The story of our democracy is written everyday by citizens – and especially by young people – who help to shape our future with their decisions. This pivotal Inauguration will be one of those seminal moments. Chris Wilson, director of the African American History Program at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American History, will explore this moment and how it intersects with the age of popular politics and the civil rights movement.
WorldStrides: How did you get into your field?
Chris Wilson: My dad suggested that I take a summer job at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. I hadn’t thought of working at a museum, but I spent my first summer there running an 1855 saw mill and then an 1880s working farm. I enjoyed the informal learning that took place through the conversations with visitors about history. I kept coming back summer after summer, even though at first I was in a pre-med degree program. I took a few history classes, switched majors, and thought about a teaching or research career. Working at the Henry Ford Museum and seeing the impact it could have on visitors changed my mind.
WorldStrides What advice do you have for students who’d like to pursue your line of work?
Wilson: Be creative in thinking about what is possible. Be persistent. Explore all your internship options; it’s the best way to learn about the work that is happening. Stay focused and be patient. It’s important to realize that public history is a small field but careers work out for those who are persistent, patient, and put the time in. Truthfully, I had a lot of luck and good timing, but I wouldn’t have been in the position to receive the luck if I hadn’t been patient and focused on my passion for the work in the field.
WorldStrides: Tell us something few people know about student participation in politics.
Wilson: I look back at the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve interviewed dozens of people who were students and youth when they decided that they want to live in a different country than they were living in. Many were representative of all the disenfranchised demographics, and in many ways they didn’t have access to power. What they had was determination, vision, fearlessness, and a strategy. There were great leaders, but the movement would not have been a movement without the community and people who made up the mass meetings, marches, and protests. These students and young people first decided they wanted the country to be different – without the law, tradition, and American ideals on their side. Then they recognized that their own voice was important and powerful enough to make this change – America should be different because I say it should. From there, they stepped across an invisible line, knowing they might get killed, knowing it was against the law, and acknowledging their life was less important than the vision they had for their country. They took those courageous steps. Individuals, ordinary people, made choices that were incredibly powerful, getting issues on the political agenda and forcing action. They then discovered, and we discover by studying their history, that they did have power both individually and collectively.
WorldStrides: When you go home each day, what makes you most proud?
Wilson: When I first took my job, my mentor and hero, Bernice Johnson Reagon, told me to never underestimate the Smithsonian’s power to convene people. Each day I try to keep that in mind. I am employed by the American people. I have this opportunity to try to increase and diffuse knowledge and make a more humane future for everyone. I seize the opportunity to use the Smithsonian’s convening power and use the interest that our visitors have in history to get people to talk to each other. It’s a unique opportunity at the Smithsonian, unlike any other; it’s a great place to bring people together around our history and traditions. When I find common ground through my programming and accomplish bringing people together, that’s what makes me proud.
About Chris Wilson
In leading Experience Program and Design, as well as the African American History Program, at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Chris Wilson works to engage visitors in conversation about our nation’s rich and diverse history. Chris founded three major program series at the museum: History alive! theater programs, interactive and emotional presentations of stories of America’s past that resonate in the nation’s present; the National Youth Summit series, engaging high school students nationally and internationally in conversation about relevant history; and the History Film Forum, an annual exploration of history on the screen. As director of the African American History Program since 2004, Chris oversees the Program’s rich collection of oral histories, interviews, and recordings. He strives to use programming to enrich the experience of every visitor by offering them a glimpse into the history and culture of black Americans and an understanding that the American experience springs from many diverse stories. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and his Master’s in History from Wayne State University. He has earned numerous accolades for his innovations in education.