Coming of Age in Rural America, Without Health Care

I don’t think any position I’m going to get out of college will come with health insurance. I don’t know a single friend from college who has a job like that. A sick workforce only intensifies an already sick economy. It’s hard to work when you can’t afford eyeglasses for your astigmatism, dental work for your rotting teeth, or medicine for pneumonia. We’re constantly being told we are the future of the country, but we’re starting out a step behind.

As Congress continues to craft health care legislation, and the ideological arguments and talking points persist everywhere from the cable networks down to the local coffee shop, I think that we would be well-advised to hear this essay by Brittany Hunsaker recently broadcast on NPR.
The piece was produced by Ms. Hunsaker (in conjunction with Youth Radio) while she was interning at The Appalacian Media Institute, an organization in partnership with Appalshop that gives young people the opportunity “to use video cameras and audio equipment to document the unique traditions and complex issues of their mountain communities.” The AMI site offers visitors a number of videos and audio pieces on a diverse range of subjects.

A Minnesota Minute and Carl Gawboy

image by Carl Gawboy

The Blandin Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting rural Minnesota, created a series of one-minute television spots last year to commemorate the state’s 150th birthday and to celebrate its natural history. These pieces were produced in conjunction with The Bell Museum of Natural History and ran on local television stations during the prime-time viewing hours. The Minnesota Minute series was recently recognized with a regional Emmy Award.

These two organizations sponsor this site for the series, from which all 13 Minutes can be viewed and enjoyed. Below, Minnesota Minute features Carl Gawboy, a painter and a member of the Bois Fort Band of the Minnesota Ojibwe.
The excellent Minnesota Artists site offers both a slideshow and an interview with Mr. Gawboy. Here’s interviewer Suzanne Szucs introducing the artist:

And then there’s Carl Gawboy. Son of a Finnish mother and Ojibwe father (his parents fell in love over books), Gawboy grew up the youngest of 8 children in Ely where his mother inherited a farm. Trilingual in his youth (English, Finnish, Ojibwe) Gawboy began to draw before he could walk and knew he wanted to be a professional artist when he was four. His upbringing was “rural and woodsy” although he went to a “modern” school where he studied “interesting” things. An epiphany came when harvesting rice – “it was as interesting as it gets and my most Indian of experiences.” He decided his work needed to use his own experiences to tell the stories of his heritage. His images would emphasize the everyday experiences of Indians, not dwell upon romantic notions of an idealized people.

“Everything that I paint I actually did or saw… sometimes what I’ll do is move it back in time. It’s something that I have a part in or would try to do it so that I would know what it was like. These things [like getting together a group of students to make a birch bark canoe] gave me insights that I don’t think other people got. My work shows the culture and landscape of the region.”

Minnesota Public Radio also offers in its Voices of Minnesota series a visit with Carl Gawboy and Helen Blue-Redner, the former chairwoman of the Upper Sioux Community.

Consuela Lee and the Snow Hill Institute

image by Bill Hackwell

Bruce Weber in the New York Times reported today on the passing of Consuela Lee, the jazz pianist and music professor who returned to her hometown of Snow Hill, Alabama in 1970’s to revive the Snow Hill Institute, a ground-breaking school for rural African Americans created by her grandfather William J. Edwards. Here’s Alexander Cockburn describing the Institute’s inception in a 2001 article in the New York Press:

On the first day of 1889, a shy young black man called William James Edwards completed his three-day, 90-mile walk from Snow Hill to enlist in Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He walked with a limp, the souvenir of scrofula that had seen him only able to crawl as a boy, enduring without anesthetic Dr. Keyser’s periodic though ultimately successful assaults with a knife on the infected bone tissue on his heel and elbow.

Three years later the young man who’d never seen a kitchen knife and fork, and who’d slept all his life on the dirt floor of a one-room shack, graduated second in his class. He was confident and determined to return to Snow Hill and open an institute on the Booker T. Washington model. There were more than 400,000 black people in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1870, freed from slavery and mostly facing the new oppression of sharecropping, which seasoned nominal freedom with grinding toil and constant indebtedness, the lynch mob ready to chasten any impertinence with whip or noose.

Ahead of his time, Edwards reckoned one of the big problems of Southern agriculture was the destruction of the topsoil by greed and ignorance. “These waste places,” he wrote in his 1918 memoir Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt, “can be reclaimed and the gutted hills made to blossom, only by giving the Negro a common education, combined with religious, moral and industrial training and the opportunity to at least own his home, if not the land he cultivates. The Negro must be taught to believe that the farmer can become prosperous and independent; that he can own his home and educate his children in the country. If he can, and he can be taught these things, in less than ten years, every available farm in the rural South will be occupied.”

Edwards started the Snow Hill Institute in the mid-1890s in a one-room cabin with one teacher, three students and 50 cents in capital. By 1918 the school boasted 24 buildings, between 300 and 400 students learning 14 trades and assets including 1940 acres of land valued at $125,000 and deeded to a board of trustees.

By the time Consuela Lee returned to Snow Hill in 1979, the Institute had been closed for six years.  Her grandfather’s vision of educating a community of independent farmers had met with the realities both of the region and the agriculture industry: as Cockburn cites, the 68 percent of Alabamans engaging in farm-related work in 1900 had significantly decreased, landing at 2 percent by the final year of the same century. Her home-region of Alabama stood as one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country.
Ms. Lee’s new venture, the Springtree/Snowhill Institute, served as a performing arts school for local youth, with appearances by artists such as Max Roach, Odetta and Spike Lee (her nephew). Unfortunately, the Institute closed in 2003; Wikipedia reports that only eight of the original 24 buildings remain, though the University of Alabama’s School of Architecture is involved in rebuilding portions of the campus. 
The Consuela Lee Foundation for Music Education offers a wealth of information on the Institute and Ms. Lee’s life, as well as links to her piano recordings and the work of William J. Edwards. They are currently completing a documentary, Honoring Ms. Lee. Here’s the preview: