PLEASE SHARE YOUR BMC STORIES
This represents only a tiny fraction of the people touched by Harriet Barlow’s work at Blue Mountain Center. Please share your own stories, thoughts and ideas about Harriet and BMC (in any medium you prefer) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or by posting a comment at the end of this story.
FOND TALES OF ART, ACTIVISM, ACTION, INTERACTION, REFLECTION & REINVIGORATION
Photos by Naoe Suzuki, except when otherwise noted.
( BMC Archive)
Wondering the Way Things Might Be Different
There are meetings, and then there are conversations at Blue Mountain Center. A conversation at Blue Mountain center is an invitation to listen as carefully as you speak; to engage questions in an unhurried manner, and to remember the spirit of the people who have been there before you and who will come after you. Every place you sit in that grand building, you see books; a constant reminder of the ideas that preceded yours. It is a conversation suffused with art.
This doesn’t come easily for some people, myself included. I like to move to action, and often quite quickly. This is still very welcomed at Blue Mountain Center; in fact often the conversations often lead to very rapid steps during or immediately after a meeting. But the words said percolate for years to come, leading to a more responsive, responsible, and holistic viewpoint among participants and their wider communities.
These qualities are embodied in Harriet’s way of being in the world. She told me once that when she can’t sleep at night, she ponders big questions. How could one be bored, she said, when there is so much to consider in the world? It is this quality that has made her my role model, because the fact of having been engaged with movements, so many of them, for so many years—and to still retain an ultimately curious perspective seems a feat. It is so tempting to be an expert, to figure it out, to be the authority; so much more challenging (and interesting!) to be one who wonders at the way things might be different.
—May Boeve is Executive Director of 350.org
Keeping the Faith, Remaking the World
If, a few hundred years from now, our precious world is not overheated and underwater, historians looking back at the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are going to see the Blue Mountain Center as a key place that kept a multifaceted faith alive in difficult times. Where else, for so many years, have there been so many people writing about, creating art and drama about, and organizing about, so many different issues: climate change, overflowing prisons, racial and economic justice, protecting the environment, waging peace instead of war?
And is it possible to imagine anyone, other than Harriet, with the breadth of spirit necessary to make all this happen? It is she who kept a candle burning. The BMC could not have come into being and nourished the writers, artists and activists it has without her wide-ranging curiosity, her intellect, her diplomacy, her passion for justice in so many different spheres of life, and her creativity, warmth and grace in bringing people together and bringing out the best of their ideas.
I know that she is going to continue using her talents and her generous heart to remake the world in the years ahead. And these will not be easy years for any of us, especially the next few. But how many people, stepping down from a job, leave behind them an institution that did not exist before, that is thriving, and that is the center point of a community that stretches across generations, across the country, across different means of attempting to remake the world, and across all the barriers that too often divide us? The BMC is her creation, and we are all in her debt.
—Adam Hochschild founded Blue Mountain Center with Harriet Barlow in 1981, and recently stepped down as board chair after 35 years. He is the author of To End All Wars and many other books.
Restoring Our Original Reasons for Being Artists
The first time I sat at the Blue Mountain table in September 2000, I disliked at least half of the people who Harriet forced me to introduce myself to. They, undoubtedly, disliked me. As each of us stated our names and what we were working on, we managed to sneak into the brief introduction our publishers or galleries, our agents as well as our books, paintings, compositions, awards. It brought out the absolute worst in us. Much later, after I’d known her for years, I asked her why she put new residents through this ordeal and she replied, “To get it over with.”
By the end of that session, I loved—this is not too strong a word—each of the people at the table because I had seen his or her work, walked together to the hanger or shared a canoe from Raquette Lake, talked about the wonder of the loons or the ache of trying to make something right. We had grown up together. The guy I had disliked the most bought Champagne for my birthday. Harriet and her staff had created an atmosphere in which the galleries, the agents, the publishers and the need to flaunt them or feel bad about not having them had either disappeared or taken a far back seat. She restored us to our original reason for being artists, she brought us back to the love of creating something out of nothing.
At Blue Mountain, as David Morris says, Harriet created not only a non-profit, but a community. She did this by opening the doors that the world had either closed to us or made us kick down. Out of that dedicated, intelligent, wide-ranging and uncensored mind, something is made out of nothing.
