by Mary O’Brien Guerrero, Owner of El Taller and Book Store and Café
“Lawrence is like a big book of history.” —Joel Tshimbolonga, sixth grade student from Rising Loaves
In a quiet red brick compound on the corner of Essex and Union Streets in the heart of Lawrence, students attend the Bread Loaf Middle School Summer Program now known as Rising Loaves. Within the high brick walls of the Lawrence History Center are offices where the mill owners paid the Essex Company for the land and rights to the water, a blacksmith shop, a stable, and a warehouse. Inconspicuously located in the shadow of the Everett Mill and surrounded by the bustle of small businesses both new and old, students gather in the stable-turned-classroom to re-envision their city. They look closely at the historical maps and learn how the Essex Company planned, designed, and created an industrial city by first building a dam to harness the water power (and for our benefit they kept meticulous records throughout the whole process). Fourth, fifth and sixth graders take three weeks out of their summer to look at historical photos and hear the stories of the people who worked in the mills. Students visit the sites of this history like archaeologists doing field studies. They look at the buildings, bridges, and canal from multiple perspectives to make a connection to the past and connect that past with the Lawrence of today.
Rising Loaves addresses the fact that our students must look closely at their community, at their lives, and at the history of this city in order to combat the negative narratives put forth in the media. The conversation I wrote about in the Bread Loaf article “The Face of Lawrence: Integrating Photography and Writing” with sixth grade boys over 15 years ago continues to be the reason I believe this work is necessary. Since that Bread Loaf article was published, immigrants continue to arrive; small bodega shops open, and media coverage of the city has continued to spiral out of control. In 2011 the state took over the schools, denying local public input to education. In 2012 the Boston Magazine published an article calling Lawrence the “City of the Damned” with the byline “Crime is soaring, schools are failing, government has lost control, and Lawrence, the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts, has never been in worse shape.”
The power dynamics continue to worsen as people are unheard, and a perception takes over as the truth. What has remained the same is the need for programs that allow our students to look closely at their own community, their city, and its history and to form their own stories of our diverse lives. As immigrants, and sons and daughters of immigrants, their struggles might be viewed as a language barrier, a cultural barrier, or an economic barrier, but it is also a narrative barrier. If a negative narrative becomes the accepted perception, then that is what gets internalized.
In well-off communities, the positive narratives of professional, hard-working people with economic and civic successes aligns with the hopes and dreams of the citizens. But in poorer immigrant neighborhoods labeled minority, there is a disconnect between the narrative and the hopes and dreams of the citizens. In these cases there is a greater need to challenge students to look closely and document the world around them, a world most often directly in opposition to the negative narrative accepted as truth by so many. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, spoke about this disconnect in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” She explains that when only one aspect of a group of people is known, the perception becomes that all the people are that way. The multiplicity of the people is forgotten. In the case of Lawrence, if we allow our students to believe the single story about their own community, there is the risk that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Through the voices and images of our youth and students, the narrative can be taken back. The story can become diverse. Poet Martín Espada in a recent trip to Lawrence to offer a workshop spoke to the youth and told them that it is the poet’s job to make the invisible visible. In Lawrence our students are the poets.
“Lawrence means everything to me from the fall of the Pemberton Mill of 1860 to the old papoose before the fire department was created. What I like about Lawrence is the feeling it gives me. My family lives in Lawrence.” Mark Rahi, sixth grade student from Rising Loaves
How I Write
By Ninive Matos
I write when I’m mad.
I write because I just feel like expressing my thought or feeling into my notebook.
I write by using pencil mostly just in case I make a mistake but, I would use pen too.
I write at my desk with a dim light.
Sometimes I write in my car even though I’m not supposed to but, writing for me is so addicting that’s why I chose to go to an awesome program called Bread Loaf.
Writing to me is life.