By Robert C. "Chip" Harrod
It says a lot about a community when it constructs a monument to interracial cooperation on its front doorstep. Yet there it is, a totem for all the world to see - the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati's new museum of conscience sitting on the bank of the Ohio River.
On Aug. 23, the Freedom Center's decade-long journey from conception to completion will culminate in the lighting of its flame of freedom. Symbolically, this eternal flame will illuminate the lives of thousands of men and women of the Underground Railroad whose stories of courage and interracial cooperation will be exhibited with great reverence inside the center.
The flame will serve another purpose: By emulating the Underground Railroad ritual of placing a lighted candle in the window signifying a safe house for freedom-seekers, the Freedom Center means to hold itself out as a safe house for the advancement of freedom.
What may prove to be the Freedom Center's most significant contribution to our country's socio-cultural landscape is its planned role as a national safe house for the mediated airing of critical issues related to freedom and justice. We have a great precedent - Cincinnati's own Lane Seminary debates of 1834 that drew national attention to the cause of abolition.
Why not reclaim a national venue for our community today? The Freedom Center intends to do just this. In time, I fully expect our country's leaders to look routinely to the Freedom Center as the appropriate convener to lead discussions on social policy and other issues of national and international importance.
From its inception, the center was intended to be more than a regional repository of historic artifacts. It was built to be a culturally relevant national institution and, simultaneously, a vibrantly active center committed to serving the needs of its home communities. We are confident it will succeed at both.
Part museum, part academic institution, part human relations organization, the Freedom Center will break new ground in using history to effect social change.
Recognizing history's potential for improving interracial relationships through facilitated dialogue, the Freedom Center - in partnership with the National Conference for Community and Justice and Xavier University - will soon offer Healing Through History, a group dialogue program along with companion research on effective facilitation techniques.
This work is exciting. To extend its reach nationally and internationally, the Freedom Center has launched a campaign to establish "freedom stations" as affiliates. Already, more than three dozen communities have signed up. Many other national and global initiatives are already under way.
Yes, sitting at our front door is this magnificent Freedom Center, awesome in appearance and even more so in its potential to be a force for freedom and racial reconciliation.
I can already feel the tremors of impending social change.
Robert C. "Chip" Harrod is executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, Greater Cincinnati Region.
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