Open Focus: Sojourner Truth School a support for social justice movement

  • DAVIS

For the Recorder
Published: 9/9/2019 1:07:08 AM

“MEKadem, MEKadem, MEKadem,” clattered the train as the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian was returning from visiting her son in Austin that January.

They’d marched together that Jan. 17, as part of a nationwide demonstration responding to the 2017 presidential inauguration. That had followed her new year’s retirement after a dozen years as Haydenville Congregational Church pastor, an ending she’d announced in the summer of 2016. At the time, like many progressives, Ayvazian was certain Hillary Clinton would be elected. She became “completely shattered” by the election outcome and that she’d be leaving a church community that “felt like my home, my rock, my people.”

On route to Texas, “as desperate and despairing as I get,” Ayvazian prayed for a sign from God for how she would deal with the new political reality. She’d received what felt like divine intervention before, but the retired minister was still praying “What am I supposed to do?” as Amtrak carried her northward days later.

“MEKadem, MEKadem, MEKadem” over the tracks.

Somewhere around Cleveland, she felt God had given her “a word,” but she didn’t know what it meant: “Academy.”

It wasn’t until after arriving home days later, on Jan. 27, that “I got a download from God:” Set up Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership to offer free classes up and down the Pioneer Valley to support the movement for social justice. Truth School, she felt, could generate a sense of hope, to help people stand together through what was likely to be difficult days ahead.

Then 22 close friends up and down the valley convinced Ayvazian to go ahead and immediately set up a “pop-up” school in five cities, Springfield to Greenfield, beginning just 14 weeks later with a thin catalog of 32 courses.

A seventh series of one-evening classes launched last Thursday (Sept. 5) at Second Congregational Church here, one of 38 free courses offered in Greenfield, Northampton, Easthampton, Holyoke and Springfield.

The semester includes three additional courses in Greenfield, including a Sept. 14 session led by Madeline Peters on becoming aware of what it’s like to have a disability. Others include a Nov. 10 class, “Infighting on the Left,” to promote understanding among factions that could threaten the ability to bring about social change.

On the afternoon of Dec. 8, Irene “Strong Oak” Lefebvre, executive director and co-founder of the Visioning B.E.A.R. Circle Intertribal Coalition, will repeat her Sept. 5 course on “Restorative Practices Based on Indigenous Values.”

As the Franklin County Fair parade marched by, Lefebvre introduced 13 people to a Sacred Circle exercise, listening to each other’s stories of how we harm one another when our community circles break down. She described these restorative justice sessions toward healing flow out of native peoples’ traditional emphasis on empathy, humility, legality and the need for balance.

Each of the 38 courses — some with multiple parts — is offered free at sites that are fully accessible and on bus lines. Anyone can register for as many free classes as they’d like on the TruthSchool.org website.

“We are living in dire and frightening times (when) values that many Americans hold dear are threatened daily and the foundations of our very democracy are at risk,” says the seventh catalog. “People who believe in peace, justice, fairness, inclusion, Earth stewardship, the civil rights of marginalized groups, solidarity with those who are targeted and welcoming refugees must rise with strength and power to effect real change.”

The school, named for 19th-century Abolitionist leader and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, offers participatory courses in building skills like public speaking, writing editorial submissions for newspapers and overall empowerment, says Ayvazian, the school’s unpaid director, who’s assisted by part-time paid staffers, a steering committee, advisory committee and volunteers.

Working with a $92,000 annual budget supported by local and regional foundations, donations and fundraising events, the school also offers classes in libraries, houses of worship, senior centers and other buildings that present inspirational messages from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., author James Baldwin and others.

With help from singer Evelyn Harris, classes convey how to give voice to moving the world toward justice. They teach ways to effect change, about how to organize and involve volunteers and how to run meetings. They teach about the role of spiritual faith in social activism, about talking with children about social justice and even ways to provide self-care through movement for exhausted activists.

Those classes work across subject areas, so that immigrant-rights and climate activists sit next to people working to end gun violence and curb nuclear weapons.

“We break down silos,” Ayvazian says. People travel to and network across communities they may not have ever visited in the Pioneer Valley. The 368 classes to date average about a dozen participants but have been as large in attendance as 42, ranging in age from teens to those in their 80s.

This session, Truth School has committed to have every class led or co-led by a “person of color,” says Ayvazian, who’s been approached by organizers in Boston neighborhoods, in Hartford, Conn., Brattleboro, Vt. and Albany, N.Y. about creating similar efforts there.

If “Truth School” sounds a bit self-righteous, Avayzian says this truly is a school in the model of Freedom Schools that flourished in the South during the 1960s civil rights movement to train African-Americans in achieving social, political and economic equality. They do truly teach skills, and she readily admits, “Yes we are preaching to the choir. And the choir needs rehearsing. And we have new people coming in, putting their toe into the water. We have people in every class who are wildly diverse, who tell us they’ve never done anything like this before.

“Yes, we are preaching to the choir,” Ayvazian repeats. “And the choir needs to keep singing.”

Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is richie@richiedavis.net.



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