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Community on Wheels

At the 25th anniversary of her Music Mobile, Ruth Pelham continues on her mission to educate, inspire, and bring people together

By Shawn Stone

Joe Putrock

Ruth Pelham has many stories about her experiences with the Music Mobile, but she particularly likes to tell the one about the bug.Pelham, with her self-described “school on wheels,” was with a group of children in Albany’s Colby Park when a child walked up with a large dead insect in his hand.

“The other children said, ‘Eew, yuck, it’s a bug,’ ” Pelham recalls. “So I said, ‘It’s a great bug.’ ”

The children looked at her like she was out of her mind, but Pelham wasn’t going to let it go at that. Instead of going on with her planned program for the day—making instruments from simple materials and singing songs with the kids—Pelham sat the children down in a circle and talked about the bug. They went around the circle once, discussing what was different about the bug: “What it could do that we couldn’t do, like fly, or perch on a little tiny leaf.” They went around the circle again and thought about what they had in common with the bug: “We’re walking on the same ground, breathing the same air.”

“Then,” Pelham says, “came the big question: What do we do with the bug? What do we do with this dead thing? We’d already had our perception completely changed about this bug: It went from ‘eew’ to ‘wow.’”

The children decided that they needed to bury the bug. “At that point,” Pelham says with no small amount of wonder, “it shifted into a whole lesson about death and loss. The children now had an opportunity to say and think about what does happen to things that die, knowing there are family members or friends who die or go away, and how we deal with it.”

Now, 15 children were faced with the problem of finding a proper burial ground. They looked around the park, discussed their options, and settled on a large, beautiful tree. Once that was decided, there was the question of how to actually dig a grave for the bug..

“It’s a series of problems to be solved,” Pelham explains. “They didn’t have a shovel; how were they going to dig the hole? The kids came up with the answer: ‘There’s a stick.’ So they all took turns, taking the stick and digging a little bit, and passing it on to the next one.”

“It had now become a learning experience about, one, bugs and insects, two, about death, dying and loss, [and] three, social interaction, patience, and waiting your turn, and being eager about what the next person was going to say. So it became an opportunity for kids not only to listen to other people, but to notice that people were listening to them, too.”

After the hole was dug, the next question was: Who gets to put the bug in the hole? “Everybody looked at the little boy who brought the bug over,” Pelham remembers. The child had gone from being an object of scorn, for bringing the dead bug, to being . . . Pelham wasn’t sure how to describe the transformation. “He was almost like the shaman. [There was] some elevated position this young person had, and the namelessness of what that position was—every child realized that he should be the one to put the bug in.”

Joe Putrock

Each child took turns putting dirt in the hole. Pelham thought they were finished. She was wrong. The children wanted to write a song about the experience, so she sat down with them and memorialized the bug, in lines like, “We’ll remember you forever/At Colby Park.” Again, she thought they were finished. But the children wanted to record the song, so she could play it through the Music Mobile’s speakers as she drove away. So they did.

Pelham still sounds more than a little awed by the experience of the dead bug and how it turned into a series of lessons on life.

Life lessons are what Pelham has been sharing with Albany’s children for the last 25 years, through the Music Mobile program.

Back in 1977, Pelham intended to leave Albany for California to become a singer-songwriter. But she didn’t have enough money to go, and went instead to the City Arts Office looking for a job. There was no formal job available, but what happened instead was the Music Mobile, a summer program Pelham conceived more or less on the spot. Funded by a federal block grant program for urban development, and with a van provided by the city, the Music Mobile was an instant success.

Over the years, the Music Mobile evolved into what it is today. Pelham and members of her staff visit various parks and playgrounds around the city of Albany on a scheduled, weekly basis during the summer, using projects like instrument building and songwriting to connect with children. (She heralds her arrival by driving the streets of a particular neighborhood, playing the Music Mobile song through loudspeakers.) As illustrated by the story of the bug, Pelham is not rigid in her methods, and always incorporates sharing, communication and respect into the children’s experience. Financed by grants and corporate partners, Pelham has been able to reach multiple generations of Albany children.

It’s late on a Friday afternoon. The Music Mobile program may be winding down for this summer, but Ruth Pelham’s offices on North Lake Avenue in Albany still bustle with activity. Staff members go in and out, and the phone rings frequently. (Two phones, in fact: the land line and a cell phone.)

