Monthly Archives: November 2012

MNopedia – An Evolving Encyclopedia of All Things Minnesota

Charles Van Doren once observed that “Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical too.”  MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia of all things Minnesota – significant people, places, and events – deserves the “radical” appellation on several scores.

A production of the Minnesota Historical Society and funded by a Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund grant, MNopedia is a work-in-progress.

The call is out for Minnesota scholars, librarians, teachers, history buffs and people with good memories to critique the Beta version of the resource that is currently available online. The whole production process is interactive.  Readers are actually encouraged to let editors know what else they would like to know about the publication’s content and format.

The technology itself is a matter of public discussion.  For example, editors write that “the Minnesota Historical Society has chosen to put MNopedia content into a flexible, standards-based database that’s query-able via APL. As a result, MNopedia content eventually can be used beyond this browser-readable Web site – in mobile apps, audience- or situation-specific products, as a component in other Web projects, in print publications, and more, whether these products are created by the Minnesota Historical Society or by other individuals or entities.”  Radical, huh.

Discussing their timeline, editors indicate that they are now in an “expanding” phase where they will “continue building on what we’ve learned from users and expand MNopedia.  We’ll add new features and consider new ways to deliver content. We’ll also explore content partnerships with other organizations, find more experts to contribute, and integrate new articles.”

The initiative to find more experts and integrate new articles involves a call for input.  Editors maintain “that’s what ‘beta’ is all about, after all…testing, improving and expanding a small working model.”  The MNopedia team invites ideas on eras and topics to cover next, features to add, contributors and more.

Presently the eras covered in the MNopedia begin before European contact, i.e. pre-1585, and continue through the new global age, 1980-present.  Topics included are African Americans, Agriculture, American Indians, Architecture, The Arts, Business and Industry, Cities and Towns, Education, Environment, Health and Medicine, Immigration, Labor, Politics, Religion and Belief, Sports and Recreation, Technology, Transportation, War and Conflict, and Women.

Predictably, several of my arbitrary searches dead ended.  Others led me to great articles by serious scholars who write for readers who thirst for good information,well written and comprehensible to mere mortals.

A check of recently added articles led me to an article on the early history of the Minneapolis Waterworks, another on the Origins of the School Safety Patrol (first in the nation) and a very helpful piece on the Mennonites of Mountain Lake.  Each was concise, readable and full of stuff about which I had wondered but never known.

Though “radical” may an overstatement – and politically problematic –  MNopedia is definitely not your grandparent’s encyclopedia.

 

 

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An Armchair Guide to the James K. Hosmer Special Collections

Habitue that I am of the James K. Hosmer Special Collections at Minneapolis Central Library, I somehow missed last September’s telecast of Treasures Collected, Treasures Shared on tpt.  The documentary is a joint production of tpt and Hennepin County Library with funds from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

It’s a joy to experience the collection, even vicariously.

As an introduction to the treasures of Special Collections five researchers describe their experiences.  Penny Peterson is researcher and historian;  Joyce Wisdom is ED of the Lake Street Council; librarian Linda James is producer of tpt’s Lost Twin Cities Series; Chris and Rushika Hage wrote Nicollet Island: History and Architecture.

Also interviewed for the documentary is musician and storyteller Dan Chouinard who says “I’ve made use of Special Collections for three writing projects now, with at least another two on deck…I know I’ve barely scratched the surface and I’m looking forward to making use of the tremendous staff expertise and the bast content, especially the World War II collections I’ll be using in a show for MPR in January. ”

All of these individuals have produced books, radio and TV documentaries, even historic walking tours, based on their research in the Hosmer Collection.

DVD copies of Treasures Collected, Treasures Shared are available through the Hennepin County Library system.  Short videos produced by tpt about the Library’s Special Collections, including the Kittleson World War II Collection and house history resources will also be posted on HCL’s YouTube and Vimeo channels.

Manager of Special Collections, Ted Hathaway, can be reached at 612 543 8200 or on the web.

Gordon Parks: St Paul Claims – and Celebrates — a Local Hero

When I first read Gordon Parks’ A Choice of Weapons I was working at the District of Columbia Teachers College, 13th and Harvard Northwest in Washington, DC,  the epi-center of the DC riots of the late 60’s.  His experience as a teen in St. Paul’s Rondo area was so near and yet so far.  I had graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy, a five minute walk to Rondo (I know because we had to trek to the old Hallie Q. Brown for phy ed…)   Though I knew where Rondo was, I didn’t know Rondo.  I had no sense of what it meant to grow up there.

