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LEARNING AND CHANGE IN THE SHOE SHOP
by Frank Adams   (reprinted from the Radical Teacher, July, 1977)


If you agree that the community is but one of many teachers, as the 
ancient Greeks believed, then the idea of teaching in a cobbler's shop may 
not sound preposterous. The job I do is fix shoes and make leather sandals 
while, at the same time, attempting deliberately to use the community I 
live in as an educative force for social change.

The shoe repair shop, called the Awl-Soles Shoe Repair & Leatherworks on 
the few bits of paper necessary to keep a very small business going, is in 
the county seat of a rural, quite poor. political subdivision of northeastern 
North Carolina. So-called progress has been fended off in Gates County and 
Gatesville, its county seat. There are no fast-food hamburger drive-ins, no 
air-conditioned malls, no superhighways. Traffic gets heavy-compared to 
what we are used to -for a few minutes around nine a.m. and five p.m. 
Local wits call it the rush minute.

The shop is across the street from the post office, and next door to the 
weekly newspaper office. People come and go all day, stopping usually to 
exchange greetings or gossip. Just around the corner on Main Street is the 
county's largest grocery store. There you can buy excellent sharp cheddar 
cheese, chain saws, New York or California wines, hog jowls, wire 
screening, seeds and fertilizers, nuts or bolts. The school administration 
offices, headquarters for the county's largest employer, the county library 
and courthouse, and welfare offices are in sight of the shoe shop half a 
block away.

Here, as in most rural places in the South, the tradition of sitting around 
talking in a store endures. In the past, these gatherings were the places 
we could learn without appearing ignorant. Valuable information could be 
learned about farming or logging, or road conditions if the weather was 
bad, who was doing what in politics, and what happened in the last 
session of court. We could find out what was happening in the world 
beyond from the drummers who stopped in, too, peddling this or that. To 
insure that nobody got the idea we were there for less than serious 
trading, someone usually provided a checker board. Having grown up in a 
similarly rural community thirty miles away, I knew the importance of 
country stores in our culture as learning centers.

But I also knew that much of the talk in these places was racist, or 
sexist, baseless tittle-tattle, often mean-spirited and usually politically 
reactionary. Only when I saw how Jake and Edith Easterling of Poorbottom 
Hollow, Kentucky, and Joe Begley of Blackey, Kentucky, nearby, used the 
community stores they ran did I realize the potential of such places for 
social change.

For years, the Easterlings and Begley have been in the thick- of efforts to 
end poverty, to stop strip-mining, to insure that their neighbors were not 
trampled on by government and the rich. They and their Appalachian 
neighbors have not always won the fights they got into, but they seldom 
got pushed around because they didn't know who was pushing, or because 
they misjudged their opposition, or because they acted as individuals, not 
collectively.

I was on the staff of Highlander Research and Education Center, in New 
Market, Tennessee, when I came to know the Easterlings and Joe Begley, 
and how they used their stores. What they were doing naturally in their 
native communities, I felt could be duplicated as an experiment in 
education at the grassroots level. So, when my work at Highlander was 
finished, I learned the cobbler's trade, collected the necessary equipment 
second-hand, and opened the shoe shop/education center trying to answer 
these questions.

Can greater social use be made of what might be described as accidental 
learning? Could talk in a country store become one means of focusing 
knowledge about civic affairs so that racist, sexist and exploitative 
power relationships were altered? Would it be possible to provide 
low-cost, independently financed informal or community education in the 
South without depending on grants or fund-raising? Could small, 
community-based education centers become enclaves for a social 
movement?

Before attempting to answer these questions, some sense of what happens 
in the shoe shop during the day, and of the shop itself, should be briefly 
shared. Besides all the necessary equipment to repair shoes and for 
making sandals, there is a small table (with a checker board of course), 
three chairs, a rocker, and a couple of stools. While the shop is small, it 
has a sense of space because of two huge windows which run from the 
ceiling almost to the floor and look out on Court Street's daily activity. 
Bright yellow and orange paint on the machinery and furniture liven the 
atmosphere. A few plants soften the shop's interior lines. A bulletin board 
holds a spate of meeting notices and news items, plus a bumper sticker or 
two proclaiming, “Legalize Freedom.”

