Seeking guidance in troubled times: Reviving Jane Addams’ wisdom

  • Louise W. Knight speaks at a forum on Jane Addams at Edwards Church on Saturday as Joyce Berkman, left, and Cathy Moran Hajo look on. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 11/11/2017 7:07:39 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In a time when looking to the future causes worry and uncertainty for many, some Valley residents are looking to the past for answers.

Specifically, they’re looking to Jane Addams, sometimes called “the mother of social work.”

Over a hundred people gathered at Edwards Church on Saturday for a free, day-long public forum entitled “Rediscovering Jane Addams in a Time of Crisis.”

The forum touched on Addams’ work as a pioneering feminist and intellectual, a crusader for human rights and social justice, a peace activist and a civil rights advocate — and the ways in which that work can inspire and guide citizens, organizations and leaders of today.

The event was organized by Rutherford Platt, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and was sponsored by Edwards Church and Mass Humanities, in association with the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice and other organizations.

Platt said that he organized the forum because he believes that Addams’ work and accomplishments need be showcased and learned from.

“We want to call her out of retirement, to provide us with her wisdom, tenacity and her clear sense of democracy, in this time of crisis in our society in our nation and around our planet,” Platt said.

Moderating the morning session was Joyce AvrechBerkman, professor emerita of history at UMass Amherst.

Berkman, who specialized in teaching women’s history for 40 years, called Addams a hero, a “brilliant progressive thinker” who few people know about.

“We really shouldn’t be surprised that a woman who was a critic of capitalism and nationalism, a champion of immigrants, of gender equality, and racial and social justice, has been pushed to the side,” Berkman said.

One of the featured speakers bringing Addams back into the limelight of social and political thought was biographer Louise W. Knight.

Knight is the author of “Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy,” published in 2006, as well as “Jane Addams: Spirit in Action,” published in 2010.

In her address, Knight described Addams as a Renaissance woman who, during her notable career, co-founded Hull-House, Chicago’s well-known settlement house, a place that Knight referred to as an “incubator of social justice issues.”

She also noted that Addams co-founded the NAACP, the ACLU and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1931, Addams became the first American woman — and the second woman ever — to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

“By the time of her death, Addams was a national and international leader of progressive causes,” Knight said. “She was the most notable woman in the U.S. and likely the world.”

Cara Doherty of Holyoke, a former student of Berkman’s, said she came to Saturday’s forum to reacquaint herself with Addams’ work and reinvigorate her resolve to strive toward progressive social change.

“We often think of history in a ‘that was then, this is now’ context, but the similarities between Addams’ time and ours are striking,” Doherty said. “I think it is important to have a strong and experienced voice like hers sounding from the past as we try to grapple with the kind of nationalism, xenophobia and racism that we see today.”

Another way that Addams’ voice is finding its way to the present is through “The Jane Addams Project” under the direction of Cathy Moran Hajo, editor and director of the project at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

Speaking at Saturday’s event, Hajo said the Jane Addams Project is describing and transcribing Addams’ letters and papers from 1901 to 1935 and making them digitally available to anyone.

Hajo punctuated both the need for, and the effect of, having Addams’ voice available today by describing the shock that some students working on the project expressed when they discovered how unwelcome many of their European immigrant great-grandparents were upon arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“Being able to have access to these papers makes it easier to see the connection between what is going on now and what went on back then,” Hajo said.

She said that the project is also reconstructing Addams’ social network, the people with whom she worked and collaborated, illuminating the fact that social and political change takes diverse and varied input.

“That network is extensive. We have already identified 4,500 people and 650 different organizations, and we are only halfway through,” Hajo said.

The forum took place on the first instance of the newly established “Jane Addams Day” in Massachusetts.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz opened the proceedings by reading the legislative resolution that was co-sponsored by state Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke.

The proclamation called Addams a “heroic American woman” and a “role model and mentor to generations of social reformers.” It went on to say that “her moral compass and belief in democracy offer guidance and reassurance to those who today continue her struggle for peace, justice, and a caring society.”

“Addams’ story is huge and it should be told.” Platt said. “The more things are happening today in a time of Trump, the more we are realizing that we need people like Jane Addams to provide us with that moral compass and consistency.”

Knight also reminded those gathered that Addams was a fan of trying to understand other points of view and listening without judgment in order to bring more people to the table, a lesson Knight said was worth revisiting.

“We educated liberals have failed to do that with the people who voted for Trump. They have felt completely left out and don’t feel understood,” she said.

After the keynote sessions, the rest of the forum focused on three major issues that were close to Addams heart — immigration, social and environmental justice, and peace.

They included:

—“Today’s Immigration and Refugee Crisis,” which featured moderator Jack Hjeit, a retired foreign service officer; Sohair Arno, a Sudanese refugee; Laurie Millman, director of the Center for New Americans; and William C. Newman, director of the Western Mass ACLU.

—“Social and Environmental Justice,” featuring moderator Rep. Aaron Vega; Clare Higgins, former mayor of Northampton and executive director of Community Action; Jon Weissman, from Jobs with Justice in Granby; and David Glassberg, professor of history at UMass Amherst.

—“Waging Peace: From Jane Addams to ICAN” with moderator Abbie Jenks, professor emerita of peace studies at Greenfield Community College; Patricia Hynes, professor emerita of environmental health at Boston University and president of Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in Greenfield; Timothy Wallis and Vicki Elson of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons; and Dr. Marty Nathan from the Western Mass chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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