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The Wonders of the Oregon Frontier
They say that every cloud has a silver lining and the expression is all the more apt when you unluckily pick the rainiest week of the rainiest September in Oregon's history for your vacation. I took a vacation to eastern Oregon to see the beautiful Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon, along with Hells Canyon, Wallowa Lake, and the wild rivers rivers thereabouts. The idea was to set up a tent and just chill out in that gorgeous place for a week, with the occasional road trip, but the rain changed my plans.
I'm a big believer in keeping my tourist dollars closer to home during these difficult times, so when the weather forecast predicted rain in the Wallowas for the first few days of my trip I diverted south for the first few days, visiting the immense Steens Mountain(so big it's often confused with a mountain range) and Alvord desert. What an astonishingly diverse and stunning state Oregon is to have such fine alternative options. Of the nine states I've lived in in the US, I can't think of another that comes even close to the options we have here in Oregon.
When I arrived at Wallowa Lake it was to discover that the weather forecasters had got it all wrong and it would end up raining every day and most of all of the days I was there. Camping was a poor option so I spent a couple of nights in a B&B in Joseph instead and then looked to what indoor options the town had to offer. I remembered seeing a wonderful presentation by Gwendolyn Trice, the inspirational Executive Director of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center (MHIC), a recent MMT grantee. At the end of her presentation she'd issued an open invitation to all of us to stop by were we ever in town. Sure enough, there I was in Joseph and they were just a short walk away.
When the topic came up during the B&B breakfast, my host mentioned that there were several other MMT grantees in the area and that I could do a grantee tour, and fellow guests pointed out that this would turn my vacation from a bust into a tax-deductible business trip. Well, perish the thought, but Gwen's talk has whet my appetite and I did really want to pop in and see MHIC for myself.
So why would anyone sane do something work-related during their vacation? Well, there was that rain, but also because I'm a tech guy. I'm about as removed from the work of MMT's nonprofit partners as I can be, arguably more so than anyone else at MMT. The old joke about keeping IT in the basement is not literally true, but it is a good analogy for how separated I can be from what the program officers do.
To make up for this I'm constantly going to trainings, social events, award ceremonies and the like to broaden my exposure to the Oregon nonprofit and philanthropic scenes. For me seeing what our nonprofit partners are up to first hand IS fun. That and Gwen's work has been terrific and the outcomes compelling, so I was genuinely excited to see her exhibit.
MHIC is currently housed at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture, itself a recent MMT grantee, so I found myself getting two tours of MMT grantee facilities instead of the one I'd planned. Dedicated volunteer Anne Stephens gave me a tour of the facility. She had put up her own money to buy the facility – a beautiful log building that used to be a bank – and intends to sell it back to the Center once it gets on its feet.
It was a something Anne and friends had dreamed of for years, to convert the last remaining abandoned eyesore on Joseph's Main Street into an art center. It's a dream they made real. The inside is all wood, big windows, beautiful carvings, innovative exhibit space and tons of light coming in huge windows. A lovely and very welcoming place.
Anne started by telling me how much MMT's grant had meant to them and how thrilled she was that I'd stopped by. I was a little afraid that it might seem like some surprise inspection, but I was treated like family and she was excited to give me the tour. She introduced me to Amy Zahm, their impressive and engaging Executive Director. They told me how MMT's grant helped them produce a strategic plan and feasibility study for a shared-space facility. Its conclusion that an arts center could be successful and have a positive economic impact on their community was one where the evidence was now all around me.
MMT is a strong believer in shared spaces where nonprofits can both help each other, share resources, learn from each other and have a more sustainable model, while also becoming hubs for their community. The grant was therefore a very good fit because the Center does a great job of being just that. It was also nice for me to see the impact of one of our grants firsthand, not only in terms of the outcomes achieved by our partner nonprofits, but in terms of the people involved.
Aside from the art exhibits you would expect, the Center is also home to the historic Josephy Library, while providing studio and office space for rent that are used by local artists and others. I got to meet some of the wonderful volunteers and see most of the three levels of their space. The basement houses storage, offices and an open space used for classes, while the main level houses an airy exhibit space, a stage, the Executive Director's office, rental spaces, a work room, bathrooms and a kitchen. Upstairs you find the library, MHIC and a view of the exhibits from above.
