On The BRIDGE: Stephanie Wright: Deep Berkshire roots | By Renée Nik Davies, Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

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Stephanie Wright, at the Barrington Brewery.

SHEFFIELD — In the year 1909, William Howard Taft was America’s 27th President, the American flag sported only 45 stars and sugar cost a mere four cents a pound. It was a time before the invention of zippers, Band-Aids, traffic lights, penicillin or bubble gum, and it was also the year Minnie Gertrude Golden was born.

I sit across from Stephanie Wright, Minnie’s oldest granddaughter. I listen raptly to stories of her large, tightly knit family and am awed that I have stumbled across a branch of one of the oldest African American family trees in Berkshire County. Wright’s family roots trace back to 1855 when Sam Golden, her great grandfather, moved from Fishkill, N.Y., to begin a farming life in Sheffield. Sam’s grandson, Cornelius Golden Jr., met and married Minnie.

When Minnie and Cornelius, an African-American man, married in 1928, it was a controversy. They went through trying times as a mixed raced couple raising bi-racial children in the early ‘30s and ‘40s.

“Popi and Gram met in Norwalk, Conn. He met her and refused to return home to Sheffield without her. He was a very convincing man,” Wright said. “Sometimes [their life together] got tough, but they always made it through. My grandparents were hard workers. They never gave up.”

Minnie worked as a housekeeper until age 85. Cornelius worked as a carpenter to help construct the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and with his own construction company he built many homes in Sheffield that still stand to this day.

“Popi was somewhat of a short man,” Wright said, “but I remember Gram being a tall, stately woman [in her early years.] It was when Gram retired that our relationship became stronger. I visited her nearly every day. We would talk about anything and everything. She was very news-conscious. She had an opinion on everything, and she wanted to know your opinion too. Gram was a hot ticket until the day she died.”

Wright smiled as she recounted the years of Minnie’s long life.

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Stephanie’s Grandmother, Minnie Gertrude Golden.

Minnie and Cornelius had been married for 48 years when Cornelius died in 1974. They had eight children, and those children have produced a legion of grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and even a few great-great-great grandchildren.

“Gram loved her family, Wright said. “She loved having us all around her every chance she could get. She kept us together. Family was important to Gram, and it’s still important to all of us. We were all so close when we were growing up. We just love each other so much, and I am so thankful for that.”

Wright’s close-knit family was the driving force behind her success when she moved from South Carolina to Berkshire County.

“Mom was born in Great Barrington, but she married my father, who was from the south and moved there,” she said. “I spent most of my young years in a segregated school in South Carolina. We eventually moved back to Berkshire County, and in 1963 I started school at Mt. Everett, [a predominately white school.]

“It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement back then. The South was in flames, people were killing and fighting over race, but I was clueless here. I had so many cousins at school, some with blond hair and blue eyes, but they loved us and were proud of us, and [the tension in the rest of the country] didn’t seem to touch us. My family made my experience in high school fun.”

Perhaps it is Minnie’s strength that continues to keep their family close to this very day.

“Gram was a very strong person,” Wright said. “She always wanted things to be fair and straight. If she ever had a problem, she went right to the source, and she wouldn’t leave until the problem got solved. She taught me to not only speak up when things are bothering me but to speak up and applaud the good in the world too.”

Many have described Minnie Golden as a wonderful woman. She grew to love her home in Sheffield and became a treasured and respected member of her community. When asked what she remembered most about her grandmother, Wright was moved to tears.

“She believed that an apple a day kept the doctor away, so she grew her own fruit,” she said. “She also raised her own chickens and maintained her own gardens. Now that I reflect on her, I realize that she believed in excellence. She pursued excellence, expected excellence and showered excellence upon us.”

Minnie was 100 years old when Wright pulled out an old tape recorder and captured her reciting from memory “Come Little Leaves,” a poem by George Cooper. On the tape, Minnie’s strong, rhythmic voice speaks these final words.

“Cricket, goodbye, we’ve been friends so long.

Little brook, sing us your farewell song –

Say you are sorry to see us go.

Ah! You are sorry,

Right well we know.”

Minnie’s life began on Feb. 11 in Sharon, Conn., and came to a sweet conclusion in Sheffield just a few months before her 105th birthday last November. This may seem like the end, but Minnie’s story will continue to live on in her family and her beloved home.

