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Thinking of community

Today, my mother Alexa Williams would have turned 90 years old. Four days ago, she died peacefully in her sleep. As I find myself reflecting on her, I am struck by how well her life fits into what I had wanted to write about today: how we think of community.

It would cost a fortune for an obituary that listed all of Mom’s civic and church activities. She was my Girl Scouts leader and offered our basement for glittered fun and fellowship. Several years later, the basement was taken over by a large loom. One day a week, women would gather around the loom to needlepoint one of the three tapestries that would hang in the sanctuary of Pullen Memorial Church. As a writer, she researched the topic of women’s organizations and their role in society for Albert Coates, founder of the Institute (School) of Government. For decades, she served as an art docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She was in her 80s when she led my son David’s fourth grade class on a tour. Her hearing wasn’t great by then so it led to some rather unusual exchanges about art with the class but they clearly enjoyed it. And so did she. As a resident in the Reminiscence unit at Brighton Gardens, she climbed on the bus to go to the Salvation Army to deliver sandwiches the residents had made. Claire Severt, Reminiscence coordinator, explained to me that residents like to find ways to continue their volunteer work.

So what does this have to do with schools and community? Plenty. To make the connection, here’s another story. 

Around the time of World War I, it became extremely important for the public to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Food supplies were scarce. And so teachers took on the role of creating and leading school canning clubs. Funds allowed teachers to work with these clubs while school was out of session. There was the Homemakers Club for blacks and the Tomato Club for whites – very similar except the Homemakers canned a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. This was so important that the state superintendent reported in the biennial report to the General Assembly on the progress in holding these clubs. The report of 1914-15 and 1915-16 offered the following production statistics for Homemaker Clubs: 

 

1913-14

1914-15

1915-16

Tomatoes canned, qts. standard

 

7,466

46,406.5

42,153

Beans, corn, and other vegetables canned

 

6,790

22,937.50

78,341.5

Fruits canned, apples, pears and peaches, etc.

 

17,197

59,217

105,963

 

A philanthropic fund, the Jeanes Fund, allowed school districts to hire “Jeanes” teachers to improve schooling opportunities and communities for blacks.

Rather extraordinary results, aren’t they? To take on this role in the community took a special kind of person. A philanthropic fund, the Jeanes Fund, allowed school districts to hire “Jeanes” teachers to improve schooling opportunities and communities for blacks. Homemaker Clubs was one of the many activities of Jeanes teachers. An early report described the traits needed to be successful Jeanes teacher: “Patience and faith, tact, kindliness, good humour, a humility that shows itself in her willingness to learn from others, and a quiet tenacity of purposes that overcomes all difficulties.”

carrie-jordan
Carrie Jordan

Jeanes teachers had a remarkable role in North Carolina public schools – well beyond canning and well beyond what I can say in this article. But as one important example, Jeanes teachers rallied communities to seek funding from the Rosenwald Foundation for schools for blacks that would be part of the public school system. Carrie T. Jordan, a Jeanes teacher in Durham, commented about her community meetings: “The meetings held in this connection served a dual purpose, securing new buildings and giving opportunity to stress important matters pertaining to education and home making.” North Carolina had more Jeanes teachers than any other state besides Virginia. North Carolina built more Rosenwald Schools than any other state. We can thank our Jeanes teachers for that.

So let’s fast forward to now. With the particulars of canning, it is now a part of the “Do It Yourself” (DIY) movement. Just google canning to get a sense of how big this is. While some may continue to do it for efficiency and economy, DIY also speaks to a perspective – a tiredness with commercialism – perhaps an impatience with bureaucracy – that has much broader implications. And it fits with societal trends of instead of joining a club, just go home and do it yourself. 

And what about the role of teachers? We now insist on a focus on student learning that is captured through tests that measure student achievement. We’ve collectively said you can’t expect schools to be everything to everybody. If schools are going to raise student achievement, they can’t be distracted by these other things. 

But this raises a question of where these other things occur and the role of schools in their community. Is it time for the next wave of thinking about communities? Are public schools the hub of their community? If so, what does this look like? What would a modern-day Jeanes teacher look like? Or, will communities exist – or not – outside of the schools while public education has a singular focus on student achievement?

Their lives suggest that we each have an obligation to consider our connection to our community. That perhaps it is time to shift from a do it yourself (DIY) to a do it together (DIT) movement.

In reflecting on the lives of people like Alexa Williams and Carrie Jordan, I believe they have messages for us. Their lives suggest that we each have an obligation to consider our connection to our community. That perhaps it is time to shift from a do it yourself (DIY) to a do it together (DIT) movement. And to truly meet the needs of children, maybe we need to consider the needs of their community, in and out of the public school building.

As a part of this column, I’ll explore these questions of community and public education in the 21st century. And welcome you – as a part of the EdNC community – to join in. 

And to Mom, happy birthday and thanks for a life well lived.

 

Resources:

Persistence and Sacrifice: Durham County’s African American Community & Durham’s Jeanes Teachers Build Community and Schools, 1900-1930, Joanne Abel, Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies Thesis, Duke University (2009).

Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina for the Scholastic Years 1914-1915 and 1915-1916 (J.Y. Joyner State Superintendent, Report of State Agent of Negro Rural Schools for North Carolina, N.C. Newbold).

Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney practicing in the field of education law since 1991. She currently serves as co-founder and president of the Innovation Project.