to see a certain kind of greenery, Burgeson can help strategize the best time to visit. James can also take this information and enrich the local flora database already on BTG’s website

From an ecologist’s standpoint, this information can help track environmental and growth patterns annually. 

Plants are not equipped for all climates — so ecologists divide different regions into hardiness zones based on their environment — factoring in temperature extremes, precipitation, and seasons. Plants are then assorted into the various zones according to their needs. 

With climate change, these long-established hardiness zones are beginning to shift north. The United States Department of Agriculture has classified Chautauqua County as zone five for the past 30 years — but a report from The New York Times speculates that the same space will be classified as zone six, approaching zone seven, in about 30 years. 

Bugeson and BTG’s meticulous inventory will allow them to watch this change in real time. 

“What they’ve been doing is taking pictures as (plants) bloom (to be able to) see when things are blooming each year,” Burgeson said. “It’ll be neat to compare, because the past couple years, for example, the milkweed — one year it bloomed on May 16. This year it didn’t bloom until almost the end of June.”

BTG sprung into action to start this project after the Institution announced it would move all of its 2020 programming online in May. They knew that their typical summer would not translate well to a virtual format, so they wanted to utilize the free time they found themselves with. 

“Typically, BTG offers 90 programs a summer: lectures about the natural world, guided discovery tours, or the House and Garden Tour — boots on the ground, we’re all over the place,” James said. “But obviously since COVID came, there is nothing on the grounds. We thought we could do something better with our time than trying to figure out how to work with all our lecturers and guides to put stuff on Zoom.” 

With Master Gardeners pouring in to help, James said it was a great opportunity to make connections. 

“We reached out to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and they have a whole group of Master Gardeners in Chautauqua County, so we invited them to come be part of the census,” James said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to connect with a group that we probably haven’t connected with, even though we have something completely in common.”

Burgeson echoed James’ sentiment, and said she is grateful that all the volunteers were able to connect over a shared passion and help the Institution. 

“It’s a great project for a year where it gives you something to look forward to,” Burgeson said. “Gardening always gives you something to look forward to. I really am thankful for what (the volunteers) have been doing and all the possibilities that are opening up, as well.”

Institution, AAHH announce the CHQ Mirror Project: a democratic online platform for community discussion on racism

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On a typical summer day in Chautauqua, neighbors retreat from the sun under the covered porches of Victorian homes. There, family, friends and acquaintances talk and laugh about whatever comes to mind — nostalgic stories from the grounds, that afternoon’s lecture, or burning issues in the national news. 

But summer 2020 is not a typical summer. 

Springtime erupted with the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses, schools, and institutions had to shut their doors until further notice. In May, the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, nearing its summer season with no light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, voted unanimously to cancel its in-person season and instead host its programming online. 

On top of it all, the United States faced a moment that would turn its already-shifting society upside-down. On May 25, 2020, an unarmed Black man named George Floyd was suffocated in the street by a Minneapolis police officer after his arrest for suspected forgery. Footage of this incident, marked with Floyd’s plea “I can’t breathe,” circulated the internet and painted the news. 

The Black Lives Matter movement, a movement sparked from a 2013 Facebook post, began to dedicate its work to find justice for Floyd. People who weren’t typically interested in the BLM movement were faced with the statistics that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Floyd’s story was not one-of-a-kind. 

Erroll B. Davis Jr., president of the African American Heritage House at Chautauqua, pointed to this phenomenon. 

“When you look at the situation of the police, I think the general thinking has been that there are a few bad apples,” Davis said. “Now I think the thinking, after the George Floyd incident, is that this whole tree might be poisonous.”

Americans everywhere knew this was a trend, but the question remained: What do we do now?

Most people, after George Floyd was murdered, went inwards to themselves, in their own hearts, and their own families and their own friends groups. We thought we would follow the same path of looking inward. Look at what’s going on in your own heart, in your own head around these issues,” Rozner said. “Our mission called us to create some platform for this (conversation). If we were physically on our porches together, there would be lots of those conversations happening organically and the idea was to try to replicate that online.”

Some turned to social media, joining in on hashtags like #BlackoutTuesday in an attempt to amplify Black voices. In all 50 states, Americans took to the streets for days upon weeks of consecutive protests — Portland, at the time of this article, has surpassed 50 days of protest. 

