Madison County girls enrolled in Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education, aka PAGE Programs shared in powerful experiences together this summer despite the setbacks in COVID– from gathering seeds saved from Cherokee and Madison County farmers to growing their own permaculture garden alongside their science teachers at Madison Middle to being the first group to gather at the newly renovated Anderson Rosenwald School in Mars Hill while painting and quilting with Asheville Artist Jenny Pickens. Now in its twelfth year, PAGE began in Hot Springs and Spring Creek as a place-based educational program focused in helping young girls learn and connect in new and empowering ways. During COVID the program branched off from Duke University to continue that work– fostering connections with local teachers, farmers, artists, and entrepreneurs to co-create spaces for young girls to interact with elder community members, to learn the land, and the natural resources and opportunities available here while exploring their own relationship and connection to it through art, literature, food, and nature.
“A big part of what we want to do is help students see their own backyard through a different set of eyes and to truly see the resources that are all around them and learn really deeply about the place they live while developing more of a global lens at the same time,” shares PAGE Program Director Maia Surdam.
As a trained historian, baker, educator, and Co-Owner of OWL Bakery in West Asheville Surdam began working with PAGE in 2018 and says she naturally began weaving oral history into the programming. As something that brought so much richness to her life, she wanted the girls to “learn to develop deep listening skills and learn how to listen to other people’s stories, talk to their elders, and develop an appreciation for finding the connections between their story and other people’s stories.” Much of the programming in PAGE has revolved around literature, oral history gathering, and helping the girls learn to tell their own stories while drawing connections to the history, land, and community around them. During the week-long summer sessions, both middle and high school girls move through programming in separate weeks, each season offering a new set of experiences interweaving place, story, food, and craft.
This summer’s programming was focused into two different projects. The first in creating a permaculture garden at Madison Middle building off of the work students were already working on with their science teachers, Lindsey Montgomery and Jamie Calloway at Madison Middle in using the garden as the science curriculum and classroom. In partnership with PAGE, the teachers were paid to guide the students in the creation of a sustainable permaculture garden. Surdam shares her process in connecting with Madison County organic soil-makers at Dirtcraft Organics to have a truckload of soil delivered to the school garden. She then went on to connect with seed savers from the Eastern Band of Cherokee who donated native seeds in addition to seeds collected through the Mars Hill Heritage Garden.
“So the students are hands-on learning the native practice of Three Sisters Gardening with corn, beans, and squash and exploring how plants grow together and what the sustainable practices indigenous to this place are,” shares Surdam. “While sowing these seeds and recognizing that we’re on Cherokee land, they’re learning from people that have these really long connections to the land, whether they’re indigenous people that are still growing or white Appalachian folks that have been tied to the land and saving seed for generations in their family.”
The second project the girls shared in connected their earlier years of oral history gathering with the newly renovated Anderson Rosenwald School in Mars Hill. Together they listened to those story archives of local community members who attended the school, looked at photographs from that time, and gathered inside to create quilted squares honoring that history with Asheville Painter and Multimedia Artist Jenny Pickens. Together they were the first group to meet inside the space since the school’s closing in 1965.
“I wanted to help these girls capture the stories, the photographs and oral history and to put that into a picture,” Pickens shared. “So I showed them a quilt wall hanging I made years ago and then began to teach them how to hand sew and machine sew a few basic stitches. I think it’s very important that every male and female learns how to hand sew a basic running stitch, especially now with everything being a click of a button. It also goes back to the way things were done back then with the students in that school. Everything was done by hand and with pride.”
During their time together, each student created a quilted square to help honor and memorialize history through their own unique lens. Pickens said growing up as one of four children in her family, she remembers her grandmother cutting up old clothes to make blankets. She remembers threading the needle and years later learning to quilt from a woman in a quilting circle in the community. “I just got right into it and it just came easy like I’d done the work before sometime in another life, like painting with fabric, ” she said. “And the girls got just as excited and were teaching each other and creating together and made these squares that really reflected these stories. I think we have brighter futures when we know our past. Sometimes we’ve got to know what other people have struggled through to really understand today.”
Article by Tiffany Narron, August 2021
- Learn More about PAGE Programs + Stay Connected through their Newsletter + Social Media
- Have a Young Girl in Madison County who would like to be Involved? Email Maia Surdam at [email protected]
- Are you a community member with an idea for programming that you think might make a good fit for girls here in Madison County? Email Maia Surdam at the email address above to explore the possibilities.
- Explore Artist Jenny Pickens artwork at Fine Art America.