 

Ed Shaw Pt 2 | By Katherine Abbott

As vice president of the union at the Fox River Paper Co. in Housatonic, Edward Shaw had a tough job, one that needed skill and understanding. He had to negotiate both for the people he worked with and for the company he worked for.

Sitting at a negotiating table took patience.

“They have their agenda, and you have yours,” he said. “You swap agendas, and you can see where they’re coming from.”

When the negotiators reached a compromise, he then had to present it to the workers — who could over-ride it by a vote.

In his time, he saw only one strike, a short one of about a week. The company had offered a five-year contract instead of the standard three-year contract.

“People have a hard time with change,” Shaw said. “We tried to advise them to accept. Long contracts are often better because you can plan,” knowing employment will last that much longer.

“Our people voted the contract down,” he said. “They took a strike vote. The company was shocked. But the people had the power of the vote.”

In that case, a brief strike brought a compromise.

But strikes, Shaw said, came at a high price.

“People felt the union was so powerful, if we didn’t get what we wanted we could just strike and get it that way. It’s not true. No one wins in a strike, and the biggest loss is to the workers. The company’s not making money because it’s not making paper.”

He felt the company and the people could both benefit when the company’s and the workers’ interests aligned.

He remembered a mill owner from Malden, in the Clinton administration, who took care of his people. He had a fire in one of his two plants, and a lot of his people could not work until the company could rebuild. He made sure they had food and at least a small income, Shaw said, and when people asked him why he did more than he needed to do, he said that his people had made him successful, and he knew what he gave them now they would give back ten-fold.

“You earn and they do,” he said. It works “as long as you’re able to talk. When you can’t talk anymore, then you have a problem.”

Ed Shaw Pt 1 | By Katherine Abbott

The Rev. Mr. Edward Shaw used to ask his mother to tell him stories about the faith she was born to.

She was raised Roman Catholic, and she loved her faith and missed it. But she had married a Protestant, and in those days, after her marriage she felt excommunicated.

Shaw grew up Episcopalean, at St. Paul’s in Stockbridge. But he loved to hear her stories.

Then one afternoon, as a teenager, he was playing basketball in Housatonic with friends, and they told him a folk group would perform that evening at All Saints Church there. He had the evening free, and he went to listen.

“I sat in the back pew and listened to the most wonderful music,” he said.

Mass began after the concert, and it captivated him. The strength of the spirituality in the ritual grabbed hold of him, and he had to keep going back. He went to a Catholic Mass on Saturday nights and to the Episcopal service with his family on Sundays for some time, and finally he went up to the priest who led the Mass and asked to learn more.

So for a year he went to the rectory on Wednesday nights and studied. At then end of a year, the priest told him he had finished studying, and Shaw asked when he could become a Catholic.

“You can’t,” the priest told him — but a “yet” hung in the air.

“You can’t,” he said, “because you need to contemplate all you have learned, to reflect, to think about it.”

So Shaw went on a retreat on his own. He went up ito the mountains in Vermont, where his brother and his in-laws had a camp. He sat on the hillside above the reservoir to watch the sun rise. And that morning he felt a warmth — his spirit became alive, he said. And he knew the Catholic faith had called him.

He went back to the rectory and rang the doorbell.

“And the Father said, ‘you don’t need to say a word — you’re beaming like crazy,’” he said. “My mother was happy, and her twin, my aunt, was my godmother.”

He was 21.

He became a choir member and a soloist at St. Peter’s, and he still felt pulled, he said. He had a sense that he wanted to do more. He became a Eucharistic mnister and a reader.

Then one day, at Mass he was in deep prayer, and Father Wallis NAME touched him on the shoulder and handed him two books. One was the “Liturgy of the Hours,” the prayers an ordained Catholic says throughout the day.

Father Wallis said, “you might be in need of these.”

Shaw took courses for his ordination at Elms College for four and a half years, two days a week, while he was working 10-hour days at the Fox River Paper Mill.

“You want this so badly, you sacrifice,” he said.

His wife and children supported him. And in 2007, when the mill had closed and he was moving between jobs at the Great Barrington schools, he was ordained.

His ministry as a deacon has become a large part of his life.

“I believe the church is not just an institution or a building,” he said. It’s what you have in your heart.”

The word Deacon comes from the Greek, diakonos, one who is of service.

When he talks of ministry, he talks of giving help and comfort — “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, go to the imprisoned, reach out because it’s what Christ did, always reaching out for those in need. It’s who you are,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t make a difference, but you try.”

