Monthly Archives: September 2010

Orphan Train Riders

Through stage productions, video and countless personal reflections most of us know something about the experiences of the Orphan Train Riders.  Beginning in 1854 and continuing until 1929  as many as 200,000 children were put on West-bound trains where they were sent to live – with mixed results – with new families in new homes.  The stories of these children, well recorded in numerous reports, are compelling.  Their descendents are estimated at over 2,000,000.

Thanks to committed individuals including an indefatigable Orphan Train Rider, Sister Justina Bieganek, OSF, the stories of Minnesota’s orphan train children are reflected, recorded and retold with love and care.  And each fall Orphan Train Riders and their descendents gather at the St. Francis Center in Little Falls, Minnesota, to remember.  Midst hugs, tears, laughs, scrapbooks, performance and good food, the stories unfold in a warm and wonderful celebration of tough times, good times, lives lived and survival.

One good story begins in 1913 when a 22 month baby arrived in Avon, Minnesota on the Orphan Train where she was met by John and Mary Bieganet who knew her only as child No 41.  The little girl was given the name Edith Peterson.  That little girl, now a nonagenarian, picks up the story.  “In 1929,” she notes, “two good things happened — the Orphan Train stopped and I entered the Convent.”  To be sure, in 1929 the young Edith Peterson joined the Sisters of St. Francis Little Falls where she took the name Sister Justina.

Among her many commitments over the past decades Sister Justina has played a key role in keeping the stories of the Orphan Train Riders alive.  In July 1861 Minnesota was the first state to carry out a gathering of Orphan Train Riders.  It all started when two Orphan Train Riders from North Dakota discovered their common heritage.  They decided that “if there are two of us, how many more shells in the ocean can we find?”   Starting with an ad in area newspapers, the region’s Orphan Train Riders met, reached out, and created a tradition that continues today with an annual gathering at the Franciscan Center in Little Falls.

This year, Sister Justina and her colleagues share the day with special relish. On Saturday, October 2, 2010, families, friends and interested persons (including “interested persons” Suzanne Mahmoodi and me) will gather for the 50th Celebration of Orphan Train Riders of New York (the generic name for the Riders groups).  A special feature of this year’s reunion is presentation of The Story of the Orphan Train, a one-woman show created by professional actress Pippa White of One’s Company Productions.

Impossible as it is to capture the spirit of the reunion, there are many ways to share the story.  Sister Justina herself is profiled in print and has created a 40-minute DVD in which she shares her experience of riding the Orphan Train from New York to central Minnesota.  Information about that video is available through the Sisters of St. Francis (info@fslf.org).   Among the several websites devoted to the Orphan Train Riders are many that are state-specific,  maps, statistics, personal reflections, contacts and more.  There is also a great website offering quick links to scores of educational resources and projects.

The story of the Orphan Train Riders offers a close and clear reminder of our relatively recent history rich with challenges, choices and consequences.  Long-time historian of Minnesota’s Orphan Train Riders Renee Wendinger has created an excellent up-to-date collection of articles by and about the Orphan Train Riders replete with original newspaper clippings, details re. the railroad depots, geograhic distribution and more   For a list of Minnesota’s Orphan Train Riders, check here.  Many thanks to Sister Justina and to the many Orphan Train Riders and their progeny who tell the stories, whether replete with pain or happy memories, stories so far and yet so near.

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Minnesota Owns Sherlock Holmes

The Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries are legendary.  As the world’s largest collection of material related to Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the collection and its curators have hosted scores of local, national and even international gatherings of Sherlockians.  The public will have a chance to glimpse a good share of the 50,000 items that comprise the exhibit in the weeks to come.   The Spirits of Sherlock Holmes exhibit is open in the Elmer L. Andersen Gallery through October 15.

Emphasis of the exhibit is on exploration of the “many meanings of the word ‘spirits’ and how they relate to Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Victorian Era.  The exhibit includes a snippet of “what Sherlockians find pleasurable”, a bit of whimsy, a glimpse at the work of Conan Doyle in the cause of Spiritualism and much more.

If you haven’t spent time with “e” and his creator on the banks now’s the opportunity.  If you’re a committed Sherlockian, you can’t spend enough hours plumbing the depths of this amazing collection of Sherlockiana on the Mississippi.  Plan to spend some serious time immersing yourself in the stories, the era, and the life of the author and his times.

