February 13, 2018 | Main Street Spotlight | MILES: Placemaking Goes Mobile | By Jen Austin, Founder of Small Town Legacies |
As part of the Edward Jones Placemaking on Main Challenge, Downtown Brattleboro created a pop-up, mobile mini-museum. Jen Austin of Small Town Legacies shares more about the MILES project and how it provides immersive literary experiences to undeserved areas of the region.
At the crack of dawn on a Friday morning, a trailer rolls down the street and maneuvers into a parking spot in the middle of Brattleboro’s Main Street. The sides of the unassuming trailer, proclaimed: “Lucy Speaks” and depicted an African American woman in 1700s dress. The back door slid down and passersby began venturing up the ramp to learn more. Later, a storyteller would recite a poem and Marlboro College’s students would perform an intense dance about this enigmatic "Lucy.” A crowd was gathering…
Not necessarily a scene you would associate with a small town in Vermont. It was here as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, an annual event that attracts thousands of visitors. Founded in 2002, the very first festival featured Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow in his last public appearance. Brattleboro home to many famous authors, such as Rudyard Kipling, who wrote several of his classic works while living here.
There are lesser known writers who’ve also made this area their home. Among them, is Lucy Terry Prince. Few locals have heard of her. Fewer know that Lucy is the first known African American poet from the late 1700s.
The mobile unit parked on the street is part of a larger project seeking to bring Lucy and other marginalized local voices to light. This is MILES—Brattleboro’s unique “Mobile, Interactive, Literary Exhibition Space.” The mini-mobile museum provides an immersive experience highlighting the local literary legacies of the region.
Marlboro College students and faculty who helped create the Lucy Speaks exhibit and street performance.
The museum-quality exhibition, “Lucy Speaks" includes a timeline of her arrival to the states as a young child and slave, to her marriage and eventual freedom, witnessing a fierce battle, creation of her lasting poem, and her battles in the courts to protect her home and family from the harassment of neighbors. A video plays on another wall, the sound effects of crumpling leaves and birdsong providing an alternatively eerie and romantic soundtrack to the experience.
As the mini-museum was being constructed at Marlboro College, students became so inspired by Lucy that they wanted to get more involved. One group created an interpretive dance ensemble in her honor depicting the ongoing challenges of being black in America. The dance was performed by Moon Livingston, with help from other students, on Main Street as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival.
Moon Livingston, Marlboro College student, performs interpretive dance for "Lucy Speaks" on Main Street in Downtown Brattleboro
The Lucy Speaks exhibit invited visitors to experience a live performance by Brattleboro-based storyteller, Shanta Lee Gander. Dressed in the style inspired by what Lucy would wear, Shanta recited Lucy’s poem, “Bars Fight,” the earliest known piece of literature created by an African American. The audience and passersby engaged in this impromptu experience in the streets of Brattleboro and had the chance to ask questions about Lucy and her poem.
Shanta built a performance that has been taken ‘on the road.’ Her first performance took place this past week at Landmark College, as part of an exploration during Black History Month. Shanta will also perform at the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro this April. The entire MILES unit will be rolled out with Shanta and the students for this summer’s upcoming Strolling of the Heifers event, which typically draws 30,000 people to Brattleboro the first weekend in June.
The MILES / Lucy Speaks exhibit reached thousands of people in its opening weekend and continues to thrive. The mobile unit remains available to schools and other organizations as a unique way to engage people about local history through interactive experiences. Exhibits will continue to evolve over the next several years and will feature other aspects of local literary legacies.
MILES was the first project to launch the brand new three-year National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The Brattleboro Words Project.” This large collaborative effort is bringing the community together in new ways: exploring our history through a humanitarian lens, making relevant stories accessible, creating audio tours, and building deeper connections.
Photo Caption: Shanta Lee Gander, as Lucy Terry Prince, along with author Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina and Curtis Reed, Executive Director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity
MILES / Lucy Speaks was funded by the Edward Jones Placemaking on Main Street grant and awarded to the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance. Matching funds were raised in conjunction with the local Edward Jones offices, organized by Ana Saaveda, Brattleboro’s Sunrise Rotary Club, the Leadership Team of the Brattleboro Words Project (includes members from Marlboro College, Brattleboro Literary Festival, Write Action, Brattleboro Historical Society, Brooks Memorial Museum, and others).
Like learning about this Edward Jones Placemaking on Main Challenge project? Read about another in Creative Discovery on the Maker Trail in Enid, Oklahoma.
About the author:
Jen Austin was the Coordinator for the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance during this project and remains actively involved in the Brattleboro Words Project. She is the founder at SmallTownLegacies.com.