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Harpur Forum talk focuses on civic responsibility

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution, spoke to Harpur Forum members Sept. 21 about citizens’ obligations in a democracy. Campbell spoke briefly about Chautauqua and its mission, noting that its founders specified that the institution be open to all. The nonprofit center in southwestern New York offers a blend of education, arts, religion and recreation.

“It’s not just Chautauqua that has a noble vision that is difficult to live up to,” she said. “Our nation is in exactly the same place.” Both, she added, are challenged by their founding documents. Campbell recalled visiting Thabo Mbeki in exile in Zambia as members of the African National Congress worked on what they hoped would be the future constitution of South Africa. The papers on his kitchen table included the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Campbell said at the time it was “totally unthinkable” that the group would ever gain power without violent upheaval. And yet, she eventually served as a monitor in the South African election that brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency; Mbeki succeeded him. “The point of the story is that their constitution is driven by our constitution, our Declaration of Independence and by our vision,” Campbell said.

When she was growing up, her family emphasized the importance of voting and of civic engagement in general. Today, Campbell said, there’s less clarity about the obligations of citizenship. In fact, friends expressed dismay when they learned Campbell’s daughter planned to run for mayor of Cleveland.

“Hardly a person said to me, ‘Aren’t you proud of her?’” Her daughter won election and is now campaigning for another term. “Whether she wins or loses and winning is better she will have served with integrity and honesty,” Campbell said. But the larger issue remains that the country must renew its young people’s commitment to citizenship, she said. Americans must also give moderates more influence, do more to understand people who hold opposing views and find ways to build part-nerships, she said.

Two politicians in the audience Broome County Executive Barbara Fiala, a Democrat, and Republican Binghamton mayoral candidate Naima Kradjian both said they could relate to much of what Campbell said.

“It’s an important message to say that if you have intelligence and wisdom, corporate life isn’t the only way to contribute,” Kradjian said. “I was gratified to hear her put it in that perspective.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08