Freedom Center Voices

Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - 12:01pm

The Power of Inclusive History

On May 23 the authorities in New Orleans removed the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its pedestal. It was the last of four Civil War monuments that the city decided to remove. In the midst of this controversial campaign, Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans spoke eloquently about the reasons for taking this action. His presentation (see link below) is a remarkable reflection on the nature of history.

Unlike what exists in the popular wisdom, history is not fixed in the past. Doing history is not about developing timelines. That is chronicling, not history.

History, at root, is a dynamic conversation about the significance of what it means to be human between those of us alive at any one moment and people who have lived at another time and/or in another culture. Fundamental to this conversation, is the act of remembering. Remembering, and its companion act of forgetting, are selective processes not driven by evidence but by the filters of a particular moment. As Mayor Landrieu explains, a generation after the surrender at Appomattox, at a moment when the South fully embraced segregation, Southerners chose to selectively remember the role of Civil War political and military leaders while forgetting the stories of people of African and Native American descent.

Although Landrieu does not explore this, the same could be said of the ways that Northerners used the Civil War to absolve themselves of the complexity of America’s most contentious era. School text books are filled with maps of the United States in 1860 that are color coded to read “Slave” and “Free,” intended to reinforce the view that the victors were morally superior. But Northerners, for the most part, chose to forget that it was Ohio and other northern states that pioneered the Black Codes, which got imported and elaborated to the South in the 1890s as Jim Crow segregation. And although the Northern states gradually eliminated slavery between 1783 and 1865, racist assumptions and attitudes were almost universal. Even many Abolitionists, who boldly opposed the institution of slavery often rejected the idea that people of African descent were equal to those of European heritage. 

Doing good history, telling an inclusive story in which multiple voices are incorporated is hard. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center exists to hold up a more complete, more challenging and ultimately more interesting history of America. We tell stories that reflect more than a generation of scholarship that emphasizes that African Americans were the primary actors in the Underground Railroad, beginning with enslaved individuals who risked everything to claim freedom, but also as the organizers and everyday workers who helped freedom seekers find safety and a new life. We make it clear that African Americans, whether they were enslaved, born free, purchased their freedom or claimed it by running away, were active participants in the dismantling of slavery.

By broadening the range of human stories told about the United States, we make history a force for the future.

Read and enjoy:


Dan Hurley
Interim President
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 1:38pm

Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial

Ever since Donald Trump became President I have believed his greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance - of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Andrew Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, or move history however he wishes well into the future. Leadership does matter in crises.  It truly mattered that Abraham Lincoln was President in 1861 and not Stephen Douglas or John C. Breckinridge.  It truly mattered that Franklin Roosevelt won the election of 1932 and at least had a new plan to help the country fight its way out of the Great Depression. It truly mattered that John Kennedy and a small group around him were determined to act short of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Those three Presidents and the advisors around them were students of history in their own ways.  Presidents adrift without historical knowledge are dangerous.

Trump’s claims that Andrew Jackson somehow through his anger and toughness would have made a deal to prevent secession and war in 1860-61 is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the President of the United States!  Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention.  It is possible to reflect on what might or might not have been done at some juncture in America’s road to disunion and war from the mid-1840s to the 1860s (during all of which time Jackson was dead), but Trump has no knowledge or perspective from which to do so it would appear.  As for historical analogies and understanding, our President seems incapable of even getting something wrong in reasonable or interesting ways.

Trump's "learning" of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him. 

Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history.  He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison.  He needs perspective in order to find wisdom.  Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men?  President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor.  Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day.  Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.

The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical.  If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past.  Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind.  The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more.  A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum.  Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required.  And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary.  This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.   And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave.  There will be a test at the end of the term.

We are all creatures of both our experience and our education broadly defined. But to resist learning and expertise, to reject or simply appropriate a past as nothing but a tool for manipulating the present is at best contempt for knowledge. Perhaps President Trump will be the gift that keeps on giving to historians, the source of open invitations to try to help the public that is listening to learn more about America as we endlessly fight over its future paths. But a President without a sense of history is a dangerous thing. We need to keep watch on the White House and its denizen lest his pronouncements make history deniers as lethal as climate change deniers.

