When Duncan and I moved to Asheville from Georgia (by way of Boston) in 2001, we didn’t move here for the mountains, although they are lovely. We didn’t move here for the food, and we didn’t move here for the weather (though that was a big plus, too). We moved to Asheville because of the community we felt that we could build with others here.
A little bit of history:
At the time, we were living at the Haley House in Boston’s South End, a non-profit based in the philosophy of the Catholic Worker Movement. Our work there was of the radical social-justice kind: serving daily meals to the homeless, protesting war, and teaching job skills through the non-profit bakery (incidentally, my first professional baking job, one that lit the fire in me to learn all about food, how it works, and how to bake it). For years before that, I worked in urban community gardens, Quaker summer camps, and food justice movements. In 1997, Duncan and I traveled from Athens, Georgia, to Birmingham, Alabama to participate in an anti-racist action against a KKK rally there. Working in our affinity groups, we encountered a group from Asheville. There were seemingly dozens of them, and they had gotten a grant to rent a van to go to the protest. We were impressed at the level at which the Asheville activists had organized, and we made a point to visit the Pinkhaus, a hub of radical organizing at the time.
Upon arriving in Asheville in late September of 2001, just weeks after September 11, after driving past the Pentagon and Lower Manhattan in flames, and seeing our own block in Boston on lockdown, we immediately linked up with communities that were continuing the work that we had participated in in other cities. We saw the violence of war as being inexorably linked with the globalization of commerce, and we sought to change it. We joined the collective at ACRC- Asheville Community Resource Center, which was once a thriving hub on Lexington Avenue housing Asheville Prison Books Program, Earth First!, the Asheville Doula Collective, Asheville Global Report, The Women and Transgender Health Collective, Tranzmission, The Asheville Bike Recylery, Bountiful Cities Project, a free reading room, and a show space and gallery. (There are many other collectives that thrived at this time in Asheville, including Free Radio Asheville, Food Not Bombs, and the Asheville Free School, and many of them still thrive).
When the Iraq War began in 2003, months after my and Duncan’s wedding in Montreat, we took to the streets en masse. I was arrested for standing with Women in Black in front of the Vance Monument, when the police said that we couldn’t exercise free speech in our commons. I traveled with a group of activists from Asheville to Miami in November of 2003 to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and experienced first-hand the brand-new “Miami Model” being exercised upon us: a new level of para-military violence against dissent that made me (and many others) fear for my life, and had the desired effect of dissuading us from attempting to protest the upcoming G8 summit on the remote island resort of Sea Island, Georgia.
And then, ACRC got evicted, in the same fell swoop that took out Vincent’s Ear and other community spaces on Lexington downtown. We fought against the gentrification of our city, and we lost. (side note: so when you meet someone who is especially bitter about the changes through the years in Asheville, please be kind and remember that there were very, very special things happening here which were sacrificed to make way for what you see now. It’s a justifiably sore spot for many of us.) The “Community” referenced in “Asheville Community Resource Center” splintered off into our separate endeavors.
And then, I got pregnant. So I started baking cakes to make enough money to feed my child, and the rest of that story is chronicled in detail in these pages.
And then, the economy crashed in 2008, and I don’t have to tell you the rest of that story, either.
And so the face of what was radical community to me didn’t exist anymore, at least not in the same form. And the communities that I have been a part of in other towns have changed, too. So where do we go from here?
What I want to speak to is that search for community, especially in this town of Asheville that I have come to call home. Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” I have been inspired, incited, ignited, and excited by all the forms of community that I have sought and found here, and before here. Ultimately, community has been the purpose of all this striving– for justice, for sustainability, or for solidarity. Our work has been an attempt to reach out and connect with others- and to see each other’s suffering as our own and work to heal it. At least that’s where I’ve been coming from. And I have witnessed the very real fragmentation of community, locally, regionally, nationally, and otherwise, by the post-9/11 political environment. And I have tried to figure out where to go from here. Engaging in direct political action has felt disingenuous for me, as my focus has shifted to my own foundation, emotional healing, and empowerment in my family and in my work. Supporting others in their empowerment towards creative fulfillment and economic autonomy has proven more real and transformational to me now than fighting the juggernaut has. I’ve sought community in new ways, ways that do not require me to go to meetings 5 nights a week, or drink heavily at shows to experience a connection with others. I started to rediscover that community in parents that help each other out with life tasks: bringing soup to a sick child or babysitting so somebody can go to a job. And I’ve discovered community in work: at the Cake Shop where we support one another in our desire to make an honest living and be ourselves in the process.
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement
And over the years, as my child has grown and my life has become more and more oriented towards the community that should (but often does not) surround children, families, and elders, I have found community and inspiration in a somewhat unlikely place: the public school that my son attends.
Statistically speaking, you could say that Hall Fletcher Elementary is the smallest of Asheville’s public schools, or that it is the one with the highest proportion of students in poverty (78%), or that it is the one with the highest number of special needs children.
