News: Not All Aboard

Freedom Center still controversial one year later

Matt Borgerding

The Freedom Center aims to teach people how to talk about racial conflict and other kinds of "unfreedom" but its tools are sometimes mired in the language of sexism.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center had barely finished celebrating its first year — surpassing its attendance goal of 260,000 visitors by more than 20,000 — when it announced that John Pepper, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, would take over as CEO.

Given Pepper's help in raising the $110 million necessary to open the doors, it appears a good idea financially. But skeptics wonder how the strategic pairing — with Pepper as CEO and Spencer Crew remaining as president — can mean anything more when the Freedom Center is also facing a host of other issues, not the least of which is the racial divide in Cincinnati.

Pepper says he's got more to offer than fund-raising skills. He'll be actively involved in shaping the development of programs and activities and invites anyone to share their views on the direction of the Freedom Center.

"People who feel we could be doing things or should be doing things that we aren't, I want to hear from them," Pepper says. "I would be ready to meet with anybody who wants to improve the situation and constructively deal with it. This is our hometown. While we have ambition and responsibility to reach broadly, we've really got to focus first and foremost on how we can make a contribution in our own hometown."

Conversation starters
Crew sees changing exhibits as a way to keep people coming to learn how to be modern-day "freedom conductors."

"We need to put together a good schedule of new and changing exhibitions in the Freedom Center for our visitors to come and see and enjoy," he says. "That'll be an important draw for people to come and have a return visit. I think it also will give us a chance to do some different topics that might appeal to people in a special way."

Crew sees traditional museum exhibits as an opportunity to draw attention to the fact that the Freedom Center isn't what people might expect.

"(We have) a chance to have an impact in creating a new culture for an institution and maybe forging some new directions for the way cultural institutions represent themselves in the world," he says.

Crew points to community discussions hosted by the center as the beginning of a larger program of lectures and facilitated dialogues to get people to consider what freedom means in everyday life.

Edwin Rigaud, board co-chair, believes the unique combination of museum and activity is a way to bring about large-scale social change.

"There's one application that we should become the leaders in, and that's in the area of dialogue," he says. "I think we are already beginning to see some ways to improve the quality of dialogue so that people can begin to approach some tough questions, like the racial divide. I think that's the biggest one for America.

"You can imagine employees around the city or the region having these training sessions available to them, where they learn to discuss these delicate kinds of subjects and make progress in that discussion because they're learned these techniques, tools and behaviors," Rigaud says. "They take those back to their workplace and it helps them on the job."

Board co-chair Daniel Hoffheimer sees the history of freeing slaves as a tool for addressing modern-day issues.

"If those people could do that under those circumstances, certainly from the comfort of our modern offices and homes we ought to be able to do the same thing," he says. "That sets a context for what we really have to do. There are many forms of un-freedom around the world. The Freedom Center exists to try to overcome those un-freedoms.

"The disparities between white and black America is a continuing legacy of a slave-holding society. If America is ever to be able to stand on any moral ground, to say anything at all about the value of freedom, we have to show the rest of the world that we are overcoming the lack of freedom in our own back yard."

Corporate influence
Some activists wonder if that's possible for an institution that relies heavily on businesses for financial support and volunteer direction. One critic agreed to speak anonymously, because her employer is a partner of the and she fears her criticism might hurt her professionally.

"To most people, it seems unquestionable that the Freedom Center is a good thing," she says. "It's trying to preserve a very important era of our history. It's trying to make us think about injustice and what happened. Given the conundrum that they're in — that they have to get corporate support in a city where the corporate environment has been hostile toward solving the civil rights problems that we have today, that reneged on the Empowerment Zone and that didn't put any pressure on the city to solve the controversy and the unrest surrounding the killing of Timothy Thomas — how can they raise money and still face up to the truth?

"I don't think it's hard to make the point that, when the Freedom Center opened, how much the city — the mayor and the city council — used the opening and tried to tie it to healing the unrest, rather than facing up with the real present-day issues that surrounded the racial unrest. The powers that be supported that connection. That's why people are frustrated."

In an article in The Nation earlier this year, activists Tom Dutton and the Rev. Damon Lynch III reported that several of the major patrons of the Freedom Center, including P&G, are among Mulitnational Monitor's 'Ten Worst Corporations of the Year."

