Ellen Gilbert Cultivates Diversity and Love in Nashville

Ellen Gilbert, 65, is the founder of Global Education Center in West Nashville.

She grew up in Ohio and after high school started college at Kent State before transferring to Peabody College in Nashville. Midwestern born and raised, she had never been to the south before moving in December of 1970.

FROM a NEW ENIVORMENT FORMED a PASSION

“When I was at Kent State my freshman year my roommates were African American. When I transferred to Peabody, the black girls were in the basement in a separate room, and there was no interracial mixing. They had separate rooms for dances and everything,” she said.

Ellen had never been in that type of environment before. In Ohio, the schools were integrated in the 1950s, but when she arrived in the 1970s, she said Nashville was still fighting desegregation on buses and schools.

“Where I grew up people were divided by what their dad did, not what color they were,” she said. “If your dad was in the auto industry, then you lived in one neighborhood, and if your dad was a professor, doctor, or lawyer, then you lived in another neighborhood. Our neighbors were mixed, and it was more based on family economics.

Ellen finished Peabody College in 1973 with an undergraduate degree in early childhood education. Part Native American and coming from a diverse background yourself, she always put a multicultural spin on everything she taught.

“Because the schools weren’t that diverse and children had to learn about other cultures, I started doing workshops with teachers on how to make their classrooms welcoming places for all of their kids and families,” she said. “The program was called Anti-bias Education back then. ”

When her first son was three, she started another program called Passport to Understanding. For the next fifteen years, Ellen coordinated and curated hands-on cultural museum presentations for children.

“We would set up in whatever space they’d give us with instruments, masks, artifacts, toys, games, clothing from different cultures, one at a time,” she said. “Children ask such deep questions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone home and changed the way I did something because a seven-year-old said something to me or a nine-year-old asks a question.”

GLOBAL EDUCATION CENTER

Ellen began doing some traveling and sharing her program with others around the country.

“During that time some teachers wanted me to move up to New York because they felt that their schools were segregated,” she said. “I didn’t want to move to New York, so, the teachers asked me to open a place in Nashville where they could come in the summer.”

Ellen immediately thought it was a great idea and so in 1996 she began writing up 501c(3) paperwork to receive a nonprofit organization status.

“I put together a board from all the international parents who are artists that I had met from working in the schools and voilà,” she said.

Ellen found and purchased a building in West Nashville that had been empty for a few years. After months of renovations, the Global Education Center opened in August of 1997.

Almost 20 years later, Global Education Center now has about 110 artists from 40 countries and cultures on their roster.

Classes and programs at the center range from swing dancing, Capoeira, Hip Hop, African percussion, English country dancing, and much more.

“Our whole mission is based on a Lakota phrase which translates to we are all related to one another as humans but also to everything else living in the universe,” she said. “I feel like as human beings we’re all more alike than we are different.”

Ellen said people should understand that everyone has the same roots if traced back far enough and that when God created people, he created perfect children and spiritual people.

As a teenager, she was the victim of a violent crime.

“My family’s reaction was, that I had to love that person because that is God’s perfect child, and what he did materially was evil, but he was not evil,” she said.

“Every day is a clean slate. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday. You have to love people.”

Ellen’s grandmother was adopted as an indentured servant at nine years old. She said looking back she’s been one of the people who has impacted her life the most.

“She couldn’t read very well, but I thought she was the smartest person in the world,” she said. “Out of all of us, I was the only one that sat and listened to her stories. I don’t know if they were true or not but they shaped my way of looking at the world.”

NASHVILLE NOW and COMMUNITY as DEFINED

A Nashvillian for the last 47 years, Ellen said she loves the city and feels safe in it. But she said she is saddened by the significant changes it has seen over the last few years.

“The people that we serve and the people that I hang with that are artists, musicians, and teachers are getting priced out of this city,” she said.

Ellen said developers try to buy her building every day, but she’s fighting and not planning on selling.

“We want our clientele to feel comfortable here, which is hard when everything is getting expensive,” she said. “The price of housing is ridiculous, and someone needs to be steward over the people.”

Ellen feels the most saddened by what has happened to the African American neighborhoods in Nashville.

“African Americans owned their homes, had great pride, and had a great sense of community in those neighborhoods,” she said. “Why can’t these young people who are moving into the city move into these multiethnic neighborhoods and embrace what’s there instead of trying to change it so that they feel comfortable?”

In the immediate future, Ellen believes more and more people will be displaced. She also said neighborhoods and communities will become homogenous if people don’t do anything about it.

“This city has to do something, and it has to value people over prosperity and being labeled the ‘it’ city. And we can do it, but everybody has to work at it including the school systems, the social systems, and the religious systems.”

Ellen asked how can anyone be a person if they’re always surrounded by people that look, talk, and worship like themselves?

“That’s why the country is so divided right now. People only look at the news they agree with, and I’m guilty of it too,” she said. “I feel like you’re doing a disservice to your children if you don’t expose them, and not in a patronizing way but in a way where everyone is valued and looked at as equal.”

At Global Education Center, Ellen said they use the arts to address things like racism and xenophobia but said it’s also a great vehicle for expression and keeping the community vibrant.

Ellen said the work she’s done over the last 21 years is her heart. She said the community at Global Education Center is certainly diverse. She sees people as family.

“A community is any group of people that feels comfortable together, and respects each other and works together.”

“I feel like everything I grew up thinking has come to fruition here and this is my family, and I love people here,” she said.

Ellen is a self-proclaimed workaholic.

“The best thing is that it doesn’t at all feel like work,” she said. “Sometimes it is frustrating when there’s so much going on at once, but I would do it all over again.”

Ellen said she does wonder what will happen if funding from the NEA is cut because they are small and rely on government grants rather than wealthy donors.

This year, Global Education Center went from a staff of two to seven because of more funding for federal grants.

Thanks for reading Nashville!