Part of the History Center’s America 101 initiative, the Civic Empathy Project activates the connection between history and civics education.

As part of this pilot program, History Center curators and educators worked with 15 History Center Affiliates Program sites to develop physical and virtual exhibitions that prioritize building empathy and taking action to further civic engagement.

Each site identified a relevant story from their community’s history and developed a small exhibit that demonstrates how civic action brought about positive change. The sites then linked that story to a current need in their community. By highlighting actions that address that need, they connected history to civic action, providing a way for visitors to make a difference in their communities.

These calls to action, rooted in historic precedent, demonstrate how change for the collective good can be made by active, informed, empathetic citizens.

The History Center is also working with Affiliate Program organizations to develop virtual exhibitions on the Google Arts & Culture platform. The online exhibits will launch in 2023.

Civic Empathy Project: Exhibition Summaries

A Creative Approach to a Desperate Problem: In response to layoffs in the 1980s, United Steelworkers Local 1397 in Homestead organized a food bank for unemployed members, partly funded by a benefit concert featuring local bands. The Battle of Homestead Foundation uses an original concert poster and guitar strap to tell this story and inspire visitors to address community needs.

Quilts Tell Stories: In addition to keeping us warm, quilts can tell stories and commemorate people, places, and events.  For example, handmade “Quilts of Valor” are being made and awarded to current service members or veterans who have been touched by war. The Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation shares how visitors can support veterans and continue this legacy.

Living Separate Lives: Segregation in Donora: By highlighting the extraordinary life of football legend Reverend Dan Towler, the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum examines the legacy and impact of racism in their community and encourages visitors to participate in civic life through voting and supporting the protection and expansion of voting rights.

Manners Matter: Drawing on their extensive collection, the Duncan & Miller Glass Museum  highlights the importance of table manners in the Victorian era. Just like today, sharing a meal, getting to know people, and enjoying their company are important ways to show care and hospitality to others. The museum is partnering with the Lemoyne Community Center to offer classes exploring etiquette from 1865 to the present.

Garden for Victory: This exhibit spotlights the WWII contributions of those on the home front in the form of victory gardens, which eased the food shortages brought about by the war and built community morale. To honor this heritage, the Connellsville Canteen asks visitors to tackle food insecurity by donating to a local food bank.

A Heap o’ Pittsburgh: Between 1950 and 1974, more than 2.8 million cubic yards of debris were dumped into Suella Landfill, which eventually became Green Tree Park. Pittsburgh’s rapid growth in the mid-century prompted countless excavation and demolition projects, with much of the debris landing in Suella. The Green Tree Public Library encourages visitors to become engaged in urban planning efforts today.

Give Voice to Justice: The Library calls on the life and work of two local suffragists – Alice Kiernan and Flora Synder Black – to illustrate the struggle and eventual triumph of Pennsylvania women fighting for the right to vote. Inspired by the re-creation of the Justice Bell by local art students, the Meyersdale Public Library asks patrons to register and exercise their right to vote.

Justice and Candor: In 1936, Harry H. Jones, Wheeling’s only African American attorney at the time, delivered a talk on the city’s white-owned radio station WWVA, about the conditions faced by Wheeling’s African American citizens in the Jim Crow era and appealing for empathy.  To carry on this legacy, the Ohio County Public Library suggests visitors support local minority-owned businesses or engage in candid discussions regarding inequality.

 The Power of Place: In addition to serving as homes, businesses, or other structures, buildings can also tell the story of where we have been, who we are, and where we are going. When a building is torn down, communities lose the connections to the past that the building provided. Preservation Pittsburgh uncovers the stories that preserve and share that history and invites patrons to document the significance of structures in their communities. 

Rescue: Planet Earth: Agriculture and mining has sustained Somerset County’s residents for centuries, but these critical tasks can also harm the environment.  For example, burning coal and agricultural emissions produce greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. To responsibly balance these vital resources with their environmental impacts, the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation shares several strategies for visitors to be good stewards of the environment.

Sisters v. Jim Crow: Beginning in 1921, the Sisters conducted a secret summer teaching school for the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, where Jim Crow laws barred them from earning teaching certificates. The school operated for 36 years and the resulting bond between Catholic sisters of different orders and different races set the stage for a century-long friendship. The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archive invite patrons to explore how they can help bridge racial and cultural divides.

The Digital Divide: Technology creates unprecedented opportunities to bring people together, but it can also be used to divide, especially when inequities in access exist. The Western Allegheny Community Library is dedicated to technological literacy, fostering understanding and knowledge that helps people bridge the technology divide. They encourage visitors to help someone less tech-literate than themselves or explore resources to educate themselves.

Slavery in a “Free” State: Slavery may seem like a part of Pennsylvania’s distant past, but its effects linger to this day and it still exists in many forms in many places. The Westmoreland County Historical Society brings the stories of slavery alive through unique artifacts such as an engraved silver spoon carrying the story of slave holders and the enslaved. To draw attention to modern day slavery and human trafficking, the Society provides valuable resources to learn about these abhorrent but persistent practices.

A Total Peace Offensive: Wheeling-born union leader Walter P. Reuther, became renowned as a civil rights advocate, after authoring a booklet aimed at empowering the powerless. Reuther theorized that this empowerment would reduce the attraction to authoritarian styles of government. He designed a plan for social justice that invited all citizens to have a seat at the table to bargain for their futures. The Wheeling Academy-Law & Science Foundation urges visitors to find their own seat at the table by calling elected representatives to advocate for issues they believe in.

A Legacy of Compassion: Despite limited resources, Reverend Dr. William Alfred Passavant founded more than 40 charitable institutions in Pittsburgh and other Midwest cities. Inspired by his mother and his faith, Rev. Passavant learned that empathy requires action to relieve suffering and became devoted to improving the condition of those less fortunate. The Zelienople Historical Society encourages visitors to volunteer to address current community needs.

The Civic Empathy Project is generously supported by a grant from the Grable Foundation.