[The following essay was originally commissioned by "The Storybook Project", a project of the University of Colorado Hospital's Senior Clinic, a specialty clinic that serves patients who are 75 years old or older and have been diagnosed with two or more significant medical conditions. The project's two-fold purpose is to honor the lives of senior patients and to give medical students an understanding of senior patients as individuals, as well as ageing bodies.
Each year, Senior Clinic doctors reccommend patients for the project. Patients who agree to participate are assigned to a UCH medical student who conducts and transcribes an oral interview centered on a specific theme, from the perspective of the patient's life history. Interviews are edited by the project team and compiled into a soft cover book, with several copies given to the participating seniors. The theme of 2021's Storybook Project is "Connectedness." With thanks to the UCH Storybook team, the following is an expanded version of my original submission. — edb]
My strongest connections are with "ordinary" people, people who rise to the challenges of the occasion, who find strength in action. The civil rights movement gave me the opportunity to feel what it was like for people to risk comfort in the moment for something in the future, for something that they believed in, for their families, their community and for themselves,
I didn't intentionally go to Mississippi to join the Civil Rights Movement. A college friend of mine, John Mudd, had written a grant for recent Harvard graduates to take over the summer school classes at Tougaloo College, a traditional black college outside of Jackson, Mississipi, and had invited me to join the team. A group of about twelve of us taught various summer classes so that Tougaloo faculty could work on their advanced degrees in the north during the summer.
Early in the first summer term, two civil rights workers from the Jackson office came to Tougaloo to ask me to put together an economic survey that could be administered by "Freedom Summer" volunteers. Freedom Summer was a joint project of several civil right groups that brought hundreds of college students to Mississippi to work with black civil rights workers on voter registration, establishing community centers, operating "freedom schools" for young people, and working with local communities on economic and political issues. I began working on the survey, and when I hadn't had time to complete it before the Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio, I boarded the bus for orientation to continue the work.
The reality of the dangers in challenging segregation became clear to us at orientation, when three civil right workers went missing in the field. As a quasi staff person (neither a Freedom Summer volunteer, nor staff), I had been asked to staff the evening WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service) phone line that connected summer orientation staff to the Jackson, Mississippi office. On one of those nights, I was sitting next to Rita Schwerner, the wife of Mickey Schwerner, when the word came from the Jackson office that Rita's husband, Mickey, a CORE staff person, along with Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer, and James Cheney, a local black activist, had gone missing after being called out to investigate a black church burning in rural Madison County.
In the camera of my mind, I can still see Rita's pale face, listening to the report from the field. The next morning, Bob Moses, the brilliant architect of Freedom Summer, spoke to staff and volunteers. In his soft-spoken voice, Bob told us that the three boys were almost certainly lured to their death (later confirmed) and that all of us needed to carefully evaluate whether to return home or to continue to Mississippi. No one left. That knowledge and decision became our bond. It was a transformative moment for me, as I believe it was for so many others, who until that time hadn't really comprehended the depth and dark reality of what we were facing.
Movements have their own energy, an electrifying spirit, particularly if you happen to be at that age where everything feels like it's possible. I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, working alongside others who believed in the righteousness of the cause — co-workers and local activists, all ready to place themselves in danger in the pursuit of radical change to the brutal and unconscionable legacy of slavery. Upon our return to Jackson, I completed the first summer session at Tougaloo and then headed north to earn enough money to return to Mississippi in the fall. When I came back in September, I was added to staff, at the going rate of $22 a month.
My first posting was the upcoming Madison County election for the local U.S. Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), the agency that determined cotton allotments. In each county, local farmers elected board members whose job was to decide the number of acres of cotton that each farmer would be allowed to grow, which in turn, would determine the potential income for the farmer's crop. In 1965, there were no black farmers on Mississippi's ASCS boards. Elections were controlled by white people, which translated into black farmers being allotted small acreage and correspondedly, reduced potential income.
While white citizens made it nearly impossible for black citizens to register and vote in state and federal elections, the sole requirement to vote in ASCS elections was to raise cotton. According to ASCS rules, every cotton farmer was entitled to enter the designated polling place on election day, mark his choices for board members and either sign his name or place X's on the ballot (many black farmers didn't know how to read and write). For the very first time in their lives, black farmers in Canton, Mississippi showed up at a hostile polling place to cast their votes for ASCS board members, fully aware that they would face economic repercussions, and worse.
