How I See Myself in Ed Terrell & The Importance of Community Memory
I used to go sit in the project’s empty lot in the dark and cry by myself, feeling the weight of letting my community down and mourning what could have been. Ed and I had never spoken directly; in fact, I had once joked that, thankfully, he didn’t know who I was, and so I avoided his Facebook radar –
-- so, I was feeling pretty nervous before I picked up the phone to call him.
One spontaneously lingering afternoon of rounds of beers and hot dogs at the Forest Inn, friends and I began talking about Ed’s latest round of protestations focused on an event. I told my friend, the organizer, that being in Ed’s crosshairs meant that he was doing something, and to view it like a badge of honor. And so we kiki’d and laughed and were ready to move on, when my other friend David pointed out that, despite everything, he still viewed Ed as a community elder and that we owe him at least that much respect.
Later on, I tried to figure out how it happens that someone like Ed goes so dramatically from community darling featured in the major local newspaper for his community work, to someone perhaps feared but tolerated, to someone on the fringes shouting in, criticizing new projects of which he’s no longer a part, perhaps feeling unable to do anything but to make noise on Facebook and –I think worst of all – feeling irrelevant, forgotten.
Lately, I’ve also thought a whole lot about the revolving door of community development and revitalization plans I have studied, seen, or even been part of over the past decade. And of the latest pulse of young, rising community entrepreneurs and revitalization-leaders with whom I’ve spoken who have never even heard of RiverPlace Master Plan (2005) or Ride to Prosperity (2010) or Reading’s STAR Community Rating System designation (2015) or others seemingly abandoned; how many have I never heard of, how much am I ignorant of? Perhaps ignorance keeps the youthful spirit safe. But maybe it keeps us from moving forward.
These two things, Ed's dramatically shifted role and our eagerness to find the one Plan (or Person) to fix us, are connected: a lack of continuity, of community memory – in passing the failures and successes from one ‘generation,’ (if not meaning generation in age, then of effort) and the active remembering of what we tried last year that didn’t work, or that did – is one of the big barriers to Reading’s progress.
And if that's true, then talking to people like Ed, whether or not we like or agree with him, can help us move forward instead of – like he loved to say about the kids riding around the killed project that I mourned - “around and around like hamsters on a wheel.”
Ed and I are kindred spirits, whether or not I want to admit it.
We’ve tried, and publicly failed, to improve our community in the ways we knew how, and have struggled to regroup, recover and move on. Ed channels his energies into Facebook, and left Reading, though he wouldn’t quite tell me where he is now.
I almost left, too, after giving this city my late teens and most of my twenties, after feeling chewed up and spit out the other side. I’ve watched some of the people and projects I worked to support early on rise and be successful, while mine failed and closed and ripped my heart open.
But I didn't leave. I took a break. And then I founded Here In My City, ready to give it a try all over again.
Today, I (usually) practice the attitude, “We all grow together,” often literally repeating the phrase, that I picked up from Juan Zabala, like a mantra. What helped me get to that point is that I’ve been able to share what I’ve learned from the work I’ve done– mistakes, especially – with those interested in building upward, moving forward, doing better. To stay in this community and not let bitterness eat me up from the inside out, I had to.
I was willing to share – and that matters - but someone also had listen, too.
Because that’s how movements happen, how communities change, is iteration building on iteration, slowly, but steadily, not from one hashtag or one event or one speech or one front page or one new organization or CEO or Executive Director.
I tried to explain something like that to someone once; he was mad and confused and frustrated because he went to a City Council meeting one time and his problem wasn’t fixed; they told him it would be and it hadn’t been. I tried to tell him that you have to keep going back, probably for a long time, and although Reading has it’s own unique dysfunction and frustrations, civic change in general is slow and frustrating and takes organizing, as I understand it.
The truth is that last summer I read a detailed account of the suffrage movement and I really struggled to finish it, despite being a voracious reader, because much of it was kind of boring and long and tedious. Because that’s what a sustainable movement or change is; passed on knowledge and wisdom needs to be the connecting thread.
I added a tiny pebble to the work that others did work before me, many much longer and better than me, and who were graciously willing to share – and sometimes, despite those who were unwilling to share- their lessons, and then I made a point to tell at least one person as much as I could about what I learned and knew when I moved on, how little or much that might be.
I think maybe that's what we forgot to do with Ed.
Ed and I spoke on the phone for over two hours, and he was a very good listener and made me feel heard, even as we disagreed. When I asked him to tell me what he had learned, he was willing to. But I had to ask. Could I outline some of it here? Sure. But I think that I'd rather you called him up and asked him for yourself; you might be surprised.
After 21 years in Reading, Ed left. He cited feeling unappreciated as his reason for leaving, I’m sure there were other factors that I’m ignorant of, but I’m also sure it’s at least part of it, and I can’t judge or blame him for that part of it. I can’t say I wouldn’t do or feel the same.
Our conversation reinforced my belief in the importance of sharing our stories, and being heard. And what happens to us individually and as a community when that doesn’t happen.
Before he knew I was not just involved but also one of its leaders, I asked Ed about the project he had wanted to, and helped to, shut down, and on and on he went. I listened, and then I told him about what the project meant to me, and to my teammates in the neighborhood. And I told him that it literally, physically caused me pain to sit and listen to him say the things he was saying. (Many of them were just plain factually incorrect, others were gray, and still others I have since come to agree with him on.) And then we talked about that, and many other things, like the iterations of government he’s seen come and go, and about his (and others’) concern that a small handful of major non-profit organizations & funders run too much of the city, and then also about gardening and art.
It’s easy to dismiss Ed, easy to roll our eyes or poke fun at his approach, sort of like I was doing at the Forest Inn, or to ignore him entirely (and you may choose to both disengage with someone on social media, and then still have a real conversation with them). But learning how to engage with Ed the archetype - and listening to the insight that Ed Terrell the community elder, along with other community elders, can offer- are both keys to Reading’s success. Should we miss either, we miss important lessons in taking ourselves and our community to its next better iteration.