News & Features

Giving Circle Funds Successful Symposium

Memory of Conference Won't Soon Fade
The organizing committee members knew that their event would be good. They just didn’t realize that the first-ever Collective Memory Conference would result in an inspiring, applause-worthy, standing-ovation type of ... well, memory.

“I think I can say that we were pleasantly surprised,” said Randy Rosenberg, Fontbonne University assistant professor of religion and philosophy and one of the event’s organizers. “It’s not that we thought the conference would be devoid of good papers and rich conversations. It’s just that we didn’t expect the kind of energy and synergy that we experienced throughout the three days of the conference.”

Collective Memory in St. Louis: Recollection, Forgetting and the Common Good took place over three days last October and was a partnership between Fontbonne University and the Missouri History Museum and was sponsored by the Fontbonne Community Connection. It featured expert panels, speakers, moderators and guests from throughout the St. Louis area and the academic world. Presenters came from local institutions, such as Webster University, Washington University, St. Louis University, Lindenwood University, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and Aquinas Institute of Theology, as well as more distant schools, such as Boston College and the University of Notre Dame.

“When I first began teaching at Fontbonne, I was very excited by the Bosnian Memory Project,” said Rosenberg, describing the inception of the Collective Memory Conference. “As a way of complementing it, I wondered whether we could further explore the idea of memory.”

Rosenberg brought this idea to Mary Beth Gallagher, Fontbonne’s assistant to the president for mission integration, and the two began meeting and brainstorming with Corinne Taff, Fontbonne assistant professor and chair of the school’s interdisciplinary department, and Ben Moore, associate professor of English and communication. Eventually, the committee would expand to include Jasna Meyer McCarthy, associate professor of English and communication, her husband Patrick McCarthy, and Jamie Wagman, an interdisciplinary studies instructor. The group struggled with how they could effectively bring this topic to life in a way that would engage not just academics, but students and St. Louisans as well.

“The idea of collective memory is that it’s not personal or psychological,” Taff said. “It’s shared memory within a community. Memory constitutes identity — we base who we are on the past we remember. It’s not always the same thing as fact.”

Taff said that the group wanted to focus on this idea of collective memory within St. Louis specifically.

Rosenberg agreed. “We decided to explore larger themes through a local context,” he said. “St. Louis holds onto a certain nostalgia about the past. We wanted to go beyond the nostalgia, with the intent of recovering lost narratives and exploring why these memories had been forgotten. Why are some stories privileged in our collective memory, while others are not? We were also concerned with how this kind of academic inquiry might foster solidarity, how it might emancipate, heal and redeem, how it might help us navigate, to borrow the imagery of Dante, the dynamic confluence of the River of Memory and the River of Forgetting.”

They did just that. The interdisciplinary conference explored topics as diverse as abolitionist and newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy, city parks, riots in St. Louis, education and religion. All presentations and discussions shared the common theme of collective memory, questioning its impact on identity and culture, discussing it through the lenses of race, religion, gender and class, and debating its influence on various aspects of St. Louis as a whole. Students, academics and community members from numerous disciplines and backgrounds attended the conference.

“I was excited by the fact that the conference helped bridge disciplines and fields,” Rosenberg said. “Often, academic conferences are insular. With the Collective Memory Conference, we were able to have an academic discussion while bridging out into the community — so much so that there will be continued collaboration in the future because of it.”

Although the committee is unsure whether or not it will organize a second conference, it intends to build on the success and momentum of the 2010 event.

“We are humbled and inspired by all of these people and institutions who took a risk and invested in a topic that had not been treated before in this way,” he said. “It has renewed our faith in the value of multidisciplinary and community engagement.”

About the Fontbonne Community Connection
Inspired by a national trend in giving circles, several alumnae came together in 2007 to form the FCC. Their goal was to pool modest resources in order to support programs and projects initiated within the Fontbonne University community, like the Memory Symposium. Members of the FCC include Fontbonne alumna and friends. Learn more about or get involved with the Fontbonne Community Connection.

Note: The paper submitted by Daniel Graff titled "Lovejoy's Legacies: Race, Religion, and Freedom in St. Louis (and American) Memory," won the Best Paper Award. Read it on the website of the Missouri History Museum.