At the time I learned of and read Gordon Parks I had been working  2-3 years in an all Black environment.  It was also post the DC riots that had laid bare the unbearable raw evil of racism so palpable in the community in which I spent my days as a librarian who loved working an all-Black faculty committed to equality and excellence.  The reality of the college I loved under siege seemed unlike the Rondo neighborhood that was so near and yet so far from my high school days.

I began to wonder for the first time about the people who lived in the neighborhood around SJA, the kids we walked past every day en route to and from the bus.  I wondered about their parents – where did they work? where did they go to church? where did they shop or eat out or buy shoes or get a haircut?

Gordon Parks helped me face, and to some extent understand, Rondo – and to see the differences between the lives of African Americans in Rondo and the lives of those who lived near 13th and Harvard.

Referring to his earlier life in Kansas, Parks wrote:

Neither were these new friends as militant as we back there had been.  The lack of racial conflict here made the difference.  Minnesota Negroes were given more, so they had less to fight for….There were exceptions, but Minnesota Negroes seemed apathetic about the lynching, burning and murdering of black people in the South.  The tragedy taking place down there might just as well have been on another planet.  And they didn’t press vigorously for right in their own communities.

And, I realized, the white community in his St. Paul neighborhood were more accepting of the Rondo residents because the African Americans in St. Paul were so very few.   Scratch the surface, I thought.,,,

Throughout 2012 we celebrate the life and work of Gordon Parks who was born November 20, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of fifteen children.  When his mother died Gordon, now fourteen, was shipped off to live with an aunt in St. Paul.  Soon left to his own devices he was at times homeless, at times finding jobs that ranged from piano player in a bordello to a job with the CCC and eventually a steady job as porter, then waiter, on the railroad – experiences that show up in his later life as a renowned filmmaker, writer, musician, and photographer.

Kansans and Minnesotans are both celebrating the centenary of their hometown artist this month.  In June, hundreds followers visited the exhibition of Parks’ photographs at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.   The exhibit was mounted at the same time as a similar exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The guide to the exhibit describes Parks’ pioneer work in photography:

 Parks was one of the most prolific and diverse American artists of the 20th Century.  His photographs span from the social commentary of the photographic icon of American Gothic, to Paris fashion for Vogue.  Parks’ photos chronicled the Civil rights movement in Life Magazine for two decades, and his portraits of celebrities like Ingrid Bergman brought him additional levels of fame and distinction.

As a filmmaker he was the first African American man to direct a major Hollywood production with the poignant memoir of his youth, The Learning Tree, and he broke new ground with a hip and provocative African American hero in Shaft, a movie that continues to be a pop culture classic.

This month brings a host of Parks celebrations, held in conjunction with the date of his birth, November 30,   Some of the highlights of this month’s tributes are these:

0 November 23-29 – Gordon Parks Centennial Celebration at the St. Anthony Main Theatre,  a Parks film festival featuring:

The Learning Tree – Saturday, November 24, 7:00 p.m.

Leadbelly – Sunday, November 25, 7:00 p.m. and Wednesday November 28, 7:00 p.m.

Shaft – Thursday, November 29, 7:00 p.m.  Special guest Richard Roundtree

0  November 27, John Wright, Professor of English and African American and African Studies, University of Minnesota, will discuss and sign copies of the book Gordon Parks Centennial: His Legacy at Wichita State University.  UMN Coffman Union Bookstore, 4:00 p.m.

0 Friday, November 30, at the Minnesota History Center.  Vocalist Jackson Hurst, The Sounds of Blackness, and Richard Roundtree.  7:00 p.m.

Though the films, photographs, lectures and music are great, St Paul’s true lasting tribute to Gordon Parks is the alternative high school that bears and honors his name.  Like the Green Line on which it is located,  Gordon Parks High School, 1212 University West in St. Paul’s Midway district, is a great work in progress.

Thoughts on organic systems and systems thinking

 

No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.  We must learn to see the world anew.                                   Albert Einstein

 Tough – and rare  — the challenge of today is not so much to solve problems and seize opportunities but to reconstruct our thought processes.   21st Century issues are far too complex, global and inter-related to fit last year’s constructs.   Though our political, social, academic, economic and faith systems favor yesterday’s mindset, individuals, organizations and institution need to breathe deep and learn to embrace the idea and the tools of systems thinking.

The essential ingredient of systemic thinking is time  — time to focus, to deconstruct, to listen, to separate and reinforce the strands then braid those strands into a cohesive whole.