Harriet once sent me a poem she liked: “Like You” by Roque Dalton (El Salvador), translated by Jack Hirschman. Here’s a piece of it:
I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me.
—Nora Gallagher is the author of five books exploring faith, doubt and conscience
Poems Will Surprise You When You Have Time
There was a time in my life when I viewed mountains as obstacles as well as reminders of my own limitations. In the 1980s I found myself by a lake looking at a mountain in the distance. Growing up in the South Bronx my horizon from the St. Mary’s housing projects was a view of LaGuardia Airport. I watched airplanes land and takeoff. Years later as the black flies circled around me I stood staring across a lake. I was suddenly surrounded by beauty and a small group of people who created beauty.
I was blessed to have a residency at the Blue Mountain Center. It was my first time having a space and time to do nothing but write poems and read. Looking back on this period in my life I now realize I was blessed. Everyday around a large table I shared meals and conversations with other artists. Our words to each other were as important as bread being passed around. I found the words of others nourishing and helping me grow as a writer. The Blue Mountain Center taught me what a community should be. It’s something, now that I’m older, I don’t take for granted. There will always be something sacred about Blue Mountain; inside the laughter and smile of Harriet Barlow one understood the glow of fellowship. Maybe it was an outgrowth of the volleyball games after dinner; artists and writers divided into groups, a ball and net creating not a game but a spirit and energy that often glowed after the night came across the lake and whispered about stars and daybreak.
I completed work on my book Where are the love poems for dictators? during my first stay at Blue Mountain. The third section of the book consisted of poems I wrote while inhaling the upstate New York air.
A couple of them had a meditative quality and a slight Zen touch. Poems will surprise you when you have time to rest and dream. If one can see earth’s magic it can be described and placed on paper or canvas. It can be sung. Below is one of the poems I wrote while at Blue Mountain. Maybe I wrote it because I didn’t know how to swim. I had only the canoe of my imagination to gently push me forward beyond the history of memory. I wanted to create my own mythology. I wanted to steal the fire; I wanted to return to life’s circle and warm the hearts of my friends and lovers.
blue mountain got its name from the blue people
who came from the middle of the lake
looking for food on the shore
they sent prayers up to the sky
in the form of clouds
a few clouds
got caught near the top
of the mountain
struggling to free themselves
they slipped and fell back into the lake
if one wishes
to see god
one must look through water
—E. Ethelbert Miller is the author of nine books of poetry. His tenth, If God Invented Baseball, appears in February
(Courtesy BMC Archives)
Where Creative and Political Impulses Are Brought Together
Unique to Blue Mountain, and irreplaceable, is the blending of artistic sustenance with a sense of social justice, generously conceived. I know of no other place where the creative and political impulses of our lives are brought together in so sustaining a way. Nor is there anything doctrinaire about BMC’s embrace of both artistic and social concerns: BMC seems animated by the simple notion that caring deeply about the state of the world and caring about the landscapes of the world is part of what it means to be a fully creative being. All too often, our lives are parceled out and separated; we go to wild places for immersion in nature; we go to cities for cultural stimulation; we go to political communities for activism. At Blue Mountain, in a place of heart-stopping beauty, all these elements are somehow brought together with a deceptive informality and grace that seems perfectly, impossibly right.
I have traveled widely, but I have not encountered any other place that combines with such seeming ease so many disparate elements of what it means to be a complete human being. There is a creative generosity at BMC that seems to be the living spirit of the place, and I have watched this spirit affect and move most of the people who pass through it, allowing them to touch what is best inside themselves, even if this only to recognize once more the importance of artistic struggle and political responsibility. And the idea of what the political spirit is at BMC is so generously inclusive, so unprescriptive in its conception.
—Anne McClintock is a writer, photographer and public intellectual who focuses on issues of sexuality, race, environmentalism, militarization and imperialism
You have created
Every moment is a beginning.
I am just one of your beginnings.
We are just some of your beginnings.
—Anne Basting is a theater professor, author and founder of TimeSlips Creative Storytelling
The Willie Mays of the American Left
In baseball, the scouts sometimes describe a prospect as a “five tool” player. It’s shorthand for those few ballplayers who excel at hitting, hitting with power, fielding, running and throwing. The complete package, say, like Willie Mays.
