How One Facing History Alum Connects History and Technology | Facing History & Ourselves
Ethan Ferguson showing his drones which he used for taking 3D scans of historical sites.

How One Facing History Alum Connects History and Technology

Ethan Ferguson details how his Facing History background has intersected with his current work in the tech industry.

When Ethan Ferguson started attending Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee, he immediately knew he wanted Facing History & Ourselves to be a part of his high school experience. Since graduating high school in 2018, he’s taken the lessons of Facing History with him through college and has now integrated them into his professional life. A computer science major, he has parlayed his technical expertise into bringing history into the twenty-first century. At Cinilope, where Ethan serves as president and CTO, he works with augmented reality and drones—tools he now uses to assist the Lynching Sites Project in Memphis as they digitally map and physically mark where lynchings occurred so that future generations can remember and learn from these murders. Ethan’s passion for Facing History, tech, and his own personal history run deep, and he has found ways to meaningfully connect all three. We recently sat down together to talk about these connections and the things he took away from his Facing History education that still inspire him today.

Jessica Weingartner: How did you first get involved in Facing History?

Ethan Ferguson: I was a Facing History student primarily because I became aware of the program in middle school. I had a middle school teacher by the name of Betty Cowan who brought in some of the Facing History curriculum and my class had the opportunity to get exposed to your pedagogy. So, by the time I went to high school, I decided to join my school’s Facing History student leadership group.

From there on I’ve been a part of your organization, even occasionally helping out during college and attending engagements as a Facing History alum.

Jessica: And how did Facing History help you connect with history and your own identity?

Ethan: My family background is kind of interesting. It's part of the reason Facing History resonated with me so much in the first place. I come from a half Polish, half American family. My mom was originally from Poland, as well as four great-grandparents who lived there during the Nazi occupation and Holocaust. And even though our family isn't Jewish, the family stories about the Nazi/Soviet abduction and occupation that I've heard growing up have influenced a lot of the way I look at history.

For example, my grandparents, who were born in 1948, were part of the solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. They had heard personal stories of the horrors of the Holocaust from their parents and when they had the opportunity to join a huge movement that was created to bring democracy to their country, they did. So working with nonviolent movements and the idea of nonviolence and being a person of conscience was passed down to me.

And it’s interesting because one thing that's not highlighted enough is that some of the inspiration for the nonviolence of the Polish solidarity movement came from the civil rights movement in the United States. That's where the Polish movement pulled a lot of their peaceful tactics from and their understanding around how to organize a movement designed to restore  people’s civil rights. They looked at what happened in Memphis and in the South. They considered the actions of Martin Luther King, and they applied as much of his methodologies as possible to Polish strikes and other instances of resistance and civil disobedience.

I had that instant connection with the conflicts of the twentieth century where a lot of Facing History focuses its history lessons.

Jessica: Were there any pivotal or memorable moments during your Facing History class that contribute to who you are today or complement your upbringing and call to be an upstander?

Ethan: During my senior year of high school at Lausanne in Memphis I had the opportunity to help organize and accompany a Polish delegation of students led by Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf. I acted as one of their guides and we even got to meet Reverend Jesse Jackson.

When Ambassador Schnepf was invited to my high school, there was a bit of contention going on in the Sejm (the Polish Senate). They were passing a law at the time banning certain kinds of speech that implicated the Polish government as being collaborators of the Nazis. Of course, we know for a fact historically that there were some Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, but the government was seeking to whitewash that history because it made them look bad. There were a lot of Jewish students at my school who were personally offended by this particular law, but they had an opportunity to speak to someone in the Polish government because we came together as far as Facing History class. We actually had a discussion around a table to talk to and try to really grasp the history and what the Polish government was doing.

Ryszard Schnepf himself is Jewish and his father, while not Jewish, was a major general in the war. So he had a background that allowed him to discuss both sides of it while emphasizing the importance of remembering the Holocaust and honoring those lost. This gave our group of students a real opportunity to interrogate what was going on with the right wing government in Poland at the time. And it was a great lesson on how to handle speech or laws that might be difficult, but are still important to discuss and push back on to keep people from erasing certain histories. This particular law, by the way, was eventually overturned.