The curriculum does not grow from a fixed notion of what should be 
taught, nor from a textbook or ideology, but rather from the life of our 
county, its households, its schools, its religious ceremonies, its festivals, 
and its public affairs. While I'd like to fancy myself an unbiased teacher 
operating in the traditions of a university professor orating on all sides of 
an issue, I am not. Civic affairs, in general, and poverty, powerlessness, 
sexism and racism, in particular, are issues which affront me, and which 
most directly impair life in Gates County and in the world. So these issues 
are discussed frequently in the shop, and I hasten to add, often with 
greater care for gathering the facts, for examining the human factors 
involved, and for exploring the alternative courses of action than has been 
my experience in a college classroom. To do otherwise, could be hazardous 
to your health.

After all, the explicit aim of discussions in the shop is to put what we 
learn together about our common problems into collective use, to act on 
what we know to be unjust or unlawful in Gates County.

There is no daily agenda. Who comes in, and what is on their minds, and 
what they will talk about, is what is talked about. In this sense the 
learning is accidental. Sometimes, I continue fixing shoes while talking 
with the one or several persons present. At other times, I stop and join 
them around the checker table. Frequently, I provoke conversation ''Have 
you heard" or, "What do you think about." As often, I contribute nothing 
when several people are discussing an issue they have begun talking over. 
In this sense, too, learning is accidental. But we are all peers; learning 
takes place horizontally rather than vertically as is the circumstance in a 
traditional classroom.

There are, of course, patterns of continuity. Very few civic problems have 
easy solutions. The process by which individuals arrive at the point where 
they feel confident enough of themselves to act publicly on a civic 
problem differs from individual to individual and is painfully slow, 
although usually evident. People, however, do get issues on their minds 
and come back repeatedly to talk again about still another aspect of 
what's troubling them. Some community issues loom so large that many 
people want to talk, and these on and off conversations may last over a 
period of several weeks, or even a month or two. There is no formula for 
when or how to ask the essential question, "What can we do about it?" 
Sometimes it is obviously too soon to ask, other times the opportunity is 
lost in a fleeting second. Nevertheless, the question must be raised. 
Action must result Collectively.

Some "'customers" come by regularly, others only when they have some 
shoes to be fixed. Still others come when they feel the pinch of a social 
problem they have heard discussed in the shop. They are young and old, 
black and white, men and women. We have talked about the particulars of 
taxes, politics and candidates, prisons, Alex Haley's Roots, peanut acreage 
allotments, revenue sharing, the school system's short-comings and 
strengths, the preservation of a beautiful millpond as a state park, the 
shortage of doctors. We have mourned the death of a good neighbor, and 
celebrated some good times. We have told a few jokes, usually on 
ourselves. But as we talk, as a teacher, I always keep in mind to ask how 
we can empower ourselves to meet our self-defined problems collectively. 

What has happened in Gates County as a result? 

An unqualified response would be unjustified, the shoe shop has been open 
only two years. Insufficient time has elapsed to warrant any final 
judgments. I learned at Highlander that ten to fifteen years are required 
to ''unearth the seeds of fire.” Too, it would be impossible as well as 
improvident to suggest that some events would not have taken place were 
it not for the shoe shop. However, for those in the country who work hard 
to maintain the status quo, and who hold power, the shoe shop is given 
credit for virtually anything which results in social change. The shop is a 
thorn in their sides. But their talk about it brings in new ''customers." And 
while their charges about its effectiveness are exaggerated, the shoe shop 
affirms what the ancient Greeks believed, and what Paul Goodman used to 
say frequently about learning, ''The job we do, the environment we live in, 
and the social culture of our communities educates us.''

For example, on the most rudimentary level, blacks and whites, men and 
women, young and old have found the shoe shop a place where they can talk 
as equals. About 56 percent of the county's population is black. Old 
segregationist traditions continue. In this part of North Carolina, blacks 
are to be seen and not heard, are to work, not think. So to see a black 
manor woman introduced to a white person, then to watch them shake 
hands, then talk as equals, is to see Jim Crow wither. For a woman to be 
taken seriously in the discussion of civic issues is to dismantle another 
rural South taboo. For the young to have a place where they can talk to 
adults about drugs and sex without fear provides an example of what could 
be rather than the continued constraint of what is. These "little" events 
happen regularly in the shoe shop.

