Beyond Vassar

Fighting Hate with History

By Jessica Winum

When Sharon Ann Holt ’80 realized how rapidly hate groups were growing in Pennsylvania, she was alarmed; when she realized that these groups were using distorted history to give white supremacy the veneer of historical significance that newrecruits craved, she was motivated.

In 1999 she joined forces with Philadelphia’s Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies to found Living Legacy Chautauqua (LLC), a public- and community-based resource for citizenship education.

Funded by a number of public and private organizations, including the Barra Foundation, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, and local banks and colleges, LLC’s mission is "to mobilize the resources of culture and history to undermine the appeal of organized hate groups and build stronger communities." The premise grew out of Holt’s scholarly background as a historian, author, and educator. Her intense passion for the past is due mostly to her years at Vassar.

"I learned at Vassar that history is a deeply ethical enterprise, " she says in a telephone interview. "We are studying history to be better humans ourselves," not just to know the facts.

By blending history, education, and entertainment, Holt saw an opportunity to defend the field she loved while helping to eradicate hate groups through LLC’s first anti-hate group initiative, Who Are You and What Do You Want?

The program aims to strengthen and rejuvenate established community organizations, such as schools, libraries, community coalitions, and churches, through intensive team- and trust-building workshops held in schools; public events such as festivals and presentations in the broader community; and Chautauqua performances held during a public event, in which trained scholars dramatically present historical figures such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

During these performances each Chautauquan assumes the persona of a historical figure who discusses his or her life and times. After the initial presentation the scholar/actor answers questions from the audience, first in character and then as her or himself, employing scholarly expertise and relating the character’s life to modern times.

The format "links head and heart," suggests Holt, because the theatrical setting arouses emotion, and the scholarly aspect informs thinking. This "prepares you to act as a citizen because your learning has been linked to your feeling."

Head and heart are also linked through the school program portion of Who Are You and What Do You Want? At Muhlenberg High School in Berks County, for example, 90 students participated in a week’s worth of workshops, exploring their own identities and those of their classmates by designing masks, interacting through role-playing, and discussing issues of inclusion, exclusion, and boundaries.

The program was a "resounding success," says Holt, citing teacher’s reports that the tone of life in the school’s hallways had become more neighborly and that a parent had "expressed relief at having found an ally in the school in combating racial sentiments in her family," said Holt.

Since its inception, the organization has created nine Chautauqua programs and three youth programs in four Pennsylvania counties. Holt’s dream is to create "a Socratic school [of citizenship] out there, roaming the streets."

Media coverage of the events has drawn attention to Living Legacy Chautauqua and created a demand for its initiatives. School leaders, wary of youthful violence in the wake of murderous assaults in public schools around the nation, have invited Holt to bring Who Are You? to their students.

Holt continues to explore ways of building a permanent institutional foundation for the work, so that she can meet the growing demand for programs. In March, she became Director of Publications and Programs at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where she has the responsibility of developing new opportunities for public outreach, some of which she hopes will be through LLC. In an e-mail to the VQ Holt explains, "I’m sorry to leave the Balch, but it has been the business of this project year, since July 2000, to find some secure base on which the organization can grow. Demand for programs keeps coming in, and I didn’t have the organizational strength to meet it. Now, I’m optimistic that the historical society can become such a base."

It’s a hefty job for Holt, who fills all roles in the organization–project director, network builder, fundraiser, market strategist–and attends every event. But the Phi Beta Kappa Vassar graduate, who holds a master’s of theological studies in religion and public policy from Harvard University Divinity School and a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t let the work faze her. "I love it," she says. "It feeds my soul."