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Statement from President Michael E. Hill

Like everyone else, I have been watching the events of the past week with a mix of horror and pride: horror that we still live in a society that perpetuates systemic racism, hatred and cruelty, and pride that people who refuse to accept this are standing up and making their voices heard. At Chautauqua, we have been sharing the words of speakers who have given their lives to dismantling systemic racism as a way to shine a light on what we think we can all do to make a better society. This is the mission of Chautauqua: to put a spotlight on the issues most impacting society and to present leading voices who can help us all grapple with those issues and to find a path ahead. We believe that giving a platform to those leading major movements is core to our mission and the best way we can make an impact.

In recent days some have decried this approach as “tone deaf,” indicating that unless the Institution puts out an explicit statement that we are complicit. I’ve wrested with this, not because I have any confusion about where we stand, but mostly because I feel we have consistently, at least in my four years as President, drawn a bright line in the sand about our belief that any society that does not value the dignity of all people is a flawed society. Colleagues of mine who have given their entire life to the struggle to eradicate racism have counseled me that what I can do as a white man of privilege is “to do my work.” I have committed to that, as I can only control my own actions. I believe that’s what we each need to do.

In my leadership role at Chautauqua, I have committed this Institution to seek justice, fairness and a space where we people can come together to heal a broken world. But I do not stand alone in this. Our Board of Trustees enshrined in our recent strategic plan as one of its central pillars work on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, pronouncing it as one of the most important issues we need to tackle in the next decade.

But I also understand that for some explicit words matter. Last year, as I opened our 2019 Assembly with the opening Three Taps of the Gavel speech, I offered explicit words about Chautauqua’s beliefs. For anyone who wants to know where I stand or where this Institution stands, please read these words offered last June.

As we prepare to open the 2020 Assembly, albeit in a very different way than we have before, our pursuit of the best in human values, our founding and current mission, will not shy from the tough conversations gripping our society, including the cancer of systemic racism. We never have. To me, that’s more explicit than a one-time statement can ever be. It’s a lifetime of the work of this Institution, and one we’re deeply committed to continuing. I wish one statement could erase all the hatred that systemic racism has caused, but like most stains on our society, there is no one magic pill. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an opinion piece yesterday, “we must remain vigilant and maintain our determination to make a difference.”

From my opening Three Taps of the Gavel, 2019:

"Today I tell you that I still don’t completely understand why hate sometimes shows up here, in this place that has been dedicated to the opposite of hate for nearly 150 years. But I do not need to figure that out before I can say, clearly and without hesitation, that when hate comes here, it must get no oxygen! It must be starved by the dignity and conviction of our community, this community.

"We will continue to wrestle with this — as will the nation in general — but with the affirmed value of honoring the “contributions and dignity of ALL people,” we simply must universally declare and hold one another accountable to a bright line in the sand and that line is this: hatred and bigotry will NOT find a home at Chautauqua.

"We uniquely have the opportunity to embrace this as an entire community to demonstrate to the world that not all places operate from the premise of deciding who’s in and who’s out, who matters and who doesn’t.

"We have the opportunity to model that differences in opinion or ideology can be discussed with the goal of seeking understanding versus simply claiming victory for shouting the loudest.

"Whether we call that civil dialogue or simply living into the best of our human values, the values in 150 Forward call Chautauqua and Chautauquans to aspire to be the exception to the rule so we can, together, fully realize our mission."

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