No matter the action, everyone fighting racism had to face a degree of personal reflection. What am I doing that is racist? What can I do to be actively anti-racist? What can I do to help create a more just society?

This reflection, and these conversations inspired Shannon Rozner, the Institution’s chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives. In her eyes, Chautauqua’s staple front-porch discussions are needed now more than ever. 

“Most people, after George Floyd was murdered, went inwards to themselves, in their own hearts, and their own families and their own friends groups. We thought we would follow the same path of looking inward. Look at what’s going on in your own heart, in your own head around these issues,” Rozner said. “Our mission called us to create some platform for this (conversation). If we were physically on our porches together, there would be lots of those conversations happening organically and the idea was to try to replicate that online.”

Rozner reached out to Davis with the idea to create a dynamic, conversational platform to encourage Chautauquans to discuss racism. On July 16, they announced The Mirror Project. 

The Mirror Project has a purposefully simple construction: the Institution, in collaboration with AAHH, poses prompts to the community online as a way of sparking discussion and personal reflection. Any Chautauquan who feels compelled to share their thoughts can do so through the website, or on social media. 

“Hopefully, an individual may gain confidence to put their thoughts and vulnerabilities out online. They also may get comfort from seeing the thoughts and vulnerabilities of others,” Davis said. “We want a dialogue around the issue of racism and systemic racism, and we want people to understand history.”

Posts and comments will be monitored for major themes. The issues that commonly discussed or inquired on will be addressed. Two times throughout the season the Institution will welcome someone with experience on that particular issue to host a discussion with community-submitted questions. That first discussion is set for 3:30 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 3, and will be led by the Rev. Robert M. Franklin, former director of religion at Chautauqua Institution and senior advisor to the president and James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. 

The responses to The Mirror Project will also drive what prompts are proposed. Davis and Rozner said they strived to create a democratic platform. 

“People don’t just want to be talked at. People want to take what they hear and do more with it,” Rozner said. “That is universally true across the Chautauqua experience, and we’ve been hearing that for years. We are making a concerted effort across the organization to help create opportunities for people to do more with what they learn here. This is one example.”

This project was in part inspired by the “cross-cutting imperative” of decisive action on issues of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA), as outlined in the Institution’s strategic plan, 150 Forward. Rozner said that in this case, diversity means more than demographic. Institution leadership wants to see diversity of ideas in the project. 

“There’s a concern that we won’t get a diverse set of thoughts and opinions. We really want diversity of thought here. We want it to be a dialogue and a conversation,” Rozner said. “Sometimes people see a trend and they’re afraid to say something that is sealed outside the trendline. I don’t want people to feel that fear. I want people to feel comfortable engaging from where they are in this journey.”

When COVID hit, local churches turned to lifelong Chautauquan Zach Stahlsmith for online transition

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When church services in Western New York started to transition to online platforms as COVID-19 shuttered places of worship this spring, local pastors looked to Zach Stahlsmith as their gateway to the internet. Which felt great, he said, only he didn’t have all the answers.

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Stahlsmith

Recording with a phone seemed easiest, but the video turned out pixelated, the sound muffled. Facebook Live was crashing, every attempt a “hit or miss.” Stores were closing one by one, the servers out of stock.

Perhaps, Stahlsmith said, it would always be about the “weighing.” 

“I think what we all wanted was perfection right out the door,” he said. “We wanted familiarity, but what we found was that we couldn’t have it all. The priority became to pick what we couldn’t live without and do without the rest of it.”

Stahlsmith has worked as an audio-visual technician at Chautauqua Institution for the past seven years — as a member of the Woods Crew, he is a summer staple zipping across the grounds in his golf cart. A recent graduate of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Stahlsmith has also presided over two Week Four morning devotional services. In early March, however, he extended his assistance beyond the Institution, this time to local churches looking to reinvent their services as the COVID-19 pandemic “took its toll,” Stahlsmith said. 

Some pastors had too much equipment, others not nearly enough, according to Stahlsmith. Depending on what was available, he helped with YouTube uploads, Facebook livestreams and even radio broadcasts.

