Freedom Center president has mission to promote ‘inclusive freedom’

Historic biases may unconsciously impact decision making processes, Keown says.

The president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center said while speaking to a crowd in Butler County last week there is a need to promote inclusive freedom, where all people have their identity and experiences valued equally.

Woodrow “Woody” Keown, Jr. has been at the helm of the Freedom Center since 2020 and said he and his team will implement changes that will bring new messaging, exhibits and technology to bring NURFC up to modern standards and expand its educational reach.

The ultimate goal of the center’s refresh, Keown said, is to become the “preeminent cultural learning center for inclusive freedom” in the world.

“I know that inclusive freedom is a broad term,” Keown said, “but for me it means this: A group of people in power is not gaining economic advantage by systematically perpetuating injustices to disempower people based on racial, sexual religious or other differences that they devalue, which result in harmful disparities in areas such as education, income and wealth disparity, healthcare, criminal justice system treatment, voting rights, housing, and political and legislative power.”

Keown, who grew up in Little Rock, Ark. as it cemented itself as a hotbed for the civil rights movement, believes institutions like the NURFC hold a particular ability to educate by telling the stories of Black and American history and connecting them to modern times, while highlighting how known and unknown biases at an individual level impact the systems in America today that tend to generate inequitable outcomes based on race, sex or wealth.

Speaking at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts in Hamilton, Keown said systemic injustices start with individual biases, which are often unconscious even to an individual, and those biases can cause intentional or unintentional damage when individuals make decisions.

“A lot of what’s going on that’s causing these systems to work the way they are and [causing] people to put these rules and policies in place is because they don’t understand what’s going on from an unconscious bias standpoint.”

Keown argued that this is largely what exists today. But, those biases, Keown explained, were in some ways molded and shaped by the conscious, naked biases that were enforced throughout American history, ranging from the slave trade to sundown laws to Jim Crow — a term associated with the former practice of segregating Black people.

Those historic conscious biases, Keown argued, can unconsciously impact the decision making processes of individuals, including shaping who folks choose to spend time with, who bosses choose to hire or promote, or how harshly judges choose to punish criminal defendants.

Keown iterated that those unconscious biases at an individual level ultimately send ripple effects through economic, judicial, legislative, educational and interpersonal systems that are all woven together.

“These systemic issues that we’re dealing with are very complex, they’re highly interrelated, and it’s very hard to deal with if you try to take on everything at the same time,” Keown said.

Keown said these are some areas that he hopes the NURFC can bring change — both by teaching the relevant history to individuals and by getting involved in the systems he believes to be skewed by conscious biases of the past and unconscious biases of the present.

“There are areas where we have to strategically advocate,” Keown said. “Our number one agenda item right now is voting rights. It’s the most fundamental principle and we’ve got some major problems there that we’ve got to address.”

Keown said he’s been involved more in federal, state and local governments to try to bring change to inequities. Advocacy, along with the center’s ambition to update its exhibits with more immersive, technological experiences, are the central tenants of the change Keown said he hopes to bring to the center.

Keown said, upon his arrival at the center, that he hoped to take it in a “different direction to accelerate and continue to build upon the platform that had been put in place before.”

“We are going to refresh our museum, we’re going to bring it up to 21st century standards with more technology, more immersive and enlightening experiences for people,” Keown said, adding that new exhibits will be installed by May 2025.

Keown said he hopes new efforts made through the NURFC will help develop trust and understanding by enlightening the broader public of what it took for disempowered communities to succeed within and change American systems and the impact it has today.

“What we want you to do is think about reimagining a world where we trust each other. We want to have this respectful empathy and this practiced routine. It’s not hard to do,” Keown said. “We also want to develop these different emotional relationships everywhere with a connected understanding and [where] everyone feels like they belong.”

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