The exhibit is free and open to the public.

International Right to Know Day

Though you may not read or hear much about International Right to Know Day on September 28, 2010, the astounding fact is that NGO’s, press groups and others in over forty nations worldwide will be taking a moment to celebrate the essential, if implicit, human right.  Since its inception in 2002 the goal of RTK Day has been to raise global awareness of individuals’ right to access government information and to promote access to information as a fundamental human right.

The underlying principles echoed throughout the celebration of RTK Day are that public interest takes precedence over secrecy and that public bodies play a proactive role as vehicles of public access.  Though transparency has become a buzz word at every level of government, organizations and advocates who are truly concerned might well take a collective deep breath and review the reality.  For advocates laboring in the local vineyard there is strength to be found in the fact that committed colleagues in a host of nations are making waves and even progress.  While Canada celebrates International RTK – and the right itself – with great gusto other nations ranging from Bulgaria to China to Nigeria believe, work and are taking concrete steps to promote the right to know as a basic human right.

One example of work in progress is the extensive draft report currently being circulated for discussion throughout Europe.   Access Info Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation, in collaboration with Open Society Institute Information Program, are holding a “public consultation” on open government data and the right of access to information based on that document that bears the working title Beyond Access. The draft report assesses the current status of open government data and the right to reuse, offering a current and inclusive review of movements, examples and comments on future directions.  It’s worth a look.

FOI Advocates offers an excellent mix of ideas of ways that individuals and organizations of virtually every stripe can celebrate RTK Day 2010 – it’s specific, thought-generating and very useful.  It’s not too late to turn out a letter to the editor, an exhibit or a quick self-assessment of what your or your organization is doing to promote – or inhibit – access.

Family History Fair

Autumn is the right time to locate the cold weather gear, check the insulation, dust off the bookshelves and focus on family.  The Family History Fair, Saturday, October 23, at Minneapolis Central Library opens up the possibilities to explore the roots and stories that are the family history.  It’s a chance to browse ethnic and special interest groups, to connect with genealogy experts, to learn how to start a family history and to discover the exceptional resources of the library.  And they are truly exceptional – for a quick peek at just some of the library’s treasures check the special collections page on the online catalog.

The Fair will run 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. in Pohlad Hall, top of the escalator at the Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.  The event is sponsored by the Library Foundation of Hennepin County in partnership with the Minnesota Genealogical Society.

Register for the free event online or call 952 847 8000.

Hmong Resource Fair

Tuaj koom nrog peb lub!

This is the ninth season of the annual Hmong Resource Fair.  It’s Saturday, October 2, 10-2 at Aldrich Arena, 1850 White Bear Avenue North in Maplewood.  The Fair features over 100 vendors representing health, government, legal, employment, education, finance and housing as well as an opportunity for safe and free disposal of hazardous waste.  There will be refreshments and prizes, health screen, a kids center, nurses station and more.

The Hmong Resource Fair is sponsored by several organizations including Ramsey Coun;ty, UCare, St Paul Public Schools, School District 622, Blue Cross Blue Shieldof Minnesota, the Metropolian Health Plan and the Hmong American Partnership.

The day is free and open to all.

Contact hmongresourcefair@yahoo.com or hmongresourcefairmn.org.  Details re. the household waste facilities at www.co.ramsey.mn.us/ph

The Banned Books of Our Times

Apologies that this did not get out before the event. [Publisher’s note]

Banned in 2009 or 2010?  You’re in good company – with the likes of Maya Angelou, Marc Brown, Barbara Ehrenreich and Ernest Hemingway – and then again there’s Adolf Hitler.  They are a few score others are on this year’s list of Books Challenged or Banned in 2009-2010, compiled by Robert P. Doyle for the American Library Association.  It’s the lynchpin of Banned Books Week sponsored by ALA in collaboration with a half dozen organizations representing booksellers, publishers, authors and readers.  The aborted burning of the Qur-an has put a unique spin on this year’s recognition.

Some of the BBW messages are overt – exhibits, editorials, banners and badges.  Other are more subtle reminders that defending the rights and privileges of freedom deserves focused attention along with constant vigilance.  One blogger expresses the range of rights and privileges thus:

We enjoy the freedom to read.

