By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–What if we could sit down with the people who founded New Albany, Jeffersonville and Clarksville, compare notes on social issues in our communities, and discuss how to address them?
That’s the idea behind a collaboration between the IU Southeast School of Social Sciences and the Jeffersonville Township Public Library.
“Revisiting the Founding Era” is a series of free public town hall meetings and high school classroom presentations that explore how the controversies of the early 19th century, including issues related to gender, the homeless, and veterans, continue to play out in our community today.
The project is part of a three-year national initiative of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, presented in partnership with the American Library Association and the National Constitution Center, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Now celebrating its twenty-fifth year, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History was founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, visionaries and lifelong supporters of American history education. The Institute is the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to K–12 history education while also serving the general public. Its mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources.
Through grants, the project supports programs at 97 public libraries in 46 states, including Jeffersonville, Indiana.
“As the site of Southern Indiana’s oldest English-speaking settlement and the starting point of the Lewis and Clark expedition, our community has a deep sense of its history,” said Diane Stepro, geneaology and local history librarian at the Jeffersonville Township Public Library, and the originator of the grant. “However, much of the historical knowledge our community members receive amounts to historical mythology: inaccurate, overly generalized, and of little relevance for real life.”
Revisiting the Founding Era aims to bring themes to the fore that the past and present have in common, including the conflict between historic preservation and growth, the appropriate role of government in providing relief for disasters and injustices, and issues arising from increasing inequality.
At the first town hall, Dr. Kelly Ryan, professor of history and dean of the School of Social Sciences at IU Southeast, led a discussion of inequality, past and present, that included Dr. Daniel Krebs, associate professor of history at the University of Louisville; Judith Cutsinger, Housing Choice Voucher Program director for the Jeffersonville Housing Authority; and Dr. Kevin Burke, physician and former Clark County health officer.
She shared experiences and writings of the founding generation to an audience of roughly 25 local residents.
“Exploring the life and letters of these individuals were entryways into contemporary issues related to gender, socio-economic status and post-war practices that directly hurt some of our veterans,” Ryan said.
She was struck by the following related contributions of individuals in the community who are working in areas of poverty and homelessness.
“Their passion to spread information about resources and provide meaningful and judgment-free services to our veterans and housing insecure were powerful testaments to the force of individual goodwill and community building,” Ryan said.
Ryan also made a presentation to a government class at Clarksville High School as part of the youth program component of the grant, focusing on historical examples of misinformation and propaganda.
For Ryan and Stepro, both events ultimately revolved around the importance of historical understanding in eliminating bias and making it possible to strengthen human bonds and solve pressing problems.
With some 23 percent of the population under the age of 16, Jeffersonville Township will rely on the capacity of its citizens, especially young people to apply critical thinking and civil discussion skills to future challenges, according to Stepro.
For Stepro, many of those challenges are already coming into view: Nearly 16 percent of young people under 18 in Jeffersonville live below the poverty level, while drug use, HIV and homelessness are all on the rise.
Through these programs, project organizers hope that libraries will engage their communities in conversations about ideas from the Founding Era and how they continue to impact our lives today.
“IU Southeast’s mission is to advance knowledge and contribute to the cultural, civic, and economic development of our region,” Ryan said. “This event was one of the ways we fulfill that, by sharing our expertise and also by joining in and facilitating conversations that expand our responsiveness to major issues facing Southern Indiana.”
Homepage photo: Diane Stepro (l) and Dr. Kelly Ryan at the Jeffersonville Township Public Library.