A Standing Ovation For Upstanders

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I attended a Film (and other ARTS) Feasts event to support the Cleveland International Film Festival last week. Lauren Rich Fine, former Wall Street media analyst, moderated a discussion among "three of Cleveland's most celebrated print, radio and media industry leaders"--The Plain Dealer editor, Susan Goldberg; WMJI radio personality, Jimmy Malone; and television personality, Tim White. What resonated for me during the hour-long discussion on the state of the media's future was the theme of civic responsibility and how each individual is responsible for how they gather and take in information, and how we are responsible for the subsequent decisions and actions (e.g. voting) that result from how we use information.

The Choosing to Participate exhibit opened at Cleveland's Western Reserve Historical Society on October 21st, underscoring the importance of our responsibility with regard to what we do with information. One part of the exhibit presents historical information through four pods. Crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas describes the way people responded to the integration of Central High School in 1957. Not in Our Town examines how citizens in Billings, Montana came together to combat hate crimes. Little Things are Big tells a decision made on a late night subway ride in New York City in the 1950's by a Hispanic male. And The Power of a Story tells the story of peace activist and Cambodian refugee Arn Chorn Pond and how speaking out can lead to healing and redemption.

For me, the power of the exhibit comes from the residual effect of these historical events on our family, neighbors, and friends--especially those who make the connection between history and the moral choices we confront in our everyday lives. Facing History and Ourselves, the sponsors of the exhibit, call these individuals Upstanders. Upstanders are people who, when faced with information that is troubling because of injustice, take a positive stand and act on behalf of themselves and others. A Choosing to Participate companion exhibit, featuring portraits and inspiring stories of local Upstanders, is the connective tissue to the four historical pods and a compelling community catalyst for civic engagement. It reminds us that every day we have the opportunity to make decisions on behalf of our community. I was happy to see portraits of folks that I recognized and friends like LaJean Ray, Director of Fatima Family Center, honored as Upstanders. They remind me that we do not make personal decisions in a vacuum.

An even more vivid reminder of this fact came from a young Shaw High School student, Alana Garret Ferguson who, in an Obama-like manner and with the insight and wisdom of elders, spoke about the connection of history to her choices today. Facing History classes supported her to link her personal history as an African American to that of Max Edelman, a Holocaust survivor and honored Upstander. She took Mr. Edelman's lessons of courage, fortitude and perseverance and applied them when she was bullied at school. Her world view was expanded and enlightened through learning the history of Native Americans. Through this history she took examples for how to affect positive change in the world. Alana wants to continue to make positive changes as an attorney. There were many in the audience who decided to help her achieve that goal. Alana left that evening with a two-inch stack of business cards.

We live in a knowledge economy where we can gather information faster than ever before and take in encyclopedic volumes of information in a matter of hours. Upstanders remind me of how to take that information and act responsibly in a collective capacity. Upstanders help me to expand my vision and believe that we can create the kind of world where everyone matters. And for that, I give them a standing ovation.