On a brisk Sunday in October, several dozen people crowd into a house in Eugene, Oregon. Some are old friends, some are neighbors who have only chatted across the fence, but most have never met. They have all come at the invitation of our host, Tara Jones, to participate in an event Teddy Roosevelt once called, “the most American thing in America.”
Jones recruited more than a dozen presenters to share their knowledge and knocked on nearly 500 doors throughout her neighborhood to invite members of the community to attend.
Over the course of eight hours, community members will give half-hour presentations in their areas of expertise and on subjects they are passionate about. Topics include climate change activism, Thai massage, and preventative home maintenance.
Today’s gathering is a Chautauqua, a community-based educational symposium that has its roots in a movement that began in the 1870s to bring knowledge, entertainment, and culture to rural communities throughout America.
Throughout the United States, the Chautauqua Movement is being revitalized in urban areas as a medium for reestablishing community, exchanging knowledge, and, increasingly, bridging the social and political divisions that threaten social progress.
Derived from the Iroquois name for a lake in upstate New York that hosted the first such event, “Chautauqua” grew to mean a gathering where people learn about innovative ideas, discuss issues affecting their community, and forge the connections required to create meaningful local change.
Traditionally, some Chautauquas had a permanent base, like the Chautauqua Institution in New York, which has continued to draw thousands of visitors each year to hear speakers such as musician Wynton Marsalis, journalist Fareed Zakaria, and author Ann Patchett, while others travelled the country on tour circuits holding gatherings in giant tents.
Paul Magid is a co-founder of The New Old Time Chautauqua, the only touring Chautauqua still active in the United States, and a Chautauqua historian who notes, “By 1924, there were 10,000 circuit Chautauqua productions, a 1,000 circuit Chautauquas crisscrossing the states and seen by 40 million Americans—more than half the country at the time.”
Chautauquas had enormous impact, with content that ranged from the sublime to the raucous. In 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his historic “I Hate War” speech at a Chautauqua.
Congressman and populist presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, gave thousands of speeches on the Chautauqua circuit. A champion of the Progressive Movement, Bryan went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of State.
And while Chautauquas often featured performances by major musical groups such as the American Opera Company and the Jubilee Singers, they also featured Vaudeville-style performances from jugglers, magicians, dancers, and trapeze artists.
Chautauquas have always been based around community empowerment and the open exchange of information—core principles that persist to this day.
Each summer Magid’s Chautauqua visits small towns, Native American reservations, retirement homes, and even prisons. Generally, their all-volunteer crew holds two days of events in each stop they visit, with a focus on involving the entire community.
“We are really about the local community. We encourage the community to get involved in the organization of the whole event,” Magid says. “On the first day we do community service projects, like building fire pits for parks or reconstructing a path or cleaning graveyards. We do a big potluck at night, where we invite the whole community. The second day is a parade at noon and then two or three hours of workshops, many of which we provide, but many of which we encourage the local community to provide. This is followed by a two-and-a-half-hour Vaudeville show.”
Workshops cover subjects such as environmental issues, health, practical skills and powerful historical presentations, including topics like the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II and Indigenous American medicine.
The evening performance features a 20-piece band as well as comedians, jugglers and more. Magid, it should be noted, is also co-founder of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling and comedy troupe who have been active since the 1970s and have performed on Broadway, starred in HBO specials and collaborated with groups like the Grateful Dead.
An organization called the Chautauqua Trail is a network of 18 independent Chautauquas that operate out of permanent facilities nationwide.
While the Chautauqua Institution in New York is still considered the “Mother Chautauqua,” there are longstanding Chautauquas in places like Bay View, Michigan; Ocean Grove, New Jersey; and Boulder, Colorado—to name a few. Each year they host educational sessions that range from a few days to several weeks.
Frank Gwalthney, President of Chautauqua Trail, hosts a Chautauqua in Ocean Park, Maine. He feels one of the big advantages of a Chautauqua is that it allows presenters to share information in a respectful format.
“A Chautauqua community is an example of social intercourse. You sit and discuss ideas; you don’t start name calling; you don’t get mad; you don’t debate. You can disagree, but when the person is making a presentation, you don’t challenge them,” Gwalthney says.
A Welcoming Format
This emphasis on civility and inclusion is important because it creates a welcoming forum that encourages presentations from community members who may not have experience talking to larger groups or might feel they lack the expertise to present on a subject.
Tara Jones says this is one of the reasons she was inspired to organize her Chautauqua. “It is not only valuable for the people who attend,” she points out, “but it is valuable for the presenters to have someone say to them, ‘I think you have something of value, won’t you share it with people?’”
Jones received so much positive feedback from the community that she is hosting another Chautauqua later this month. So far, the program includes presentations on Plato’s The Republic, personal cyber security, and a performance of Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish songs led by a local rabbi.
Jones grew up in New York City and was familiar with Chautauquas, thanks to her proximity to the Chautauqua Institute, upstate. She sees an opportunity for Chautauquas to thrive in increasingly urban settings, and she is not alone in this view.
Paul Magid envisions bringing Chautauquas to urban areas, with an emphasis on empowering inner city communities, but he is also focused on the unique international role Chautauquas can fulfill.
This summer The New Old Time Chautauqua has a project called Hands Across the Border that will work with North American indigenous communities that have been divided for centuries by the Canadian-American border. Since September 11, 2001, these communities have grown increasingly isolated from each other even though they share the same culture, language and heritage.
In a political era of walls, refugees, and division, Magid, Jones, Gwalthney and thousands of others are reinvigorating the Chautauqua Movement to build bridges, expand knowledge, and nurture communities. Many will say it’s not a moment too soon.