As in personal memory, so also in the collective memory that historians assemble, resist, narrate and interpret, the past is that thing we cannot live without, but also sometimes the thing that is hard to live with.  “History,” Robert Penn Warren once warned, though, in a single line of a poem, “is the thing you cannot resign from.” Like Warren, one of my other favorite writers, James Baldwin, never stopped probing the nature of the past, the irresistible if at times debilitating hold that history and memory can have on any thoughtful person’s consciousness. “History,” said Baldwin in a 1965 essay, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” For Baldwin, the non-fiction voice of the civil rights movement, if Americans ever really began to learn and face their past with slavery and racism, they would be entering into “a dialogue with that terrifying deity… called history.” Most Americans will prefer never to see history as a terrifying deity, wishing instead for a past that inspires, that makes them feel part of a triumphal story, that places them in a narrative in which they can find comfort. But history can be both pleasurable and perilous, terrifying and uplifting.

Baldwin left a stunning definition of what it means to have a sense of history. In an interview with Studs Terkel in 1961, Baldwin repeatedly claimed that Americans were “badly educated” and did not know their history.  Terkel stopped Baldwin and asked : “what is a sense of history?” After a pause, Baldwin delivered a poignant reply: “You read something that you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened a hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a great liberation for the struggling, suffering person who always thinks that he is alone.” Having a sense of history is knowing that whatever happens to us or to our world, we are not alone. It has in some form happened before. The problem we may have with President Trump is that he does not know what he does not know. He seems to like to go it alone, sui generis, a tough and angry Andrew Jackson ready to slay dragons in his reality show presidency. Our problem is presidential historical ignorance, power imagined and wielded without bearings or perspective. Presidents can be and feel very alone with ultimate decisions. But they are not without historical consciousness and knowledge, unless they choose to be. For Presidents, history should be part of their daily bread, nutrition to sustain the weary, the basic equipment of their trade.

David W. Blight
Yale University

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 - 1:15pm

2017 Summer Hours Begin Sunday

“Whether it’s after a church service or community fellowship, or an afternoon in the park with your family enjoying The Banks community - our doors are open for all to experience the museum and be inspired by stories of courage, cooperation and perseverance.” Richard Cooper

As Mondays in May come to close on Memorial Day, our seasonal summer hours are just around the corner. Starting on Sunday May 28, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will be open on Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for guests to enjoy on through Labor Day. Additional summer hours will provide the public with opportunities to engage in historical programming, tour permanent exhibitions and experience special exhibitions, including Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu. This powerful exhibition, open now through August 20, commemorates the life, journey and legacy of South African President Nelson Mandela through images from documentary photographer Matthew Willman. Commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Willman spent the final 10 years of Mandela’s life capturing intimate moments and rare stories about his personal fight for freedom and South Africa’s road to racial equality.  

Guests can also visit recent museum additions – The Rosa Parks Experience and the “Open Your Mind” Understanding Implicit Bias Learning Lab. The Rosa Parks Experience is an immersive virtual reality experience that commemorates Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks’ historic demonstration in 1955 – only days before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias Learning Lab is designed to help the public understand and recognize bias and other forms of discrimination.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s summer hours begin this Sunday, May 28, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., through Labor Day weekend. The museum will also be open to the public on Memorial Day from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

Will Jones
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center 

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017 - 3:39pm

A Conversation about Standing Rock

“The issues at Standing Rock are rooted in the genocide of their people that has been happening for hundreds of years.” –Rachel Ellison

For years, news about current events regarding the Native American community have often been swept under the rug. Hopefully by now you may have heard something about the tribes of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners is wanting to use land near the reservation to build a $3.8 billion pipeline that would carry over 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. 

