Historical Amnesia, Citizenship and Crisis

Ideas and Issues

Denver   Visiting with historians at Oregon State University who were trying to get a grip on what is happening in the US and the world today and how it lines up with other epochs was a fascinating experience.  In this country, and so much of the world, the contemporary focus seems to dwell on the import of every second and minute of the present and the glory and apocalypse of the future, depending on who you are streaming or listening this moment.  Not doing that for a day makes it refreshing to visit with people whose reference is understanding the present from the past and revisiting the past for lessons and answers to the questions of the present.

I was fortunate to do an interview as part of the new Oregon State University “Citizenship and Crisis Initiative” with Professors Marisa Chappell, Christopher Nichols, and rising scholar, Danielle Holtz.  The theme of historical “amnesia” was an undercurrent in much of the discussion.  They bounced between the impact of the KKK and segregationists in setting the stage for the dominant themes that still prevail and are deeply embedded in Republican conservative orthodoxy at this point and historical movements and figures for the 1950s and 20th century.  Heady stuff!

It goes almost without saying that the obligations and privileges of citizenship in the context of crisis owes much to the advent of Trump and the deep challenges every day in the world of his cultural and political dominance.  Part of the challenge lies in finding the channels for effective action and appropriate response, which is how I came in to these discussions through the side door, so to speak, since ACORN’s past, present, and future are alternative avenues of response as well as being paths not often taken.

Interestingly, Professor Chappell has been working for several years researching the leadership styles of women, particularly working class, low-and-moderate income women.  In the course of her research she has spent a goodly time in the ACORN Archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.  She has also interviewed a goodly number of former ACORN leaders in Arkansas, Louisiana, New York, Arizona, Florida, and elsewhere.

Coming to grips with a deeper understanding of the leadership’s contribution is certainly overdue.  The role of local grassroots community organizations in creating and maintaining part of the social infrastructure of our culture and civic life is also overlooked.   It might be my imagination – or amnesia – that it seems there is work being done to understand it more fully and credit the role of these fundamental institutions as challenging the brick-and-mortar edifices to politicians and wealth donors.

New initiatives like these and professors more attuned to carrying the weight and doing the harder work of getting out of the library stacks and internet caches and meeting people to understand what really makes the world work at the bottom, rather than just the top, is encouraging and something we all need to advocate and celebrate.