Pepper says companies supporting the Freedom Center are doing so because they believe in its mission.

"The companies that I know who were good enough to contribute tend to be leaders in this field," he says. "Does that say anybody's perfect or doesn't need to improve? Of course not; I think every one of the leaders would say, 'We need to improve.' Indeed, this is a manifestation of that commitment to improve. They're doing this because they think this is a cause that is important, relative to 16 zillion other causes out there asking them to support it."

The Freedom Center makes every effort to walk its talk, according to Paul Bernish, spokesman for the center.

"Soon after we opened, it was pointed out to us that one of our clothing suppliers obtained merchandise in Myanmar — a nation reputed to be heavily involved in slave labor practices," he says. "We dropped that supplier. Those we work with, whether they produce clothing in the U.S. or overseas, also adhere to fair trading principles.

"A majority of our gift shop jewelry vendors work with native craftspeople and re-direct a portion of their profits back to the craftspeople. In addition, the gift shop offers handcrafted jewelry made by women at Cincinnati's Sarah Center, which is part of St. Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine. The Sarah Center exists to assist women in developing life-building skills and their inherent talents to create better lives. Our gift shop is doing very well, in substantial part because it carries varied merchandise from untraditional sources offered through vendors who share our mission and purpose."

Bernish took exception to a list of controversial questions frequently raised by activists.

"We have gone out of our way to cooperate with you," he said in an e-mail to a reporter. "I've made arrangements for the key figures associated with the Freedom Center available for you to interview, and we allowed you and a photographer to tour the museum free and unfettered. And what do I get back? Allegations of sexism? Implications that we pay more attention to corporate donors than to history?"

'Engage the activist'
Daisy Quarm, associate professor in sociology at the University of Cincinnati, supports the efforts of the Freedom Center but challenges another aspect of its approach, its choices. In addition to wondering how Carl Linder could be considered a "Freedom Fighter," she also points to word choice.

"They used the word 'un-freedom' but seem to avoid the word 'oppression,' " Quarm says. "In the location where people are able to make comments by using pre-printed (magnetic) words, I wanted to put up a quote by Bishop Tutu, who had used the word 'oppression.' But I couldn't put it up because the word 'oppression' wasn't available.

The same collection of magnetic words includes the word "mankind," a sexist word for humankind.

"I think the center does attempt to inspire people to take action in the world today," Quarm says. "On the other hand, I think to be effective, they're going to need to look harder at the inequalities that exist in the world, in our nation, in Cincinnati in particular."

Dutton, an architecture professor at Miami University, agrees.

"The language sounds good from the center about reaching out and engaging communities," he says. "In order to do that, though, they need to engage the local activist on the ground in a sincere way. They need to come to learn and listen, as opposed to coming with some kind of ready-made formula. Even saying that we should have a dialogue is perhaps maybe still coming too much with a corporate sponsored-agenda.

"How far can they go (with) a corporate-sponsored board? Can they really go about trying to deeply understand what's happening on the ground in these impoverished areas?"

Dutton and other activists say some see the Freedom Center primarily as a corporate-sponsored symbol, a way for the elite of Cincinnati and world corporations to "freedom-wash their hands of responsibility" for social problems their businesses perpetuate.

The idea of exploring new ways of engaging the community is something about which the activists and supporters of the Freedom Center agree. Using the old methods of nonprofit organizations isn't going to support the innovative efforts and initiatives of this new way of integrating a social institution into a social structure.

Suggestions made by activists include emphasizing the stories of African Americans helping themselves, exploring the economy of slavery and encouraging the Freedom Center to be self-critical.

"Encourage each of us to ask, 'What am I doing to fight oppression?' " Quarm says. "We all need to be questioning ourselves and asking questions. I hope they want us to question them."

If Pepper has anything to say about it — and effective Jan. 1 he does — both will happen.

"You want people who want you to be better, and I think nine out of 10 people do," he says. "There may be one out of 10 — they're not constructive in their criticism. They need to come at it from, 'I think you've got a good mission, it's an important mission. We know you're tying to do it well. We don't think you're doing this the way we would or we think you could do this better.' That's what I really welcome." ©

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