Last month the National Underground Railroad hosted the Community Conversation: Standing Rock. Visitors learned about the DAPL and where the issues pertaining to it currently stand. Free and open to the public, this community conversation was organized by Northern Kentucky University graduate and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Intern Rachel Ellison. In addition to her studies, she is a photographer and an activist who decided to put the panel together after delivering supplies to the Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota last November.

“These are a peaceful people who are fighting for the basic human rights to clean water and sovereignty over their own land. They have been beaten, pepper-sprayed, chased by dogs, sprayed with water cannons, and shot with rubber bullets because of it,” she mentions. “This is why it is important that we do not turn a blind eye to this issue and why I brought this conversation to the Freedom Center.”

The conversation was moderated by Allison Warner, President of Kiksuya, an NKU student organization dedicated to service and outreach to Native American communities. Panelists included Albert Ortiz, Chairman of the American Indian Movement of Indiana and Kentucky and a member of the Kiowa and Yaqui tribes; Dr. Nicole Grant, PhD, Professor of Sociology at Northern Kentucky University and an expert on Indigenous issues; Dr. Joan Ferrante, PhD, Professor of Sociology at Northern Kentucky University and an expert on race relations; and Alan Seifert, a local Cincinnatian activist who recently traveled to Standing Rock to participate in the protests.

With over 50 guests in attendance, the two-hour conversation included a discussion of the poor conditions Naitve American communities face; the ongoing occurences with Native Americans and racism, and why the issue of the DAPL Pipeline is so important. "The camp was in constant ceremony and prayer and it was extremely peaceful," says Alan Seifert as he recounted participating in a march during his time at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Standing Rock. After the introduction of the panelists, he began the evening telling the audience about his time spent in Dakota as he and Ellison delivered supplies to the Camp last November. Albert Ortiz gave vivid ordeals about what it is like for him living as a Native American, dealing with racism as he explained how just only three months ago he was told he wasn't allowed in a store because they "didn't have anything in there for him".  The story he told of his upbringing and the struggles Native American tribes face across the country silenced the room as there were many times guests became emotional. Dr Ferrante gave the audience handouts about the racial classification system in America and briefly talked about racial stereotypes as her discussion gave a logical element to the conversation. Finally, Dr. Grant offered insight as to why students from all cultures and backgrounds could benefit from working on reservations stating "There are levels of humility, respect, love and perserverance that the Natives maintained regardless of their situations." She mentioned that witnessing these acts can show students what it's like to be a community.

Guests were then allowed to ask questions following the discussion. Some though used their speaking time to inform the audience of tools and resources that could be used to keep awareness going with the DAPL pipeline and the Standing Rock Reseveration including websites, reading material and politicians to contact to express concern for the matter. Guests were also encouraged to continually reach out to local media to put pressure on those outlets to keep the issue on everyone's mind.

We thank everyone who came to the event. We especially want to thank our panelists and Rachel Ellison for her planning and coordinating of this Community Conversation. Be sure to check freedomcenter.org for updates regarding the DAPL Pipeline and other upcoming programs and events.       

Will Jones
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center 

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(Image by Rachel Ellison)

Thursday, April 27, 2017 - 9:45am

The Crisis Unfolding in Chechnya

There is a crisis unfolding in Chechnya. It has been going on for some weeks now and is gaining some much needed international media attention. Chechen gay men are being hunted. They are being lured into traps via social media and chat rooms by government authorities. They are then arrested at the location they have agreed to meet a date or a friend. These men are being held for days or weeks at a time in makeshift cells and are being tortured via beatings and electrocution until they agree to give up the names of others like them. These beatings and sessions of torture are being carried out by Chechen authorities in an effort to eradicate homosexuality from Chechen life.  Once an individual has given up the information the authorities seek they are released to a male family member.

The Chechen authorities are said to be advising these male family members to carry out an “honor killing,” ending the victim’s life.

This is happening in 2017.