He has sat with people in nursing homes, with people at the end of their journey, with people who could not respond because they had had a stroke, and he would sit and hold their hands and know from the look in their eyes that they thanked him.

When he retires, he wants to do more to help the Rev. William P. Murphy, who now runs two parishes as a pastor and as an administrator for St. Peter in Great Barrington and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Housatonic. As churches close, as fewer priests serve larger areas, clergy are getting steadily busier, Shaw said.

So many people are in pain, he said. He wants to reach out, and to teach people to reach out, to anyone who needs someone to listen.

“I’ve seen it in the mills, and I’ve seen it in the schools,” he said. “Young people want to know they’re heard and they’re loved. You are who you are, you show them respect and you show them you care.”

He had read an article recently saying that better than 60 percent of children in the U.S. go home to an empty house.

“In my day, you put your books on the table and went out to play whiffle ball, or you went sledding until mom called you in to dinner,” he said.

And family around the table would talk to each other. Talking was key, he said, having the time to share what mattered.

“You have to listen with heart,” he said.

He remembered challenges he has faced and people who have stood by him. After living in Housatonic for 28 years, renting from the elderly woman who lived in the other half of the house, their longtime landlord died, and he and his wife had to move. Shaw was a week from his 62nd birthday.

He found himself in prayer: “God, this is tough. We don’t know what to make of it.”

But he and his wife have made the move to Pittsfield, and they now own a house here.

He has had physical difficulties too. He suffered a small stroke in 2010, and in 2013 he collapsed and ended up in Fairview Hospital, where his wife works. He woke to find himself heading into surgery with a perforated colon. And his wife and daughter came in just as the surgeon was insisting that the surgery could not wait any longer for them to arrive.

And finally Shaw remembered sitting with his mother at Berkshire Medical Center. Both of his parents died in their 60s, he said. On this afternoon, he knew his mother had only a few days to live. He was there with her, praying quietly, and he heard a Catholic chaplain walking past, down the hall.

Shaw called out to him and told him his mother had been brought up Catholic and had loved her faith.

“He says ‘you don’t need to say anything more,’” Shaw said, and he anointed her.

And Shaw felt that she had felt that touch — that last connection.

On the Bridge: Ed Shaw faces changing times | By Kate Abbott, Berkshire Eagle

 

GREAT BARRINGTON — The Rev. Mr. Edward Shaw and his wife of 37 years moved to Pittsfield three years ago, into the first house they have owned, after 28 years in Housatonic.

For 31 years, Shaw worked for the Rising Paper Mill, which became the Fox River Paper Co. When the local owner sold the Housatonic mill to a rival company, Neenah Paper, in 2007, Neenah shut the mill within two weeks. According to Eagle records, 137 people lost their jobs.

“It was a tough time for me,” Shaw said, “thinking I had spent 31 years in a secure establishment, that I could retire and care for my family.”

He grew up in a family of nine children — his mother had been raised Catholic, singing “Adeste Fideles” with her twin sister every year at the Christmas Eve Mass in Lenox Dale.

But she married a Protestant and stayed home to care for her children.

“We had tough times, but we learned through the times we struggled financially,” Shaw said.

When his father became ill and could not work, the family came together.

“You did yard work, you raked leaves, you shoveled snow, and you gave the money to your mom because that might be your dinner that night,” he said.

Sometimes, he would come home to find the lights out until they could pay the power bill. But neighbors helped neighbors and his family reached out to each other.

“We dealt with it,” he said.

Shaw started working at Fox River when it was still the Rising Paper Mill. Rising was a private, family-owned company, he said, and, in 1976, Robert O’Connor sold the mill to another private company, owned by Robert Buchanen.

Rising and Fox River were a lot alike, Shaw said. Small orders kept them afloat in tough times. Because they were small companies, they could take on smaller orders that larger companies ignored. They made many kinds of paper and were known for art paper.

Their source of water was an artesian well, he said, and their customers valued their paper so highly that when Neenah announced that the mill was closing, one of their largest customers tried to buy the mill, Shaw said, to keep it running.

Shaw did shift work and moved to different jobs wherever the company needed him — the paper machine, the beater room, where they prepared paper to be machined — but he spent most of his time in the finishing department, converting paper: taking the paper made on the rolls and running it through cutters and guillotine trimmers, getting it wrapped and sealed into boxes and sent to the shipping department.