Watching them, hats in hand, step up to the counter of the ASCS polling place (the local A&W Root Beer stand) to cast their ballots, surrounded by powerful and angry white men, helped me understand that courage had nothing to do with a person's level of education. Courage was the willingness to act on your principles in the struggle for change.
And yes, there was a cost. The white structure that controlled the economic and social reality was not about to allow challenges to "their way of life". The residents of the black communities, who welcomed us and worked side by side with us, were subject to major economic retaliation and constant physical danger. Economic sanctions and physical attacks were common. People were beaten, jailed and killed; thirty black churches were bombed during the summer of 1964.
We were civil rights soldiers, working with people who were willing to give up everything for their dignity, their rights, and their children's futures. It was a powerful message and a powerful bond. There were times during the year when my co-workers and I were in danger of being killed, but danger wasn't a deterrent to the continued struggle. What I learned in the movement was the power of acting from one's core values. These were the lessons that sustained me in the rest of my life: the recognition of the unfairness of systems built on privilege, power and wealth and belief in the goodness, strength and power of ordinary people to address societal wrongs.
The culmination of my experiences in Mississippi was helping to bring a local farming co-op to fruition [in Batesville MS]. I was a Northerner who came south with no real understanding of the differences between the cultures of the north and those of the south. The black people of Mississippi didn't question why I was there; they welcomed me. My colleagues and I boarded in their farmhouses. Our hosts fed us, supported us, protected us and worked alongside us.
These were individuals whose relationships to white people were defined by segregation and economic subjugation. Their work lives were limited. Their schools were segregated and underfunded. The actions of the Batesville farmers was their statement, defined by their immediate concerns and enboldened by the climate of protest: they were no longer willing to accept the unfair business practices of the local middleman who marketed their okra crops, a symbol of the multiple ways they had suffered, and still suffered from institutional discrimination.
When I arrived in Batesville, my co-workers had already laid the groundwork for the co-op. I joined the effort, going from farmhouse to farmhouse, talking to farmers and their wives about what a co-op could mean for them. Having spent time in a collective in Israel between high school and college, I had great confidence in co-ops.
Still, it was a leap of faith for all of us. I was 22 years old and knew nothing about farming, but I did know something about the political climate in DC. Through contacts with the co-op division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in DC that I had made during the preceding January visit, I was able to leverage federal funding for a marketing co-op. Working together, the community and civil rights activists put together a successful plan to fund and organize a farm cooperative that operated successfully for fifteen years. It was another lesson in the depth of native intelligence and the power of community.
The lessons of Batesville weren't only political. I was privileged to witness the deeply held spiritual beliefs of the black community, a bedrock force in the struggle for racial justice. I could feel the devotion in their songs and in their prayers. Sunday church services were held outdoors; congregants dressed in their "Sunday best." One of the okra farmers, a lay Reverend, led the congregation in a very, very, very long service, punctuated with heartfel prayer and song, and nourished by home-cooked food.
Being in the midst of the congreration was a window into the strength of community. Decades later, my experiences in Mississippi helped me relate to the struggles that rural people face when they leave their homes to find a better life in the cities, but in the move, lose their powerful and sustaining connections to community. It gave me insights into the difficulties for African American families who migrated to the cities, and along the way, lost their community support; where parents were faced with negotiating new rules for their children, children who often felt their parents didn't know as much as they did about the world their children lived in. The social breakdown between generations became something that I would address in my future work: how can we work effectively with immigrant communities and with people migrating from rural areas into cities; how can we support families during that transition.
My work since Mississippi has been rooted in the issues of community, and in particular, in ways to structure and connect to people transitioning from one culture to another: from rural to urban, for first generation community college students aspiring to a better life for themselves and their families and other marginalized populations who lack the skills, the connections, the resources, and/or the community support to achieve their potential.
My most recent professional focus has been working on community college remedial education reform to prevent students who test below college level math and English from giving up while struggling to retake and pass the same math and English classes they hated (and failed) in high school. Passing remedial math and English is the academic pre-requisite for students whose goal is enrolling in those college classes that will lead to careers and economic self-sufficiency. Traditional remedial education is too long a road for many students, and too often, sudents became discouraged and drop out. I'm one of a growing number of community college practitioners across the country who have joined together in the last ten to twenty years to focus on remedial math and English reform. For me, it's a direct legacy of my experiences in the south.
