Connecting Communities with the Arlington House
The Arlington House Robert E. Lee Memorial offers a compelling example of how America's Best Idea programs successfully reach out to underserved populations. In 2012, Arlington House hosted two programs that recognized the anniversary of the manumission of 196 enslaved people of the Custis-Lee family plantations and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation. The park engaged visitors in a variety of ways including lectures by leading historians, performances by local African American church choirs, a traditional African American Watch Night service, readings about slavery and freedom, and a reading of The Emancipation Proclamation.
The park hoped to reach out to those who do not usually come to this national park, and specifically local youth organizations and African American church congregations descended from the enslaved people in their historic community. 660 visitors, 70 percent of whom had never been to the park before, were engaged in programming that fostered meaningful connections between the African-American community, youth, and the National Park Service. Though program leaders pointed out that they had a bit of an uphill battle in reaching their target population, their efforts at connecting with the local community proved tremendously successful.
"We had a huge barrier between us and our targeted audience. The legacy of slavery and racism and the distrust that has engendered has been our particular albatross. This is the Robert E. Lee Memorial, after all, and he fought to defend slavery so why would we ever want to go to a place that honors him? That was the prevailing view. I couldn't blame them. We had to earn their trust."
"We had every reason to expect that group to reject us out of hand. Instead, they welcomed us with warmth and hospitality and shared so much that is deeply personal and spiritual about their lives and history that we on the staff felt truly privileged and grateful. We developed a bond that we are sure [will] transcend just these programs."
Program leaders at the park expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity to connect with a new group of visitors thanks to the financial support of the National Park Foundation's America's' Best Idea grant, "I cannot express enough our gratitude for your generosity in providing this money to us. I can honestly say that these programs would not have been done without it. The difference that has already been made here and that will continue to be made is a testament to your commitment to helping the parks and we are thrilled that we could be beneficiaries."