He spoke well of O’Connor as a boss.

“He knew your family,” Shaw said. “He knew who you were. He’d come down on the floor [to say] ‘How’re things going — how’s your wife, your children?’ He came down at holidays. People got free turkeys. We’ve gotten away from what makes us go.”

Shaw became vice president of the union, representing the workers and negotiating contracts. It takes skill, he said, to sit at a negotiating table.

“You have the company on one side and the people on the other, and you’re pulled from both sides,” Shaw said. “You try to represent people as best you can for their own good, and you have to look at the company’s side also. They’re trying to make a business work. We represent the business, and we want to be compensated for our hard work. And sometimes … personalities can get in the way.”

When the negotiators had reached a compromise, Shaw would then have to present it to the people he worked with, and they could reject it by a vote.

“You have to go back and explain,” he said. “People felt the union was so powerful, if we didn’t get what we wanted, we could just strike and get it that way. It’s not true. No one wins in a strike, and the biggest loss is to the workers.”

He saw only one short strike on his watch.

“You hammer out the hard issues and make a go of it,” he said.

And they did, until Neenah stepped in.

When Neenah first bought Fox River, Shaw said, staff members were glad to be bought by a large company with public stocks. They never anticipated they would be shut down.

The closing was a time of heartache for him. Young people just starting their lives had new cars, new homes and babies and now had no jobs.

“BerkshireWorks got involved with them,” Shaw said. “I’m sure a lot of young employees went back to school. Times are tough. We know that now. A lot of manufacturing jobs have gone overseas.”

“When something like that happens, you feel devastation. You feel bitter — why did this happen to me? But you do what you have to do.”

He worked for Monument Mountain Regional High School for a year in 2007, then came to his present job as an evening custodian supervisor at Muddy Brook Elementary School.

“I feel blessed to have this job,” he said.

In 2007, too, he was ordained. He now serves as a Catholic deacon for St. Peter in Great Barrington and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Housatonic, both parishes under the care of the Rev. William P. Murphy.

Shaw became Catholic at 21, returning to his mother’s faith. Later, he took courses for his ordination at Elms College for four and a half years while he was working 10-hour days at the paper mill.

He remembered the day he first heard a Catholic Mass, by chance after a folk concert — and the day, after a year of study, that he first knew he wanted to become Catholic.

He had gone up into the mountains in Vermont, where his brother and his in-laws had a camp. He sat on the hillside above the reservoir to watch the sun rise. And that morning he felt a warmth, he said — his spirit became alive.

This profile is written in colaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge, to bring many voices to this magazine. To har more about Ed Shaw and On the Bridge, visit our blog at berkshrieeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.

Filling in the Blanks: An Interview with Maria Borucka-Gurdek Pt. 1 | by Emma Sanger-Johnson

Hello readers of On the Bridge! My name is Emma Sanger-Johnson, and I’m currently working as an administrative intern for BRIDGE. I recently graduated with my BA in Cross-Cultural Relations and Linguistics from Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. The Berkshires have become my home after spending the last four years in the area, although my roots lie further south in New Jersey. I am delighted to learn more about the community I now live in through interviewing individuals in Berkshire County.

As a Jewish woman, I grew up constantly learning about the Holocaust. In Hebrew school, I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah while learning about Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto. Learning about Israel was important, too, and I was told from a young age to fully support the nation, the safe land for Jews. I have grown older, and at first I questioned these one-sided views about Israel. I learned of the conflict, and the multitude of human rights violations committed by the Israeli government. I had not, until speaking with Maria, learned about the non-Jewish side of the Holocaust.

Maria Borucka-Gurdek’s life centers on this war. It changed her family, her home country, and continues to be a subject of interest for her. This blog entry is the first of two. Before diving further into Maria’s story, I want to provide context for a major event that shaped her life. Maria was born after World War II, but her life was constantly shaped by this war. During my conversation with her, I realized that I do not know much about Polish history and this contextual information is important in understanding the place in which Maria grew up.

Poland was split by the three neighboring countries, Germany, Russia, and Austria. In 1918, after the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles included that Poland should become its own sovereign nation.

This interwar period ended when Germany and Russia invaded Poland in September of 1939. Three million Polish Jews were killed in addition to mass terror and execution of non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia in an effort to destroy Polish culture. Many Poles were also forced into hard labor as well, forming a workforce to fuel Hitler’s Third Reich.

