Q&A: Peter Rachleff

Peter Rachleff’s political philosophy incorporates picket lines and dog parks, direct action and opera, labor strikes and weaving circles.

He believes in equity and the power of hell-raising. But none of it is possible, he says, without relationships.

A labor historian, Rachleff left his teaching post at Macalester to co-found the East Side Freedom Library in 2014, in a former Carnegie library. The library, which is on Jessamine Avenue and Greenbrier Street, now hosts regular community gatherings, and holds more than 15,000 books.

“This place is haunted by good ghosts,” Rachleff says.

One of them is Fred Ho, an avant-garde jazz saxophonist and activist. When Ho was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer, he offered Rachleff his books.

Another is David Montgomery, a renowned Yale University historian.

“We had my books and [my wife] Beth’s books and Fred’s books. Then David’s widow sent us his books. Then more people, as they were retiring, sent us their books.”

About 15 people have contributed to the library’s collection, Rachleff says.

The collection attests to the power of old friendships. But the two-story library is more than a receptacle for the past, Rachleff says. It is meant to inspire east siders to tell their own stories, and to notice patterns among their neighbors.

“Whether you’re talking about Ukrainian Jews in the 1880s, or Polish Catholics in the 1880s, or Mexicans in the 1990s, it’s the same story,” Rachleff says. “We want people to see the forces of neoliberalism and the forces of capitalism in their lives, and begin to recognize each other.”

I visited the Freedom Library last weekend to ask Rachleff about the library’s successes and challenges, his life on the east side, and his hopes for the future.

First of all, how did you end up on the east side?

I’m originally from New England, as is my partner. She’s from Massachusetts. I’m from Connecticut. And we both came to St. Paul to teach. We met at Macalester and eventually got married and bought a house in Dayton’s Bluff.

Why Dayton’s Bluff?

Well you know, I’m a labor historian, and a labor historian who’s primarily interested in race and immigration. We’re the kind of people who think the really interesting places to visit are Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown, Buffalo. So we wanted to live in a working class neighborhood. And then we became aware of how this neighborhood was changing, particularly as a result of deindustrialization. I had seen a lot of deindustrialization. It was rampant in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and I had gone to graduate school in Pittsburgh as the steel industry was closing down. So here was a very familiar script, but the replacement of whites by new immigrants was a new phenomenon.

When did you first notice that pattern?

The big light went on in 2005 with the immigrant’s rights march on Mayday. There were 40,000 people who marched from the cathedral to the capitol. And I think we all had a “holy shit” moment. Like, “Wow, look at them all. And they’re conscious!”

Neoliberalism was changing this neighborhood. Fourteen thousand unionized blue-collar jobs had disappeared. And it was also impacting Central America and Southeast Asian and Africa. So as jobs were leaving the east side, white people were leaving, the value of housing was dropping, and newcomers started coming to the east side. It was our understanding that the white people who remained were feeling marginalized, were feeling overlooked, and given the deep grooves of racism in our culture, racism was growing in the neighborhood. And we wanted to address that in some way. We asked ourselves, how can we use the skills we have? How can we use the privileges we have, the resources we have, to do something in our neighborhood that will build bridges between different communities? First, it was particularly about the older white residents and the newcomers. But the more we’ve gotten into it, the more that has disaggregated and we think more about specific cohorts among the immigrants.

Tell me more about the problem you noticed. What did it look like?

At district council meetings and city council meetings, the east side was being depicted as gang-ridden. I don’t know if you’ve read Oscar Lewis, but in the early 70s, there was a big “culture of poverty” theory. It was a kind of victim-blaming. It said poor people develop an inadequate, dysfunctional culture and then they raise their children to be failures. That was the dominant narrative about the east side. And our sense was, that’s not what was really happening.

What was really happening?

