"Improvements in one place are not necessarily transferable to other places; we remain a world divided," Joni Seager, The Women's Atlas.
This is what I imagine to be part of Beth Duda's inspiration for writing the play Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, A Walk To Respect, which went on the road for the very first time for two performances at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The brilliance of this one-act play highlights a friendship I never knew existed -- the friendship between Lincoln and Douglass.
For the time period, this relationship is significant for many reasons, one of the most critical ones being respecting each other and finding common ground through shared aspirations, especially when we have differences. This play is as relevant today as it would be during the Civil War, reminding us of the need to find ways to communicate, even when we disagree, but not by being disagreeable. So, when Beth approached me to create a tour package for Sarasotans to join us in D.C. for the play and other activities that further this theme, I joyfully got to work.
In putting this package together, each activity was intentionally selected to inspire meaningful thinking and engagement around the play's themes and continuously build on one another. Twenty-six people joined me on this purposeful endeavor beginning with a self-guided tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and ending with a post-play reception. While at the Smithsonian, several exhibits related to the themes of Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, A Walk To Respect. However, one exhibit stood out in particular titled, "Many Voices, One Nation." It drew me in to explore how the many voices of people in America have shaped our nation. The entire exhibit centered on what it means to be an American and who deserves the freedom that comes with it -- a negotiation that continues today. The themes of respect and desire of freedom woven into this exhibit provided the perfect opening mindset for those on the tour.
As the sun set, guests boarded an Old Town Trolly for the Monuments by Moonlight tour, a fun way to view D.C. Memorials are memorials for a reason, they remind us of our history. History holds our stories and depicts moments in time for personal reflection. By the end of the night, I believe the tour gave everyone a wealth of imagery and knowledge to reflect on, which brilliantly led to our tour of the U.S. Capital & Library of Congress the following day. While at the Capital, we lucked out with a passionate guide who provided us with incredible stories about our history and a quote that left us awestruck. "How does being able to tell your own story impact how you're depicted in art?" This came up while we were in the rotunda looking at eight paintings on the wall, one of which depicted Pocahontas kneeling with her husband, John Smith, behind her. When someone asked what we know about Pocahontas, our guide informed us, not much. She was never able to tell her own story or have it written down. As I heard many in our group comment, "wow" and "that's incredible to think about," I knew the reflection I had hoped for was taking place.
Our tour continued with Planet Word, an interactive language museum about the power of words, where they come from, and how we use them in engaging ways. The interactiveness of this museum provided the opportunity for attendees to immerse themselves in meaningful fun. As they practiced different languages, learned nuances behind words, interacted with a crazy word wall, and more, it created the environment to think about the power words hold. This ended the accumulation of activities leading up to the play and left everyone in high spirits.
One of my favorite parts of the play itself is one of the opening lines spoken by Frederick Douglass, "There is no progress without struggle." In six words, the tone is set, and if you really listen as an audience member, this is a line you should hold on to, as today, we are still struggling. The work is not done, much like several statues purposely left unfinished at the U.S. Capitol, symbolizing more work to do.
We are still living in a nation with divisions combatted with movements for equity, equality, and access. As someone setting out on a career in the philanthropic sector, I see a mountain of work to be done.
So what's the good news?
That mountain is not only worth climbing, but it is climbable. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass's respect and friendship demonstrate that. Now, we cannot transfer exactly what they did to all issues, but we can use it as a foundational blueprint to find ways today to have meaningful conversations across divides.
One of our tour attendees, Karen Windon, said it best upon reflecting on her experience, "The criticality of listening to others not through the lens of a label, but through the lens of humanity. Each person has much to say, and when we listen with an open heart, the common ground is easier to find and embrace."
It only takes one person to ignite a conversation. Be that spark for humanity.