Joe Selvaggio’s op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Strib moved me to spend some time reflecting on the ways in which our compartmentalized structures, reinforced  by warp-speed communications, work against holistic thinking.  Selvaggio urges us to re-think those who are poor not as a liability but as a critical source of economic growth.  Not an easy task but a complex process.

Of course, “time is money” so who has any coin of the realm to squander on systemic thinking?  Learning to think systemically is on job description or any organization’s to-do list.

In recent months I have had the to volunteer at Neighbors, Inc.  For 40 years Neighbors has addressed the diverse needs of a changing population in northern Dakota County.  Neighbors is shaped by a clear sense of mission powered by focused leadership, committed staff, and a network of a thousand volunteers who both represent and serve the community at large.

At Neighbors I am immersed in the reality of how Neighbors staff and volunteers address the crush of human needs for food, clothing, transportation, emergency financial relief, a daily phone call, and, above all, respect and dignity.  This convergence of services, services and focused community, leads me to think of how one community is addressing its challenges and opportunities from an holistic perspective..

The struggle to get my head around the concept of systemic thinking led me (as many mental quests do) to google the term.  Predictably, I was overwhelmed, intrigued and immediately distracted by the complexity of the models I found.   From the perspective of my volunteer post I have reflected on some of the gems that I could understand and remember. Though I have been accused of losing myself in Big Picture thinking I honestly did not know how much serious research there is on the topic of systemic thinking.

One thoughtful yet down-to-earth resource I found midst the corporate models  is the Systems Thinking Handbook published by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  In an introduction to the concept of systemic thinking Gertrude Foley writes that many of our thought processes stem from what she calls “the Western Mind” which causes us “to think in linear, dualistic and hierarchical ways”.  Because many of us grew up with that construct in mind we learned to insert an intuitive “filter that made it easy to judge immediately what fit or did not fit a particular situation, to distinguish and define what was good, true, and right from what was bad, false and wrong.”

This primer goes on to aver that “behind every plan lies a gaggle of mental models, unconsciously shaping our decisions: about who will be served, what issues/outcomes will be addressed, what actions we will permit ourselves to take, what are desirable, and what standards we will use to determine effectiveness.”

Foley proposes that we need to embrace an “organic, holistic view of the world” that “prefers to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances.”   She quotes Joanna Macy who points out in Coming Back to Life that the organic model sees reality as “dynamically organized and intricately balanced ‘systems’ interdependent in every movement, every function, every exchange of energy and information.”

In the same handbook Nancy Schreck describes the three requirements for systemic thinking, i.e. that we 1) make time to reflect on the “big questions,’” 2) engage others and ourselves in remembering and telling our “deep stories,” and 3) see things as they really are and mobilize appropriate responses, which create hope.

That’s all heavy stuff, of course.  I love it because it defines and affirms the sort of thinking that often gets me in trouble for being too abstract and fuzzy.

From my corner cubical at Neighbors I can observe this organic reality being lived in real time, a stable model that results from intentional systemic thinking.  What I am learning is that there are ways to change the mental filters, to move from old patterns to organic thought processes.

Still, I am aware of Foley’s warning that “getting a general idea about systems or systems thinking is not difficult.  To actually do systems thinking, however, requires study and practice.  Persons who are serious about effecting change in a relationship, a community, or a society need to learn both the theory and skills of systems thinking.”

Likewise, I note the cautionary note sounded by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.  “More often than not, as a systems effort makes underlying structures clearer, members of the group may have moments of despair.  Jan Forrester has called systems dynamics the “new dismal science.” Because it points out the vulnerabilities, limited understandings, and fallibilities of the past, and the assurance that today’s thinking will be the source of tomorrow’s problems.”

 

Overwhelmed by the literature and graphics produced by systems thinkers, I was ready to move on to something a little less challenging when that persistent LCWR handbook called my name.  The excerpts from systems thinkers quoted in the Handbook got me over the mental barrier to learning more. It’s a quick take on the principles that undergird organic thinking.

 

The authors of the handbook also list in lay terms the “laws of systems thinking” as described.  Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”

  • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  • Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
  • The easy way out usually heads back in.
  • The cure can be worse than the disease.
  • Foster is slower.
  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
  • Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
  • Dividing an elephant in half does not product two small elephants.
  • There is no blame.

They then summarize the thoughts of the leaders in the field of systems thinking:

The system is capable of solving its own problems.  The solutions the system needs are usually already present in it.  If a system is suffering, this indicates that it lacks sufficient access to itself.

