How many times in your life has someone suggested that you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? It’s a great suggestion, but how easy is that to do? First of all, I wear fancy shoes. So, I can’t imagine a man actually envisioning himself in my favorite Diba booties. Okay, that was a bad attempt at humor. But it’s difficult to put yourself in someone else’s life. Perspective isn’t easy to come by. We each go through a series of trials and tribulations, making it hard to gain understanding of those around us – and I would argue almost impossible to empathize with those around us. And by those in the above line, I mean friends and family members, people we’ve known for long periods of time. But what happens when you’re asked to understand someone who’s completely different then you are? Different skin color. Different religion. Different education level. What happens when you step into shoes that aren’t yours?
This year, I’m honored to be a participant of the Hamilton County Leadership Academy (HCLA). The year-long program brings together ambitious, hopeful professionals in an effort to deep-dive into county government. The program serves to spark new ideas, initiatives, and hopefully one day, leaders. Last night, our HCLA class had the opportunity to attend Conner Prairie’s “Follow the North Star” program. For those less familiar, Conner Prairie is an Interactive History Park located in Fishers, Indiana, that seeks to use history to help guests find greater understandings of themselves and the world around them.
I’ve lived in Fishers my entire life, and I’ve known about this program for years. I actually had the chance to attend once before, during graduate school, but I was always hesitant. Follow the North Star is a participatory museum theater experience, transporting participants back to the 1800s and converting the group into fugitive slaves navigating pre-Civil War Indiana on the quest for freedom. The 90-minute program, that takes place outdoors throughout Conner Prairie’s grounds, includes various ‘characters’ along the journey, that help guide the group, and concludes with a formal debrief facilitated by Conner Prairie staff.
When I arrived last night, I was nervous. Not only did I express that to group members, but I was quiet and tried to retain every detail prior to the start of the program. We were first directed to a room for a brief overview of what we were about to experience. Each participant was handed a white headband to ensure that if the experience got too difficult, they could wrap that headband on and immediately characters would realize they were choosing to be an inactive participant and instead observe the experience. I won’t share the entire program, but I will provide a few key highlights…
Our first stop was a barn in the woods, and we were immediately instructed to line up against a barn. It was alarming to be screamed at, and even more alarming to hear phrases like, “Don’t you dare look a white man in his eyes. EYES DOWN!” My mind raced, and yet I couldn’t capture one thought. It was like being in the middle of chaos, with life-or-death instructions coming your way, and being completely paralyzed and unable to retain them or take any kind of action. From there, the simulation led us to a mock slave trade. Again, I was stunning by words like “Buck” and “Breeder” – I knew enough to know that I signed up for this, and that this was an intentional part of the program. But, again, I found myself paralyzed by shock. With eyes down, I had a conversation that went like this:
“What do you do?”
“I cook sir.”
“What do you cook?”
And then I was asked to detail how to cook chicken. Needless to say, 1800s are a bit different than today, and I missed the step of gutting the chicken, which meant I was berated again, “Dumb breeder, all you’re good for is having more darkies.”
Again, shock. This time, holding back tears.
From there, we crossed paths with a less-than-friendly group of sisters that helped guide us to towards the Quakers, at the time, they were working throughout Indiana to help slaves on the Underground Railroad. The journey continued as we met other fugitive slaves and heard more about their quest to freedom, but terror struck again when we ran into a deranged man who lost his job in construction to slaves, who were directed to complete the work for free. He decided to travel up north to Indiana, and ended up losing his family along the way. For that, he made every slave he encountered pay for his loss. He had us on our knees, fearing what would come next, before we were able to make a break and find refuge with a generous Quaker family. From there, we sought guidance from the only free African American family in the community, before the program came to a close.
The experience was life-changing, literally. There were many times I had tears rolling down my face, trying to fathom what this experience would be like without a white headband in my pocket. When the program concluded, the facilitator asked a question that went something like, “if you could describe this experience or its impact on you in one word, that word would be…”
When it came to me, I said awareness. I might have been educated about slavery in school, but never had I done anything that immersed me into a situation that would help me truly understand what slavery was like. I also felt this huge responsibility from the experience itself. Since then I’ve continually been asking myself what I do with this information and perspective I now have. As a white woman. As a mother of a biracial child. As someone who has friends who are different than me in many ways.
In full disclosure, I’m still not sure. It was jarring. It was something that will make me more compassionate and it will undoubtedly inspire me to seek information about other’s journeys, whether with their sexuality, religion, ethnicity, race, or beyond. But I don’t think that’s enough. Not even close. So, this is a story that doesn’t come to a nicely wrapped package at the end. But it’s one that I’m certain, will continue developing. And in the meantime, I look forward to stepping into more, different shoes. I’m confident the perspectives ahead will make me a more educated, more compassionate, more understanding woman.
Learn more about Follow the North Star online.