East Side Freedom Library co-founder to be celebrated in symposium

file photo • The former students and mentees of Peter Rachleff, one of the co-founders of the East Side Freedom Library, have organized a symposium in his honor, which will take place June 8 and 9. The event is open to the public and will take place at the library.

A tradition in academia follows that when a professor retires or reaches a milestone, his or her mentees or former students often come together to share their own academic work in celebration of their mentor. 

Peter Rachleff, one of the co-founders of the East Side Freedom Library, taught at Macalester College and Metropolitan State University for nearly 30 years and helped many students along the way. 

Following a personal credo that learning happens through conversation and community, and that it should be accessible to all outside the walls of academia, soon after Rachleff retired, he and his partner, Beth Cleary, also a Macalester professor, created the East Side Freedom Library and continue to mentor, teach and provide community space for such conversational learning. 

With his retirement and the library’s creation, one of Rachleff’s friends and mentees, James Robinson, who is now a black studies researcher at the University of Iowa, felt that it was perfect timing to organize such a symposium in honor of Rachleff. 

The symposium, called “Working for Freedom: The Making of an Activist Scholar Tradition,” will take place at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., June 8 and 9, and is open to the public. Visitors must RSVP so organizers know how much food to provide, but aren’t required to attend both days, organizers said.  

While a variety of leading academics and scholars will be presenting their work on a variety of topics familiar to the library — labor history, race, class, gender and sexuality studies — organizers wanted to make clear that the event is not just for scholars and that visitors should expect to not just be an audience, but to engage with the discussions taking place. 

The two-day symposium will also include a few short films, a musical presentation, a series of roundtable discussions as well as a walking tour of the immigrant history along Payne Avenue.


Helping to create a generation of scholars

Robinson said he met Rachleff on the steps of the library at Macalester after Robinson had graduated. The two connected over the topic of black labor in St. Paul and now Robinson considers the scholar a mentor and friend.

“One of the true qualities I’ve found in Peter is that he has mentored so many students, particularly students of color, at Macalester College, which is a predominately white institution, but through Peter’s grace and commitment, I believe almost two dozen students of color have gone on to earn Ph.D.s, and many are now faculty around country,” Robinson said. 

“I think it could be argued that is a stellar achievement for a faculty member of small college to help develop that many young scholars of color,” he added.

Rachleff, who had no part in planning the symposium, said what’s most exciting for him is seeing young people continuing to study and advance the subjects important to him and sharing that with the community.

“I think that the library for me has been an expression of the idea that knowledge is produced outside of the academy and in community, as well as in the academy,” Rachleff said. “When these young people call it scholar activism or activist scholarship, it’s about grounding the knowledge in the experiences of people outside the university structures, and so it’s particularly great for me to see how much of it and how brilliant it is that so many of them have done.”

“And I’m particularly proud that their work is so unlike my work. These are not chips off the old block,” Rachleff added.

He said it’s important to him that topics like labor history, race, class, and gender studies, just to name a few, continue to be studied because they are still “marginal to the mainstream of the academy” and are important critical perspectives, especially in the current political atmosphere.

“On the one hand, I’m confident the East Side Freedom Library will outlive me and carry on the kind of work that has been so important to me,” Rachleff said. “On the other hand, I’m convinced that these young scholars and teachers will carry on long after I’m gone, and so it feels very good to know that on both of these fronts, what I am doing is not going to disappear with me.”


To register for the symposium, visit www.eastsidefreedomlibrary.org. The library can also be reached at 651-774-8687.


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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