Jessica: Any other important lessons from Facing History?

Ethan: One thing that I really enjoyed about Facing History were the soft skills it gave me, but not soft skills you really would expect to need. It's the skill of being able to have that tough conversation. That’s been helpful to me, because in my work I sometimes have to talk to the families of crime victims. These are soft skills of being a human being of conscience.

We need those people of conscience in boardrooms, in health care, in the tech industry, in law enforcement: people who can recognize what's going on and have the ability to not only understand all the ways in which larger corporations or governments are acting in morally compromised ways, but who also have the bravery to stand up against that.

We didn’t get ethics for free. Society had to work hard at it over many centuries to get where we are now. And we still have a long way to go. People have to learn to expand their circle of sympathy for different kinds of people. There is no better way to grow your circle than with a Facing History education.

Jessica: I know you do work with the Lynching Sites Project in Memphis. How did you get involved with that?

Ethan: It was through Facing History in 2017 that I had the opportunity to start working on the Lynching Sites Project around the particular lynching of Ell Persons. I volunteered for the event where a marker was placed to note the spot of his murder. I wasn't directly involved with the creation of the monument, but I did help out at the event. This was my first foray into understanding the psychology and history of lynchings in my area—over 35 of which happened in my county that are documented. I then helped lead a Facing History teach-in about Memphis lynchings where I assisted in educating my peers about injustices that happened in their own neighborhoods. People so often don’t know history is so physically close like that and don’t realize what people are capable of doing—both right and wrong. The lesson we came away with was that by speaking up and staying informed you can actually change the eventual outcomes of these sorts of events.

I’m still involved with the Lynching Sites Project today. Currently I am developing their app for 3D scanning of lynching sites in the Shelby County area.

Jessica: How does your day job tie into your work with the Lynching Sites Project?

Ethan: My professional background is in autonomous vehicles, 3D scanning, and computer science related things that are more mathematical in contrast to the very hard facts of history.

But being able to take all that knowledge and data and apply it to teach and preserve history and the physical space where things happened has become a passion of mine.

Part of what led to this work is that, unfortunately, in 2021 one of my friends was murdered in college. His name was Drew Rainer. And that kind sent a shock wave through my life. At the time I was working on autonomous vehicles, but I wanted to do something that could help people who’d experienced crime in Memphis. So I started working on a set of applications called Litogram and started working with district attorneys, investigators, and people who were interested in telling important stories about crimes and wrongdoings that had happened.

Now we go to sites of crime scenes and use drones to 3D scan areas where crimes have taken place. From here we can create augmented reality markers, so to speak, that help, for example, a jury understand what exactly happened when from all angles.

Jessica: How do the lessons of Facing History, and the work you do in tech to capture history, make a mark in your life today?

Ethan: From meeting with Ambassador Schnepf in high school to my working with the Lynching Sites Project and the DA offices now, all these moments ended up truly taking me home.

I had the opportunity to visit my grandparents' village in Poland, called Glinno Wielkie, over the summer. It’s small, like maybe 80 to 180 people in total. When the Nazis came into this small farming community, there was a church. The Nazis had used it to hold as many people as they could, then burned the church down with the priest inside. Afterward they took the rubble of that church and converted it into a small concentration camp. If you go into the actual area, it's in a forest and there are markers roughly where everyone was killed during 1939. My cousin's grandfather was one of the people who was shot during the initial invasion.

In the concentration camp, throughout the war years, 30 Jews were held there and made to work the surrounding fields. But, you know, a lot of the details behind what actually happened have been lost to history or become a footnote.

While I was there I had the opportunity to go to the church and I created a 3D scan. Most of the time I don't have such a personal connection with what I do with the Lynching Sites Project or my crime scene 3D scanning. But this particular time I had a familial connection because one of my cousins’ relatives, as well as other people from my grandparents’ village, unfortunately lost their lives in that camp.

Being able to help tell that story and put out my scan online was a really important personal touch to me. I was also able to talk to some of the older people in the village, and more fully understand what happened to add more context to my scan. Now, I know, I’ve preserved a vital part of the region’s history and my grandchildren will know what happened there.