Smithsonian begins two-year racial justice initiative

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Smithsonian begins two-year racial justice initiative
Lonnie G. Bunch III is the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian.

by Sarah Bahr

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, announced last year that the organization had received a $25 million gift from Bank of America, he envisioned an initiative that would create safe spaces in communities across the nation where Americans could gather to discuss the country’s racial past.

The result, “Our Shared Future: Reckoning With Our Racial Past,” a two-year series of online and in-person events, will kick off Thursday in Los Angeles with a virtual summit meeting that will focus on income and health care inequality and include subjects ranging from early race science to vaccine distribution. The initial event will be livestreamed at, starting at 7 p.m. Eastern.

“We can’t solve the problems of race in America ourselves,” Bunch said in a phone conversation Monday. “But we can give the public the tools to stimulate those conversations to help people understand race beyond Black and white.”

The organization is planning conferences, town halls and immersive pop-up experiences in communities across the country to allow people to share their experiences and increase their understanding of the legacy of race and racism. Bunch said the goal is to encourage conversations among people who might not otherwise cross paths.

“We hope the Smithsonian can be a trusted place where people with a diversity of political opinions can engage with each other,” he said.

Museums nationwide are reckoning with race in their collections, including how to diversify their historically white holdings and how to display artifacts of traumatic periods in the country’s history, such as Ku Klux Klan robes, with proper context. But the Smithsonian wanted to take the conversation beyond museum walls, Bunch said.

“In many ways, it’s an initiative about race,” he said. “But it’s also an initiative about the different ways the Smithsonian can do our work moving forward.”

Though arrangements are in flux because of the pandemic, the Smithsonian does plan to dispatch a video team to events including the annual Farm Aid Festival, to be held this year in Hartford, Connecticut, on Sept. 25, in the hope of gathering oral histories from people about their experiences of race in America.

“We want to make sure, as we talk about the grand issues of race and wellness, we reduce it to a human scale,” Bunch said.

Though the program is a two-year pilot, Bunch said he sees that time frame as a starting point, not a deadline.

“We want the relationships we build to go on longer,” he said. “If what we’re doing has an impact, we’ll keep doing it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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