I go up to Ely, Minnesota every autumn to canoe in the Boundary Waters wilderness.  I spent the most content six months of my life there in 1992, when I was in the woods 100 days  working as a volunteer for the Forest Service during a leave of absence I took from my medical practice.  My ties with Ely are so strong that I sponsor several scholarships at Vermilion Community College (VCC).

The day before my last annual canoe trip, when in Ely packing to go into the woods, I visited Patti Zupancich, Executive Director of the VCC Foundation.  We spoke about the political situation, bemoaning the constant fact that the community colleges in Minnesota need a lot more funding than they are getting. Sadly, while the VCC scholarship pool has doubled in the last decade, scholarships are a very small drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.  Community Colleges are important.  I volunteer in the math lab at Lane CC here in Eugene, and from the students I see, the community college is the only way for those who didn’t learn math in school to learn it.  Yes, 50 year-olds need to learn how to deal with fractions. If you don’t think I see those people come in some time. I’m there a lot.

Back to Ely.  Patti also is the counselor, the sounding board, and the liaison between the few African-American students who come to Ely and the town.  VCC has no athletic scholarships, and Ely is a white town in very redneck northern Minnesota.  I judge how an election year is going by the number of Republican signs I see on the drive up.  I only saw two between Cloquet and Ely, and one house that always sported one didn’t this year.  That tends to bode well.

Several of the students were outright afraid of what might happen to them. Why not?  Mr. Trump has been spouting racial epithets for over a year.  He has galvanized a host of right wing groups: white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, anti-semites, alt-Right, and while his Twitter account doesn’t have them, his campaign staff does, with at least two dozen such groups with whom they are in contact. I know that through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s emails. Patti said that an African-American student told her a homeowner near campus put a noose up by his house.  I thought lynching was replaced by lunching in this country, but Mr. Trump has brought the word back into common use. Patti went by the house and didn’t see the noose, but she did see a ladder by the tree.  And while the noose is no longer there, the one in southern Oregon, hanging Ms.Clinton in effigy, is.  This is bullying, racism, sexism and fascism.  I was stunned and angry; my wife was incensed.  And so we decided to “pull a Malheur” on Trump.  An explanation is in order.

When Malheur Wildlife Refuge was occupied last January, Zach and Jake Klonoski set up a donation site for four organizations whose values were as contrary to the values of the occupiers as possible: Friends of Malheur, the Paiute Tribe, Americans for Social Responsibility (Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly’s effort to change the makeup of Congress to make what most of think are commonsense laws regarding background checks), and the Southern Poverty Law Center. One made a pledge, which would be multiplied by the number of days the occupation lasted. In other words, the longer the occupation lasted, the more the occupiers were funding organizations they hated. A total of 1643 of us contributed nearly $136,000.

At Vermilion, funding from Access Opportunity Success (AOS), state funds, helps support groups, diversity education, and recreational opportunities for students of color as well as financial assistance awards to individual students (scholarships, textbook awards, assistance with housing deposits.)

AOS Scholarships are one-time awards for students returning for the following fall or students who will be taking summer classes through Vermilion to complete their two year degrees.

Currently, my scholarships at VCC are (1) One in our name that is given to a student, selected by the faculty, who is studying for a career that will involve the wilderness.  It has been awarded for 11 years.  (2) One in conjunction with the Friends of the Boundary Waters.  (3) Three for Veterans, which will this year needs a name.  My wife says I ought to name it after myself.  I said no, but not far below the surface, I need to know that something I did will live on after me.  I don’t know why it should matter since I won’t be around, but it does.

I hadn’t planned on giving any other scholarships, but after hearing about the noose, one way I can fight racism is to do things that are directly contrary to the values of the racists, like supporting a person of color in Ely.

I told Patti that I would cover whatever the College couldn’t cover this year, given that they are subject to funding constraints for the AOS Scholarships.  I will to go back up to Ely next April for the scholarship banquet, to which I haven’t been since 2013.  It’s a long trip, not cheap, but I can tie it into some time in the wilderness, before fishing season, when the lakes are quiet, and campsites haven’t been visited in 7 months.  I know exactly where I want to go.  Two or three days later, I’ll come out of the woods, shower at VCC, and wait around for the banquet that night at the Grand Ely Lodge.  I get considerable pleasure out of hearing my name being called to present my scholarship and the little buzz in the room when the audience is told I’m from Eugene, Oregon.  (There was a buzz with Tucson, Arizona, when I lived there.)

Oregon will probably be pronounced wrong.  I’m not a native, so I won’t correct it.  Don’t laugh; one VCC alumnus, a guest speaker in 2012, was from Portland, and the first thing he said when he began to talk was how to pronounce the state’s name.  Oregonians are like that.

In any case, I will have a smile on my face as I do one concrete thing that sticks it to the racists.  No, it’s not huge, but you see, I’m doing something positive. That’s important.  Positive stuff matters.  Do a lot of it. It doesn’t have to be a scholarship.  It might just be a letter to the editor, or calling people out who state racist, sexist, derogatory comments that have no place in civilized society.  If we don’t do this, and don’t it soon, we risk be dragged through the mud of fascism and taking the whole world with us.

Not only will I feel better, one more young person will have money he or she didn’t plan on having, I will be in the woods in late April, and my subsequent September trip will equalize the number of canoe trips in the Boundary Waters-Quetico with my age. Don’t laugh.  I find that important, too.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: