By KATHRYN M. CURRAN
If you are an American history buff and you want to be inspired, amused and transformed, all while having your faith in the youth of your region restored, I strongly suggest you and your family take a trip next year in April to the New York State History Day competition in Cooperstown. I guarantee you will see an incredible effort. This year almost 500 students competed. There were 125 volunteers consisting of working and retired history teachers, professors, theater professionals, authors and others like myself that did the judging. The competition narrows the winning finalist from every county in New York State. The winners at Cooperstown go on to the National History Day finals in Washington, D.C.
Last year I wanted to see the New York State History Day in action. I went as a volunteer and judged “Senior Exhibitions.” I was so impressed by the efforts of our statewide contestants that I proposed to my board that we fund this annual endeavor. This year I attended as the representative of one of the region’s foremost historic philanthropies. The board of trustees of the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation agreed to be New York State History Day sponsors and also to give two awards. I can assure you the competition was stiff.
The students were incredible. Their efforts, their knowledge, the level of their work cannot be praised enough. This year the National History Day theme was “Taking a Stand in History.” It opened the discussion to the age-old question: “What would I have done” when faced with discrimination, genocide, fear? Here were junior high and high school students explaining the role of visionaries and heroes who took a stand on events of human rights that today many take for granted. “What would I have done?” It still gives pause.
We are building better citizens through the study of history. We are reviewing the past to make knowledgeable decisions about the future. History is not a static, dusty topic; it plays a vital role in an educated discussion of the choices of the future.
If you haven’t noticed, history is currently a hot topic. There is a reason that history is very alive today. The fastest-growing hobby in America is genealogy. Everyone wants to know who they are. Isolated in the present, individuals are looking to the past for grounding and pride through their individual stories. People are searching for personal acknowledgment during times of disenfranchisement.
And so historical societies are becoming a vital part of their communities’ identities. Not only do we want to connect to our personal past, we want to connect to the place we live. Knowing our neighborhood’s story offers a sense of pride. This knowledge reminds us of our own role in our community and our community’s role in a larger American experience. The way to access those stories is to visit your local historical society. There are hundreds of historical societies representing Long Island’s past. As interest in our region’s history is growing, so is attendance at these sites. To serve this expanding audience, historical societies are no longer the closed, static sites of the past. They are being reinvented to engage their populations. They offer lectures, music, art, reenactments and many other events. As the demographics of Long Island changes, so does the outreach and focus of our historical stewards. As history evolves, so does the stories told. We are all making history at this very moment.
Long Island has a tremendous place in the American experience. One cannot name a theme or issue of this nation’s past where Long Island has not had a presence or an individual story to support those endeavors.
The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation’s mission is to support our regional history through specific funding: exhibitions, conservation, restoration, capacity building, renovation, and scholarship are all under our purview. You should also consider supporting your region’s history by becoming a member of your local historical society and attending their events. I think you will be surprised at the educational resource they offer. They are the stewards of your neighborhood’s heritage. They are the guardians of its story.
Editor’s note: The author of this Point of View is executive director of the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation Inc.
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