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Constance Alexander: Smithsonian exhibition and civic engagement are cures for what ails us

Outside, the sun is bright. Tulips and daffodils bow and flutter in a gentle spring breeze. It would be a perfect day except for the fact that western Kentucky is in the red zone on the National Allergy Map. With itchy eyes, runny nose, and a throbbing sinus headache, I am miserable. Nevertheless, when I stop and listen to the metaphorical voices of democracy at work in Murray the fog lifts. I feel better already.

Downtown, and on campus at Murray State University, civic engagement is beginning to blossom. A diverse community – while not always in agreement – participates in the process.

Voices and Votes poster designed by Nafeesa L. Al alou, Murray High School

Last Tuesday on the courthouse square, members and friends of the Murray State College Democrats gathered to fold paper cranes, origami-style. The intricate birds were born in the shadow of the Confederate monument, a recent source of disagreement between city and county government. According to Japanese tradition, creating a thousand cranes is enough to make a wish come true. In this case, the hope is for removal of the monument. Throughout the afternoon, the flock increased, bird by bird, while opponents – one of them shouldering an AR-15 – hoisted signs insisting that General Lee must stay.

About a mile down Main Street on the MSU campus, the Wrather Museum is hosting a world-class traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian. Voices & Votes: Democracy in America is such an important project, the museum has extended its hours so that people of all ages can visit during the week and on Saturdays, between now and May 1.

The exhibition raises questions fundamental to a democratic society such as: What were the principles and events that inspired writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Just how revolutionary was our new democracy led by the people? And who would be included as “the people?” How would they make their voices heard?

Complex questions demand more than one-word answers, and the array of details incorporated into the displays help viewers draw their own conclusions. Words, objects, and images present a visual cacophony, including historical and contemporary photos, educational and archival video, multimedia interactives with short games, and historical objects like campaign souvenirs, voter memorabilia, and protest material. Some tell stories heard before, while others present new information.

To engage young people in the dialog, Dr. Sean J. McLaughlin, MSU’s Special Collections and Exhibit Director, worked with art teachers in Murray and Calloway County. Students in middle and high school were invited to submit digital posters that explored the themes woven into the Smithsonian display. One of the Wrather’s galleries showcases their designs, and it is suffused with energy.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

The young designers address issues that evoke disagreement and inspire civic action including climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, women breaking boundaries, LGBTQ rights, pollution, and mental health. One of the most eye-catching was by Nafeesa L. Al alou, Murray High School, portraying people of different skin colors lined up to vote.

A website adds more documentation to the Smithsonian display, including a video of Sherman Neal II, the keynote speaker who kicked off the exhibition last week. Mr. Neal, a community organizer, has taken an active leadership role in the movement to remove the Confederate statue from the court square. Tagged as an “outsider,” he continues to promote the cause, and networks with people in the community of all ages and backgrounds to get the monument moved.

Last week’s chorus of voices lifted in hope was topped by a vigil on Thursday night. More than 100 people gathered on Murray State University’s campus to pay tribute to women killed in Atlanta, Louisville, and Western Kentucky. Three who were memorialized had ties to Murray – A woman missing for more than three years, Samantha Sperry; a Murray State student recently killed and dumped in Calloway County, Sarah Townshend; and Kathryn Bryan, killed by the same man who shot her 12-year-old son and then turned the gun on himself.

For Murray, the first week of April was characterized by activities that reveal areas of disagreement that cloud the mood in a community that prides itself on being one of the friendliest towns in America. Rather than hope they, like spring allergies, would just go away, let us hope other approaches prevail. Informed discussion, visionary leadership, and rational action planning can clear the air.

The exhibition at the Wrather Museum provides a place to start.

For more information about the exhibition and related programming, visit the exhibition website or contact Dr. McLaughlin at 270-809-4295.

Sherman Neal’s keynote address is posted at www.youtube.com

“Voices and Votes: Democracy in America” is an exhibit presented by the Smithsonian Museum and the Kentucky Humanities Council.

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