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Ambitious new Smithsonian initiative aims to help America deal with the history and legacy of racism

The Smithsonian Institution Building in 2018. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Smithsonian kicks off its new initiative on race and racism with a virtual forum Thursday that brings together curators, researchers and activists to discuss topics including the disparities between races in health care, how biological racism lingers in sports culture and the history of the emotional stress of racism.

The hour-long event launches “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with our Racial Past,” an ambitious multiyear program that is fully funded by a $25 million grant from Bank of America that will tap into the vast expertise of the Smithsonian to examine the history and legacy of race through conversations, community events and digital content. The Smithsonian created the program last summer, in the wake of social justice protests held in communities across the country. Many museums and cultural organizations responded to the calls for racial justice and equity by presenting more diverse artists, and are revising their collection policies to be more inclusive. The Smithsonian decided to harness its diverse network of museums and experts to foster a national conversation.

The goal, said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, is nothing short of creating a better America.

“We want to contribute to making the county better,” Bunch said about the project. “The goal is to find that shared future. The only way to do that is to engage and to debate.

“I really believe that part of the role of the Smithsonian is to define reality and give hope,” he continued. “Giving people the reality — here’s the information, here’s a way to contextualize the moment we are in you can’t build optimism unless you face the reality of the past, the reality of today. But once you do that you can find ways to find common ground.”

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Thursday’s inaugural event, beginning at 7 p.m., will feature three discussions of race, wealth and wellness. Among those expected to participate are Bunch; Damion L. Thomas, curator of sports at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Louise Seamster, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa who studies race and economic inequality; Sean Sweat, a medical student who rewrote the Hippocratic oath to reflect racial injustice; and Diana Chao, who was in high school when she founded Letters to Strangers, a nonprofit focused on increased access to mental health services and treatment for young people.

“As trusted educators and historical guardians, museums of all sizes are leading the way in not just talking about racism and the uncomfortable parts of our history but also developing strategies to knock down barriers of misunderstanding and distrust in their communities,” American Alliance of Museums president and chief executive Laura Lott said. “As our national museum, the Smithsonian’s initiative to confront racism in society is hugely meaningful and will accelerate museums’ work across the country.”

The Smithsonian wants the program to deepen the national conversation by moving it beyond race as identity to examine how race works and what it means in our lives, said Ariana Curtis, the initiative’s director of content.

“What is real about race? What is it we believe about race? Why do we believe it? Is it even true?” Curtis said, listing some of the questions the initiative wants to consider. “We want to interrogate how did we get to this place and how do we change it.”

Future events, both virtual and in person, are planned for communities around the country. In addition to wellness and wealth, the program will focus on the themes of race and place, race and ethics, race beyond the United States, and race, arts and aesthetics.

“We are not just talking about racism as this big unwieldy thing. We are organizing it into six pillars, although none of these things are mutually exclusive,” Curtis said.

The program will take a multidisciplinary approach by tapping into the Smithsonian’s arts, science and history museums. It will also focus on many racial identities, Curtis said.

“One of the things we reaffirm is everyone has a racialized identity. This is not a Black and White issue. Historically, or in the present, race has always been more than Black and White.”

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“Our Shared Future” highlights Bunch’s efforts to position the Smithsonian as an educational resource that reaches beyond the walls of its Washington museums. In addition to increasing its programs for schools and students, the Smithsonian is determined to be a leader on race, a subject of paramount importance now, Bunch said.

“There is so much interest around this, and I’ve always said history is too important to be left in the hands of historians,” he said. “The Smithsonian is an amazing resource that the public can dip into. We will be testing ideas, testing different kinds of collaborations, different technologies. I’m hoping it will make the country better, but also make the Smithsonian better.”

The Smithsonian is committed to working on this for several years, Bunch added. “It is important to me, obviously, but I’d like to see the endeavor last long after I’m gone,” he said. “This is hard work, it is work that isn’t always successful. But if you aren’t working to help the country deal with one of the most important issues it has to face, you are not doing your job.”

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