By John E. Pepper
Studying history often provides the best insights on how to deal with and discuss modern-day challenges. That is precisely the opportunity the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will provide beginning this month. And it will provide those lessons to teachers, schoolchildren, citizens, businesses and others.
After nearly a decade of involvement, I have come to see the Freedom Center as an institution that will not just share the realities and lessons of history, but provide the opportunity for honest dialogue that will help us choose to live and work together better today. Its exhibits and presentations will foster a place for honest discussion, stimulated by heroic stories, which can help us live at our best, individually and with one another. This is a grand and bold vision. But having visited the Freedom Center as we near our grand opening, I am convinced more than ever this vision will be realized.
When you visit the Freedom Center, you will see how people fought for their freedom in the past and continue to do so today. You'll experience the courage of women and men as they helped others achieve freedom.
But beyond the exhibits themselves, you will find many opportunities to reflect on what you've experienced in the different exhibits and decide how you would react in confronting a variety of social and human rights issues, particularly ones involving racial relations.
In time, I believe the Freedom Center will become not only a regional but a national and global convening place for people to discuss such issues. The Freedom Center is positioning itself to do this through interactive programs and exhibits and through a professional staff expert at facilitating dialogue on critical issues.
We intend to stimulate positive, behavior-changing dialogue outside the walls of the Freedom Center, as well as within. For example, the Freedom Center's award-winning public service campaign (you can see it on our Web site, www.freedomcenter.org) is already stimulating dialogue across the nation. Ad Council research suggests this campaign is positively affecting people's willingness to engage in productive dialogue - and possibly more importantly, to find the internal courage to speak up when they see an injustice.
I believe the program content of the Freedom Center can become a core element of diversity learning programs in corporations and other institutions across the country. My conviction in this was sharpened by a meeting I had some time ago with Bill Harrison, chief executive officer of JP Morgan/Chase Manhattan Bank. One of the first things he asked after we had explained our mission was how we might bring its content to support his company's diversity program.
We have launched standards-based education programs and lessons for school groups. Teachers are telling us that this material provides opportunities for intercultural and interracial dialogues that explore sensitive lessons of courage, cooperation and freedom.
Becoming a recognized center for dialogue and research on critical freedom issues will help position the Freedom Center as a global knowledge leader. This will be central to delivering the Freedom Center's mission and prove to be a sustainable source of financial support as well. For example, we are already getting paid-for bookings from many nonprofit and for-profit organizations who have chosen the Freedom Center based in part on its being a special place for safe dialogue.
The financial support we are receiving from many corporations has been founded on their conviction that the Freedom Center will be a place of productive dialogue, in the center, on the Web and in schoolrooms throughout the country.
We have a lot to learn on how to best realize this aspect of our mission, and we are in a wonderful position to gain this learning. As Executive Director Spencer Crew has pointed out, the Dialogue Zone in the Freedom Center will be a great learning laboratory, and the Freedom Center is committed to having leading experts on dialogue working closely with staff over time.
The commitment to support effective dialogue lies at the very heart of the Freedom Center's mission. Carried out well, I believe it will also prove to be a part of the financial support needed to make the Freedom Center the vital institution it is destined to become.
I hope you will visit the Freedom Center soon.
John E. Pepper, former chairman of Procter & Gamble Co., is capital campaign co-chair for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
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