Nine bridges in Cincinnati can take you from Kentucky to Ohio.
The first one was built in 1866, one year after the Civil War: the iconic John H. Roebling Bridge. Before the bridge, if you wanted to get across the Ohio River, you had to travel by steamboat. Or, if you were a person escaping from slavery, you might have to swim.
In 2004, a different kind of bridge was built on the banks of the river. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center seeks to bridge the rich history of the Underground Railroad and the present-day need for inclusive freedom.
There’s never been a greater need. Just in the last two years, issues like Black Lives Matter, voter suppression, and critical race theory have become major national conversations.
In 2019, former Procter and Gamble executive Woodrow Keown, Jr. was named president of the Freedom Center. He started thinking about the expansion of their mission, the engagement of new audiences, and the need to address more current issues.
“I started asking some questions about what the Freedom Center stands for,” Keown says. “We needed to get clear about our purpose of being and to codify that in a reworded statement.”
“We really wanted to have our mission statement reflect what we were doing on the floor,” says Katie Bramell, the Freedom Center’s director of museum experiences.
Their revamped mission statement is this: “To pursue inclusive freedom by promoting social justice for all, building on the principles of the Underground Railroad.”
Kenneth Robinson, another P&G executive, has been with the Freedom Center since its inception over two decades ago, and was elected board chair in January.
“The new mission recognizes the history of the Underground Railroad movement but also of the Freedom Center and how we can have a major impact now,” Robinson says.
Mass incarceration and human trafficking have its roots in slavery. Everything is intertwined, and as the Freedom Center refreshes their exhibits for greater relevance, they will be able to speak on these issues by telling the truth about our nation’s history.
“Until people understand the truth, it is very difficult to make the kind of progress that we need to make,” Keown says.
“What we would like to be is a safe space for people to come and learn,” says Bramell. “We want to be able to come to our visitors in a way that is non-intimidating but also educational.”
The Freedom Center’s next exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” opens to the public April 22. It will feature 30 artists.
“It takes big, uncomfortable concepts and puts them to art — something that a person can relate to, be inspired by, and start conversations about,” Bramell says.
There are polarized views in our nation when it comes to conversations about race — especially when it comes to critical race theory, often abbreviated as CRT. CRT is used as a framework to study how racism and the law have intertwined in the United States.
Keown believes that the debate around CRT comes from the human desire to believe only one story about ourselves or our nation’s history.
“American history includes Black history. There’s more than one story,” Keown says. “There are so many stories of Black people doing great things that just were never told because they weren’t in the position to write the story.”
But why are we divided in the first place?
“Social media creates a feeding frenzy of misinformation that drives division as opposed to building bridges,” Robinson says. “Our role in the social justice movement is critically important.”
Bramell agrees. “We are really the convener of dialogue. We will pull in the experts who can better address these topics of injustice. We are there to facilitate that conversation.”
Guests leaving the Freedom Center often feel a renewed sense of passion for inclusive freedom that expands to all people, regardless of race, gender or class.
But as Robinson says, “Feelings are only important in that they lead to action.”
Education on implicit bias is at the forefront of the Freedom Center’s goals moving forward, along with diversity, equity, and inclusion training.
“We all have biases,” Keown says. “It’s a matter of understanding and recognizing those biases and then deciding what you want to do.”
The refreshed Freedom Center will offer more immersive experiences and greater accessibility for different styles of learning. They’re also planning on hosting free-admission days for members of the community. The goal is to create a dynamic museum experience that will make people want to visit more than once.
But the changes don’t stop there.
“We’re trying to take the spirit of the Freedom Center beyond our four walls and out into the community,” Keown says.
As board chair, Robinson’s vision is a museum that plays an important role in educating our community about current issues — and partnering with organizations, corporations and schools that can bring transformation.
Keown recounts a time that a team from P&G visited the Freedom Center for diversity, equity and inclusion training. “I had a conversation with one of the individuals after that training who said it was life changing,” he recalls.
The Freedom Center doesn’t just bridge past and present — it builds a bridge between inspiration and action, between polarized points of view, and between oppression and freedom. The question is — are you willing to cross it?
Do you want to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center? Find them at freedomcenter.org.