It was clear to the Biddeford team from the get-go (that would be way back when the MCHP application process began) that the city’s diversity should be the focus of its work this year.
Diversity, however, can mean different things to different people. Plus, it has become such a trendy term in our society that it risks losing its value and sounding overly academic. So right away, team members landed upon a much more engaging image: Neighborhoods.
Biddeford Pool, Hills Beach, The Shipyard, Little Canada… these are some of the place names that capture the city’s colorful history as a community that drew different groups of people to work in its many industries–the mills and shipyards, in particular–and play along its Atlantic coastline and 15 miles of Saco River frontage.
Over time, these and other Biddeford neighborhoods have celebrated the ethnic and cultural heritages of the French, Greeks, Italians, Irish, Chinese, ethnic Albanians and more, as well as significant populations of Jews and Muslims.
What riches to explore. Think of the various traditions and rites of passage, the festivals and food, the places of worship, the interaction within and between groups, the connection of particular groups to the rise and fall of various industries. The potential exists for every neighborhood to have its own local history website! It’s just a matter of digging a little harder in some cases since the historical record hasn’t always been kind to minority groups.
This array of experience happens to fall nicely in line with the group of students at Biddeford High School that will be working on the project under the direction of team leader Denise Doherty. Denise teaches Project Aspire. Like the various populations throughout Biddeford’s history, the kids in her class are also from a variety of backgrounds, also have potential waiting to be unearthed, and also have found themselves on the margins at one time or another.
The MCHP is their opportunity to own the narrative for a change–to pick and choose the stories they want to tell, the ones that resonate with their own lives. To build, in fact, their own virtual neighborhood with the able assistance of the McArthur Public Library and Biddeford Historical Society staff and collections behind them.
The result is sure to be as colorful, complex, and wide-ranging as the city itself–and I, for one, cannot wait to visit.