One of Us: ‘Free?’ Communities exploring human rights

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly

Photo by Sue Henninger / Tompkins Weekly
From left are Ksana Broadwell, librarian at Ulysses Philomathic Library, UPL Director Annette Birdsall, and Library Assistant Jessie Miglus with copies of the 2017 Community Read book, “Free? Stories about Human Rights.”

“Free? Stories about Human Rights” is a diverse anthology of fourteen stories, penned by young adult authors from around the globe. The book was compiled to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the stories focus on timely and relevant topics-political asylum, education, friendships, and faith.

Annette Birdsall, Director of the Ulysses Philomathic Library in Trumansburg, explained why the library felt this particular book would make an excellent – and compelling – community read.
“Ithaca is a Sanctuary City which made these local issues,” she said. “We felt we wanted to champion social justice, with a focus on immigration, because of how immigrants are perceived worldwide at this time. We wanted to facilitate a discussion that was civil, respectful, and celebratory.”

The 2017 community read is funded by the Myrtle Dee Nash Memorial Fund of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County. Participating libraries include Apalachin Library, Aurora Free Library, Edith B. Ford Memorial Library, Phillips Free Library, and, in Tompkins County, Lansing Community Library and UPL. The book was made available to all readers free of charge.

According to Birdsall, one of the grant requirements is for the director of each library to brainstorm with a community partner on ways to make the book available to the public. UPL’s community partner was Deva Maas, co-owner of Redbyrd Orchard Cider, parent of three children, and past president of the Amnesty International chapter at her high school. Despite her many other commitments, Maas was honored to be part of the book selection process.
“We wanted a book that would be appropriate for younger readers as well as one that would engage all audiences,” she observed. “The short stories (in Free?) make it more accessible. You don’t have to commit to the whole book.”

“After the Hurricane,” by Rita Williams-Garcia was the prose poem that most resonated with Maas. The vivid imagery of people in the City of New Orleans banding together after the hurricane, told from the perspective of teenagers, was very moving to her.
“It was beautiful. It made me cry,” she said with feeling. “This happened right in my own country. How people were treated was unbelievable.”

For Birdsall, Maas was the perfect choice.
“She’s a champion of past community reads and very interested in social justice issues,” she said. “Deva was also instrumental in getting the word out about ‘Free?’
“She distributed copies of the book, fliers about the book, and bookmarks all over the community, including at Tompkins Trust Company, NAPA Auto Parts, and the Trumansburg Farmers’ Market,” Birdsall added. “We had received 400 copies of the book and 200 of those were given out in Trumansburg alone.”

The community discussion of “Free?,” originally scheduled for August 22, was canceled due to a power outage in the village. The event has been rescheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 29, at UPL (located at 74 E. Main St. in Trumansburg). Librarian Ksana Broadwell, and library assistant Jessie Miglus, will moderate the talk.
Grace Bogdanove from Amnesty International at Cornell University and Kimerly Corish of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights will be part of the program as well.
“They will be bringing information on their organizations, along with suggestions for possible action steps for participants to take so they have somewhere to go with this after the discussion,” Birdsall explained.

Maas hopes that “every single person in the town” will come to the discussion. She believes there is something in the book for everyone.
“Fifth graders in Trumansburg study the Declaration of Human Rights,” she said. “This book will enhance that experience for them.”

Maas also envisions the community read as being a springboard to intergenerational discussions about some of the concerns the stories raise.
“You can get more out of the book that way,” she contended.

Birdsall’s goal is that the book discussion will allow participants to express their own thoughts and perceptions about human rights while having the opportunity to expand their horizons by hearing others’ views. Groups often form, either obviously or subtly, based on an “us and them” mentality, she asserted. It was important to her and the other organizers to start, and encourage engagement in, a civil, respectful, and nonjudgmental conversation that includes everyone in the Trumansburg community.

Are today’s libraries safe places where people can meet to talk about social justice issues or visit to learn more about human rights issues?
“Absolutely!” Birdsall said, remarking that libraries have a long history of standing up against the mistreatment of others and defending human rights.

People often read to find themselves or to learn about someone else.

“If you’re seeking information, we have it,” Birdsall noted. “We can also help you find stories you can relate to.”
“We are so lucky to have public libraries that provide free resources and access to information for everyone, regardless of their economic background,” added Maas.

For those who would like to explore human rights more in depth after reading “Free?,” there is an adult version of the book, titled “Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which features contributions from well-known authors. The full list of rights can be found at UN.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights.

Historically, America has been a country made up of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. The city of Ithaca and surrounding areas are reflective of this. Join Tompkins Weekly and “One of Us” each month as we learn more about who we are as a community.