“It just felt nice to be able to do something for other people,” Stahlsmith said. “I am still trying to enter into the audio-visual field in a full-time capacity, so it has also been fun for me to learn all of these things, while doing it in a way that’s not just to serve me.” 

This is all new for us, too,” Stahlsmith said. “We are building this from the ground up. Things are not going to work perfectly all the time. There have been a lot of patient people, but of course you can’t make everyone happy.”

The Post-Journal published an article detailing Stahlsmith’s work over the past month on March 28, and he said dozens of pastors reached out to him as a result. He has since coordinated with First Covenant Church in Jamestown, Bemus Point United Methodist Church, Park United Methodist Church in Sinclairville, Gerry Free Methodist Church in Gerry, Ross Mills Church of God in Falconer, Findley Lake United Methodist in Findley and Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church in Chautauqua.

“You don’t want to have a really long service, no matter what church or what their usual tradition is,” he said. “You are basically watching a TV show — you have about 30 minutes before people turn it off. A lot of pastors had to completely reinvent what they’ve been doing for years, even decades.” 

The adjustments — shorter services and empty pews — induced a lot of fear, he said. 

“Fear was a huge thing,” Stahlsmith said. “(The pastors) didn’t know what to do and they didn’t know how to do it. There are a lot of pastors who are not technologically literate, so the concept of not being able to reach out to people directly was terrifying.”

In mid-April, the outreach calmed down as most churches found their “own rhythms,” so when the Institution’s programming started in late June, Stahlsmith said he looked for ways to carry his off-season knowledge into a new unknown.

“The live-streaming and audio techniques were relatively the same, but I also had to learn brand new things, like how to build sets,” he said. “I was lucky this time because I could work with a team instead of doing it all on my own.”

The ups and downs — late announcements, canceled lectures and files in the wrong folders — have felt the same from place to place: “defeating,” Stahlsmith said. But he has no plans to ruminate this time around; instead, he’s been working on a blooper reel to release at the end of the season. 

“If we can’t laugh at ourselves, what can we do?” he said. 

The transition hasn’t been an easy one for everyone involved. Stahlsmith said he understands the frustrations this “baptism by fire” has created for the community, and is constantly working to provide the best possible programming to Chautauquans.  

“This is all new for us, too,” he said. “We are building this from the ground up. Things are not going to work perfectly all the time. There have been a lot of patient people, but of course you can’t make everyone happy.”

Nonetheless, there is “still so much to look forward to,” he said. 

“That weighing will continue, probably forever,” Stahlsmith said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s possible. It’s not our normal, but it’s better than nothing. I know, on the other side of this summer, we will be better than when we came in.”

Heritage Lecture Series to cover beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement

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On July 9, 1848, in Waterloo, New York, five women with no political influence had a simple tea party.

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Swegan

They shared their thoughts with one another. In their time as abolitionists, these women had faced unfair treatment and gendered segregation at abolitionist conventions. They were exasperated. So, over their teacups, they devised an idea: What if we had our own convention?

At the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, these women hosted the First Women’s Rights Convention. There, men and women alike joined to speak on the unfair treatment of women in society. They wanted to broadcast their frustration, so they put pen to paper. 

The fact that five unknown women could take action on issues of concern to them and go forth and take risks, I think is a message to all of us,” Swegan said. “The challenge to us who live in the current days, is how do we take action on our belief, put those out in front of the public, take risks associated with it.”

The Declaration of Sentiments was framed as a revised version of the Declaration of Independence, including “and women” to the 1776 statements about the rights of men. It addressed women’s suffrage, women’s right to own property, and women’s equal treatment in society. One hundred people signed the document at the end of the convention — 68 women and 32 men. 

A simple tea party among five regular women sparked the women’s suffrage movement, and ultimately the 150-year overhaul of women’s status in the United States.

One of these women was Mary Ann M’Clintock, who hosted organization efforts in her own home. Her and her husband, Thomas, are among the names signed at the end of the Declaration. Their descendent, Chautauquan Rick Swegan, is working to keep this story alive. 

“The fact that five unknown women could take action on issues of concern to them and go forth and take risks, I think is a message to all of us,” Swegan said. “The challenge to us who live in the current days, is how do we take action on our belief, put those out in front of the public, take risks associated with it.”

