We love to highlight the work of our clients! For this month’s Superhero Spotlight we talked to Peter Rachleff of the East Side Freedom Library. He is the co-founder along with Beth Cleary.

Here’s what he had to say:


What makes their team superheroes?

The East Side Freedom Library (ESFL) began as a vision of place for people to not only read and research about the experiences of workers, immigrants, and people of color in United States history, but to also share their stories and ideas and organize the community. As we were developing the concept and plans, we were often asked by funders: “How can immigration and labor be connected when they seem to be contentious?”

This question challenged us to demonstrate the connection to the community, not as academics providing analysis, but rather, by leveraging activities and resources we had at our fingertips. At the ESFL there is an intersection between immigration and labor, not just in occupying the same physical space but also in the ways that programming can embody that intersection.

This makes me also reflect on a conversation I had many years ago when I tried to get a radio show on KSTP talk radio. The producer at the station suggested that I didn’t understand the difference between education and entertainment.

So, I add to our previous challenge that we also had to find ways to embody the intersection between education and entertainment. People who come to the library are discovering new ideas and new stories and that is inspiring and entertaining, as well as informative.

Story is a major theme of the ESFL, and the telling and gathering of stories, through formal interviews, workshops, and small-scale public performances, allows local residents and interested publics to learn more about the work and residential histories of the East Side.

The ESFL’s mission is to inspire solidarity, advocate for justice and work toward equity for all.  The library houses non-circulating research collections that appeal to interested general learners as well as scholars, with innovative databases and finding aids that make using the collections fun and vital.

As a sample of what is happening at the library, today we have the Service Employees, Local 284 having a staff retreat and the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco, and Grain Millers, Local 22 having a meeting simultaneously on different floors.  And our day started out with a meditation class from 9-10 this morning.

Both Beth and I, the Board, and volunteers really take this as our challenge. We are all superheroes together.


What are their Superpowers?

For Beth and I, the co-founders, this place has become a big attic. Not only are our books (as well as others’), visual art, and recorded music now here at the Library, we also have theatrical sets, scenery designs, and props that Beth had used in productions for plays that she was a part of over the years.

One of these objects is a Styrofoam ear. It was a prop produced when Bread and Puppet Theater did a residency that now sits downstairs at the Library. When it first arrived, I thought that the ear symbolized the work for the young people, to listen to each other’s stories and voices in the space. As time has passed, I now see that the ear is telling all of us at ESFL to be better listeners. As we meet with more people and have them come into the Library space, it is for us to hear their passions, needs, and desires and to listen for what they envision this space to be. We need to listen and adapt without losing sight of the purpose.

A recent example is the meditation class. It is wonderful to see that our vision is being realized, but that the vision is also continually changing and evolving around the new experiences, new resources, new challenges and connections.

I was always much more of a talker than a listener. Beth has always been a particularly good listener. So, for us, the Library and the Ear have made us better listeners and this has become our superpower.


How are they “saving the world”?

As we’ve lived on the East Side of Saint Paul for many years, there have been a set of issues that propelled us to undertake this project. They included the deindustrialization of the East Side of Saint Paul, the loss of 15,000 unionized blue collar jobs, the “out” migration of younger white people, the “in” migration of SE Asian, Central American, African American, and East African newcomers. We started to see the lack of communication between these communities, as well as White people becoming uncomfortable with their neighbors and showing increased hostility toward them.

That set of issues is also mirrored nationally and internationally with Trump being elected, the UK deciding to Brexit, the Marie Le Pen candidacy in France, and the abuse of Immigrants in South Africa. These are the defining issues for this decade of the 21st century. At ESFL, we really want to see how we can help people can connect rather than “otherize” or be hostile to one another.

As the ESFL has some impact in this area, we are also communicating with others who want to have similar impacts in their communities. This is our real contribution to “Saving the World.”


How has Creation In Common been a Trusty Side CIC to the East Side Freedom Library? 

Through our work with Creation In Common, we now understand that we had a vision, we had a building, we had the resources, and a project, but we didn’t yet have an organization. It is through the work with CIC that we were able to realize that we are at the beginning stage of what is necessary to create an organization out of an idea that includes staff, volunteers, board, consultants, partnerships, and programs while being intentional and planned.   It has been an enormous step for us to get on that path.