David Neil grew up on a story about his maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, that remained with him throughout his life.
After years of starvation in five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, his six-foot-tall grandfather weighed only 88 pounds. He was being transported from Poland to an extermination camp in Flossenbürg in a cattle wagon when a stranger was pushing him a sandwich.
“The man did this for himself at great risk, and my grandfather always said Sandwich saved his life,” said Neil, who lives in Nyack. “There are 80 members of my family who were murdered during World War II and the Holocaust. What I’ve always noticed is that I’m alive today because a stranger got up to hate. “
CAPITOL RIOTS: What your obsession with selfies revealed about the psychological state of the rioters
REACTION: What DC leaders say about mob, Trump’s actions
EDUCATION: How Teachers Tackle the DC Insurgency
When he heard about an incident in Portland, Oregon in January 2017 in which two men lost their lives and a third was injured when they stood up against a man who pelted two girls with anti-Muslim slurs, Neil said he know that he must do something.
With his wife Laura and friends, the couple Nyack, Molly and Everard Findlay, he developed ideas for the concept of sharing stories about standing up against hatred.
The result is the Museum of the Courageous, a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating the stories of those who advocate hatred and based on the belief that powerful narratives compel action.
Earlier this month, MOTC added nine award winners to the first “Courageous Class,” including a class of fourth graders in California who struggled to include the history of the mass deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s in the recommended social science material from the California State Board of Education; and in the story of Vernon Dahmer, a Mississippi civil rights activist who was murdered by the KKK in 1966 while fighting for free election for black citizens.
Dennis Dahmer, son of Vernon Dahmer, said his family was honored by the recognition.
“Hopefully a story like my father, a person who devoted their life to civil rights, and specifically to voting, motivates some of the younger generations who may not be attending,” said Dahmer, who spent his time between Louisiana and Louisiana divides Mississippi. “We hope his legacy means that.”
Dahmer also said it was his family’s mission that his father’s story was accurately recorded and documented in as many places as possible, and that is the goal of MOTC too.
For Laura Neil, it’s about changing the “algorithm” of what people read.
“I think we are the stories we tell,” she said. “When you read about hate, look for hate, find hate. And if you find inspiration, hopefully we can change that narrative and find more inspiration. “
Creation of a “museum”
A team of like-minded researchers and writers searched for public input and volunteered to put pieces together on the nonprofit’s website that highlighted both historical and contemporary mutacts. The group also publicized their efforts through billboards in Times Square.
A community campaign in Detroit to highlight the initiative drew more than 100 people who spoke about what it means to speak out against hatred.
“We had 78-year-old Catholic priests for single mothers from African American communities, people from the Islamic community, the Jewish community and everyone came together,” said Everard Findlay, who moved to the United States from Trinidad at the age of 19. It was very moving. “
The Neils and Findlays decided early on to bring a professional manager on board to run the operation. Neil is a real estate manager who serves on the boards of many social and environmental nonprofits. Molly Findlay is a set designer and her husband is a branding expert.
They hired Teresa Vazquez, who has more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, to act as managing director.
“I’ve heard from people across the country looking to bond with a national story of courage, justice and equality,” said Vazquez. “At a time of deep division in our land, when many of us feel discouraged by what is going on in our communities and the nation’s Capitol, the stories of the brave class offer us inspiration and a path forward.”
She was moved for guidance by the Pittsburgh Faith Family, one of the museum’s award winners, after 11 people were killed and seven seriously injured in an attack on three Squirrel Hill communities on October 27, 2018.
“The acts of violence on October 27th should lead to division and fear,” she said. “But Pittsburgh, led by the faith communities, has chosen to come together and publicly declare that hatred has no place in Pittsburgh.”
Findlay said he grew up in Trinidad, which he described as a “deeply multicultural society,” and is committed to making the world a more integrated place.
“As a dual citizen, I feel compelled to exercise civil duty,” he said. “For me, the Museum of the Courageous was an important process to honor people who fight for the good of the country in America.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy reports on women and power for USA Today Network Northeast. Click here to read their latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org