Urban's animus toward Amistad ignores recent success

The schooner Amistad makes its way up the Thames River to the New London waterfront in 2010, marking the end of the recreation of the ship's 1839 voyage from Havana. (Tim Cook/The Day)
The schooner Amistad makes its way up the Thames River to the New London waterfront in 2010, marking the end of the recreation of the ship's 1839 voyage from Havana. (Tim Cook/The Day)

The mission of Discovering Amistad is to teach students Amistad’s historic story of enslavement and empowerment, oppression and freedom and to engage students in conversations and experiences making the Amistad story relevant to today’s urgent need for improved race relations, appreciation of diversity, and cultural competence.

In a recent article in this newspaper, it was reported that Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, intends to seek termination of state support for Discovering Amistad. Curiously and incorrectly, the article characterized Urban as a supporter of Amistad. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ever since it was learned that Amistad America, the first organization to oversee the ship, had mismanaged its responsibilities and defaulted on its obligations, Urban has been opposed to state support for the Amistad endeavor. In doing so, she has permitted her well-founded disappointment with the failure of the first organization to fuel a continuing opposition to any continuing support for Amistad’s underlying educational mission. That is unfortunate.

Members of the Board of Directors of Discovering Amistad have had conversations with Urban regarding her continuous crusade to eliminate funding for our organization. We do agree with Urban that the previous organization was mismanaged and sadly left many local and regional businesses holding unpaid debt. We fully understand that Connecticut is indeed going through some difficult and painful economic times, causing our public representatives to scrutinize and prioritize the allocation of public funds. But, to mischaracterize Amistad as simply a ship that, perhaps, should be supported by a yacht club, reflects, at best, complete ignorance of Amistad’s mission and, at worst, a form of demagogy unworthy of a public servant.

We disagree strongly with Urban in her continuous and prolonged attack on Discovering Amistad, and her apparent unwillingness to recognize the work we have done and are trying to do with public school students in Connecticut. Further, to seek to hold the present organization responsible for the debts of a completely unrelated organization is nonsensical and distasteful.

Yet most irresponsible is her refusal to acknowledge that our educational programming regarding social and racial justice in our country is not only informative and inspiring, but necessary in today’s climate of race relations. She should take the opportunity to review Discovering Amistad’s Facebook page where, with minimal effort, she could learn that last summer, students from Bridgeport, New Haven, and New London had the experience of their lives onboard Amistad visiting colleges along Connecticut’s coastline while sharing the teamwork responsibilities of crewing a historic tall ship. She would learn, as well, that our classroom teachers have taught lessons to students of these communities during the school year, while also giving those students the opportunity to be at sea aboard Amistad. In light of these successful efforts, Urban’s statements indicating that funding Discovering Amistad is wasteful and unworthy of public support are uninformed and unfortunate.

Our educational programming has created meaningful opportunities for students to dialog amongst one another to learn ways they can better communicate and exist in today’s world. We have provided this education and an exciting summer program for high school juniors who would be first generation potential college students. Tributes from some of those students of the importance of the Amistad experience to their own lives can be found as well on our Facebook site.

Importantly, our programs to schools in Bridgeport, New Haven, New London, and other communities were completely funded by generous contributions from private donors. In addition, this spring we are offering to Alliance School Districts our education free of charge to the school districts.

While we are striving to untether our operations to state-funding, immediate termination of public funding at this juncture would cause us to cease operations. Timing is crucial. When Discovering Amistad was organized to take over the Amistad mission, it was an important understanding that Amistad, as the state’s officially designated Tall Ship, would receive some measure of public funding until its early successes were sufficient to garner private support.

As a newly formed organization, our first responsibility was to bring the ship back to structural and operational seaworthiness and to develop appropriate teaching materials for our educational efforts. As a consequence, we have only been in operation for a year and a half.

Going forward, we are hopeful there will be private donors that understand our mission and will come forward to help us become a sustainable organization. Unfair characterizations of our mission by Urban makes it harder for us to obtain the necessary funding to continue our important work in race relations and diversity. It would be beneficial if we all could work together to attract the private funding necessary for Discovering Amistad to continue its highly acclaimed work.

Len Miller is chairman of Discovering Amistad.





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