By Sarah McVicar
Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship
Peter Rachleff is a man on a mission: To inspire solidarity, advocate for justice and work toward equity for all. It may sound ambitious, but Rachleff has pursued it wholeheartedly here in Minnesota for nearly the past four decades. One of his primary vehicles for achieving this social change is the East Side Freedom Library (ESFL) which he co-directs with his partner Beth Cleary.
Rachleff has been described as an arts and history educator, writer, historian, activist scholar, and social organizer; he describes himself as a product of the ‘60s, whose passion for and involvement in social movements dates at least back to high school.
Rachleff went on to complete his PhD with a focus on labor history at the University of Pittsburgh. “I started out trying to build an analysis of why American society was the mess that it was,” Rachleff says, “…and then I began to ask, ‘If it’s such a mess, who’s going to fix it?’” This question, he believes, is even more pertinent today – and the answer still lies with the people.
Rachleff started teaching at Macalester College in 1982, and his relationship with Metropolitan State University began soon after when a Macalester colleague encouraged him to consider teaching a course at Metropolitan State, which at the time was very much a “university without walls” run by “educational radicals.”
For him, it fit.
In the late 1990s, Rachleff and Cleary moved to the East Side of Saint Paul – not far from Metropolitan State’s Saint Paul campus – where they were struck by a “neighborhood in great transition.” Rachleff noted those living on the East Side at the time were not very welcoming to the neighborhood newcomers, many of them immigrants. “We were interested in what we could do to bring people together,” Rachleff says.
One thing Rachleff ultimately did was create the ESFL: a library and cultural center where, he hoped, people of diverse backgrounds could come together through storytelling and the arts to discover their commonalities.
As a professor, Rachleff knew faculty often struggled with what to do with their books after retirement. The ESFL provided a mutually beneficial solution. Says Rachleff, “We were interested in gathering books about labor, immigration, civil rights, feminist theory…stories of people who have typically been marginalized.”
Today, the ESFL has over 22,000 books, including 18 independent collections each carefully cultivated by a different individual. For Rachleff, each is a window into how this person saw the world, and are meant to “stimulate people’s imaginations about history being lived and made by people like themselves and their families.”
In addition to the thousands of books, the library also boasts collections of other materials dating back to the 1800s – including instruments, film, and musical recordings – and has hosted programming including readings, plays, visual arts exhibits, workshops, and theater featuring artists from diverse cultural backgrounds.
While Rachleff himself describes the idea behind the ESFL as romantic and even utopian, he believes the impact is real. “Yes, it’s a romantic idea,” he says, “but it actually works.”
Indeed, Rachleff says he has personally witnessed many “spectacular moments when a lightbulb goes on… moments of shared recognition between diverse people.”
“These things do happen when people feel safe to tell their stories,” Rachleff says. “These bridges do get built.” Ultimately, Rachleff notes, what people choose to do with these bridges is up to them. “We think of ourselves as a kind of incubator, bringing diverse people together in environment where they can begin to trust each other and explore what they choose to share,” Rachleff explains. “What action they decide to take afterward is up to them.”
Like many organizations, the ESFL has been profoundly affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. “At first we were crushed,” Rachleff says, noting that the ESFL building closed when the public library system closed. “We had all these big plans and we had to cancel or postpone them…But in the last few weeks we’ve really begun to think about what we can do.”
So far, Rachleff and his team have done a lot, using social media and online platforms such as Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube to continue the library’s work – and even to expand its reach, far beyond the Twin Cities. Rachleff describes poetry events that have opened a space for international political dialogue, like a discussion of the path to democracy in Ethiopia which he discovered was being watched by 20,000 people around the world. “We’re trying to use new technology to have new voices and experiences in conversations,” Rachleff explains.
While the pandemic has revealed opportunities for the ESFL, Rachleff believes it has also laid bare the grave inequities within our society. “My big thing these days is don’t you dare say we should go back to normal [after the pandemic],” Rachleff says, “because normal is what got us into this situation and this is an opportunity to see what’s wrong. We as a culture are not taking care of each other.”
Yet Rachleff remains invested in his vision and hopeful for the possibility of change. “I’m more convinced of its validity than ever,” Rachleff says. “Every social economic political structure was made by people and people can change them.”
While on a different scale, another of Rachleff’s heartfelt hopes for the future is to strengthen the relationship between the ESFL and Metropolitan State University – an institution he sees as being closely aligned in both “proximity and mission.”
“Metropolitan State has always been interwoven with the community,” Rachleff says, “and that’s reflected in its projects, the work students do [while in school], and the work students do when they graduate -- both [our organizations] are about seeing that knowledge production takes place [throughout the community].”
With the support of allies like Metropolitan State’s Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship Acting Director Katie Peacock and Metropolitan State Professor Travis Sands, Rachleff is exploring ways for the ESFL to become more connected to the university. Rachleff hopes to raise awareness about the mission alignment between Metropolitan State and the ESFL and the opportunities going forward for the library to serve as a resource that adds to the experience of Metro students and faculty. “The library is a lovely place to come and be quiet, to talk and to think, only a mile from [Metro’s Saint Paul] campus,” Rachleff says.
While opportunities for gathering in physical spaces are, of course, presently limited, there are plenty of other ways to connect to the ESFL, including the library’s website, Facebook page, Instagram, YouTube channel, and Twitter – as well as joining the library e-newsletter’s some 6,000 subscribers.
Ultimately, despite the pandemic that has only further illuminated what he sees as society’s vast and deep-rooted injustices, Rachleff hasn’t lost his optimism. Among it all, Rachleff says, “I’m often surprised by the generosity of people; the kindness.” He pauses, then adds, “Well, I want to anticipate the best. It’s maybe not surprising, but it’s inspiring.” Nearly forty years since beginning his work in Minnesota, Rachleff holds on to that inspiration, and continues working toward solidarity, justice, and equity for all from his base in Saint Paul’s East Side.