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News & Issues December 2017-January 2018


In time of division, project aims for unity

Group in Columbia County creates flag, banners with optimistic message


Cheryl Roberts of Spencertown shows off the purple-and-white flag she designed for Keep Hope Alive International, a new nonprofit group dedicated to promoting responsive government, religious liberty , tolerance, justice reform and other causes. Susan Sabino photoCheryl Roberts of Spencertown shows off the purple-and-white flag she designed for Keep Hope Alive International, a new nonprofit group dedicated to promoting responsive government, religious liberty , tolerance, justice reform and other causes. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


In an era when optimism and unity often seem in short supply, a group based in Columbia County called Keep Hope Alive has created a flag its members hope will symbolize those qualities.

Cheryl Roberts of Spencertown, a former Austerlitz town justice and city attorney for Hudson, started the Keep Hope Alive project in the tumultuous period after last year’s election.

“I was distressed by the tone of the 2016 election and by the divisiveness and personal attacks that characterize politics these days,” Roberts explained. “I wanted to do something. Flags are powerful symbols, so I decided to create one to help encourage unity and hope.”

Roberts designed the Keep Hope Alive flag, which has a simple, purple background and a large white square in the center. The purple represents strength, wisdom and compassion, while the white is symbolic of hope and peace, she said.

The flag made its public debut in Hudson in an unannounced pop-up event on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. That morning, about 100 of the flags suddenly appeared downtown outside of businesses and homes. Businesses that displayed them were given postcards to hand out to their customers explaining the flag and its purpose.

A similar event took place in Chatham in May, and plans are in the works for more pop-up events in the new year.

Roberts said she and other organizers would like to see the flag become a widely recognized symbol. They set up a nonprofit group, Keep Hope Alive International, to encourage other communities in the region, and around the nation, to hold similar events.

Besides Roberts, the other principals in Keep Hope Alive International are Linda Mussmann and Claudia Bruce, the co-directors of the Hudson performing arts center Time & Space Limited, and Christopher Draghi, the owner of a fragrance brand based in Hudson.

The group’s Web site (www.keephopealiveinternational.org) includes links to purchase flags for $45 or banners for $25 (with proceeds covering production and related expenses), instructions for organizing pop-up events, and free downloadable informational postcards and brochures. So far, the group has received orders from communities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and North Carolina, among other areas.

A related mission of Keep Hope Alive is to create a network of artists, businesses, nonprofits and communities across the country to champion responsible solutions to social issues. It advocates for principles and values such as responsive government, religious liberty, tolerance and inclusion, environmental sustainability, universal health care, justice reform, artistic expression, and freedom of the press.


Nonpartisan message
Although both Roberts and Mussmann have been active in local Democratic politics – Mussmann was the Hudson party chairwoman in the past and was elected in November to a seat on the county Board of Supervisors -- Roberts stressed that Keep Hope Alive is a nonpartisan initiative.
“People can have differing opinions and still have a civil discourse and work together to find solutions,” Roberts said. “We encourage anyone who supports constructive dialogue and respectful engagement to fly the flag, whether they are Republican or Democrat.”

As a lawyer, Roberts has specialized in municipal and environmental issues. In 2012, she mounted an unsuccessful campaign for state Assembly, losing by about 4 percentage points to the Republican incumbent, Steve McLaughlin, in a district that covers parts of Columbia, Rensselaer and Washington counties.

Since 2013 she has been executive director of The Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of individuals involved in the criminal justice system, especially those with mental illness.

Roberts said her dismay with today’s politics stems partly from the contrast she sees with her own experience of working as counsel to congressional committees in Washington in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Although she is a Democrat, she also worked for Republicans, including former Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, who had been secretary of the Navy in the Nixon administration.

“The political system worked much better back then,” Roberts said. “It certainly wasn’t perfect, and there were disagreements and a degree of partisanship. However, elected officials had more of a belief that they were there to serve the whole country. Democrats and Republicans talked to each other and worked together to find solutions and compromises. Today it all seems based on creating conflict and serving partisan interests, rather than the public interest.”

