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Margaret Chew Barringer - Founder of American INSIGHT

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

On Sunday, September 20th, American INSIGHT’s all-virtual 2020 Free Speech Award Ceremony will start at 4 p.m.

Only one Free Speech Award is given each year, and the winning film is added in perpetuity to American INSIGHT’s Free Speech Storyline, which traces the history of Free Speech, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

American INSIGHT is delighted to announce that the 2020 Free Speech Award Winner is Boxed, based on the true story of an enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. It was directed by Wanjiru Njendu of California. The Filmmaker’s Film FestivalTM, American INSIGHT encourages filmmakers to participate in the judging process.

Margaret Chew Barringer is the founder of American INSIGHT. Barringer grew up on a dairy farm in Wayne. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College part-time in her 30s while raising her children. She studied Art History, Old English, Philosophy, Mythology, Religion, Comp Lit with a final emphasis on Epic Poems.

What made you start American INSIGHT?

I moved from Wayne to Center City Philadelphia when I was 20 and newly-married. I got to know dozens of artists and poets over the decades that followed. Growing up in a large family (I had 30 first cousins who all lived nearby), I loved the sense of community in the city back then. In 1983, I started the American Poetry Center (APC) with Steve Berg, founder of the American Poetry Review. (APR)

From the beginning, however, I was more interested in the emerging technologies that were helping poets to move out of the world of print and into the community: audio recordings, emails, networking, etc. Those tools were being invented back then, and poets quickly made their way out of the restrictive, male-dominated world of publishing into the Spoken Word.

After the PA Council on the Arts initiated funding for the American Poetry Center to coordinate all literary events across Pennsylvania, we developed a 1-800-ALL MUSE hotline and quickly reached over 12 million people a year in the tri-state area through newspaper coverage. We also produced poetry events at the University of the Arts. Long before the fall of the Soviet Union, I started to commute to Moscow to bring poets back and forth, and APC made headlines in the New York Times.

Controversial Russian poets, Yvegheny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky were great friends for many years, along with a host of American poets who loved coming here because they realized that our audiences were “serious.” Alan Ginsberg, EL Doctorow, Joseph Brodsky, etc. all mentioned the sense of humility that they felt while walking through the historical streets of Philadelphia.

What is your mission with American INSIGHT?

American INSIGHT’s corporate mission is “To promote INSIGHT into the history and values of Free Speech, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law.” That mission is supported by all of our programs and everything that we do as an educational nonprofit multi-media production company, especially in our ongoing Internship Program, which has been designed over the decades to empower youth by teaching them to share lessons from the past by using their own technologies.

I see that you started the American Poetry Center and Free Speech Film Festival. Do you feel that these art forms are a way to teach others how freedom of speech is suppressed and a way to give others courage to speak out?

The American Poetry Center, American INSIGHT and the Free Speech Film Festival are all one nonprofit corporate entity that has survived 37 years of adapting to constant advances in technology and rapidly changing times.

There is nothing that we are doing now that we did not do back in the 1980s: that is, trying to capture moments of the raw energy and power of human beings who want to survive. This is the passion that all tribes have had since the beginning of mankind. Free Speech is ultimately about the urge to survive, from an infant’s first cries to a human’s last breath.

I think what we are doing at American INSIGHT is what tribal elders have always done; that is, stoking the embers of an ancient fire while gathered around it, sharing stories. When civilizations and individuals give up these stories, something inside them dies. That happened in the Soviet Union: three generations after Lenin eliminated history from the classrooms, the Soviet Union imploded.

As the Internet in America enters its third generation of widespread use, we are experiencing a similar implosion across every facet of our lives. Today’s aggressive marketing techniques focus people into a crisis survival mode that overwhelms the more intimate stories of our ancestors that define a person’s true character and their basic orientation towards life. Advertisers count on building herd mentality while making you think you are somehow special. Knowing who your ancestors were, and where they came from gives you a deeper, stronger energy from inside so you have the confidence to say No, this is wrong.

What advice would you give to people to have open dialogue?

The older I get, the more I realize that my parents were the best teachers I ever had. We read the Encyclopaedia Britannica at the dinner table! We got in the car every summer and visited museums and historical sites. They were interested in, and interacted with, my older brother and me from the very beginning of our lives. They made learning and questioning and talking back fun!

I was shy, but I loved listening to them and absorbed a lot about history, politics, art, science, literature and human nature. I started writing poetry in high school and never looked back. The first six or eight years in a child’s life forms their character for the rest of their lives, and it is a critical moment that is often overlooked by parents and educators alike. The lessons that I learned before I went to school have proved to be

by far the most important in my life.

What threatens Americans' free speech?

The Internet has so engulfed our lives that few people notice how fast we take it for granted: it is such a massively addictive change that we can’t even see it. The definitions of “free speech” that we used to trust have been obliterated. The most trust-worthy sources are now the ones that you have to subscribe to. “Freedom” itself is no longer something rare and precious.

Dangers to this vulnerable environment exist everywhere, but apparently the passionate need of human beings to communicate with each other is far stronger than their fear.

Communist countries shut down access to most of the Internet, but I believe that the Human Spirit will always find ways to escape.

What encouragement would you give to others who are afraid to speak out?

“Speaking out” takes many forms. Don’t limit yourself to words! Use your hands to paint or cook or build something; use your body to dance; your voice to sing! Make films! Vote! Vote! Vote! Become involved with others in your community! The need to create and speak out survives the passage of time, and the Caves of Altimira speak to us through the millennia as clearly as they did to the Paleolithic humans who created them.

The important thing is to learn to convert your negative emotions into positive energy, and find socially-acceptable outlets where you know in your heart that you are doing something that others respect, and helping to make the world a better place.


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