The community is also making great use of the place with art classes and cultural education classes, chess club meetings, yoga classes, mens group gatherings, first aid training, tech training for youngsters, and much more. There were so many volunteers involved (I met several) and so many donated items that I got a real sense of how a little help from us and others makes a huge difference, mostly I saw how amazing it is when a community pulls together and makes something like this happen.
Their connection to the community was further reflected in notice boards and flyer tables at the entrance that promoted events, communities and businesses in the area. It's a very impressive place to find in a small town and I enjoyed my tour... and the lovely photography exhibit too. All in all, I was very impressed with and charmed by the place.
The highlight for me was of course MHIC. As with the Center, Gwen was being kept busy by folks like myself looking for activities in out of the rain. There was a lot of interest in the exhibit and some had heard about both Gwen and Maxville through the OPB special, The Logger's Daughter, which I highly recommend you watch. Gwen is the logger's daughter of the title and it was her search to learn about this period of her father's life that led to the creation of the MHIC.
Maxville was a railroad logging town that existed until the early 1930s just north of Wallowa, but of which almost nothing now remains. It was the first segregated town in Oregon and home to the only segregated school in the state. This was due to it being set up by a Southern logging company who brought Southern lumberjacks and the segregation they were used to with them.
There were about fifty or so African Americans and their families in the town. Previously, historic records only made small mention of the African-American families and now Gwen brings their lives and experiences to life, along with the stories of everyone else too. Even today this is a rugged area of the state and still regarded as a frontier county, and the location only adds to the story.
MHIC aims to preserve the unique history of the town, both in terms of artifacts, photos and the like, but more interestingly in the extensive and rich oral history that Gwen has been videotaping. In the last few years, they have opened our eyes to this compelling piece of Oregon history through public lectures and school visits, an Elder-hostel lecture, AP articles and the OPB special I mentioned before.
With exposure more people came out of the woodwork with stories and/or artifacts and the collection has grown. It made for fascinating browsing as it reveals not only Maxville's history, but also logger history, railway history and the history of the time.
She had various video presentations going and I found myself watching a ton of personal stories. My favorite was scenes from a musical. "A musical?", you ask, "Is that a typo?" Well, no, dear reader. Gwen's search for her father's history has sent all kinds of ripples through our state and one of them has ended up as a musical portraying life in the town. How awesome is that?
There is of course a darker underbelly to the story, one of hardship, of black men doing the harder, riskier jobs and white men getting paid more to do the easier jobs, of the African American part of town literally being on the wrong side of the tracks, and in prejudice still evident even now in some of the oral history. However, Gwen's focus is a far more upbeat one. It's told like an honest, personal story shared with guests at the dinner table, not some strident classroom lecture. She highlights the stories of racial harmony, of triumph over adversity, of lifelong bonds made across the color line.
She offers us the story of the place, gently, with empathy as the focus, not anger. She reveals to us a story well worth our attention and time, and triggers reflection and understanding. It was an approach that kept people engaged and held their attention longer than is the norm. I found myself impressed with Gwen, with her strength, her gentle expertise, her warmth, and with how easily all the visitors found it to engage with her.
Gwen and I got to hang out a bit and chat before I left town. She even took me on a stunning hike along the moraine above Wallowa Lake and it was on that hike that we took the most iconic photos of my entire trip (incuding the one at the top of this post), despite my seeing a host of other beautiful sights. She really is a brave and inspiring person and that day's conversation was the highlight of my vacation.
Four of my fellow B&B guests followed my lead and visited the Center and MHIC and were also impressed. I was glad of that, but if they were to be believed about this being a work outing for me, well, may we all enjoy this much inspiration in our jobs. And may all of us IT guys get to connect not only with the work our organizations do, but with the outcomes and the wonderful people who make them happen. Maybe even make a new friend.
PS: Hover over any image to see its caption, or click on them to see a larger version.
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