Many of Maria’s family were killed during this period because they were educated or in powers of position. However, the reduction of the educated, academic population in Poland greatly changed the population, and Maria still recognizes these changes decades later.

The world has changed greatly in the decades since the end of World War II, yet we still feel reverberations of this conflict, from the current bombardment of Gaza to the life of a Polish woman living in Pittsfield. Context is key, and we can never fully understand any story without some history.

On the Bridge: Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn feels Polish pride | By Emma Sanger-Johnson

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PITTSFIELD – Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn is a man of color, and his skin color masks his Polish heritage, as his career masks childhood difficulties. His background and Polish heritage are important to him and contribute to his success.

Born in Pittsfield, Wynn also lived in Southern Berkshire County in Otis and Lee before returning to his birthplace for high school.

“My family, my brother and I in particular, had a typically American upbringing because of our mixed heritage,” he said. “Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter — every holiday — but with a Polish twist.”

Wynn was raised primarily by his mother and his mother’s family, and he spent time with his grandparents, uncles and aunts. His great-grandparents separately emigrated from Poland and met once they were in the United States. The essence of being Polish, for Wynn, is the tradition and family. He cherishes cultural artifacts like food, clothing and language, he said, which remind him of his childhood and his heritage.

Wynn believes the best way of understanding and learning about someone’s background is to ask about food.

“If I described the Thanksgiving meal at my grandmother’s house, you could easily see my heritage,” he said. “The table setting included pierogi, kielbasa, kapusta, golompki.”

Though he enjoys Polish foods, he said, most people cannot identify this part of his heritage.

“Most people can figure that out [that I'm Polish] from hearing those foods,” he said. “They might be shocked looking at me that there wasn’t collard greens on the table.”

Wynn experienced difficulties growing up in a single-parent, lower-middle class household. But good mentors and his love of learning led him to pursue higher education.

After spending three semesters at the Naval Academy, he transferred to Williams College. During his time at Williams, he faced social pressure — he had to choose between his Wrestling Team and the Black Student Union, he said, ultimately deciding to stick with his teammates on the team.

His experiences as a child and young adult informed his later career. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1993, Wynn did “what any other recent college graduate would do” he said — he returned to Pittsfield. He knew he wanted to pursue federal law enforcement as a Federal Agent, and he needed law enforcement experience.

“There was an opportunity to go to work for the City of Pittsfield,” he said, “working for the Police Department, not in the Police Department — on one of their first community outreach centers. One of my first assignments was recruiting people to take the police exam. I thought it would make sense to know what I was talking about, so I took it. I was then selected to go to the Police Academy.”

Wynn decided to stay in local law enforcement. With guidance from his commanders and supervisors, he became a certified police trainer and then began to work in the Police Academy. He became a Sergeant and a fellow with the Drug Enforcement Agency with its Leadership Development program. Following rapid departmental shifts, Wynn became chief of police.

As part of his current work, Wynn trains police officers in cultural diversity and bias crimes, a job that calls upon his own background.

As someone who has been misunderstood, he empathizes with other people who have felt misrepresented. Now he leads trainings (including partnerships with Multicultural Bridge), and he talks about his experiences.

In one conversation, Wynn met a mother angry about her son and adamant that Wynn could not understand her. Her son was experiencing horrific treatment in the school district. Wynn reassured her that he did understand.

“When you share your commonalities with people, it makes it easier to make progress,” he said.

Diving beneath skin color, names and clothing reveals less-examined facets of peoples’ culture and heritage, he said. To see the Polish table setting Wynn described, a guest would have to join him at a meal at his grandmother’s house.

“It is uniquely American that you can have these cross-cultural experiences that are hidden,” he said.

As a Pittsfield native, he recognizes different neighborhoods. Southeast Pittsfield has houses made of concrete, concrete fences and concrete grottos, markers of the Italian stone masons who historically lived in that area. Fences and lawn ornaments are different in other parts of the city because of the ethnic groups who once occupied those neighborhoods.

Physical markers express the history of Pittsfield, but the character and identity of the city comes from more than architecture. The idea that areas off of Wahconah street are typically Irish neighborhoods and Seymour Street was the Polish neighborhood is not necessarily relevant in modern Pittsfield, he said. Industry has changed in the city, altering the population. Practices like street markets and festivals define a community. Wynn knows where he can get a certain cut of meat on one block, a certain kind of bread across the street.

