Following an introduction to Chautauqua Institution’s new strategic plan, 150 Forward, President Michael E. Hill on Sunday morning tapped a historic gavel three times to officially open the Institution’s 146th Assembly. Hill’s “Three Taps” address, marking the traditional and formal start to a Chautauqua season, was titled “Walking the Tightrope Between History and Innovation,” and gave Chautauqua community members gathered a synopsis of the recently approved strategic plan, including a strong rebuke of hatred and bigotry. The remarks preceded the Institution’s popular Sunday worship service, which this particular morning featured a historic twist — for the first time at Chautauqua, the sermon was delivered by a rabbi chaplain in residence, Rabbi Sharon Brous, senior and founding rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles.
After acknowledging the 90th anniversaries of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Chautauqua Opera Company, as well as other momentous accomplishments of the organization, Hill framed the remainder of his remarks through the picture of walking a tightrope:
When one walks a tightrope, one has to be careful not to lean too far in either direction. The key is to build the right muscles to walk that tightrope effectively; so one doesn’t take steps in fear of falling but rather takes them gracefully, with courage, confidence and informed conviction. … Ours is not a literal tightrope, but rather a tightrope between history and innovation.
Hill then acknowledged Chautauqua’s co-founders, the industrialist Lewis Miller and the Methodist clergyman (later bishop) John Heyl Vincent, before diving into 150 Forward’s overarching goal: “To convene diverse perspectives and voices to discover and advance the most important, relevant conversations and experiences of our time during the summer assembly season and year-round, on the grounds of the institution and beyond.”
On the first piece, regarding convening diverse perspectives and advancing the most important and relevant conversations, he expanded
The goal itself is not new. A reading of our history would tell you that Miller and Vincent founded Chautauqua to assemble people who wanted to make a difference in the world and prepared a meal of the issues most pressing in the society of their time. Those early Chautauquans pondered the important questions of their day and were asked to go back to their home communities to make a difference.
Our prescription is not all that different, but our world is asking us to probe different questions and needs us to provide solutions for an era of divisiveness, derision and, some might say, delusion. There is a mission imperative for us not to lock ourselves behind our privileged gates but rather to craft new gateways of understanding and of civil dialogue. Chautauqua has always asked the most important questions of the day, and during a few very special times in its history, has understood that it has a unique role in providing the answers. We have been called for such a time as this, and we intend to seize that charge.
Hill outlined a handful of measures by which Institution staff and community members would gauge their success in achieving that aspiration by the end of the strategic plan in 2028, including an increasing number of national and international partners seeking to engage with Chautauqua’s work, prioritizing a vast improvement in Chautauqua Lake’s health brought about by community collaboration, and being seen as a model for transformation in the areas of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility:
Today I tell you that I still don’t completely understand why hate 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. 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 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.
Hill then transitioned to the second aspect of 150 Forward’s overarching goal, “which calls us to take Chautauqua’s mission beyond the gates and the summer assembly season in greater earnest.” He outlined some ambitious plans, including transforming Institution property along its NY Route 394 board into a thriving year-round business district, building year-round activity to attract increased tourism and business growth to the Chautauqua County region, and taking the Chautauqua brand across the nation through digital engagement, programming in other communities, and media partnerships — ultimately attracting transformational growth in private philanthropy.
Hill spoke about the Institution’s listening exercises with community members, as part of 150 Forward’s genesis, in which they were asked, “What is the ultimate meaning of this assembly and what do you wish for it to be or become?” He said most feedback came in the form of five responses:
- We’re creating ways for people to have meaningful, impactful conversations
- We’re transforming discord into discourse
- We’re imagining solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems
- We’re helping people make a difference in their communities
- We’re recalling the very foundations of our democracy
He then concluded:
Mr. Miller deeply loved the grounds of the unfolding Chautauqua. He saw the power in the place, and he soaked in the scholarly pursuit that occurred each summer as a way to catch a glimpse of the divine. It was a love affair and an inheritance that continues to this day.
Bishop Vincent was a restless soul who saw the advent of Chautauqua as the beginning of a movement, the possibility of a nationwide conversation of renewal and promise. He saw the power in the idea, and it spawned dreams that were realized far from our shores during important moments in the life of our nation.
Our time calls us to walk the tightrope between those two dreams: to harness the power of place to model what we most hope for communities across humanity while acknowledging that the idea, the movement, cannot be contained by geography.
And here’s the great magic of this: I didn’t create it. This is what you told us was ours to do.
Now, my dear friends, grab the balancing pole and walk with me.
I tap the gavel three times … Chautauqua 2019 has begun.
Hill’s Three Taps of the Gavel speech and Rabbi Sharon Brous’ sermon can be viewed online at Chautauqua’s Facebook page.
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