Swegan will discuss the history of the beginning of the suffrage movement at 3:30 p.m. EDT, Friday, July 24, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as a part of the Heritage Lecture Series

In 2016, Swegan gave a similar lecture for the Chautauqua Women’s Club, sharing the stories of his M’Clintock ancestors. Jon Schmitz, Institution historian and archivist, and organizer of the Heritage Lecture Series, said that Swegan’s return to the archives series has been in the works for a year.

“(Swegan) had proposed the lecture to me last summer. I liked the suggestion because it tied in with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, but with a different approach,” Schmitz said. 

Rather than looking at the early 20th century suffrage movement itself, Swegan said that he will discuss the pre-Civil War activities that sparked it. He will examine the intellectual antecedents that shaped their ideology, and how many suffragists emerged from the existing abolitionist movement. 

Even as the Institution moved its programming online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Swegan chose to continue with the presentation, but this time as a pre-recorded presentation for CHQ Assembly. 

“Rick was scheduled to speak in the original 2020 Heritage Lecture Series, and while we were not wishing to bring speakers onto the ground, Rick was going to be here for the summer regardless,” Schmitz said. “I am grateful that Rick was able to alter his plans in order to quarantine himself for 14 days before recording.”

This series is made possible with a gift from Jeff Lutz and Cathy Nowosielski.

Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford and Chautauqua’s Gene Robinson make up for lost time in a COVID-19 world

Crawford and Gene

The Avett Brothers would have performed at the Chautauqua Amphitheater for the third time on July 22, 2020, after speaking at the Hall of Philosophy about their faith journeys earlier that day — if everything had gone according to plan.

The Avett Brothers are scheduled to return to Chautauqua and perform on Aug. 4, 2021. In the meantime, bassist Bob Crawford spoke with Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson. Found on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform with the title “Faith on Stage: A conversation with Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers” and Crawford’s “The Road to Now” podcast, the discussion was a departure from the Interfaith Lecture Series’ Week Four theme, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?”

However, the two did discuss how summer 2020 — with the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump as president, and George Floyd’s death sparking a national and global response to support a historic civil rights movement — has changed their lives and their relationship with their Christian faith.

“In my life, I feel like the times when I am in the middle of the greatest distress, or that I am the most fearful, or I am up against the greatest challenge, that the gold lining in that dark cloud is it just seems easier to be in touch with God,” Robinson said, “or maybe that it’s easier for God to get through to me when I’m already beaten down.”

Robinson cited the situations in the Book of Matthew as an example.

“All the situations laid out there — blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who lack righteousness — all of those are situations that no one would want,” Robinson said. “What makes you blessed if you have them? And it seems to me that when you are in dire straits like some of those situations, God has a real chance to get through to us.”

Crawford agreed with this in reference to when he and his wife discovered that their daughter Hallie was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011. 

“God was our rock,” Crawford said. “And it was the one piece of rock we could stand on while surrounded by an ocean. And it’s because you’re finally listening. You’re finally listening when you’ve had everything swept out from under you.”

Crawford grew up Catholic and was baptized at a few months old, went through the sacrament of reconciliation and went to church regularly with his family. Crawford said Catholicism was a source of trauma for his father, who grew up with a strict Catholic father of his own.

“Sometimes people wield faith to wield power over someone,” Crawford said.

As a result, out of social pressure, Crawford’s father treated his religion as a set of hoops to jump through. When Crawford received his first communion, his family stopped attending church. As a teenager, Crawford was not as religious. His prayer habit had waned until he and his wife started praying two months before Hallie got sick. And when his father was dying earlier this year, his family believed he was going to live when he was sent to the hospital. But Crawford couldn’t rationalize how his father would pull through.

Crawford said prayer was like a muscle that provides comfort from God. Robinson agreed.

“Sometimes those muscles atrophy, and then when we need to use them, they fail us,” Robinson said.

Crawford said it was hard to complain about his own struggles during a pandemic. Every day, he said he is grateful to be home with his family for so long, while also feeling the weight of uncontrollable outside forces. But it has also forced him to be closer with God.

