My Other Northstar
Indeed, the inspiration for everything happening here at CHfARM (our new shorthand - the ‘f’ is silent) is my farmer husband Chuck, who died almost a year ago. But I have another ‘northstar’ that has guided my professional life for over thirty years. One of the most exciting aspects of this new endeavor is that I am marrying my life's personal and professional threads into the programs emerging on the farm. That Northstar is my determination to create educational opportunities and excellence for all children from all backgrounds, particularly those from my hometown, North Adams. It comes from a formative experience arriving at Trinity College for my first year of college in 1983 that I vividly remember.
I remember my first day vividly because of how quickly the day morphed from great excitement to terrible dread and confusion. Growing up in North Adams, an aging blue-collar city, as the daughter of the ‘city’’s largest HVAC business with its visible trucks, living in the West End which was the ‘prosperous’ side of town (we thought), with a father deeply involved in politics and a mother engaged and leading nearly every child-centered volunteer organization I was privileged by North Adams standards. And I was a strong student and a relatively popular kid, mostly because my older brother played football & basketball and was part of that popular crowd - popularity by association. Being “Ashley Swift & Son’s” granddaughter, “Swifty’s little sister,” and “Jean Swift’s daughter” all gave me a certain confidence in our small valley. And in an era before the internet, cell phones, and social media, that was my universe.
Anyone who knew me then would tell you that I was organized, determined, and tenacious - traits that have stuck with me. So I gave great thought to my room decor and outfit that I would arrive with at Trinity. I’ll spare you details on the rainbow quilt (before that was a political statement), but here is what I was wearing (I wish I could find a picture!): a sleeveless baby blue t-shirt from NYC that said “5-6-7-8 Dance!” acquired during my first ever trip that summer to New York City with my high school best friends. It was exhilarating - we stayed with one of their aunts, pretty young by aunt standards, and toured the city - including Radio City Music Hall, where I acquired said shirt. I noticed that NYC was the height of sophistication, so I figured the shirt must be, too. I paired that with my ‘best’ pair of jeans - pinstriped, pleated jeans. They may have been Vidal Sasson. Very in for North Adams circa 1983. And for the all-important footwear, I wore - without socks (the sans-socks & footwear choice led to a massive argument with my mother, who ended up being right but for the wrong reasons) high-heeled, backless clogs. My hair was in a cheap Dorothy Hammill cut (if you are too young to know who Dorothy Hammill is, look it up, but lots of girls had that haircut!).
I may have been naive, less-prosperous than I realized, and entirely out of touch with college fashion, but I was not an idiot or obtuse. My high school nickname, Radar, was well-earned. And my perception skills went into overdrive when we pulled into the parking lot of the North Campus dorm with our blue & white Chevy Suburban. Remember the Sesame Street game “1 of these things is not like the other?” I was the one. Not only were my hall mates wearing Izod shirts (yes, lots of pink & kelly green) and khaki skorts or shorts with needlepoint belts and Tretorn sneakers, but they seemed to all be tan, fit and blond. Houston, we have a problem.
Now, it was not my terrible fashion sense or realization of a bigger world with vast sums of wealth that allowed people to drive BMWs (a car I had never seen before or heard of) and live in a place called “the main line” (which it took me months to figure out where the heck that was!!) that inspired a lifetime dedicated to education equity. No, that happened in my first semester English class. I quickly changed that day (although not into the ‘uniform’), and my social skills & drinking skills were clearly on par with these wealthy BMW-driving, Tretorn-wearing Main-Liners, so I found some footing. And I had ‘tested out’ of the first-year writing requirement. So I was confident that my plans to major in English and become a sports journalist were on track. Until I started attending classes. The shock I felt when discovering the level of preparation my peers had received (wait, you already READ this book before? In High School? You know how to do these footnote citations? how?) in this still-mysterious-main-line place and others like it was a devastating blow. One that led me to abandon my plans to major in English, put the North Adams chip firmly on my shoulder where it has remained ever since and led me toward public policy & advocacy for education equity.
I got a great education at Trinity. I realized that many of my classmates were not more intelligent than my friends back home. They had been given opportunities and advantages than most kids I grew up with.
Fast forward to today. As Sue Wells and I have gotten the key curriculum pieces nailed for our summer six-week place-based, experiential learning program for 2023, we have started to meet with educators and thought leaders to refine our thinking and gear up. We aim to run a smaller-scale program this first year with twenty students utilizing student-directed learning with a project-based curriculum. We are working to raise the funding to allow for full scholarships for at least ten students with another ten full or partial tuition. We are working hard to provide transportation from North Adams to eliminate any barriers to attendance. We have had some amazing progress that is still being prepared for an announcement, but these developments have me as excited as a kid in a candy store.
And this week on the farm, we will launch with gusto our school-visits programming with two days of visits from the entire 5th and 6th-grade classes from Brayton School in North Adams. Brayton School has been rebuilt, but it sits on the site where my mom taught Kindergarten and not 2 miles from my childhood home. The students who attend live in the neighborhoods, including several public housing developments, where I grew up and shared a bus stop with an earlier generation living in the same homes. Having an opportunity to impact their education and the ability to see possibilities beyond their neighborhood is a dream come true.
Because despite my fashion faux pas, I did get to an elite college from where they sit today. And I know exactly how that happened, despite challenges with our public education system then & now.
Dedicated adults & organizations who gave me opportunities to find my passion & purpose (starting with my parents, the Girls Scouts, the North Adams Transcript shadow program, and so many others)
Committed teachers who went the extra mile (shout out to Marian England, Bob Scrivens, and so many others)
Public funding for access to education opportunities (Pell Grants!!)
Our goal with CHfARM is to be an integral part of the ecosystem in Northern Berkshire & throughout Berkshire County, providing those same elements for the next generation of Jane’s. The farm & animals & the outdoors are a vehicle that I can leverage to create those opportunities & I know - because it was true for me, my siblings, Chuck, and many others - that they will emerge as leaders in our community, state, and country. What a privilege it is to be able to do this work.