As 91% of Americans know, men are only truly comfortable when communicating via sports metaphors. So I’ll say what you already know: Harriet is the Willie Mays of the American left. She reads widely, thinks deeply, sees connections years ahead of others, takes chances, puts her money where her mouth is, favors building real power, is always delighted to hear your voice on the phone, loves her country a lot. That’s like eight tools, and you can add your own.
Every single time I have ever made that turn onto the BMC road (“Keep looking! I know it’s coming up soon!!) I would immediately be in a good and elevated mood. Something interesting, something challenging, something fun was bound to happen. Harriet had invited you, and even if she wasn’t entirely sure of what was going to happen, she had confidence that the people in the room would bring their best selves to the effort. If called for, she might even remind us of this imperative from time to time, but mostly she led by example.
I think of Harriet as a curator of possibilities. Blue wasn’t a museum, but it needed someone who would take this astonishing place from a bygone era and fill it with people and projects and artists who were alive to possibilities for a better, more just and more beautiful future. She probably had some dud weekends from time to time (“Hey, nobody bats a thousand!) but her fingerprints are everywhere across this land of ours, and we are the better for it.
—Dan Cantor is National Director of Working Families
Our Greatest Enemies are Cynicism & Despair
Harriet is a strikingly tall woman and yet I always forget this. The reason, I realize, is because she possesses that rare gift of meeting people at any level and then raising them up. I am just one of the many thousands who have been nurtured by her care and then grown (if not in inches, then in wisdom) as a result of Harriet’s wise words of advice. Above all, I have been inspired and encouraged by the example she sets for civic engagement, always striving for fair and just societies. Harriet’s ever-curious mind allows her to join the dots from the local to the national and global.
Some years ago, Harriet told me that she recites Langston Hughes’s poem “Dreams” as a daily admonition. She ended her email by reminding me of “the simple and true reality: our greatest enemies are cynicism and despair and alienation.” It is this line from Harriet that I now recite as my daily admonition. Thank you Harriet, for telling us and showing us how we must hold fast to dreams.
—Sarah Ladipo Manyika is books editor at ozy.com and writes novels, short stories, essays and scholarly research
To Stretch the World
I met Harriet the first time in BMC’s kitchen. It was early morning, and she’d arrived at Blue late during the previous night. I think it was at dinner that night, or surely one of our successive dinners, when she thanked us— everyone at the table—for the work we were doing to “stretch the world.” This has always stuck with me (though I may be paraphrasing her exact words), first because since then I have always aspired to do just that, and second because it sums up what BMC does too. It could be Blue’s shorthand mission statement: To Stretch The World.
The space Harriet has created there on the edge of the lake in the quiet woods is as cosmopolitan as anyplace. A beaming and filling bigness of spirit and intention channeled both inwardly and outwardly that encourages all who enter to take encouragement, and embrace hope. Being at BMC and meeting so many brilliant residents hailing from everywhere, and engaged in grappling with the most important questions we face as humans, has stretched my world time and again. I thank you, Harriet, for creating a place for us to continually stretch ourselves into new shapes and new challenges and new ways to breathe space for justice into the world.
—Dylan Gauthier is an artist exploring collaborative practice in the fields of ecology, architecture, pedagogy and social change
The Fire She Carries
Harriet is so deserving of all the accolades for her vision, her creativity and her lived commitments which are reflections of the fire she carries. I’ve seen her use that fire, to comfort someone at the cold edges, to listen with intensity, to illuminate a growing thought, to ignite sparks in others and to create the warmth of human community which nourishes us all. I’m so grateful for her leadership, her grace, generosity and for her luminous presence.
—Robin Wall Kimmerer is a plant ecologist, writer, professor and founder of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment
BMC crew cheering paddlers in the grueling 3-day Adirondack Canoe Classic
The Value & Nobility of Stewardship
When I think of Harriet and her 35-year tenure at Blue Mountain Center, I think of stewardship, not just for an institution but for movements. The long, arduous, never-ending campaigns to advance peace, protect the environment, enhance transparency, reform the criminal justice system, advance equality and reduce exposure to toxic chemicals have all been helped in ways small and large by various gatherings at the BMC. Harriet treats these movements like family. The ability to nurture and support and encourage—and to protect—come naturally to her.
The value and nobility of stewardship itself is especially worthy of celebration in these troubled times. To faithfully seek to leave something in better condition for others in the next generation is both our true calling and the greatest reward.