The past does not have to shape the future, he stressed.

A year ago he spoke at the graduation ceremony for the the Women of Color Giving Circle, a network to support women of color, to build self-esteem and fund education. He worried about how to approach the audience, he said.

“I’m seen as a political figurehead,” he said, “and instead of talking about what greatness we expect from them and whatnot, I talked about my own history.”

His central message to them was clear — seize every opportunity and do not worry about the difficulties.

“If I could do it, a kid of mixed heritage and a single-parent household,” he said, “then anyone can.” This profile is part of On the Bridge, a series written in collaboration between Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont and Multicultural Bridge, to bring many voices into this magazine. For more, visit berkshrieeagleblobs.com/onthebridge

Reclaiming and Resistance (III) | By Margot Welch

Kuukua and her Students

Kuukua and her Students

Kuukua is one of two-dozen contributors to a wonderful anthology, African Women Writing Resistance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). With three other women, Jenny Browdy de Hernandez, edited an inspiring and vibrant collection of women’s first-person narratives and wise reflections about lives, cultures, history and politics in the vast, diverse and resource-rich continent of Africa – about which so many of us in North American know so little.

Writing from fifteen African countries (Zimbabwe, Congo-Brazzaville, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda, Botswana,  Morocco, Senegal, Egypt, Zambia, Botswana, Rwanda) focuses on a range of critical topics – including but not exclusively diaspora experiences of leaving and loss, adjustment and adaptation, domestic, cultural, and political violence, degrading trauma, resilience, and the enduring determination to make the world safer and kinder for all.

In her preface, Jenny draws from contributors’ words to explain how these women think about writing as an essential form of “resistance.” It is not only a struggle against something oppressive and harmful, but also a fight for what is better. It’s the process of challenging traditions and values that have always placed women below men. It is a way to document the struggle for dignity and empowerment, reconciliation and education that benefits oneself and others. Writing makes people more aware of what holds us back, fostering inner strength and uniqueness.  In distinct but common voices, these women writers vow to reclaim, celebrate and share their own identities, power, and perspectives – for the sake of their nations’ futures – and their own.

The pieces in this book document the large- and small-scale ways that colonialism and violence oppress, violate, and limit lives. However, in the ways these women write about their particular experiences, taken together, their grief, struggles, and dreams are transformed into universal phenomena –reflections that touch and reveal common, universal features of “this being human” (Rumi).  While individual trauma is different from national disaster, reading closely one comes to understand the power of what we share. If we have not been physically raped, our borders have been crossed in surprisingly fearful ways. If we’ve not been viciously beaten or abandoned, we’ve been spanked, slapped, pushed hard, discarded when we hadn’t expected it. If we individually have escaped life-changing illnesses, few of us live in families that have been immune from these devastating experiences.

To at least some degree, I’d bet that women are always aware of climates in which we live – the degrees to which they are respected or destroyed, violent or safe, trustworthy or uncertain, loving or alienating.  How much are loss and attachment, loneliness and connection, resignation and the dream of something better part of our consciousness all the time?

We travel roads of common passions, loves, and dreams for better times in the immediate and global communities of which we are a part. Read slowly, each piece in this anthology calls every one of us to be active – on behalf of others and ourselves. And if we listen carefully, read, take notes, share what we are learning as we go, we are resistors, sustaining and fostering hope for better worlds.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” My son once gave me a large yellow button to wear with this old proverb. It’s not always easy to believe but sometimes it feels true:  that there is nothing quite so precious as the privilege of being able t0 hold a pencil in your hand. (567)

Reclaiming (II) | By Margot Welch

During the month-long Berkshire Women Writer’s Festival this year, Kuukua read a section from her autobiography before introducing four young women, students of color in a writing workshop she offered. In distinct, strong voices, each shared aspects of her particular journey toward owning who she is and will be in this world. It’s not easy.

“We know that the world has the potential to wear one out, but when does one become weary?” asked Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Founding Director of the Festiv

“Statistics show that women of color tend to become weary at a much earlier age,” she said, introducing the session. “To counteract this, some of these women turn to writing. Here are some who have found themselves writing their way through the weary world.”

In voices as honest and direct as Kuukua’s, each young woman shared experiences revealing how they feel they are perceived, some of the challenges they confront, and the stigma they encounter as they learn to love themselves and, through writing, gather strength.