Well, this is a little historical factoid that I use a lot: In 1880, a barrel of flour is milled in Minneapolis, put on a train to Duluth, put on an ocean-going ship out Lake Superior, shipped across the St. Lawrence seaway, and then across the Atlantic ocean. That barrel of flour gets to Poland, and it is still cheaper there than a barrel of flour that was milled in Poland from wheat grown in Poland. And the consequence is that farmers in Poland can’t get a price for their wheat that enables them to pay their mortgages. They become immigrants. In 1993, a bushel of corn is grown in Minnesota, milled into cornmeal and put on a train to Mexico. It undersells cornmeal that was milled in Mexico out of corn grown in Mexico. Mexican farmers can’t get a price for their corn that enables them to pay their mortgages. Person by person, their families try to get across the border so they can find wage-paying jobs in the USA. In 1922, immigrants on the east side opened the immigrant’s savings bank, to send money home. When we look around this neighborhood today, we still see these little businesses that send money home. Why are they trying to send money? Because they’re still trying to pay the fucking mortgages to keep their farms. Poverty, trauma: we need to understand why people are leaving Mexico and El Salvador, why they’re leaving Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, why they’re leaving Laos, Cambodia. We need to understand, and we need to think about what responsibility we have as generators of the dynamics that propelled them here.

So what’s the solution?

I think changing the ways people think of themselves. I’ve had the very good fortune the past four years of teaching one morning a week at a Roseville adult learning center where the students are all immigrants. And one of the things we talk about is the difference between being an object and being a subject. And what does it take for people to see themselves as subjects. My students have already done a bunch of things to be subjects of their own lives – choosing to migrate, figuring out where to go, deciding to go to school – but they’ve been taught not to see that. So the first step is becoming conscious of your own subjectivity. Some of that is through culture, creating art, creating poetry, theater.

My head has been spinning the last week and a half. We went to see Hamilton in Chicago. And the last song asks, “Who will tell your story?” It’s specifically about Hamilton’s widow outliving him by 50 years after he’s shot in a dual, and how she’s trying to tell his story. But it’s sung by a cast that’s entirely people of color, telling this American story. What does it mean when the American story not only includes diverse people, but has them in the driver’s seat, telling their story? They’re taking the subject position. And I think that’s huge.

OK so there’s power in telling your own story. But what about the crushing power of physical domination, unemployment, starvation? Are there limitations to just telling stories?

Maybe. It’s an interesting question. I’m teaching a course at the University of Minnesota on social and intellectual movements in the African diaspora. The class has 24 black students, out of 27. And we’ve been arguing about, is music enough? We were talking about Nina Simone’s work and the civil rights movement, and one of the students said, “Well I spent months outside the fourth precinct, and we sang songs, and we did lots of community building, and nothing changed.” So it’s hard. I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to this. But I’m convinced that without this stuff, nothing else would be possible. There at least has to be this stuff, this identity transformation, community building, growth of self-confidence.

I was once around a labor struggle where the workers were threatening to strike. And they actually had a demonstration where they carried signs that said “Just Practicing.” And some of that was to send a message to the boss, but some of it is also to create something for yourself and for the people who you’re with. It builds solidarity and builds capacity. And that’s a lot of what we’re trying to do here, build capacity beyond the boundaries that people normally operate in.

How did you decide specifically to start a library?

Well we didn’t start with that. We started with the idea of some kind of archive, some kind of foundation in materials, toward education. It was about amassing knowledge that people could access, and creating a process whereby people could create new knowledge and realize they were the authors of new knowledge. And then we faced the very physical issue that I was retiring from Macalester. And I had a lot of books. Where were they gonna go? I’d watched other people retire and leave piles of books outside their offices for people to pick through like meat on the bones of a skeleton. It was sad to look at. I didn’t want that to happen. So we started looking at buildings in the neighborhood. We looked at a church, we looked at retail spaces, we looked at Hamm’s Brewery. And then I bumped into a state legislator, Tim Mahoney, at the dog park. And Tim said, “Have you looked at the [old Carnegie] library?” We thought, “Oh my god, it’s a library! It already has shelves!” And it has turned out magically to be a space where people have difficult conversations. I think this place is haunted by good ghosts.

Ghosts?

The ghosts of people who used this library over the years. And the ghosts that are in all these books. I think we have the best collection of Dubois, Baldwin, C.L.R. James. We have three sets of Lenin’s collected works. Marx’s collected works. Tons of commentary. And they’re heavily written in, underlined. Fred [Ho’s] books are heavily annotated. My teacher [David Montgomery’s] books, his are full of index cards – he didn’t actually write in the books – and we’ve left the index cards in the books. So there are all these layers interacting in the books. Haunting isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

You mentioned social boundaries, which are infamous for their resilience, even in so-called “diverse” neighborhoods. Is this one of those rare places where people actually engage with each other?