Human Rights Watch has reported that of the three gay men killed, two were murdered by relatives upon return from their detention. Others live under the threat of imminent death from their families.

The Chechen government has been asked and denies this is happening by saying, “such men did not exist in Chechnya.” This international crisis must be confronted. We cannot remain silent.

LGBTQ people are among the most marginalized people in the world. The events taking place in Chechnya are cloaked in a darkness that makes it very hard to see any light. These men live in a society that they are desperately trying to escape from to save their own lives. They have few if any resources depending upon their location. They don’t know whom, if anyone, they can trust and their lives are in constant danger.

I wish I had some words of encouragement and hope to offer here.

What I can do is challenge you to stay informed and use your voice to tell someone else about what is happening in Chechnya. Share your humanity, be open and be kind to the people you encounter. Oppression against one group is oppression against us all. 

Jesse Kramer
Creative Director
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Friday, January 13, 2017 - 8:49am

We all have a role to play in ending slavery, and there are many ways to get involved.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and with more than 21 million people enslaved around the world, efforts to combat human trafficking are more important than ever.

“…in too many places around the world -- including right here in the United States -- the injustice of modern slavery and human trafficking still tears at our social fabric. During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we resolve to shine a light on every dark corner where human trafficking still threatens the basic rights and freedoms of others.”

– President Barack Obama

Human Trafficking is defined by the United Nations as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. In short, it is compelling someone, thru force, fraud, or coercion, to work or engage in a commercial sex act.

Human trafficking takes on many forms, including sex trafficking, domestic servitude, forced labor, and bonded labor. Any enslavement of a child, whether sex trafficking, domestic servitude, forced or bonded labor, is considered child labor. Regardless of the form, human trafficking robs people of their freedom, strips them of their dignity, and subjects them to unimaginable suffering.

While much has been done globally and in the United States to fight the injustices of modern-day slavery, there is still much to do. And that begins with awareness. After all, we cannot fight an injustice until we first know about its presence. We all have a role to play in ending slavery, and there are many ways to get involved:

  1. Learn more about human trafficking at www.EndSlaveryNow.org and by reading books and watching films on the topic: http://www.endslaverynow.org/learn/books-films
  2. Learn the red flag indicators of human trafficking: http://www.endslaverynow.org/blog/articles/human-trafficking-is-a-health-care-professional-issue
  3. Human trafficking is happening all around us – at the airport, local salons, restaurants, and many more public places. Put the National Human Trafficking Hotline phone number (1-888-373-7888) in your phone. If you suspect someone has been trafficked, call. Your 5 minutes could save someone’s life.
  4. As consumers, we are, in many cases, unknowingly contributing to the demand for products produced by slave labor. Find out how many slaves work for you based on the products you buy: http://www.endslaverynow.org/slavery-footprint
  5. Switch to fair trade products, particularly in industries that are known for using slave labor such as the coffee bean and cocoa bean industries. Download a slave-free buying guide now: http://www.endslaverynow.org/slave-free-buying-guide
  6. There are hundreds of anti-trafficking organizations doing amazing work to combat slavery. Many of them could use your help. Find an organization to volunteer for: http://www.endslaverynow.org/connect.
  7. Stay engaged in the fight. Sign up at www.EndSlaveryNow.org to receive weekly emails with small actions you can take each week to fight slavery. Those small actions add up to make a big impact.

Please join the fight. Until all are free

Lara Green
Initiative Manager, Modern-Day Slavery

Wednesday, November 23, 2016 - 10:52am

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Denounces Hate Speech

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center tells stories about the past to educate and inform the present in order to prevent historical atrocities from recurring. This is our charge as a museum of conscience. We are the watchers and keepers of history.
We are appalled and alarmed at the recent hate speech of a white nationalist that has gone viral. Hatred is not an American value. We cannot be bystanders. We cannot ‘wait and see’. We cannot wish this away.
Now is the time for all Americans to confront and stand up to hatred. We will not be silent. We join and support the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in publicly denouncing racist ideologies and hate-filled rhetoric.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - 3:53pm

Give the Gift of Freedom: Buy One Membership, Get One for Half Price


‘Tis the season of giving. Why not give your family and friends the gift of a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center membership?