The alteration of individual consciousness is not the only result. 
Organizations have sprung to life from talk in the shoe shop. As so often 
happens when people talk together who have been kept apart by design, 
tradition or fear, they find each has pretty much the same problem, and, 
frequently, that problem derives from the same source. Once this 
commonality can be discovered by each person, and experienced if not 
savored, then it is not difficult to encourage them to release their own 
individual potential and energy, and not merely seek relief from their 
problem. Getting organized with others seems a natural way to solve civic 
problems. The teacher's task at this point is to search through repeated 
questions, or the piling on of uncontested fact, until one spark will evoke 
the first action. This takes time and patience.

For example, within days after the shoe shop opened in September, 1975, 
one of the county's two overworked doctors shut down his practice to join 
the Coast Guard. He moved away. The community was shocked. He was a 
life-long resident. For more than two months after his departure, medical 
care became the chief topic of conversation. Slowly, by persistently 
asking the question “What can we do to start a community controlled 
medical clinic?'' at what seemed appropriate moments in the 
conversation, an informal group started meeting in the shoe shop once or 
twice a week without call or formal resolve. A young lawyer assumed a 
leadership role in the discussions. Blacks were assumed to be included 
both in the discussions and in the resulting organization. They needed 
medical care, and had taken part in the talks from the outset. The aid of 
the county's part-time public health director was enlisted. A countywide 
fish fry was held to raise money to buy five acres of land for a clinic site. 
The search was begun for two doctors, a dentist, a physician's assistant, 
and others who would work in the clinic. Plans were drawn for a $350,000 
primary care facility for two doctors and a dentist. Emergency room care 
would be provided at a nearby hospital. State-level support was secured, 
and a grant of $52,800 was given by a private foundation. The clinic is 
expected to open within a year. Rich and poor, black and white, 
professional and blue collar, men and women sit on the controlling board.

A second organization also grew out of the shoe shop talks. One mother 
after another would come into the shop hauling an armload of shoes with a 
child or two in tow. Taking advantage of what I saw - mothers burdened 
with shoes and children - I started asking what each mother thought about 
day care centers, and why they thought there were no centers in the 
county. By accident one day two young women, one black and one white, 
arrived in the shop simultaneously. After getting to know each other's 
names, I raised the questions with them. They started telling each other 
how a center would help, and how when they were children there always 
seemed to be a grandmother or aunt around to help tend children. It was a 
good talk between strangers. And I knew it could continue-they would 
come back for their shoes.

When the young black mother returned, she had obviously been thinking 
about our talk, and asked. "Do you suppose a day care center could be 
started here?" From that question grew a countywide organization calling 
itself Alternatives for Children in Gates County, Inc.  Its members include 
men and women in equal proportion, not by design or mandate but by 
interest. They have devised their own goals, written their own by-laws, 
filed their own forms for state and federal tax exemption, held enough 
fund-raising events to buy a small building, and wrote their own Title XX 
contract for the local department of social services. Despite many 
setbacks - the most common being the refusal of owners to rent vacant 
houses to them because the center would be integrated - the first center 
for ten children will open in June, 1977.

Three teachers, a director, and volunteersm - all from Gates County - will 
be employed. A second center for 14 children is being planned. A grant of 
$56,000 was secured to train staff, bring the buildings up to federal 
certification standards, and to buy equipment. State officials in charge of 
day care services say the drive in Gates County to establish day care is 
the only one of its kind in the state. It is being done completely by the 
citizens.

Both organizations used the shoe shop as a meeting place, as a place 
where messages could be left and delivered. The day care organization 
used it for bake sales. Larger meetings were held in various public 
buildings. In each, I took an active part in the development process but 
held no office and was only an informal part of the decision-making and 
discussion process.

Even a quasi-governmental organization emerged from the shoe shop. A 
few months back a local Baptist minister and a young black who works in 
a shipyard across the state line in Virginia got to talking one Saturday 
about the gulf between the races in Gates County. A few weeks later, 
again in the shop for a shoe-shine, they picked up their conversation, with 
the minister adding this time his idea that the county needed a human 
relations commission. They asked if I knew anyone with the North Carolina 
Human Relations Commission in Raleigh who could help them get one 
started. I agreed to find out, and, if possible, to arrange a meeting. In the 
months following, quiet meetings were held in homes around the county, 
each meeting attended by more persons than the previous one. Plans were 
laid for an organization. By-laws were drawn up. A public meeting was 
planned with the state director to attend. This was followed by the 
selection of a delegation to attend the county commissioners' meeting to 
formally request that they establish such a group.