“Whenever I’m having a bad day, or I’m feeling like my ego has been hurt, or my pride’s been hurt, that’s it,” Crawford said. “You’re seeking joy in something that’s not God.”

Crawford’s daughter, now 10, was diagnosed with her brain tumor at 2 years old after having her first seizure in her crib. When she was first admitted into the hospital, Crawford and his wife started praying all the time, alone and with family and friends who visited Hallie. Crawford called this his conversion. He would say the rosary between three to four times a day.

After Hallie got sick, he spent more time alone praying with the Word like a Protestant. Crawford has added more Catholic-like tendencies in his faith practice since then, though he might end up Episcopalian as the way he approaches his faith shifts over time.

As this is Robinson’s religion, Robinson joked as if to welcome him as an Episcopalian right then.

“Welcome! Come on home,” Robinson said. “You know, sometimes I think people come to church for God and we give them religion instead. … Religion by itself is not like having a relationship with God.”

Crawford is also wary of religion on its own.

“Religion on its own can be used to justify things personally or on a national scale or corporate scale that run contrary to the faith, to the gospel,” Crawford said.

Robinson shifted gears to talk about a lyric from the Avett Brothers’ song, “Live and Die”: “You can say goodbye to how we had it planned.”

Crawford said that Seth Avett wrote that lyric and has said to Crawford that he thinks of Hallie every time he sings it. Crawford said the lyric was about “loving the Hallie that exists, though that Hallie is radically different from the one who was born and given to us by God.”

Crawford said Hallie lost the right side of her brain, doesn’t walk, and has to rely heavily on others for her needs.

“There isn’t a word that expresses how precious Hallie is today,” Crawford said. “ … When I am sad for the things that won’t be for her, and that hurts me and I’m sure it hurts my wife, when those times are upon me, the goal is to be in Hallie’s world.”

There have been bad points in the Crawfords’ journey, like when it was possible that Hallie would never be able to sit up and might have had to rely on a feeding tube for the rest of her life if she survived the cancer. They had to rush Hallie from a rehab facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Nashville, Tennessee, when they discovered her cancer was more severe than they thought. While packing up her hospital room, Crawford started praying to God to make the steps to the car for him because he felt he could not do it himself.

Crawford sometimes prayed that she would simply know joy. And she does.

“She’s one of the most joyful beings you could ever be around,” Crawford said. “She’s also a pain in the butt and demanding. And she’s a diva.”

Robinson said this was something to be emulated.

“All of us are trying to get the entire world to play on our playing field,” Robinson said. “And when you make those kinds of demands on people, most people are not willing to play on your field. So that effort to be in that person’s world, and to be present to that, seems to be something to long for.”

Crawford said that Hallie is never not in the present.

“She lives completely in the moment,” Crawford said. “And all that weight that’s on all of us to perform — and I mean like perform in life and have a good job and be successful and have people like us — all this weighs us down, and it is the root of all our problems and our woes. She’s free of that. She’s not carrying that. When she’s not happy, you know she’s not happy. But when she’s not happy, she’s not happy now.”

While reflecting on the scariest moments of Hallie’s cancer, Crawford said COVID closing everything down felt familiar.

“For my wife and I, it’s like, yeah, we know what this is like,” Crawford said. “We know this — the moment everything just completely changes, when what you planned, what you thought, what you expected would be there no longer is.”

In response to Crawford saying he sometimes becomes frustrated and scared about the pandemic, Robinson cited part of an Episcopalian prayer book that is meant for people who are sick.

“And if the answer to this prayer is that I have to lie here,” it reads, “let me lie here boldly.”

In regards to staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Robinson said there is a message for everyone in this prayer.

“There is a kernel of hope in there, in terms of the pandemic, that we could feel good about doing nothing because it’s what’s going to save countless lives out there,” Robinson said. “It’s not that we’re doing nothing, we’re doing nothing boldly to actually accomplish something.”

Crawford said his 9-year-old son has handled the changes due to COVID-19 well, but asked Robinson about how he counsels people to speak with their kids about this.

“In terms of faith, it’s a great time to remind ourselves and our kids that God never promises to take this difficulty away,” Robinson said. “God just promises to be with us in it and to never leave us. … It’s just enough. God being there doesn’t make it all alright, but it’s enough.”

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