I belief in the power of action and the courage of ordinary people and I believe in the power of collegiality in the work that we do to sustain social action. I view my work in community college as social action, a way to impact lives by helping students identify and address the barriers that stand between them and their goals and successfully negotiate the college system. It's the type of work that can't be done alone. It requires a community of support. The institutional barriers that face you are extremely difficult to negotiate without the support of your colleagues, people with the same belief and commitment to the work that you do.
The most meaningful work that I've done in my life has been in conjunction with like-minded colleagues. It's the connectedness that the movement modeled for me and that I sought in the rest of my life. As I moved into my professional life, the people that sustained my life, the community of support, of people working together, has been a crucial part of the work. A critical lesson that I took from the south was this: find the people who share your values, work with them, problem solve with them, support them personally, ask for their support. In actuality, you really don't even have to ask for their support. When you work with people with common goals, support is a natural part of the relationships.
I left Mississippi because I was a white woman during a time that the movement was focusing on black leadership and black membership. In the spring of 1965, it was clear to me that many of the black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement felt that going forward, the movement core needed to be "just us". Working at Tougaloo, on the ASCS election and on the Batesville okra co-op was an extraordinary privilege. I loved and was inspired by the people and the work, but as a white woman in the black struggle, the message was clear to me. It was time for me to go.
After I had left, the intrepid John Mudd, who had put together the Harvard/Tougaloo Project, continued the work with the fledgling co-op, which continued to function successfully for fifteen years. Within a year after I left, whites were expelled from SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the major force in the Mississippi movement. I could feel it coming and left before I was asked to leave. It was too painful.
In May of 1965, I went to New York City to investigate possible markets for the Batesville co-op's okra, where I met my husband. We were both connected to a group of people who had been active in the southern civil rights movement. My husband was a southerner, a musician and folk singer who had performed in coffee shops in Atlanta's traditional black colleges. In New York, he was part of an avant garde jazz-rock band, "The Free Spirits", which led us to San Francisco, and then to an underground builder's conference in New Mexico, where we connected to a group of artists/builders who had moved to a commune in rural Southern Colorado, our next destination.
Huerfano County was a traditional agrarian enclave, populated by descendents of the Spanish Americans who had migrated from Northern New Mexico to Colorado in the mid-1800's. I felt at ease in rural community life, with its strong family connections and rock-solid values. I took a job as a rural outreach worker for Spanish Peaks Mental Health, where I set up adult education programs in conjunction with the local community college. We taught GED prep in trailers to high school droputs, basic math in century-old adobe homes to ranchers who wanted to better understand the reckoning in cattle auctions and reading to senior citizens who wanted to improve their reading skills so they could better read and understand the bible.
My students told me stories of their ancestors and of the rich Spanish American heritage of the county, the second poorest county in Colorado. Their stories moved me deeply, emotionally and intellectually. Using the grant writing skills that I learned in Mississippi, I wrote a series of community-based grants to preserve and present the history of the county to its citizenry, beginning with a year-long state grant for the collection of over a hundred oral histories from the ranching, mining, and Spanish American communites.
The University of Colorado's Project Bueno funded English and Spanish language interviews with Huerfano County's Hispanic elders. Over a hundred and thirty English and Spanish interviews were recorded and transcribed with the county's homesteaders, ranchers, union activists and immigrants who had been recruited from Southern Europe to work in the mines of southern Colorado. A Colorado Humanities grant brought scholars in mining history, anthropology and Spanish American heritage to analyze the transcripts and immigration petitions and present their findings to the community in a series of weekly newspaper articles, radio shows and a month long photography exhibit. David Guerrero, a talented community photographer, photographed the interviewees, curated the photographs for the local art gallery and travelled to the homes of interviewees to give them copies of their individual photos. The crown jewell of the project was a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to write and perform a play based on the oral histories that was performed in multiple locations in four southern Colorado counties and in the Colorado History Museum in Denver.
The thread in my life's work has always been working together with local people for those things that are important to them. In rural counties, it's often the schools. Our little community in southern Colorado built an addition to the local school to accommodate a growing population, persuaded the school board to fund a kindergarten and wrote grants for a bilingual-multicultural preschool and community playground. The two-room schoolhouse went from being a small, country school to being cited as one of the best rural schools in the country by the Millikin Foundation.
