Difference makers

It’s nice to have some good news coming out of the Middle East these days. In a low-key way, this video, Fark Yaratanlar – ÇABA-ÇAM (Difference Makers), shows what people can do to help build a better world. It’s from Ebru Aktan Acar, a colleague in Turkey.

The ÇABA Multi-Objective Early Childhood Education Center makes a difference for the lives of young children, for their parents, and for future teachers. It especially addresses the needs of low-income families, including refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Students in the university education program volunteer to work with the children, many of whom have suffered greatly from poverty and war. Most of those children would otherwise have little access to early education.

The Center is affiliated with Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University. Preschool teacher candidates conducted neighborhood-based surveys and co-designed a model to expand early childhood education while transforming their own training into practice.  The first class opened in 2008. The program now offers a model that anyone could use and values that ought to remind all of us of how we could better interact with one another.

I was fortunate to interact with the children and teachers at ÇABA on several trips to Turkey. I also wrote a chapter for Ebru’s forthcoming book, Early Childhood Education: Major Themes: Ideas, Models, and Approaches. My contribution is about the work of Jane Addams. Although Addams is not generally listed among early childhood educators, such as Montessori or Froebel, Ebru recognized that Addams’s social justice agenda was key to a project like this, which conceives early childhood as holistic and community-based.

The place of freedom

William Hubbard House

William Hubbard House, Ashtabula, OH

Place is both the barrier to and the enabler of freedom. The freedom of a vacation comes from its being a getaway, but few things feel less free than totally losing a sense of place while traveling in a strange land.

That dual nature applies to more significant experiences as well, as I reflected on seeing the William Hubbard House in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Hubbard moved to Ashtabula from Holland Patent, New York, around 1834. (I could never have predicted that without any planning we’d pass through both of those small places, set on back roads 330 miles apart, on the same day.)

Hubbard became involved in the local antislavery society and town politics. His house was a strategic location for the Underground Railroad, set on the shore of Lake Erie and with his own ferry port nearby. His house was the last stop before a boat ride across the lake to Canada.

Runaway slaves and conductors on the Underground Railroad referred to his home as “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard” or “The Great Emporium.” It is not known how many slaves Hubbard helped gain their freedom, but records suggest that he housed 39 slaves on one occasion.

Lake Erie, and the final stop

Lake Erie, and the final stop

It was both inspiring and humbling to stand beside the Hubbard home with the vast expanse of Lake Erie and unseen Canada beyond. One can read about the many Underground Railroad locations and the heroic journeys that people took to gain their freedom, but encountering the two-story house, the lake, the Ashtabula river leading to the ferry port, the antebellum era town buildings, and the woods nearby made the bare plotline come alive.

Being there made the slaves’ escape from a place of misery to a place of hope just a little more tangible. I wondered how anyone could be there and not have their sympathy enlarged. Or how they could think about that 19th century quest for freedom and talk so easily (as some Presidential candidates do) about denying freedom to victims of violence and oppression in the Middle East, Central America, or other places today.

In The Particularities of Place (see also Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (2014, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister), Wilfred M. McClay writes,

We embrace freedom because we believe fervently in the fullest breadth of individual human possibility, and share a deep conviction that no one’s horizons in life should be dictated by the conditions of his or her birth. Nothing is more quintessentially American than that conviction. But…. one’s place of origin is seen as an impediment, something to be overcome. “Place” may even point toward notions of social hierarchy that Americans generally find anathema…the idea of “knowing your place” was favored by advocates of racial segregation and the subordination of women.

William Still, "Father of the Underground Railroad"

William Still, “Father of the Underground Railroad”

The plantations were a place that denied not only freedom per se, but the full “breadth of individual human possibility.” Yet the places of the Underground Railroad and the new River Jordan, expanded that possibility.

McClay goes on to see a renewed need for place today:

We now have a new set of problems, born of the pathologies engendered precisely by our achievements. Something is now seriously out of balance in the way we live…. it can be argued that, like it or not, we must recover a more durable and vibrant sense of place if we are to preserve the healthy dynamism of our society as it now exists, and promote the highest measure of human happiness and flourishing.

In seeking to escape from one place, slaves needed to maintain a sense of others. This included both some idea of a lost homeland and a vision of that Railroad leading to a new place of freedom. McClay quotes from William Leach’s Country of Exiles:

People require a firm sense of place so they can dare to take risks. A society whose common store of memories has been beaten down or shattered is open to further disruption; for such a society cannot defend or protect itself from the stronger incursions of those who know what they want and how to get it.

I’m happy that places such as the Hubbard House have been preserved, to enable a continuity of place, which in turn gives us a human connection across very different life experiences. Visiting it gave me a richer sense of the place in which I live.

Highlander Center

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In the midst of a long car trip, we stopped to visit the Highlander Research and Education Center near New Market, Tennessee. It was just a short visit, since we had many miles to go. Also, the workshop and conference areas were in use, so our options were limited.

In spite of all that, I was very happy that we could make the time to see it. I’d known about the Highlander Folk School for many years, through Myles Horton’s books and other writing. But I also knew that the state of Tennessee had revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated the school’s land and property.(in 1961) and that Horton had died in 1990. I hadn’t kept up with all the good work that the Center continued to do.

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After two major moves, the Highlander Center came to its present site in 1971. It sits atop Bay’s Mountain in the Tennessee River Valley, looking across to the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Workshop Center is home to organizing and leadership development, workshops on civil rights, immigrant communities, and economic justice. Projects have ranged from connecting communities around the world affected by industrial chemical pollution to LGBTQ rights.

In the early years (1930s-40s) the focus was on building a unified Labor movement. Later (1950s-60s) Highlander helped incubate the SNCC and Mississippi Freedom Summer. Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, and Martin Luther King were among the participants.

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Moving into the1970s-90s there was an increasing focus on land issues, environment, and global economics. This meant more international connections and collaborations. In the present century there has been even more emphasis on developing tools and connecting people and organizations. Highlander has also expanded work with immigrant communities.

The Resource Center is home to archives, book shop, and library. Within a small wooden building is a rich history of progressive movements over eight decades in Appalachia, the US, and worldwide.

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The activities of the Highlander Center are diverse. But they’re well symbolized through the metaphor of a conversation with neighbors, all sitting in rocking chairs, arranged in a circle.

Those chairs and that circle are real. The open dialogue across different backgrounds and experiences that they imply is the first step in enacting positive change.

We stayed that night in Fall Creek Falls State Park, not too far to the west of the Center. The Park is named for the highest plunge waterfall east of the Mississippi. The nearby Piney Creek Falls are even more beautiful.

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