Another inspiration for the Keep Hope Alive flag was a personal experience Roberts had shortly after the election. She had taped the deathbed recollections of a friend, the late Isadore “Ike” Cassuto, who described his experiences serving in World War II.

“Listening to him was a reminder of what an amazing sense of shared sacrifice and common purpose the veterans of that war had,” Roberts said. “But Ike also expressed great sadness about the election and the state of the country today. He believed there are no signs of hope. He said, ‘This is no longer the country we fought for.’ That made me realize how important it is for us to rediscover hope today.”

She added that she also wanted to do something to encourage her daughters and other young people to have a sense of positive possibility despite the current polarized climate.


Creating a symbol
In designing the flag, Roberts researched the meanings of colors. One reason she chose purple was its historical association with the women’s movement and the values of inclusion and equality it represents.

She also was inspired by a Christmas gift she received, a purple scarf and a copy of Jenny Joseph’s well-known poem “Warning,” which begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”

Roberts said she chose white because of its association with hope and peace.
She also had a subtler reason for selecting that combination.

“Purple and black are often associated with mourning and loss,” Roberts said. “I thought, ‘Why not reverse that by using purple and white to convey an opposite message of positive renewal?’”
After designing Keep Hope Alive flag late last year, Roberts made arrangements with Arkansas Flag and Banner to produce flags on order.

In early January, she decided to create an event on Inauguration Day to unveil the flag in a dramatic way. She enlisted her friends Mussmann and Bruce to join the effort.

“I wanted to do a pop-up art installation, and they offered to help,” Roberts said. “Then we went to local businesses, and they agreed to participate, and it gained momentum. The whole thing came together in three days.”

They received support from Draghi, the Hudson Business Coalition Inc., and a core of other individual supporters.

Rather than publicize the pop-up flags in advance, they kept their plans quiet.
“We wanted the flags to suddenly appear and surprise people, so they would ask questions when they saw it, and start conversations,” Roberts explained. “We printed up postcards with explanations, which business could hand out to people who asked what the flags were about.”
She said proceeds from sales of the flags at this point merely cover the costs of production and related expenses. But if the project eventually generates more interest and income, the group is considering using any extra revenue to support other organizations or projects that reflect Keep Hope Alive’s values.

“Our goal is to raise awareness,” Roberts said. “But if we also could eventually earn money that can support worthwhile causes, that would be icing on the cake.”
Roberts acknowledged that she and the other backers of the project have had to make the most of limited time and resources.

“We’re committed to this, but we also have jobs and other commitments,” she said. “Fortunately, we have set up a system that handles many of the details.”

Keep Hope Alive is registered in New York as a nonprofit organization. It also has a fiscal sponsor, NEO Philanthropy, an umbrella organization that administers funds on behalf of charitable organizations and projects.

“It’s a fairly quick process to register as a nonprofit in New York, but it takes a long time to apply for … federal status, so the acceptance by NEO as a sponsor helped us,” Roberts explained.
In addition to the Arkansas factory that makes the flags, Keep Hope Alive has an arrangement with a distribution company to handle sales and order processing.

Although the flag was created in the turbulent period immediately after the 2016 election, Roberts said the need to lower the political temperature, and to emphasize civility and respect, is as important as ever.

“Sadly, it’s even more relevant than it was a year ago,” she said. “The problems and divisiveness have not gone away and seem to be getting worse. It’s gotten more difficult for the middle class, and people are more anxious about health care, taxes, the possibility of nuclear war and many other issues.”

She said that makes it vital for people to rediscover hope and unity.
“We have to remember that this level of division and unprecedented personalized attacks in politics is not normal,” Roberts said. “A lot of people are trying to figure how to navigate through this new type of dialogue. But we should not accept or normalize it, because it doesn’t have to be this way.”