“From a compassionate letter to her Haitian mother, Natalie – not yet twenty – wants her mother to understand that she herself understands how hard it is to come to this country with great expectations that are not realized. She also shares an “Instruction Manual,” reviewing all the practices and procedures with which she herself has been expected to comply in order to fit in, minimizing the distinctiveness of blackness. Previously reluctant to identify with ‘black women’s solidarity,’ now she grasps the importance of strength and the urgency of knowing and celebrating one’s history, staying informed, and seizing opportunities before they are lost. Both letter and “manual” illustrate the way Natalie’s writing is a precious a gift.”

Vinzie, born on a tiny island in New Guinea – “too small to be noticed – and sinking,” she said – shared painful aspects of her homeland, including corruption, rampant materialism, and brutal violence toward women. But she is clear,

“I am not drowning. I am fighting for my place in society.”

At Simon’s Rock for barely a month when she read, Vinzie She wrote about a homeland where men do not come to the defense of women, death in childbirth is common, and male leaders regularly mock and silence women’s words. But she is determined to pursue education and tackle the cultural obstacles that threaten girls and women at home – and beyond. No sinking there!

Modest and courageous, Brianna captured the internal pain and agony of remarks made by closest friends about her skin-color. In trying to modulate her distress by focusing on ways that painful remarks in intimate relationships intensify self-doubt and contaminate her fondness for certain articles of clothing she has particularly loved, listeners began to understand the ache and pain of slurs that slip right by what matters about a person, a girl’s real identity.

The fourth reader, Lia, wrote bravely about what how she feels right here – on western Massachusetts sidewalks, shops, supermarkets, gatherings.

“Right here, I don’t belong,” she says. “The looks (of others) tell me. I’m too white to be black, too black to be white. Where do I belong? And who am I really? Student writer, artist friend, lover – strong and humble.”

Many of us have felt like strangers in our lives and hearing Lia share and transcend her process of self-discovery and enlightenment through writing reminded us all about the power of writing.

As these young women of color showed us their detailed, inquisitive, resilient tapestries of understanding that they are weaving as they grow, I found myself, about to be seventy-five, astounded and exhilarated by suddenly grasping how much has changed for girls and women during my one little lifetime. The authenticity of their voices, taking arms against familiar anguishes with new, contemporary determination, filled me with hope for the future. From this end of a full life, I began to understand that change takes time but is possible. Robert Frost was right. There will always be “miles to go before I sleep.” But we can keep moving ahead.

Reclaiming: Learning from Kuukua and her Sisters (I) | by Margot Welch

Kuukua

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe

 
Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe – Residence Director, counselor, mentor and writer at Bard College-Simon’s Rock (Berkshire Eagle: June 12, 2014) – grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Her mother, a hospice nurse, moved first to Liberia to find more work and ultimately moved to Columbus Ohio. When Kuukua was eighteen, she came to Ohio to join her mother. But, until then, she was raised by her maternal grandmother – a mulatto woman with British roots who forever lamented the fact that her daughter – Kuukua’s mother – had married an African from a very dark-skinned tribe.

“Not European enough,” Kuukua explains, in her memoir, The Coal Pot: One African Woman’s Journey to Self-Discovery. In this work, she also describes a process of “reclaiming” that began when she decided, in spite of her grandmother’s anxieties, that she has a right to cherish certain “god given attributes” – her naturally nappy hair, her beautiful “chocolate black skin,” and her wonderful African name – that were her birthright, features that helped to make her the person she was.

In post-colonial Ghana, she and all her Catholic school friends were given easy-to-pronounce Anglicized names. Today – nobody calls her “Melody Ann” any more. Growing up with self-confidence and a sense of one’s own worth is a challenge for many, the difficulties are compounded when a child is advised to change who she is. Kuukua remembers vividly.

“‘Scrub that body!’ she (her grandmother) would scream. ‘Maybe eventually some of that black will come off and you will look and act more like your Mom and me.”
And, she continues, “Little did I know then that I would grow to hate the very vein that carries that hint of British in me.”

For many reasons – social, political, economic, and psychological pressures within families and peer groups – many in our world are forced to hide essential features of their identity – their sexuality, for example, and features of physical and mental health, too often misunderstood and stigmatized.

The world is too complicated, Kuukua told me, for any of us to be spending energy hiding, or pretending we are not who we are. Ithe strength of her voice.

