When I think about the East Side Freedom Library I think about dirt. More specifically, about dirt and community and the similar ways they are structured and how those structures determine the kind of life they can each support.
Soil is composed of aggregates, or clusters, of sand and clay. These are not nutritious. Plants can’t absorb and utilize them. On their surfaces, however, they hold the nutrients that plants feed on. Simple grains of sand provide very little such storage space. Complex soil clusters provide many surfaces and make very good pantries. Complex soil also provides spaces for storage and passage of water and for air to circulate and soil organisms to live, feed and travel.
The complexity of the soil structure determines how much of a nutrient load it can offer to the roots of plants. This is called its Exchange Capacity. When you see a vibrant forest ecosystem teeming with life you are seeing the measure of its Exchange Capacity.
The Nutrients of a Community are its Stories. These are the composted histories of past generations-in-place and the particles from distant stories brought in on the clothing and under the fingernails of new arrivals.
The resilience of a Community is the product of its exchange capacity. A community with barber shops and hairdressers, taxis and bakeries, bookstores and theater groups, basketball courts and street corner performers, community organizations, schools, dance halls and libraries, radio stations and community gardens can support the transmission of a great flow of stories from generation to generation, from workplace to street and from family to family.
A community with only a Walmart and three liquor stores or where hand-held devices and TV screens have replaced eye contact, has a diminished exchange capacity. It has a degraded capacity for reflection, healthy self-understanding, community memory, healing, solidarity and organizing. It becomes subject to cultural erosion, its stories washed out of the soil, removed from the narrative nutrient cycle. Its people are left vulnerable to the influx of cultural toxins and the many forms of self medication we grasp at to fill the void that truthful narratives should fill.
The East Side Freedom Library will be a reservoir and generator of exchange capacity for the immediate and broader community. Here the nutrients of the deep soil will be drawn to the surface to meet the oxygen of global air currents. Treasure troves of history and literature will be exposed to the one force able to give them life – the eyes of young people.
The landscapes we carry inside, our mountainsides and empty lots, our prison yards and factory ships, village wells and reservation gymns will mingle as stories in the common air of these rooms. They will circle each other, combine and be transformed, like minerals taken up by the roots of plants, into combinations that can be absorbed and utilized and ultimately become the soil for future generations.
No one can make community happen, or organizing emerge or generations connect but if you provide the conditions they will happen.
I am here to honor and thank Beth and Peter for taking up the sacred calling of soil keepers. And to the people you’ve drawn around yourselves who answered your call I also extend congratulations and gratitude. And especially to the unknown many that will pour into this space and make it theirs, saturating the walls with the cadences of their voices filling the air with the textures and colors of their stories.
This is good.
Presented at the dedication of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, 6/17/14