Sarah Morin - Youth Experience Manager aka Kid Wrangler
Claire Ellis and Marin Bray are 3rd year youth volunteers at Conner Prairie. I often schedule these close friends to work at the same post – their enthusiasm and creativity multiples exponentially when together. Collectively, they have donated 1000 hours to Conner Prairie.
We invite our more mature and capable youth, like Marin and Claire, to portray characters along the Underground Railroad during our Follow the North Star
(FNS)program. They help or hinder guests who take on the role of escaping slaves. The program is intense and brings up an ugly side of American history. This is exactly why we choose to involve our kids. Many of our youth learn to think more deeply about prejudice, racism, and human exploitation. Some became advocates within their own schools for human rights. It also makes a powerful impression on our young guests, who see someone their own age risking his/her life for freedom or to help a stranger.
Marin and Claire - in their own words:
At Conner Prairie, FNS is a very serious subject; however it happens to be our favorite program. There are two posts that we love to work, Halsey and Merrick. The Merricks are an Indiana family that’s barely scraping along. No thanks to the slaves that have stolen all their jobs. Despite everything, they agree to help the slaves. Later you encounter the Halseys, a Quaker family willing to help “friends”. They feed you and offer you advice; alas they can’t keep you either and send you on your way.
Claire Ellis: I feel I relate most to Halsey. I’ve always been willing to help a person in need, and if a group of runaway slaves showed up at my doorstep, I would help them. I feel I relate to Halsey because when the slaves first enter, we all are in a state of shock. Then we decide to strap on our big kid boots and get the job done. We risk everything by escorting the fugitives across the street. But at the end of the day, I would do it all over again.
Marin Bray: When asked to write about my favorite post, I thought to myself, “Dang, should I be a good girl and write Halsey because it’s the ‘right answer’?” I think the characters at the Merrick post are easier for me to relate to. Don't take it the wrong way, of course I would help! But as someone who had no way of helping them I would rather send them on to someone more helpful.
FNS has given each of us a new perspective on slavery. Being part of the program has made us appreciate what we have today. We feel lucky to be apart of the program, especially with our best friend.
Sometimes learning happens quietly. You see or read something and then months or maybe even years later, you have another experience that calls up that bit of information. This is why learning in museums is so hard to measure- you may not know you learned something until much later when you figure out that, in fact, you did.
However, one of the things I love most about Follow the North Star
is that you can often see its impact on students from the second they finish the program. Their faces and conversations clearly show that they have just experienced something important. They’ve gotten a tiny taste of the struggles faced by real people who were held as slaves and had the strength and courage to try to escape.
I like to sit in on the students’ debriefing sessions where they have the opportunity to discuss the program with a Conner Prairie staff member. Usually the first question we ask the students is, if they could sum up their experience in FNS in one word, what would it be? Words like “scary,” “exciting,” and “humbling,” are common responses. They often say that the way they were treated as they played the part of escaping slaves made them feel mad, upset, or even worthless. They are shaken out of their comfort zones and cast in a role where they have to step into perhaps the most shameful aspect of our country’s history. The reality of it is often quite a surprise for them.
Follow the North Star is undoubtedly one of my favorite programs that we do here at Conner Prairie, and I am so proud to manage it for school groups. It has the power to create empathy and understanding better than any program I have ever seen, and its impact is immediately apparent.