About seven years ago she was diagnosed with bipolar illness which, as she told me, makes a difference in who she is. Kuukua wants people to know.

“It’s important to know and to say that medications and talk therapy make a difference. My worst times are documented. I still live. And the kind of woman I am now is partly a result of struggle with an illness that is a stigma people don’t want to talk about – especially African people.It’s something that can happen – something you don’t have any control over.”

While she’s found her ‘calling,’ she says – teaching dance, cooking, writing, and supporting students in ways that help them finish school – she urges young people to trust the same kind of honest self-reflection that she’s certain will makes us strong. (496)

 

On the Bridge: Ghanaian writer leads her community | By Margot Welch, Special to Berkshires Week and the Shires of Vermont

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, residence director at Bard College  of Simon’s Rock, keeps a blog, supports students and builds connections in Great

Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, residence director at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, keeps a blog, supports students and builds connections in Great Barrington. (Photo courtesy of Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe)

On her first trip from Ghana to Columbus, Ohio, Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, working today as residence director at Bard College-Simon’s Rock, had never known such cold or seen snow. Raised in a suburb of Accra — lush, green, warm year round, with yards full of fruit trees — she had never been to America.

“Big trees were bowed down with ice,” she said. “And Columbus was so different in so many ways — organized, with street names, and so many white people! At home, churches are everywhere, right next to houses, and worship is active — everyone singing, dancing, hugging, shouting and praying together.”

She came to the U.S. to pursue education.

“By the time I was 18,” she said, “I understood that education was what gave people access to money, power and control. At Ohio Dominican College, I took human resource courses. But I’d always loved writing and ended up majoring in English.”

Yomekpe grew up an ardent, literal believer in the Roman Catholic faith. After college, she enrolled in a master’s program in theology at the University of Dayton and began working in Student Affairs as graduate assistant in campus ministry during her first year there. But her journey took a new turn.

“I believed some texts were sacred, written by God, and not to be questioned. And I was a Bible Quiz champion — even went to national competitions,” she said. “We were looking at faith through many lenses. There were gospels I’d never known about, which had been excluded from the Bible. It was unbalancing. I decided to leave graduate school.”

A professor who knew her convinced Yomekpe to continue her studies. She completed her English master’s degree with an emphasis on postcolonial and adolescent literature, studying in Morocco for a semester. And as assistant to the English department chair, she attended an international writer’s conference in Egypt, where she met and heard powerful voices of African women writers.

“Though I did not yet feel I was a writer,” she said, “I started believing I could be part of something important — something bigger than myself.”

Student Affairs took her next to work as the first black rector at the University of Notre Dame. It was gratifying to deliver a range of important supports, advocacy and counseling services for all the students, she said, and she started new programs, providing health information to sexually active young people, organizing an African dance group and offering Bible study for gay and lesbian students who were quietly struggling to align belief in the Bible with their 21st-century identities.

She had found her calling: To help young people discover themselves safely while they learn about the world and move toward adulthood.

From Indiana she journeyed west to complete a master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union in pastoral counseling and psychology, with certificates in women’s and LGBT studies, before beginning another master’s program for an MFA in writing at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Her thesis is a memoir, “The Coal Pot: One African Woman’s Journey to Self-Discovery.”

When a Student Affairs opportunity at Bard College Simon’s Rock came along, she traveled east. Here, in addition to counseling and advocacy, she has taught African dance and cooking and started a writing group for girls who, like her, are finding their own authentic, integrative voices. For students of color, she said, Great Barrington is conspicuously white.

“Light-skinned or bi-racial people seem more easily accepted around here, but there aren’t many of us dark ones,” she said. “People usually stare, and it can feel lonely: We wave when we see each other. In Ghana, I never thought about being black — only about the reality of being a woman in a world where men have power and control. A special feature of my calling is for students of color to know that people who look like them and me can accomplish, succeed and overcome any obstacle.”

Now securely identifying herself as a writer — memoirist, essayist and writer of social commentary — she has a blog, “Musings of an African Woman” (ewurabaempe.wordpress.com). She is working in a “secular setting,” enjoying the challenge of developing non-religious ways to supporting students’ spiritual growth.

“In many ways this job is what I dreamed of doing when I began studying theology,” she said, “because it means working in a communal setting like a village where, together, we are all helping to raise children as responsible adults who find ways to do what they themselves are called to do.”