There were a few tense moments. A young woman who worked with the 
agricultural extension service was threatened with being fired by her 
white boss. The Ku Klux Klan temporarily revived in the county. Both 
developments only underscored the minister's points when he and the 
other citizen-elected delegates appeared before the commissioners. The 
idea was approved. A fifteen-member commission was formed and started 
work bridging the color line.

These events have not shaken the world. No dramatic headlines have been 
written about them. And, unless I were to describe in greater detail the 
nature of the political fabric in Gates County one could say that no 
significant alteration in power relationships resulted.

Five years ago, when my wife and two children moved to the county there 
were no means by which blacks and whites could come to know one 
another save in the traditional dominant-subordinate roles, the old boss-
servant shuffle. Today, as a direct result of educational experiences in the 
shoe shop, there are three such organizations. Indirectly, two others have 
come into being. One is an arts council, the other is an investment club 
formed among the local school administrators. Through all of these, the 
long suppressed wisdom and talent of people of both races and sexes are 
merging. New leaders have emerged.

People slowly have come to believe they can participate in public 
meetings. Again, five years ago no citizen attended meetings of the board 
of education. Today, upwards of twenty are frequently there. The schools 
are no longer run as a private club.

Blacks have gained a new self-image and esteem. Five years ago there was 
no black elected or appointed official in county government. Today, two 
blacks sit on the school board, one each sits on the county planning board, 
on the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and on the department of social 
services board. Of thirty-six members on the county board of elections, 
eighteen are black. Blacks are equally represented on the local Democratic 
Party committee with whites. There has been some shift in the balance of 
power.

Still another factor has to be considered. Each of the organizations which 
grew from the shoe shop talks has created jobs, often for people with 
little or no formal education. In a county with an unemployment rate 
standing regularly at seven percent, where 43 percent of the homes have 
no running water or electricity and where each year is recorded the 
highest infant mortality rate in North Carolina, jobs are important. 
Moreover, these jobs have community esteem.

All is not roses, however. The shoe shop does not produce enough income 
to support my family. The economics of the cobbler's trade and the size of 
our community work against such hopes. It pays its own way and 
supplements my wife's income as a school teacher. On the other hand, I 
waste no time writing grant proposals to foundations, guarding what I 
judge needs to be said educationally for fear of losing tax-exempt status, 
or mailing pleas for donations.

Further. as an advocate of adult residential education, the shop has 
limitations. People can carry on extended conversations in it, but the 
format prevents implementing the powerfully educative opportunities 
which result when people live together for short periods of time, break 
bread over the table, or make music together. To counter this short-
coming, when discussions on issues seemed to warrant, I have arranged to 
use a regional meeting place for larger, overnight or weekend workshops.

But essentially, the shoe shop as an education center must be seen as the 
point of a spear, a place where previously half congealed thoughts can be 
said out loud, and where a response can be gotten, so that action results. 
The shop functions on three essential levels within the context - of adult 
education - first, it permits a multi-level response to a whole range of 
issues, second, it provides linkages or a means of referral between groups 
and issues in our community and groups and issues in other communities 
nearby and in the region, and, third, through conversation with such a 
diverse group as the customers during the course of a day connections can 
be and are made between seemingly disparate issues and problems.

Yet to be seen is whether the idea can be duplicated. No experiment in 
education is worth its salt if it can't be done by others elsewhere. The 
Danish Folk Schools succeeded not because Kristen Kold managed to 
implement the ideas of Bishop Grundtvig, but because the school he 
started could become a reality elsewhere until, after numbers of them had 
opened, a powerfully revitalizing social movement formed. Then social 
change resulted.
Notes

1. For a history of Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, 
Tennessee, see Frank Adams. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of 
Winston-Salem. N.C.  John F. Blair, Publisher. 1975. And Aimee Horton. "The 
Highlander Folk School: A History of the Development of Major Programs 
Related to Social Movements in the South, 1952-1961 Unpublished 
dissertation. University of Chicago. 1971.

2. For a well-done bibliography a  on the folk school movement
see. Rolland G. Paulston. Folk SchooI's in Social Movements: A
Partisan Guide to the International Literature.  Pittsburgh:
University Center for International Studies. University of
Pittsburgh. 1974.