Make Your Own Job: Ellen Gilbert Acts Locally, Thinks Globally
Wealth of Nations
Gilbert’s mission is to open her city’s eyes, hearts, and minds to the vibrant hues of its international community.
In an elegantly decaying old brick building on Charlotte Avenue in Nashville, TN, the world comes together.
Afternoon sunlight streams into the windows of the Global Education Center‘s ground floor, where the aroma of potatoes fried Peruvian style suffuses a modest shop. I browse the store’s vivid wares—African drums, Guatemalan tapestries, and Russian nesting dolls—while a curly-haired American dad and his Peruvian wife and baby girl chatter in Spanish and share lunch behind the counter.
“That’s my son,” says Ellen Gilbert, founder and director of the center. He met his wife on a study trip to Peru, she explains. Her son’s bicultural family is perhaps a living testament to Gilbert’s lifelong vision of a Nashville that unreservedly embraces international visitors and immigrants. She dreams of a city unafraid of the resplendent sights and sounds of a culturally multifarious community, and she’s built her life around her hope of realizing that vision.
The small Ohio town where Gilbert grew up in the 50s and 60s might seem like infertile soil to seed a voracious curiosity about distant places and mores. But her grandmother’s quiet Appalachian wisdom, her family’s Native American heritage, and a nearby university of predominantly African-American students gave her a taste of Otherness, in all its fascinating flavors. Then, when she was 10 years old, a YWCA African dance class opened the world for her in a way nothing else had. “That taught me that you can enjoy part of a culture and not try to own it,” she says.
Gilbert’s next life lesson was harder won. “I had something very violent happen to me when I was 15,” she says. “And the only people in my school who reached out to me to see if I was OK was the one gay teacher and the African-Americans and their parents. So I learned really young that people who’ve been through a lot of struggles have a lot of empathy. And that we all have similar stories no matter where we come from. And so that kind of clicked a light on in me that I wanted to surround myself with people who’ve had struggles and who have a lot of empathy.”
That desire has fueled Gilbert’s life’s work: to share those connecting stories, to widen her community’s definition of “Us,” and hopefully, to spread that sense of empathy that “otherness” can often bring. She launched that mission 30 years ago, with her “Passport to Understanding” school-outreach project. Early on, she observed a palpable discomfort in kids from other cultures, struggling mightily to fit in with their classmates. “I just felt like, it’s so easy to make your class welcoming to everybody,” she says. “So I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
For three decades, she’s been hauling exotic instruments, toys, and garments to classrooms all over Nashville and sharing with students her fascination with the world. Fascination can have transformative power, Gilbert says, launching into a story about a three-year-old Vietnamese girl in a monochromatic preschool class she once taught. “The kids were making fun of her eyes,” she recalls. “So I did a unit on Vietnam. She taught the kids how to use chopsticks, how to weave, all this stuff that she was good at…and that made them think about how much she had to teach them and how valuable she was.
“You just kind of sneak it in there,” she smiles. “And make it a part of natural life.”
In 1997, Gilbert added the Charlotte Avenue brick-and-mortar site to her schools program, and the Global Education Center was born. The center hosts international artists, dancers, and musicians, and runs a summer camp that exposes kids to the traditions of faraway lands. On any given day, students might learn phrases in Spanish or Chinese, pound out a Ghanaian drum rhythm, or try a few Polynesian dance steps.
Gilbert laughs when I ask her why learning about other cultures has become a pejorative, politicized ism. “I think it’s fear,” she says. “But all of us came from somewhere else. And all these people bring richness to our lives.” She understands the push to get immigrants speaking English. But fear goes both ways. ”I’m having that issue with my daughter-in-law,” she says. “She’s scared to learn English. She’s scared to speak it.”
With the understanding of someone who’s struggled to wrap her tongue around a new language, and the wisdom to employ carrot rather than stick, Gilbert takes this tack: “My thing is, instead of saying, ‘You have to learn English, you’re in America,’ say, ‘If you live in America, you should learn English so you’ll have a better life. You’ll be empowered. You’ll be able to defend yourself and figure things out.’
“You want everybody to feel comfortable in America, right?” she says. And for Gilbert, the best way to begin sneaking in those lessons of empathy is through the worldly cadence of a drumline, a dance rhythm, a poem. Because art, she says, is a language we all understand.
To learn more about the Global Education Center, click here.