 * * *

My tentative dip into the rigors and practice of systemic thinking is shallow at best.  The fact is, this one paper from the LCWR offered a primer with basic tips on how to proceed to a more disciplined organic way of thinking about life, the universe and everything, including organizations and projects with which I am involved.  Though I explored countless other paths to understanding big picture thinking, I kept returning to the LCWR handbook for grounding.  In simple language it affirms what seems on the one hand obvious, on the other hand a complex method to be studied and practiced with intention.

As a volunteer at Neighbors I enjoy a unique opportunity to hone the skills and practice of systemic thinking.   From the sidelines I can observe and take time to reflect with the hope that I will instinctively think organically about systems and issues. Writing this skimpy piece puts me on record and gives me essential experience in applying a semblance of discipline to a way of thinking that follows where my instincts want to lead.

Reminder: Walk to End Hunger on Thanksgiving Morning

Reminder !!!

Walk to End Hunger
Thanksgiving Day, 7-10 AM
Mall of America

Tom the Turkey would like you to Walk to End Hunger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turkeys gobble, turkeys trot

We love our Thomas T. a lot

He leads the way to MOA

So we can walk on Turkey Day

We do our best for just one reason

We want to share Thanksgiving season.

p.s.  I will be walking for Neighbors, Inc.  

Journalist, Lincoln Biographer Josiah Gilbert Holland Remembered in Northeast Minneapolis

Holland Neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis is unique in many ways, starting with the name itself.  The neighborhood is named for the late great Holland School, which had roots dating back the original Holland, a one-room schoolhouse where Northeast children learned their ABC’s and good citizenship until construction in 1886 of a handsome three-story school at 17th and Washington was replaced in 1969, only to be closed in 2000.  Though the proud story of Holland School needs to be told, the connection is here is that the Neighborhood still bears the name.

About the name “Holland.”  Forget the images of Dutch settlers, wooden shoes and tulips.  Holland School and Holland Neighborhood share as a namesake one Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), American novelist, editor, essayist, biographer and poet. Though lost in the dust of the nation’s literary history today, Holland was famous in his day and a logical choice for founders of Holland School eager to embrace this nation’s literary accomplishments, particularly Holland’s infamous biography of Abraham Lincoln.

A New Englander by birth, Josiah Gilbert Holland grew up in a family that both poor and pious.  After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a medical practice in Springfield, Massachusetts, he took a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia and later Vicksburg Mississippi.    In 1850 he returned to Massachusetts where he become an editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper.  His literary career began with publication in book form of a collection of essays he had written during the 1850’s and early 1860’s.   He proceeded to write well-received historic novels and essays which he published under the pseudonym Timothy Titcomb.

Holland’s name and fame went viral after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It is said that Holland arrived in Springfield, Illinois, within days of Lincoln’s assassination.   For reasons that are not clear he was selected to deliver the eulogy for Lincoln in the President’s home state.  In that eulogy Holland brilliantly captured the essence of the President in these words:  “From the first moment of his (Lincoln’s) introduction to national notice, he assumed nothing but duty…I do not think that it ever occurred to Mr. Lincoln that he was a ruler.  More emphatically than any of his predecessors did he regard himself as the servant of the people.”

Based on the public endorsement of Holland’s eulogy, the journalist was soon selected to write a biography of the President.  In short order Holland produced a monumental biography of the beloved leader.  He hailed Lincoln’s military expertise and named him “ the liberator of a race”.  He also described Lincoln as “unattractive in person, awkward in deportment, unrestrained in conversation, a story-lover and story-teller, much of the society around him held him in ill-disguised contempt.”  The greatness of Lincoln, he said, “lay in how the contempt never seemed to generate in him a feeling of revenge, or stir him to thoughts of bitterness.”

Holland’s work was – and in some circles is – recognized as a “landmark” work, “the first of any substantial length as a biography, the first with any aspirations to comprehensiveness, and a best seller of 100,000 copies that was published in several languages.”  In fact, Holland had never met Lincoln, a fact he turned into a positive, suggesting that he created the first life of the “inner Lincoln.”

The biography of Lincoln stirred a mighty controversy when the fact checkers of the 1860’s discounted Holland’s depiction of Lincoln as a deeply devout Christian whose ethics were based on Christian principles.  Some observers of the era also suggest that the mid-Westerners of Lincoln’s home area were not enthused about a writer from the East presuming to analyze the forces that influenced the President.  In the long-term Holland’s research into Lincoln’s ancestry and early life, based in large part by first-hand accounts of relatives who knew the Lincoln family, add a unique perspective to the public’s understanding of the assassinated president.