I was not the only grant writer in the county, but it was a natural transition for me. Writing grants to fund community projects was similar to the work I did in Mississippi, just with a different population. My allies were a handful of forward looking members of the community. Christine Schmidt, President of the Historical Society and Director of the Department of the Huerfano County Social Services, persuaded the county commissioners to support our series of grant applications with the understanding that she would be the fiscal agent, responsible for the supervision and implementation of the grants.
Many others worked to tap the facsinating history of the county: the brilliant contributing scholars; David Guerroro, the talented local photographer; Sidney Goldfarb, my old Harvard colleague and Univeristy of Colorado English professor who visited the couny multiple times and wrote "Heurfano" the powerful play, based on the oral histories; Lars Kampmann, my AAA commune friend who, after reading some of the transcripts, encouraged me to take on the project, worked with me on the grant and directed the play; Sybilla Wallenborn, the assistant director and understudy; the local actors and musicians; the acclaimed "Living Theatre" principles from New York who spent a month in Huerfano County coaching the amateur troop; the local actors, some of them relatives of the interviewees, the play's musical director (my husband Chip), the actors who spent months rehearsing and performing in theatres and town assemblies across the state; the artists who constructed the sets; and the families of the interviewees who came with their loved ones to attend the play's dress rehearsal in a private performance for interviewees and their families.
In 1980, we faced a stark reality: there were virtually no economic opportunities in the county. Many of our friends were moving to the east or west coast to find work. We struggled with the decision and eventually decided to pursued a seemingly impossible dream, to build an FM radio station. In 1983, after several months of Chip visiting regional radio stations to study their station's FCC applications, Baker Communications applied for and secured an FM license to build a radio station in Huerfano County. In 1984, KSPK signed on the air with funding from a non-profit that was interested in employee-owned businesses.
My husband organized the project, dug the holes for the tower on the promontory in the adjacent state park, ordered the equipment and supervised the construction of the station. "Community radio makes a difference" was our tagline. Our call letters, KSPK, stood for the "Spirit of the Peaks", a reference to the majestic Spanish Peaks that overlooked the county. Our motto was "Kspeak talks and Kspeak Listens".
On Sundays, community people brought in their personal record collections and worked as "Disc Jockeys", playing church music, classical music, blues, salsa, country and traditional Spanish music. The football coach broadcast the radio coverage for the basketball games. Chip co-hosted the morning show from 6:00 to 9:00 A.M, oversaw the on-air talent and production, was sales manager, broadcast the football games, did remote broadcasts from local businesses and shared the Sunday Jazz show from eight to midnight with local jazz lovers, including favorites like "Jazz with Babz". The AAA's Lars Kampmann, a Princeton theatre graduate, broadcast his movie reviews. We recruited talented, young disc jockeys from Denver and from the local community. I oversaw external business efforts and served as news director, attending school board, city council and County Commisioner's meetings, checking with the city and sheriff's department daily and writing/conducting interviews and news features on topics of local interest to the three counties that we served. Over five years, the station won more than thirty awards from the Colorado Broadcasters Association and Colorado MAC (media, agency and clients), along with "Best Editorial" from the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists.
The radio station was about giving the community a voice. The community responded. The station logged the highest arbitron rating in the state (the measure of how many people were listening to the station at any given time). Each segment of the community listened at some point in the day. In the morning, the station played contemporary country music and broadcast the cattle report, targeting the ranching community. From 9:00-6:00, we played "adult contemporary" targeting the mainstream community and local businesses. Six to midnight, when adults tune out and young people tune in, was "rock and roll," giving teenagers from three counties the opportunity to call in and dedicate songs to their peers. Midnight to six A.M. was old time country music, a favorite of the truckers and the locals who worked nights, stocking the area supermarkets.
Chip and the fabulous Bob Burns, a former D.J. who had come to the county as a partner in the local Radio Shack, co-hosted the morning show, called "Bazooka and the Buffalo," named for "Bazooka Bob Burns and Buffalo Chip Baker," a blend of humor, music and local news. In addition to the raucous banter of the morning show, the two wrote and produced two hour-long radio plays for Thanksgiving and Christmas, one of which was awarded best original production from the Colorado Broadcasters Assosiation. The station expanded its coverage from one county to three counties. KSPK was a way for a community that had no voice to hear themselves - sometimes to listen, sometimes to be informed and sometimes to laugh and be entertained, but always to know that the station was created to serve the community. It was a fabulous experience.
