Last week I spoke about the Government Accountability Project (GAP) 40th-anniversary celebration as the highlight of my year. At the celebration, Robert Shetterly, the renowned portrait painter behind Americans Who Tell the Truth– Models of Courageous Citizenship, unveiled five portraits of people honored as whistleblowers by GAP, and I was honored to be one of them.
This week was yet another highlight that again involved Robert Shetterly and the Americans Who Tell the Truth: Models of Courageous Citizenship portraits. For the first time ever all 238 portraits of that work were displayed at the Syracuse University’s Schine Student Center and I had the opportunity to be part of that celebration.
His journey with this work began in the early 2000s in response to the U.S government actions following 9/11. He felt a personal responsibility to report the truth and undertook the project as a way to deal with his own grief and anger by painting Americans who inspired him.
Now seventeen years later, he had the opportunity to see his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series, which portrays social justice advocates from around the country, honored in one exhibit.
“I didn’t know if I would ever see it all in one place,” said Shetterly, who said he’s grateful to Syracuse University for the opportunity.
The portraits and accompanying narratives in the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series highlight citizens who courageously address issues of social, environmental and economic fairness. Combining art and other media, the series “offers resources to inspire a new generation of engaged Americans who will act for the common good, our communities, and the Earth.”
He says the portraits have given him an opportunity to speak with children and adults throughout the United States about “the necessity of dissent in a democracy, the obligations of citizenship, sustainability, U.S. history, and how democracy cannot function if politicians don’t tell the truth, if the media don’t report it, and if the people don’t demand it.”
As part of the event, Mr Shetterly, Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha and I participated in an on-stage discussion moderated by LaVonda Reed, professor of law and SU provost for faculty affairs.
Mr Shetterly said “I’m always looking for those kinds of situations where people are standing up for victims. That has become my job, to honor people like that and to spread their stories.”
Dr Hanna-Attisha, the public health advocate and pediatrician who made headlines across the country in September of 2015 when she sounded the sounded the alarm about the high presence of lead in Flint’s drinking water and the danger to children. She said “All of this recognition is humbling because this was very much my role as a pediatrician where I have taken an oath to protect children.”
My comments were addressed to the students attending, that they need to be aware that there will always be a time when they will be asked to do something, or not do something, that will make them very uncomfortable. Yet it’s important that they continually ask questions and speak out when this happens.
Mr. Shetterly’s work is the subject of a documentary that’s presently in production, “Our Children’s Future: A Portrait of Robert Shetterly,” sponsored by the Union of Maine Visual Artists. SU alumnus Richard Kane was on campus recording additional interviews for the film (View the film’s trailer,) and I was interviewed for inclusion in that documentary.
A busy week with lots of highlights. I was also interviewed to be broadcast on WRVO, a local NPR station, with the interview also being available on podcast through ITUNES. And I lectured to one of their senior management classes and faculty. The lecture and all of the week’s events were sponsored by the Tanner lecture series, sponsored by SU alumnus Dr. Lynn Tanner, with whom I had lunch earlier.
The Tanner Lecture Series on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility provides a public forum for exploring questions like these in provocative and challenging ways; What does it mean to be an ethical citizen? What do the needs for public responsibility demand from us, whether we work in the private or the public sectors, and whether we are entry-level employees or top leaders?
I commend them. These are questions that need to be asked more often, on college campuses, in government and in our work environment. And we need to hold both our private and public sectors accountable for the answers.
As Mr Shetterly himself says “the necessity of dissent in a democracy, the obligations of citizenship, sustainability, U.S. history, and how democracy cannot function if politicians don’t tell the truth, if the media don’t report it, and if the people don’t demand it.”