Letting Go of the Lunch Counter

The lunch counter exhibit at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. Photo via ArchDaily.

The lunch counter exhibit at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. Photo via ArchDaily.

Lacy Ward has a few questions.

They may have started back in November when the International Civil Rights Center & Museum fired him as executive director. Or back in April 2014, when he first arrived with fresh eyes, a ton of experience and eagerness to build a bridge between the community’s desire for a more inclusive museum board and the board’s desire for exclusive governance.

In retrospect, Ward says he missed a few crucial clues indicating it wasn’t going to happen like that. And now, he says the city’s broader vision to honor Civil Rights can still happen. It’s just probably not going to happen at the corner of February One and Elm Street.

“People are saying, ‘My vision is…,’” Ward says, leaving off the end of the sentence. “People have been disappointed that their vision has not been fulfilled by an institution. That doesn’t mean you give up on your vision.”

When asked, Ward doesn’t say what that vision is. He just kicks the question back: What do you think? What’s your vision?

I saw an incubator for social change. Where people from around the world or across the state could gather, vet out their differences, find some healing and some solutions. Organize and join the fight against Amendment One. Embrace immigrants. Establish a living wage. Give Greensboro an identity that could attract jobs and keep them here.

But the museum’s vision is to remain exclusive in its governance and its appeal, Ward says. That’s to be respected. And it’s time to move on.

“You can spend a lot of time saying, ‘Please do these things there,’” Ward says. “So the question should be, ‘Where can we get these things done?’”

If it can’t happen at the lunch counter where can it happen? And how would we get there?

Ward offered some questions and a few answers.

Why are we asking the ICRC&M to be more than it wants to be?

“We’ve probably asked that question as a community for two decades. I think a great number of people see potential in dealing from a broader community perspective with this city’s Civil Rights history. And everyone that’s had those views has tried to express those views through the historic site, through the lunch counter. And that may not be the only avenue.”

Where do you invest to satisfy those aspirations?

“Financial sustainability comes from broad appeal. The broader your market, the broader the basis of support, the more places you can go for financial support and better the possibility of being financially sustainable.

“If you have a board where the major donors are not part of the governing structure, then you don’t have a healthy nonprofit, because it’s their motivation, excitement around the future vision that continues to draw in additional funding. And if they’re not present, that means they’re not part of creating a future vision.

“They can share a creative vision, and you can vet out the differences as you walk along the path. Neither side wants to walk down the path by itself. Creative and capital have to work together. If you don’t have both, there’s no way to convert vision to reality.”

What aspirations are you trying to fulfill?

“Part of the vision [at the museum] was to see the A&T Four as college students. To see them in the context of all college students enrolled in Greensboro at that time. The city is very fortunate to have a diversity of higher-ed institutions, and as college students, to see what was it like from multiple perspectives.

“That can still be done: What’s it like to be a student when your nation is changing? And it’s as simple a question as that. And I think you want to get a lot of different answers. One answer might be activism. One answer might be nonchalant. One answer might be working too hard as a student to even pay attention to the outside world. There’s no one student view.”

Why are we focusing on the museum to fulfill a broader community vision?

“This is the question for the community. The external community as well needs to ask itself, needs to ask for a different result from that body. Knowing what you want, what are the different avenues to make that available? Which ones will you choose? And that’s a process, I can’t give you an answer.”

This article originally published in Triad City Beat, Feb. 4.

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