We enjoy the freedom of expression.

We enjoy the freedom of the press.

We enjoy freedom of speech.

We enjoy freedom to study, research and publish.

We enjoy freedom to worship as we like

We enjoy the freedom to assemble and influence each other.

We enjoy the freedom to choose our leaders.

We have the right be schools, be well, be without fear, and more.

Joel Kramer, Editor and CEO of MinnPost, is featured speaker at one of Minnesota’s major BBW activities.  The Annual Dinner and Program sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition for Intellectual Freedom is Wednesday, September 22, 5:30 p.m. at the AAUW Clubhouse, 990 Summit Avenue in St. Paul.  For details contact Michael O’Sullivan (952 423 3492 or osulli14@frontiernet.net).

A Gubernatorial Debate Without Mention of Social Issues

“Don’t worry, they’ll just build a new building,” my friend assured me.  I was entering a much-vaunted auditorium at the University of St. Thomas with a cup of contraband coffee in my hand, timidly murmuring that they would have to re-carpet if I were to spill a drop.

The old anecdote crossed my mind recently as I entered an even newer auditorium, this time to hear a “debate” among gubernatorial candidates sponsored.  As I tried to listen to the spins and dodges, I kept reminding myself to think no small thoughts.  If anyone spilled the beans on the candidates’ avoidance tactics, the powers would indeed build a new building.  The reminder was pricey, painful and a prod to rethink the ways in which those who care about social issues respond to – better yet, get in front of – the issues.

Needless to say, the folks at this debate heard nary a word about social issues.  The prevailing mantra was predictable: “the economy, stupid” – writ large and arguably a little late.  Attendees could blithely stride past peaceful protesters who were not allowed to walk, talk or carry their message to the veranda of the Opus College of Business building.

The candidates are justifiably terrified that any sidelong glance at social issues will raise the hackles and open the checkbooks of those who prefer to ponder the “E” topic – taxes, job creation, the rights of the have’s, fiscal policy.  Candidates and their supporters alike have a preconceived notion of social activists.  For those who struggle to peace and justice, that’s a painful but necessary admission.  I’m reminded of Robert Burns who nailed it:  “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

This painful – not to mention expensive –  experience of the debate, now tempered by time, sharpened my focus  on the absence of social issues from the candidate debates in particular, from media coverage of the campaigns, and from public discourse in general.   Those who care about pay inequity, the rights of immigrants, domestic abuse, trafficking, the homeless, learning opportunities of poor kids, and other real life issues need to internalize the world view of the candidates.  Electoral politics, statistics, and language both shape and reflect a world view that is as real as it is unlike our own way of looking at things.  Some possible concrete steps to getting on the agenda:

  • Change the questions (priority #1) –  If the candidate is bombarded with the same question in various venues, the issue makes its way to the candidate’s and the media’s agenda.
  • Change the tone – Position yourself or your organization as  a co-conspirator against some common foe.  Invent one if necessary.
  • Load them with the numbers – This I learned from the indomitable Nina Rothchild.  Statistics talk.  Sometimes they speak the truth; in the hands of liars, they lie or obfuscate.  Consider the source and the presentation. Apply the KISS principle and be able to back it up with hard data.
  • Fact check – In the digital age it’s easy enough to track the facts.  Don’t swallow but follow the information track.
  • Craft and communicate a vision – Everybody wants to look ahead to a better world – Create a vision that embraces positive change broadly defined to include crazy ideas such as justice.
  • Listen, painful as that may be – Filter the rhetoric and get into the minds of those who echo, rather than initiate, strategies for addressing the issues.
  • Invoke the founding fathers – Everybody else does.  It was Jefferson himself who wrote that:  “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”
  • Remember that it’s not about laying new carpet  it’s about building a new building with a new foundation of social, as well economic, building blocks.
  • Speak up – you’ve got the facts, the stories,  and  TJ’s confidence in the people to back you up.

A passion for info access is the dominant thread in my DNA.  Though the sources, format, techniques and skills change with the times, information is a powerful and relentless tool which, if used with skill and a little panache, will bring about change, starting with a revised agenda.  Posts re. the power and sources of information are about to boil over in my head.  Watch for future posts here and elsewhere.