That’s the idea. It would be egocentric for me to say this is such a place, but it certainly is what we want the library to become. Two years ago, social workers from Goodwill-Easter Seals brought us a group of Karen women and said, “We think they’re depressed, but we think what they really love is weaving. Do you have space for them to weave?” And for the past two years, we’ve hosted them one day a week, and it has grown into many things. We hosted an exhibit of their work. And we wanted to have the exhibit here rather than in a Karen space, because if it had been in a Karen space, only Karen people would have gone. But we hosted it here, and Hmong people came, black people came, white people came. It may not be the pinnacle of socialist revolution, but people came and talked to each other.

Right after the election, Beth and I decided to call a community discussion. And 120 people came. We weren’t trying to come up with an analysis, we weren’t trying to decide whether Hillary was to blame, or if the Democrats were to blame, or if white workers were to blame, but to focus on the small positives that we felt we could do. We asked what people wanted to do, and how the library could help. And there was great awareness of how our immigrant neighbors are afraid. We came up with the idea of producing a flier with three languages – English, Hmong and Spanish – to invite our neighbors to an open-house potluck. It says, “We’re glad you’re here, we don’t want you to be deported, we’d love to meet you.” And then there’s space for people to write their own names and addresses and a day and time for the potluck. We decided to have a meeting here once a month, called Solidarity Saturday, so people can report back what they’ve done with their neighbors. We think of this library as an incubator.

What are you incubating?

I mean, at the most academic-sounding level, Marx’s idea of class consciousness. The east side is a working-class area. How do we get people to see themselves as Hmong and working class, Karen and working class, Somali and working class? They don’t have to stop being Hmong, Karen and Somali. I can be Hmong and recognize myself as part of the working class, and be embraced by others, and then hopefully develop political strategies to organize unions, run candidates for city council. There are many directions the activism could go.

What has been your biggest success so far?

I think the work with the Karen women has been the biggest success.

Why?

They complain now. They didn’t complain at first. They actually have the nerve to think they can complain. It’s so exciting. Why are these bureaucratic forms that they have to deal with so complicated? All this shit they just accepted at first. Now they’re questioning it. It’s lovely.

Have you faced any cultural barriers?

It’s interesting, we’ve had a number of very high-quality theater performers here. Ten Thousand Things has done two shows here. Off-Leash Area did a show here. And yet it has been very hard to get people in the neighborhood to come to those shows. The Guthrie just staged a musical called Parchment Hour, which is about the Freedom Rides, and I pushed my students at the University of Minnesota to go. They had to write a blog post about their experience. And they all wrote about how they were surrounded by white people, at this play. So for sure many east siders could not imagine going to the Guthrie. But we can bring them something here that’s a quality on par with what they might see at the Guthrie. But they just don’t have a framework to understand it. We hosted an opera about Swede Hollow, about the end of Swede Hollow as a place where people lived, and we had over 100 people two nights running. More than half of them came because they were opera fans. Only a few neighborhood people came.

How could you tell?

We asked them to sign in on a list. And the neighborhood people were largely people of color. The other people are largely white. And some of it might be that people work too hard, work too long. And to do that extra thing, to come out to a show at night, is too much. You know, for people like us who have been through college and stuff, going to a lecture at night is the cherry on top of the ice cream. It was for me, anyway.

We can use a concept like cultural capital: We’re making cultural capital available. But there are some people who just have never thought they should have access to cultural capital. So some of it’s about, again building that sense of subject, starting to take charge of your own life. Some of my adult immigrant students are really puzzled about black people and race in the United States. They just don’t understand it. But they’re beginning to realize they can start to understand it if they try to learn about it. They can come to the Freedom Library and learn about it.

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2 thoughts on “Q&A: Peter Rachleff

  1. Thank you Peter for sharing your interview. A number of your insights I found to be the same that I’ve shared with others in Becoming a Citizen Activist. In particular, as you said “changing the ways people think of themselves… becoming conscious of your own subjectivity… Some of that is through culture.” I gave my talk at the East Side Freedom Library the same evening that the Karen & Hmong women were meeting; I was impressed how your library is more that, it’s also a community center.

    Most importantly it is a center “making cultural capital available… building that sense of subject, starting to take charge of your own life.” That is how we need to respond to the veil to be draped over our democratic principles in the coming Trump administration. Your ESFL serves as a model of what we need in urban centers around the nation. I hope your interview is shared with many.

    Ever onward, Nick Licata, author of Becoming A Citizen Activist – Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World (www.becomingacitizenactivist.org)

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