Photo courtesy of the Heinz History Center.

A worn guitar strap, hand-stitched quilts and an engraved silver spoon are a few of the artifacts that illustrate stories from our past as part of the Heinz History Center’s Civic Empathy Project.

The pilot program was launched through partnerships with 15 regional libraries, museums and cultural organizations to make the connection between history and civics education — a worthy ambition in these divisive times.  

“It was something that we’ve been doing here at the Heinz History Center for years, doing it unknowingly or without really coining a term or putting a name to it,” says Robert Stakely, affiliates program manager with the Heinz History Center.

Stakely met with colleagues from the education department, the museum division and library archives, who came together and thought — why not pull together and come up with a name?

The group worked to see how they could bring awareness to empathy through history, using objects and artifacts and archival pieces beyond the History Center’s collections and exhibits.

“And so, the idea was: Why not work with some of our affiliates? It’s kind of like peanut butter and chocolate coming together to make Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” says Stakely with a laugh.

The History Center contacted 160 affiliate sites, and close to 40 organizations applied for the 15 slots. Each site tells personal stories from their communities that are tied to history and that made a positive change.

Green Tree Public Library, for example, reveals how more than 2.8 million cubic yards of debris from excavation and demolition projects were dumped into the Suella Landfill between 1950 and 1974. The landfill eventually became Green Tree Park. Visitors are encouraged to become involved with current urban planning as active citizens.

The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill Archive explains how a secret summer teaching school started for the Sisters of the Holy Family, an African-American congregation in New Orleans, when Jim Crow laws barred them from earning teaching certificates. The school operated for 36 years and created a strong bond between races and Catholic sisters that has lasted for a century. Patrons are invited to explore how they can help bridge racial and cultural divides.

Quilts tell stories, too, as pointed out by the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation, which focuses on handmade “Quilts of Valor,” which are being created and awarded to service members and veterans who have been touched by war. The organization shares ways visitors can support veterans and continue the legacy.

Other sites include the Battle of Homestead Foundation, the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation and the Zelienople Historical Society. You can find the complete list and summaries of the projects on the Civic Empathy Project website.

The History Center is working with the organizations to develop virtual exhibitions on the Google Arts & Culture platform. Watch for the online exhibits to be launched in 2023.

“As we emerge from a period marked by disharmony and discord, this is a moment for us all to lift up the decency and neighborliness that’s at the heart of our communities all across Western Pennsylvania,” says Gregg Behr, executive director of The Grable Foundation, which funded the project. “These museums, libraries and civic organizations are reminding us about what it means to be good citizens, together.”

And that’s the endgame here for citizens of all ages.

“Someone who is learning about this project for the first time,” Stakely says, “whether they’re in fifth grade or they’re coming in as a Rhodes Scholar, the hope is that if you’re able to embrace and understand the past, it’s going to make you a better person, a better citizen who can make better decisions today in the present, and hopefully for the future.”

Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn is a Pittsburgh-based editor and writer who writes about food, entertainment, kid stuff, pop culture, cocktails!