Michelle Nunn’s Reflections From Chautauqua Institute

Jul 13, 2012

Chautauqua Institute is quintessentially and uniquely American. In the words of David McCullough, "There is no place like it. No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere else in the world. It is at once a summer encampment and a small town – a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat, and the village square. It is all of these things and it's none of these – just. And there is no place – no place – with anything like its history."

Chautauqua was founded in 1874 as an experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. It was successful and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to what is now a multi-faith, inclusive community of learning and the arts. It was created at a time when Americans had not fully invented "leisure" – when the idea of rest or rejuvenation was considered to be a complement to the pursuit for self-improvement. Today, 138 years later, Chautauqua is a thriving community that for nine weeks blossoms into a community of 7,500 who join together each day to listen to lectures, go to operas, ride bikes, go sailing, and gather together across generations.

 For me, Chautauqua was the perfect place to start my family’s journey across America. We spent the 4th of July week here enjoying a series of conversations led by Jim Lehrer, diving into the forces that will shape the 2012 election and how the outcome will impact us all. We gathered each morning to hear some of the nation's keenest political minds, from Michael Gerson to Donna Brazille to Mark Shields. The dominant theme was the current and seemingly growing polarization in the country. In the last twenty years, we have almost doubled the degree of difference between Republicans and Democrats. The generational gap is wider than it has been on issues in forty years. In every conversation, there was a genuine hunger for bridging this divide and finding room for compromise and common ground.

 And how do we do that? How do we re-build relationships among our political leaders, demand civility in our debates and in ourselves, passionately support not just our own ideologies but the pursuit of practical answers? The answers to these questions depend upon all of us – upon citizens. We can't wait for the political leaders – we, the people must lead. Rev. Buzz Thomas, one of the week's speakers and President of the Great Schools Partnership, declared on July 4th, “If there is an American exceptionalism, it is based upon service, not dominance.” Truly, America's greatness is dependent upon the service and engagement of our citizens.

Chautauqua SpeechThis past Monday, I was honored to give a lecture (yes, it is indeed called a lecture) at the revered Chautauqua Amphitheater. This is the same space where FDR and Susan B. Anthony addressed their fellow citizens. I opened a week of lectures with the theme of INSPIRE, COMMIT, ACT. I talked about three principal ideas: 1) That we are wired to help others 2) That our history and America's story have been shaped by people acting on this empathetic impulse to help others 3) And, that we have more power to drive greater change and help more people than ever before. The complexity of our challenges demands that we all take up our power to create a better world.

You can see my lecture on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnjgXZPlMxo. (Fair warning – it is by design long! – Chautauqua encourages in-depth engagement.)

I am now heading off across the country, with my family, Elizabeth (age 7) and Vinson (age 9) and my husband Ron (partner, driver, navigator, tour guide, and baggage packer, etc.) in tow. We are looking forward to discovering the stories and finding the civic innovators and citizen leaders who are shaping our nation’s future. I look forward to sharing what I learn from the people we encounter along the way.