But, because Chip and I were very political and outrageously vocal about local political issues, during our third year of operating we were told by a friendly member of law enforcement that our lives were in danger. Chip slept with a loaded shotgun next to our bed for a year. Challenging the power structure, whether in Mississippi or Southern Colorado, is never easy and there is always a cost. The local residents didn't want us to leave, but in small towns, the "town fathers" have ways to undercut challenges to their control.
In 1989, Chip was in a serious car wreck that impacted his ability to do sales for the Christmas season, the all-important time of the year when businesses go from "red to black". The station needed funding to make it through the season, but the initial local support that was offered was soon squelched by the "town fathers." With few options, we sold the station and moved to Denver. Chip sold cars and honed his skills in video production, which led to a job writing and producing the "Behind the Scenes" segments for the Hallmark Entertainment Network's original movies. I took a series of jobs: as a waitress, child care worker, family literacy instructor and ultimately as curriculum coordinator for The Adult Learning Source a faith-based non-profit that operated a dozen literacy centers across Denver.
As several of the literacy centers offered English language classes, I was asked to take an ESOL (English for Students of Other Language) course at the University of Colorado. One course led to another. It was invigorating; I loved connecting with an intellectual approach to problem solving.
In 1994, the University of Colorado at Denver launched a doctoral program for practitioners, students whose central interest was working in communities rather than writing books or teaching college. I enrolled. My wonderful doctoral mentor and friend, Mark Clarke, guided me through the program, invited me to co-teach a class with him and ultimately paved the way for me to be named "Honoraria Facuty."
My first task as a doctoral student was doing home visits for the students and families of fifth-grade students in three inner-city schools, as part of a grant, called, "High Achieving Classes for Minority Students." To fulfill program expectations that doctoral students would work in the field while in the program, I answered an ad for a part-time GED instructor in a workforce training program at Community College of Denver, my introduction to community colleges. The work led to my continued involvement in workforce development, where I designed a welfare-to-work program and a series of "bridge" employment programs for underserved populations and my most recent focus on remedial education reform.
For me, the continuity of my life is the same. It's in different settings, but it's the same. Community is a web of connections, a vehicle to connect to and work with others on common goals. We all walk on paths. The path that I walk is within communities, to work with and to further the aspirations of its residents. The connectedness is with the hearts and minds of the individuals that I'm drawn to and with whom I learn and work, side by side.
My experiences in the south helped me recognize what was important to me, where to put my energy for the rest of my life. It wasn't a conscious decision. The deep things in our lives aren't always conscious decisions. They are a culmination of many things. Only in retrospect can I say that everything is interconnected. At the time, it felt that I was just living my life.
Dedicated with thanks to Bob Moses, the deep heart and brilliant tactitian of Freedom Summer; to John Mudd, who designed and funded the Tougaloo project and who helped shepherd the Batesville marketing co-op to fruition; the courageous men and women of Mississippi who have been my lifelong inspiration; the black activists who modeled respectful leadership aand selfless commitment; my white colleagues who served with me and continue to "fight the good fight" in their present lives; my colleagues in activism, academia and government who work tirelessly to actualize meaningful change; Christine Schmidt, who convinced the county commisioners to be the fiscal sponsors of our community grants; Lars Kampmann, my talented and vibrant AAA gardening companion and theatre partner, Roz McCain and Casey Hayden, project interviewers and dear friends; David Guerrero, the Huerfano photographer who went beyond grant expectations to deliver photographs of the interviewees to his subjects; Gloria Rodiguez Campbell, a stalwart and loving advocate for her commuity who recorded and translated the bulk of the Spanish language interviews; Sybilla Wallenborn, who brought her theatre expertise and calm professionalism to the theatre project; Mark Clark, my wonderful mentor who aided me in harnessing the challenging and invigorating world of academia to support the goals of a just society; Kristin Corash, Kerri Nawrocki and Ruth Brancard, my brilliant colleagues in remedial math reform; the residents of Huerfano County, who embraced our family; the Anonymous Artists of America (AAA), the San Francisco rock and roll band that joined us in Huerfano County, where we bought land, built our homes and gardened together, and with whom we maintain a lifetime of deep friendship; Julia Marchant, the incredible principal of Gardner School who created a superb learning and cultural environment that wove together the community in support of its children's futures; my children and grandchildren, who joined my husband and myself in the work; and my husband, Columbus Chip Baker, the perfect partner and life companion whose energy, love, and artistic, visionary nature have provided the companionsip and the spice of this blessed life.
Copyright © Elaine Delott Baker. 2021
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