Staffers who check in with Pelham don’t leave the room without a hug. She’s both fond and proud of the people who work with her: “The staff is so diverse by age, by upbringing,” she says. “They are willing to put in the hard work in the hot sun out in the streets.” Elaborating on their varied backgrounds, she notes that they range “from a person with a GED, to college students, to a person who works in a deli and happens to be a great song leader . . . this staff is a microcosm of the world.”

The walls of her office are lined with shelves, all packed with books, workbooks, and teaching materials; the latter are mostly of her own creation. There are volume after volume, box upon box of grant proposals and records, because being a nonprofit corporation means devoting an enormous amount of time and effort doing fundraising. There are the handwritten journals she’s kept for each summer of the Music Mobile program, including the first, with the original lyrics to the famous (and insidiously catchy) Music Mobile song: “Come along, sing a song, it’s the Music Mobile . . . .”

“Most people don’t know I have an office here on North Lake Avenue, or that I’ve had an office for 25 years,” Pelham observes. “They don’t realize I have a staff.”

Most people also don’t realize that while the Music Mobile is a summer program, Pelham spends much of the rest of the year going into schools to do arts-in-education presentations, or offering teacher training workshops with themes like cooperative learning and developing literacy through music. She has become a respected educator and a positive social force in the community.

To celebrate the 25the anni ver sary of the Music Mobile, a concert will be held Wednesday (Aug. 28) at the Lakehouse in Washington Park. “I don’t know how this will turn out,” she offers, smiling. Like most of the work Pelham undertakes, it’s not just one kind of event. (Pelham ruefully notes that many of her grant applications were rejected through the years because the purposes of Music Mobile are so difficult to pigeonhole.) From 7 to 9 PM, there will be a concert with performances by Pelham, the legendary Pete Seeger, Ernie Williams, and a few special guests. Before the formal concert, at 6 PM, she and her staff will lead parents and children in a series of projects not unlike what she does with the Music Mobile: There will be mural painting and instrument making. This is a big undertaking, but everything is under control: There’s a small storage room neatly filled with all the materials for the celebration, carefully sorted and organized.

The murals to be painted at the concert will play a part in Pelham’s next big project: A trip to Sri Lanka this fall. The trip is being arranged in conjunction with the Sarvodaya peace movement, which has a significant presence all across that island nation. Sarvodaya is focused on peace, understanding, and organizing economic development at the village level, incorporating the concepts of respect for culture and spiritual values; after a nearly two-decades-long civil war between the country’s two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, such healing is certainly desirable. As Pelham explains, “It’s a model of community building using principles of culture and loving presence to break down barriers among people, to build on difference rather than find reasons to fight based on difference.”

The trip had its genesis at a workshop on peace and global transformation in California last year. Pelham met members of the Sarvodaya movement, compared notes, and discovered that they shared a vision. As a result, Pelham will soon be traveling to 100 Sri Lankan villages in a Music Mobile bus, bringing her songs and the murals as “a message of peace and hope.” She describes the theme of the trip as “helping children think about the ethical applications of science and technology, to create a world of peace instead of a world of war and violence.”

On Oct. 1, 1,200 children from villages all around Sri Lanka will come to the capital, Colombo, to sing with Pelham. She’s planning to learn how to sing the Music Mobile song in the local language, of course.

Last May, Pelham gave a key note address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education conference on full-service schools. These are schools that don’t end their day at three in the afternoon, or limit their agenda to “the three r’s.” Instead, they are designed to offer access to a variety of community services, from counseling to health care to day care. The theme of the conference was “building bridges with communities,” which Pelham sees as her core mission.

“The educational methodology behind Music Mobile is integrated learning, holistic learning,” she says. “I’m fascinated with the notion of the street as classroom. The most natural setting to provide education is where people live.” As Pelham sees it, going into the community and meeting people on their own turf gives them a sense of power. It makes them feel relevant, and that people are willing to listen to them and share ideas. It fosters a sense of dignity, and advances peace and understanding.

Pelham truly believes in community building—an idea in curious disrepute with certain elites, including prominent members of the Bush administration. As she has shown in her work over the last 25 years with the Music Mobile, Pelham believes in giving people who rarely communicate with each other a chance to interact: “Don’t see that other person as a stranger,” she says.

“They say I’m an idealist. I am, and I can’t think of any reason not to be an idealist, because you would want the best for everybody.”

The Music Mobile’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, with Ruth Pelham, Pete Seeger, Ernie Williams and Kim Harris, will be held Wedndesday, Aug. 28, at the Washington Park Lakehouse. At 6 PM there will be instrument building and mural making. The community concert will begin at 7 PM. Call 427-5815 for more information.

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