Among the many lessons Harriet has taught us, this value is a particularly special gift and one that the next generation of leadership at BMC will always work to advance.
—David Hochschild, Commissioner of the California Energy Commission, is the new board chair of Blue Mountain Center
The first time I came to BMC in August, 2005, my heart was beating with excitement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is where I would be for the next four weeks? This beautiful place? Later when people asked me how my BMC residency was, I told them that it saved my body and soul. I felt home at BMC with strangers, but they were no strangers after one meal together. The communal spirit at BMC was magical. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to come back to BMC several times. Once you come to BMC, you’re already a part of BMC community for life.
Behind this special place is a very special woman, Harriet, who welcomed strangers with her big smile and twinkling eyes, saying, “Hello darling!” I’m forever grateful for her vision and commitment. And I’m so humble and honored to be a part of this community. Thank you, Harriet—and thank you, a thousand times.
—Naoe Suzuki is a Tokyo-born visual artist who works primarily in drawing. Many of the photos accompanying this story are hers.
A Master Mentor
I first met Harriet Barlow in Spring of 1986. I was the 21-year-old elected leader of the New York State’s Student Union, which had just helped win the largest single act of divestiture in the campus anti-apartheid movement and was now fighting to successfully stop the Reagan Administration from eliminating the Secretary of Education as a cabinet position and gutting federal financial aid programs. I had been invited to a gathering at Blue Mountain Center in which foundations and movement activists were trying to develop strategies to defeat the Reagan agenda.
The question being debated was whether philanthropists should invest in student organizing? Harriet’s position was that no real strategy could ignore the opinions or actions of the youth and that young people, filled with passions not yet deterred by the cynicism that emerges later in life, needed to be seen as central to any future strategies.
I remember her being the first adult I knew to brilliantly articulate that we were winning hard-fought campaigns precisely because we had refused to compromise in our demands, and used sustained direct action including mass protests and civil disobedience to do it. When other people we saw as elders told us to settle for less—the Sullivan Principles, for example, rather than total divestiture—Harriet deeply understood that because we were young, we hadn’t learned to settle for less and that very conviction—plus good strategy—led to a string of important wins in a moment when victories were few and far between.
Harriet Barlow has never stopped believing in the crucial role of young people. She has spent a considerable amount of time lovingly mentoring sometimes impossible-to-tolerate 20-somethings, helping them develop into dedicated and strategic lifetime organizers. One of Harriet’s amazing qualities is that she has the bandwidth to make hundreds of people all feel they are extra special to her—and to encourage us to rise to high standards of strategy and morality in the movement. It would take decades before I understood, genuinely, how many people across many social movements count Harriet Barlow as one of the most important mentors in their lives.
Blue Mountain Center has been central to my life’s work. Harriet’s brilliance and vision in understanding that our movements need physical spaces where activists from across all sectors can free their mind and liberate their thinking makes an invaluable contribution to progressive politics. Naturally, she identified and mentored a super capable person to continue the vision of Blue Mountain Center— Ben Strader, who himself now serves as a strategic advisor to me and many, many others.
—Jane McAlevey is an organizer, author and scholar who focuses on teaching power and strategy
(Photo courtesy BMC Archives)
Like an emperor in Rome
but peaceful, Harriet inspires this poem—
Harriet O Harriet
never needs a lariat
to gather us to the table
From sea to shining sea
she’s bid them come to BMC
below a mountain blue
beside a lake or two
to think, converse, envision
art and activist revisions
of our works and days
amidst a complex maze
of capitalism, industrialism—
What is to be done?
the core Barlovian question
(like Vladimir Lenin—
What can be our commons?
How to further justice
joy and fun-
in every species neighborhood?
Harriet’s given years
of heart and mind, smiles and tears
in community, affinity
challenging self and others to see—
See her there on Eagle Lake!
Her steady stroke, her canoe’s wake!
a perfect blend of thoughtful action
in the lake her boat’s reflection
from shore to shore
in the country in the city
let’s get to work no time for pity
Begone! despair and apathy!
For decades now at BMC
Harriet’s progressive sight
shines with inner & outer light
Se we follow, salute her glory
but that is not the end of story—
persists far beyond BMC
vibrates in all she shared and said
artists and activists by her led
to think of horizons ever new
and hopeful by a Mountain Blue.
—Maureen N. McLane is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Some Say