Stories rise up at East Side Freedom Library

Anchored firmly on the corner of Greenbrier and Jessamine Streets, this brick and mortar Beaux Arts building looks traditional, even staid.

Step inside, and you’ll see and hear a vigorous world of faces and stories, more lefty than stuffy. I hear the urgency of ardent voices– union organizers, community activists, and immigrant neighbors– demanding their stories be heard.

Funded by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, this library, built in 1917, a year of revolution, reverberates with robust stories.

A blue sign proclaims, “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers.” Posters hang like fresh laundry, an open-air display of the issues of the day: “PHILANDO MATTERS,” “CLERGY STANDING WITH STANDING ROCK,” “RESISTANCE IS IMPERATIVE,” “WE STAND TOGETHER.”

IMG_20170809_155245The walls and stairwell shine with vivid murals of Minnesotans: Immigrants from Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America, along with African Americans, building a community here on the East Side.

The library’s collection of books, art, music and other items highlight peoples whose stories and songs have often been ignored by traditional history books and libraries.

An East Sider couple, labor historian Peter Rachleff and theater and dance professor Beth Cleary, transformed the old Arlington Hills Branch Library into this theater of stories. When Saint Paul opened the new Arlington Hills branch nearby in 2014, Rachleff and Cleary’s nonprofit signed a 15-year lease for this space and launched the East Side Freedom Library. The lease is $1 a year, but it costs $1,200 a month just to maintain lights and heat.

The old building bristles with the energy and heat of activism. This library is more non-conformist than conventional. None of the 18,000 books filling the tall wood shelves can be checked out. Instead, the public are invited to use the books and other research materials here. This is a community space, with movies and weaving, meditation and meetings, including a union job fair.

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A crowded Lemonade and Listening session with elected officials at East Side Freedom Library

One recent rainy afternoon, the library was standing room only. More than 150 people wedged in for a Lemonade and Listening session with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and local legislators. Stories rang out.

An Iraq War veteran asked McCollum why the VA won’t provide health care for trans people. People talked about climate change, water quality, net neutrality and the healthcare marketplace. McCollum told people they had collective power about health care and other issues. “You have a voice,” she reminded the audience. “That is powerful. The fact that you showed up, spoke out, wrote out…”

An angry man interrupted the congresswoman, outshouting all other voices—disrupting the session until eventually, collective voices won out, and the listening session resumed, with talk about pipelines, broadband, Islamophobia and the need for unity.

Rep. Tim Mahoney joked, “Mr. Carnegie is rolling in his grave…”  about the pro-union, left-wing views of this Freedom space. Managers at the Carnegie Steel Corporation triggered the bloody 1892 Homestead strike. Carnegie emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland at age 13 with his family and became one of the 19th century’s richest businessmen then spent years giving away most of his wealth, launching more than 2,000 libraries, along with what’s now Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

IMG_20170809_154716So perhaps it’s fitting that the immigrant tycoon’s traditional library is home to stories of other immigrants. The Freedom Library’s collections include the African diaspora and Hmong Archives. The library organizes monthly Neighbors meet Neighbors sessions. This month, Somalis shared their stories, history and culture. In September, Karen immigrants take the stage.

On summer Tuesdays, I’ve had the joy of sitting in this library of stories, finding my own words, then sharing lunch and conversation with fellow women writers. We’ve sat on the steps outside, talking about our work, families, places we’ve been and want to visit. Next week, we’ll read from our summer’s work.

One afternoon, a construction worker repairing alley potholes stopped by. His crewmates took their lunch break in the truck parked in the library’s tranquil shade. He made himself at home by us, each woman with our organic veggies and fruit packed in re-usable containers. He started talking, telling his opinions about city projects and politics. We hadn’t invited him, he just came. Needing to talk, a blue-collar worker saying what was on his mind, on the steps of a community library that embraces so many stories.

This brawny building is packed with stories of people, their voices rising up.

 

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Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere

A belated thank-you to teachers

In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.

I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.

IMG_20170607_101249During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.

In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.

Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.

It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world. Continue reading “Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere”

Fireside story time, the secrets of the trees

Winter’s here, time to curl up by the fire and listen to a guy who spent his life looking up at trees.

tree-book-coverRobert Penn’s quirky and personal book, The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, tells the story of one ash tree, felled and turned into arrows, bowls, spoons, tent pegs, canoe paddles, catapults, dominoes, axe handles, a desk, and paneling. This isn’t a quaint catalogue of wooden goods. It’s a crackerjack story of the world, as seen through one kind of tree.

