Southern Cayuga Conversations: History Club reflections on truth tellers

Elaine Meyers Special to The Citizen October 15, 2022

The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project invites our community to join the conversation with Robert Shetterly’s Truth Tellers from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Southern Cayuga High School Auditorium (sccsannefranktree.org/event-schedule). This conversation began in the spring of 2021 with the purchase of 20 portrait prints of Americans painted by Shetterly. Portraits have been displayed in the school and plans are underway for community displays as well as a raffle at the Oct. 20 event.

At the event, we will view a new documentary film that chronicles the lives of Americans fighting for peace, racial equality, environmental justice and indigenous rights. The film explores the intersection of these issues as we come together to confront them and galvanize our resolve to uphold our country’s founding ideals. After the showing of the film, we will speak virtually with Shetterly about the issues and actions being taken in our own community.

In a recent call with Shetterly, I told him I would be talking with Southern Cayuga’s Junior and Senior High School History Club members about issues explored in the film. He and I talked about the growing number of young people who are making a difference in their communities and in our country. Steve Baumes, Southern Cayuga seventh and eighth grade history teacher and a fellow Anne Frank Tree Project board member, is the faculty advisor for the History Club and worked to distribute questions to club members prior to our Oct. 6 meeting.

Our meeting began with a discussion of racism and how it impacts other issues like the environment. A ninth grader began with a comparison to the abuse of power by some in law enforcement using excessive force and those who abuse the environment without considering the impact of their actions on a wider community. Another student followed up with the observation that many older generations dismiss the environment as a problem to be solved by younger generations who say “I don’t think this is just our crisis. … Don’t they realize the future is now, and everyone needs to step up to the environment and other issues that negatively impact our community.”

The group sadly recognized a fundamental lesson of history — we take two steps forward and often they take four steps backward.

I asked students how old one had to be to make a difference in righting injustices and environmental activism. A student remarked that change begins in the heart, and we all have hearts. Our hearts tell us where we should spend our time. Another club member talked about powerful people enabling people of all ages and economic resources to make an environmental impact. She discussed Team Trees and Team Seas, an international collaborative fundraiser started by YouTubers MrBeast and Mark Rober. The project has raised millions for planting trees in the rain forest and cleaning debris from the seas.

We moved from examples of those who use their power for good to those who neglect those who elected them to power. Examples of government officials who can be bought to ignore their constituents need for health care, clean water, safe housing and excellent education were mentioned.

We discussed a hypothetical case for a history club where a student proposed a trip to a Confederate memorial sight that would be fully funded by a parent and where money for nice accommodations, great food and free transportation would be furnished. Club members only had to agree to make this trip. A high school student said that she would thank her club member for the information and then would ask how the trip fit the values, and goals of the history club. Another student picked up on the conversation. “How would the trip enrich their understanding of civil wars and how to prevent them?” They continued, “Could we discuss ways to add other sites to the trip that would enhance understanding?”

Steve Baumes and I listened and wished for a political scene with this kind of civil discussion.

We ended the conversation with suggestions for who in our community Robert Shetterly should consider adding to his gallery. Emily Howland was mentioned for her commitment to equal justice and educational access for all. The last minutes were for any questions that students wanted to ask Shetterly on Oct. 20. These questions were raised: “Do you publish the ideas of those whose who see situations differently than your truth tellers? How do you work with those who do not agree with you?” and “Who was your muse? What made you begin this project?”

The photo of the History Club in today’s column captures so much. History Club advisor Steve Baumes and photographer Elaine Meyers were brought to their knees with the insight of the students. History kicks off great conversations and teaches us about how to learn from the past to make all our futures brighter.