You could also say that, as a public school, it is an institution, paid for by the government, that tracks students into stratified trajectories that will mark them for life, or that public schools feed children high-sugar, high-salt meals and expect them to sit still for hours on end to absorb information that will make them into better workers in the global economy. You could say that institutional racism, sexism, and classism reinforce themselves daily in public schools. You could say all of that, and you would probably be right. But what is also true is that the public elementary school where my son attends is a place where our family has experienced community of a kind we have never previously experienced: a community where children and families of color and of limited economic means are focal and normal; where human creativity and intelligence is dignified and recognized, and where people of many different ages and stages of life are working together towards a common goal. The goal we are seeking together is one that is not based in profit, or even survival, but in the uplifting of humans to their highest potential. Let me emphasize this. I have spent countless hours sitting across tables with other activists, board members, community members, and facilitators of various organizations that I have been a part of, all wondering how we can “attract diversity” and “be inclusive.” I have discovered, in my naivety, that apparently “diversity” was busy making a living while their children attended public school. And I’ve come to realize, if you are a white person wanting to participate in inclusive, multi-racial community, perhaps you should go to where the community is, instead of waiting for the community to come to you. And I’ve come to see that community take shape at Hall Fletcher. Here’s a few examples of things that are happening at Hall Fletcher right now that are making me feel inspired and excited:
Just this school year, one of the 3rd grade teachers, Brian Randall, has introduced and coached the Pawnstorm Chess Club. In the 8 months since, the entire 3rd grade knows how to play the game, and most of the 4th grade does too. Chess benefits children in many ways; one is that it is, in its essence, egalitarian. As the international master and chess journalist Malcolm Pein says: “There is no other activity that costs so little to organise and that cuts across so many barriers. Age, sex, race, religion … they mean nothing in chess.” Chess provides a level playing field for children with others regardless of physicality, class status, or age; and studies have shown that one of the primary benefits of chess to children is in regards to self-esteem: it is one of the few arenas in life where a child is regarded as a peer by her or his opponent, adult or otherwise, and this has a measurably positive impact on the way that child thinks about herself. Think about that for a minute, y’all. There are more than 50 children at Hall Fletcher who now count themselves as members of the chess club with pride, and they and the adults in their lives (like me, in my Tuesday afternoons as a Pawnstorm volunteer) have seen a new dimension of their personalities and minds open up under the influence of chess.
Artists Ian Wilkenson and Alex Irvine (with the help of Ernie Mapp and others) have been collaborating on a multi-media mural on the front face of Hall Fletcher Elementary, the result of a 14-day residency with 4th graders at the school. Ian was shocked to discover how similar his vision for the mural was to the plans created by the 4th graders- what has resulted is a still-in-progress dreamscape across the front of the school, consisting of images of actual HFE 4th graders running across the face of the school building towards a tree full of leaves made of numbers (reflecting the school’s role as a magnet for Math, Science and Technology). As Ian says, “the energy at Hall Fletcher is palpable and contagious, and the mural is just a result of that.”
The garden at Hall Fletcher Elementary is engaging every single child in the school in the process of planting, growing, cooking, and eating fresh food. Staff member Rachel Lubitz has coordinated curriculum-based garden activities for each of the five grades that engage children in growing and eating local, heirloom, and native vegetables and fruits.
There are many other examples. This winter, the third grade wrote and performed a play called “Jackie’s 9,” based on the life of baseball player Jackie Robinson. You can see excerpts here.
There is a school-wide effort to embrace the seven attributes of personal (read: emotional and relational, not just economic) success: Self-Control, Zest, Curiosity, Social Intelligence, Grit, Optimism and Gratitude. One of the things I love most about being a parent is that many of the things that are good for children, are good for us, and the world, as well. Plenty of sleep, fun, good food, connection, touch, love, relaxation– all these things that we try to create for our children (hopefully) force us, sometimes gently, sometimes kicking and screaming, into being better to ourselves and each other than we would be otherwise.
I believe these things are important because they reflect the underpinnings of why (to my mind) we were ever running from the cops in the street in Miami in the first place: because we care about people, we feel that all people deserve opportunities for spiritual, social, economic, and physical well-being, and we want to stop the systems that routinely deny those rights to some people and not others. To see and participate in a community that affords these rights to a diverse group of children and their families gives me hope.
In short, in this post-modern era, in a “fragmented” community, I have been humbled to discover one of the most welcoming, engaging, diverse, inclusive, communities I have ever been a part of, in an unlikely place: a small, quiet public elementary school a few blocks from the Cake Shop. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be actively opposing on a large scale the powers of war, patriarchy, and oppression in our times, or that these things aren’t alive and well and among us, especially at public school; quite the opposite. I am saying that the best defense against a hateful world is love, and that love comes with community, and that I have felt that sense of community, and an immense amount of love, at Hall Fletcher. I have connected with parents and children whom I would never had met had we not had the common thread of school between us. I’m saying that we should recognize that opportunities for connection and community exist right under our noses, hiding in plain sight, as we go about our lonely business. And that if we can ground ourselves in the love found in community, we can be more resilient and more healthy together, and better able to be more self-responsible in our actions regarding other communities and cultures. And that perhaps, from that place of community, together with our friends, our families, and our children, we can create heretofore unimagined forms of resistance to fear and loneliness.