Penn’s life-long love affair with trees animates his stories, which are chockful of deft details, such as:

  • “Ash is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.”
  • Irish mythology includes ash in a trilogy of sacred trees believed to have healing powers. During the Potato Famine, before setting sail for America, emigrants whittled chips from an ash tree in County Cork as protection against drowning.
  • Ash was known as the ‘sportsmen’s wood,’ and used for everything from cricket stumps, hockey and lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, baseball bats, skis, snowshoe frames and gymnastic parallel bars.

Penn introduces readers to craftspeople, broadening his saga, like the rings of a tree. Starting from his home in South Wales, he visits various English woods and woodshops, an Austrian Alps toboggan maker, then onward to Ireland to see an epic hurling game and a $2500 bicycle frame made of ash, and eventually to a Pennsylvania sawmill that’s produced more than 100 million baseball bats.

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Tom Mareschall checks one of his handcrafted arrows

Each chapter frames a new woodworker, from the lumberjack who fells Penn’s ash to a fourth-generation wheelwright, making wooden wheel rims just as his mother, father, grandfather and great grandfather did, to an eccentric fletcher, the traditional term for an arrow maker. Arrows, Penn writes, were known as the Devil’s Finger. Reading his crackling chronicles of medieval longbowmen and archery battles, I can hear arrows zinging.

Along the way, Penn sprinkles little asides, seeds that may take root in a reader’s imagination, like the mention of shinrin-yoku, what Japanese people call forest-bathing, going for a walk in ancient woods

Penn’s engaging anecdotes got me thinking about trees I’ve loved. From a neighbor’s walnut tree that Uncle John transformed into a wall of rich dark paneling in my childhood bedroom, to a pretty fringed paper birch that caught my eye the first time I saw my house in Saint Paul. Copper birch borers killed that tree, just as emerald ash borers are decimating tens of millions of ashes, like the weakened specimens shedding branches and limbs on my block.

img_20161129_130442Soon, my street, Ashland Avenue, will be ash free. In time, all the ash trees may be history. Seeds of new trees will spring up, spreading canopies that some child will gaze up at in wonder, daydreaming about the secrets of nature and our world.

Robert Penn grew up playing under an ash tree that he remembers as “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” His book has spurred me to look at trees and see more.

Find out more about Rob Penn

 

 

 

 

Green Card Youth Voices

Want something good to read?

Check out Green Card Youth Voices, a local book featuring stories of thirty immigrant students from Wellstone High School in Minneapolis.

This is not a heavy compendium about the plight of immigrants. This is teenagers telling their stories.

Like kids anywhere, they mention friends, part-time jobs, school, sports and what they think is weird. Weird seems to be a favorite word. But to these kids, weird isn’t a kid who wears awkward clothes. Weird is the gulf between the world they left and the world they live in now.

Weird is living with a mother you haven’t seen in years. Many of these young people didn’t get the chance to grow up with their parents. One parent, often the mom, left home, looking for work and a better life for the families.

“I also felt weird living with my mom because she was like someone I had just met. I knew she was my mom, but I had not lived with her for a very long time.” Eduardo Lopez, Mexico

I felt weird in a new home with people I hadn’t lived with for a long time. I know it’s my mom, but I … I felt weird.” Alexandra Irrazabal, Ecuador.

These young men and women remember how weird and confusing America was when they first arrived. So many things flummoxed them. How do you change planes in a country when you’ve never flown before and don’t speak the language? How do you ride the bus? Tall buildings, elevators, computers, and school lockers, even men with tattoos—all were confounding. Winter, well, no surprise, that was a shock to newcomers from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America. Yonis Ahmed from Ethiopia remembers, “The first time I saw snow, I thought it was salt.” Ahmed Ahmed, from Somalia, wondered if snow was sugar.

These young people have adapted. They’ve learned English, learned to open their lockers, ride the bus, drive cars, get part-time jobs, send money to relatives in their home countries. They’ve done so much while they are still in high school. Resiliency is a language they all know.

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This Green Card Youth Voices photo exhibit is touring at Minneapolis schools this year.

They know loss, too. They miss their countries, their cousins, their brothers and sisters and grandmas. Especially the grandmas. One young man, Wendy Saint-Felix, from Haiti, says, “Sometimes I just go alone in my bedroom and think about my grandmother because I miss her a lot.” He dreams of joining the NAVY ROTC and later, bringing his grandmother here.

These teenagers’ stories brim with hopes and dreams, along with some tears and fears. It’s a good read. Nothing weird about it.

Thanks to Green Card Voices, the Minneapolis nonprofit which has produced hundreds of digital stories, as well as this book and photo exhibit, all of which help Minnesotans meet our neighbors. Watch this Green Card Youth video