Instant history
An artist’s rendering of the MILES (Mobile Interactive Literary Exhibition Space), which will be featured and framed-out at the Tiny House Fest Vermont in Brattleboro on Sept. 3.

Instant history

A creative collaboration results in a $150,000 grant to chronicle Brattleboro’s publishing and literary history

BRATTLEBORO — Everyone said there wasn't enough time.

“I am always on the lookout for ways to benefit the arts in our town,” says Lissa Weinmann, co-owner of 118 Elliott, a fully-accessible multipurpose space for arts and education in Brattleboro.

She first heard of a possible grant on “Creating Humanities Communities” from the National Endowment for the Humanities at the very beginning of this year, when she attended a conference about arts funding in upstate Vermont.

“I realized this was big news, yet no one from Brattleboro was at the conference,” Weinmann says. “So I immediately decided to email around 40 local arts and education groups to make them aware of this resource and invite them to forge a mutual project that would benefit us all.”

Weinmann soon heard from a lot of pessimists who informed her that getting any workable grant that fast was impossible.

Since the conference had been in early January, and the grant had to be submitted on Feb. 15, the consensus opinion was that this required too short a time-table to make it happen.

Yet against all odds, she encouraged several major nonprofits in Brattleboro to collaborate to produce a polished grant in that limited amount of time.

And it succeeded.

Earlier this month, The National Endowment for the Humanities chose Brattleboro as the site for a new $150,000 multi-year “Creating Humanities Communities” matching grant to illuminate and share greater Brattleboro area's rich history of words - stories, literature, publishing, printing - with a goal of cultivating a greater sense of place for those who live, work, play, and raise families here, as well as to attract and inform visitors.

'Ridiculously short' turnaround

“Lissa had sent an email about the grant to the Dean of Graduate Studies at Marlboro College, which he forwarded on to me,” says William Edelglass, professor of philosophy at Marlboro College. “I thought the turnaround time on such a proposal was ridiculously short, so I immediately deleted the message. I have 2 1/2-year-old twins to take care of, and I simply did not feel I had the time to do the grant justice.”

However, Edelglass soon found himself musing on the possibilities for the grant addressing one of his major concerns: place-based education.

As Edelglass writes in his essay, Philosophy and Place-Based Pedagogies, place-based education “seeks to overcome the divide marked by classroom walls through grounding learning in lived experience via the exploration of local cultural studies, nature studies, real-world problem solving in the community, internships and entrepreneurial opportunities, and induction into community decision-making processes.”

“Brattleboro has an amazing, interesting history that has connections with language, some oral, some written down,” explains Edelglass. “I thought it would be cool to take school kids nine months at a time to participate in place and history through words.”

Just as the possibilities of the project began bubbling in his head, Edelglass learned that another nonprofit, Write Action, had for a long time wanted to do a book on the local publishing history of the Brattleboro area.

“So I thought it a good idea to mix both concepts and do history as connected to the written word,” Edelglass says.

With input from several local arts and history nonprofits, - and working with Weinmann - Edelglass spearheaded a grant entitled Peoples, Places, and the History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont, which sets out a three-year plan to build community through collaborative activities including creating audio tours linked to key places in and around Brattleboro, exhibitions, and a book on the rich and little-known printing and publishing history of the area.

Core institutions

Four core institutions - Marlboro College, the Brattleboro Literary Festival, the Brattleboro Historical Society, and Write Action - submitted the winning grant, which will support local people, including students of all ages, and any group that wants to be a research “pod” to explore specific places in Brattleboro and its surrounding rural communities.

These institutions are currently joined in support of the project by Brooks Memorial Library, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, the River Gallery School of Art, the Landmark Trust and The Commons, among several others, all of whom wrote letters of support for the project.

As Edelglass elaborates in the opening to the grant proposal, “The Peoples, Places, and the History of the Written Word in Brattleboro, Vermont project sets out to build community through collaborative humanities activities. Four local institutions, including a small liberal arts college, and several supporting partners, will lead multigenerational community members and classrooms with varied expertise to research, organize, and make public the history of the written word in Brattleboro and its surrounding rural communities.