In spite of the critics, Holland’s biography of Lincoln sold 100,000 copies to readers around the globe.  Those who enjoy stories of Lincoln’s life, particularly those who know something of the Holland connection, will enjoy a scholarly article entitled “Holland’s Informants: The construction of Josiah Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln.”  The text of this intriguing story is available online.  The first chapter of Holland’s The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1866) is also available online through Wikisource.

In 1868, while his biography of Lincoln was still selling well in spite of the critics, Holland traveled to Europe.  The tour proved life changing when on that trip he met and established a working relationship with Russell Smith.  Together they conceived the idea of starting a magazine, the nucleus of a plan they eventually shared with established publisher Charles Scribner.  The result was the 1870 publication of Scribner’s Monthly (later Century Magazine), edited by Josiah Gilbert Holland.

An interesting story about Holland’s personal life concerns the friendship he and his wife Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland formed with the poet Emily Dickinson.   The couple visited Dickinson’s home at Amherst many times; the record of their frequent correspondence suggests a close friendship.  It is said that “what Emily Dickinson most admired in Holland was that he was ‘so simple, so believing’ and made God seem ‘so sunshiny.’”

Though during his lifetime Holland’s books sold more than a half million volumes, Holland the writer is lost in the annals of 19th Century literati.  Still, in the late 1880’s, when Holland School was the educational hope of Northeast families, Holland’s was a household word.  His works were on library shelves and in countless homes.  No doubt the educators and political leaders who had the privilege of naming public buildings deliberated at length the challenge to select just the right namesake for the new school building in Northeast.  Who better than a renowned journalist and historian whose major work honored the beloved President?

Little did they know in 1866 that, though Holland School, known for preparing generations of Northeasters, would be no more – but that the name of Holland would be honored in the vitality of the 21st Century Holland Neighborhood, thriving as it is today at the epicenter of the Northeast Arts community.

Holland would likely enjoy the timeliness of the message, if not the chauvinism, of this quoted from his poem Wanted:

God give us men.  The time demands

Strong minds, great hearts, true faith, and willing hands;

Men whom the lust of office does not kill;

Men whom the oils of office cannot buy;

Men who possess opinions and a will;

Men who have honor; men who will not lie;

Men who can stand before a demagogue

And dam his treacherous flatteries without winking;

Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog

In public duty and in private thinking.

 

     

 

 

 

Northeast Minneapolis Honors a Great Librarian

One of the things I learned in library school is that when people have an information need they’ll always ask people they know before they ask a librarian.  The trick is making sure that librarians are some of the people they know.  Jessamyn West

If any community ever got to know its librarian, it’s the Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood .   The community gave witness to that fact last week in a moving and heartfelt tribute to librarian Lois Profiri who is moving on from her position as senior librarian at the Northeast Library.  Hennepin County Library has reassigned her to a parallel position at a suburban outpost.    Everyone knows Lois – and Lois knows everyone, it seems.

The tribute to our community librarian was sponsored by the neighborhood association ,  testimony to  the role of this librarian in this community.  The scene was Sen Yai Sen Yak, a popular neighborhood eatery which an attendee dubbed the Cheers of Northeast.  Tears were shed, most by the library patrons  grieving the loss of a beloved librarian and friend.  Stories were told – everyone had one.  Elected official showed up – and stayed the evening.  Management from the local co-op were there – and stayed the evening.  Avid library users and Friends of the Library showed up – and stayed the evening.  There were kids everywhere – though the teen crowd was reduced  because there was a Viking appearance a block away at Edison High School where they were celebrating their 90th anniversary.  No matter, the teens would be back at the library the next day – they’re always there. There was a presentation of a beautiful ceramic plaque created by a Northeast neighborhood artist.  There was abundant Thai food,  animated conversation about the neighborhood, politics, the changing demographics of Northeast – and the role of the librarian woven throughout.

Just the way it ought to be.  Sometime midst the muck of technology, the expansion of bureaucracy and the lust for what one guest called “WalMart think” we’ve lost sight of the basic fact that it is librarians, not bricks and mortar that make things happen.

Paula Poundstone put a human face on libraries when she wrote “libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy, and community.  Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers, and reached out to illiterate adults.”   This gathering demonstrated as words alone cannot that our librarian, Lois Profiri, is a leader in this community – as she will continue to be for the community served by the Maple Grove library.

Thank you,  Lois, and thank you to the neighbors of Northeast who know, love and honor a really fine librarian who has had a lasting impact on an evolving community.