From November 18 through January 1, you can get one membership for half price with the purchase of a membership of equal or greater value. Give yourself the gift of membership, and share that gift for half price!

Freedom Center Members enjoy a full year of benefits, including free admission to the permanent exhibits, discounts on additional tickets, discounts at the Cincinnati Museum Center, members-only events and a members-only e-newsletter.

For example, in December, Freedom Center members will have the opportunity to take part in the Rosa Parks Experience, including a discussion on the impact one person’s acts can have in the fight for freedom.  This type of experience is just part of what membership can mean.

Imagine the chance to visit and re-visit the Freedom Center without paying the admission price each time.  Imagine studying freedom and the fight for freedom through our wide-ranging interactive exhibits without worry of running out of time. 

In the coming year, the Freedom Center will open its Implicit Bias Learning Lab, as well as launch an exhibit on Nelson Mandela … and members will be in the front row with newsletter updates as well as a chance for an insider’s view of all the Freedom Center initiatives.

Purchase or renew your membership today, and you can also purchase an equal or lesser value membership as a gift for the special people in your life.  Imagine giving a family a full year of insider access to the Freedom Center for only $32.50! 

Memberships are available for as little as $35 for a senior individual membership (that’s only $17.50 with the purchase of your membership!).  Family memberships are only $65 -- $32.50 if you take advantage of this limited time offer.  (Please note, Partner level memberships cannot be discounted.)

Give the gift that lasts a full year.  Give the gift of inspiration, education, and enlightenment.  Give the gift of a Freedom Center membership this holiday season!

Thursday, November 3, 2016 - 12:00am

Go Vote, America


In just a few short days Americans will wake up with a civic obligation to go to the polls and cast their vote. In the absence of some catastrophic event there are two inevitabilities and two choices facing us on November 8th and beyond. The two inevitabilities are; first there will be an election on November 8th and second there will be a 45th President of these United States.

The two choices facing us are: first, the candidates who do not win will have to choose both to concede and congratulate the winner or to refuse to concede and congratulate the President Elect, whoever that may be.  The second choice each of us must make is how we answer the fundamental question “where do we go beyond this highly contentious election?”

We may disagree but our disagreements must not go beyond the pale of civility and our arguments must be about opposing views with reason and logic as the chief instruments of argumentation. Civility requires that personal, degrading and disrespecting attacks are out of bound. We can choose to sink to the abyss of chaos and become the divided people of America or we can choose to ascend to the heights of community building as the united people of America and become what the founders of this nation described as a city set on a hill shinning the light of freedom, liberty, justice, opportunity, growth, development, hope, aspiration, inclusiveness and progress.

We can choose to minimize our diversity by limiting power, position and privilege to out dated demographics, or we can choose to embrace the vast diversity of our nation and empower all people to enjoy equal opportunity to fulfill their potential without regard to their race, religion, gender, preference, or political affiliation. 

When we make the choice to move toward constructive community building we are making the choice to embrace the richness of diversity. It is a movement toward openness. It is a movement toward breaking down barriers. It is a movement toward bridge building. It is a movement toward the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. Wither we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist we are all existentially and ontologically connected.

We have the means, skills and technology to eliminate hunger, poverty and disparity. We have the capacity to build communities that are diverse, integrated and equitable, we must now embrace the moral courage and the political will to do so.

So, in a few days we will elect a President and Vice President, a senate, a congress, governors, state legislators, and municipal leaders. After the election you and I must decide if we will work together to build a constructive, compassionate community or if we will allow our great nation to slip into chaos. I implore us to join together and choose to build community. The future of our great democracy is in our hands not only in terms of how we vote but also in terms of what we do after the election.

Amb. Michael A. Battle, DMin, executive vice president & provost