“The research will be focused on particular places, and then shared via audio recordings and plaques for walking, biking, and driving tours, as well as in handmade books, curricular materials for local schools, a website, an exhibition, and lectures and other public events.

“These materials will bring to light the writings and history of less documented groups, including Abenakis, African-Americans, and women, as well as homesteaders, spiritualists, and abolitionists, in addition to more prominent local authors such as Rudyard Kipling and Saul Bellow. The collaborative research, public events, and tours will enable a more rooted connection to the history and places we share as a community today.”

“The Project really builds on this concept of place-based learning by linking physical places to their history,” Edelglass says.

Scholars to classrooms

Edelglass says Marlboro's SPARK teacher training program will help facilitate classroom work in conjunction with the WSESU school district: “We will bring scholars to classrooms who will engage students in exploring the places through a variety of humanities lenses - philosophy, history, art, sociology and offering research, cartography and other skills - and raise questions about the meaning of the history of these places that will be addressed in handmade books, audio pods, and other media.”

Edelglass believes the secret to their proposal's success was the ability, for which he mostly credits Weinmann, to encourage a consortium of nonprofits to collaborate.

“Working toward the 'Creating Humanities Communities' grant inspired an ambitious vision among groups who hadn't engaged in such mutually beneficial cooperation and planning together before,” Weinmann says. “The NEH match is an important vote of confidence; it gives us a leg up to raise the additional funds needed to ensure everyone can share the sense of pride and connection to Brattleboro this project will certainly cultivate.”

“The Brattleboro area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its history of book publishing, printing, literature and the like, but few people who live here, much less outsiders, appreciate this history,” said Jerry Carbone, former director of Brooks Memorial Library and member of the Brattleboro Literary Festival Authors' Committee. “This project will bring these facts to the fore in an entertaining and creative way that aims to involve the whole community over time.”

“Lit Fest attendees always have questions about the town and its history,” said Sandy Rouse, the executive director of the Literary Festival. “The project helps create programming to address this visitor interest while building on the Lit Fest's efforts to reach deeper into our community to celebrate the power of words, particularly working more with local schools to bring in the children and their families.

“We will show that books, writing, and the rich history of all things literary in this town is something everyone shares and should be proud of.”

A larger context

Arlene Distler of Write Action said her group “has been talking about creating a book about the printing and publishing history of Brattleboro for a long time. This project and collaboration is giving us the larger community context, support, and momentum that will help us make this idea a reality.”

Edelglass is quick to point out that this consortium isn't re-inventing the wheel, and much of the work they are pursuing has already been happening in Brattleboro.

“The Brattleboro Historical Society has been working with our students on over 100 podcasts about the history of our area,” said Joe Rivers, a social studies teacher at Brattleboro Area Middle School.

Also a Historical Society board member, Rivers said his students will help with the Lucy Terry exhibit. A freed slave who lived in Guilford in the late 1700s with her husband, Abijah Prince, she is considered the first African-American poet in America.

Terry will be the first exhibit to appear in MILES, the acronym for Mobile Interactive Literary Exhibition Space, which will be featured and framed out at the Tiny House Fest Vermont in Brattleboro on Sept. 3.

“The project will help us build upon and share that work with a larger audience and instill an appreciation of how this valley's past has shaped our understanding of community,” Rivers said.

In the end, the research of “Peoples, Places, and the History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont” will be shared via audio recordings and plaques for walking, biking, and driving tours, as well as in handmade books, curricular materials for local schools, a special page on the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance's website, an exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, lectures, and other public events which will grow around the Brattleboro Literary Festival and other annual events.

“The goal of this grant is to reach people who often are missed when art and history groups do outreach,” Edelglass explains. “You might say we are trying to connect with Trump voters, so that they and their kids in school will understand the importance of the heritage of the place where they live.”

Weinmann elaborates, “We want to share with our schoolchildren a sense of pride and connection by showing an understanding of the remarkable place our town is.”

Edelglass adds, “If any group has a particular place they wish to explore, they can propose to join in this endeavor. One person needs to be responsible, and he or she will get support from other groups. Money will be available for things like websites and picnics for the families involved.”

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