Barb Tilsen in her backyard, Powderhorn Park neighborhood, Minneapolis, July 22, 2020 • Photo: Eric Mueller

Working Class Community

I was born in Granite Falls, Minnesota in 1949. On my mother’s side, my great-grandparents came from Norway. On my father’s side, my grandparents came from Sweden. We moved to Fridley from north Minneapolis in 1953, when that whole area was a new development. Before that it was just sand dunes. The neighborhood was blue-collar, and there was a strong sense of community. There were tons of kids on the square block that we lived on. The families watched out for each other and had parties and celebrations together. That was formative for me, learning what it meant to be community.

My family was working-class; my dad was a machinist and later, a tool and die maker. Mom was at home with four children while I was growing up and later worked as a journeyman bookbinder. She was an election judge, and very proud of engaging in this civic duty. She was loving, quiet, spiritual, and very centered on the home. My dad was outgoing and friendly, he was a community builder, though he wouldn’t have called himself that. But he was engaged with the neighborhood and involved in the many ways it pulled together as a community. We were a close-knit family. When we lived in north Minneapolis, we lived across the alley from my grandma and grandpa and an aunt and uncle. When we moved to Fridley two of my aunts and uncles moved there too and lived on our square block.

Becoming a Musician

Ballads, lullabies, stories and songs have been at the center of my life since I was young. I was intrigued by the accordion. One of my Swedish great-uncles, Ernie Nyberg, played the button accordion at our family gatherings and in bands at dances we went to in the Swedish community. Even as an adult, I loved sitting next to him and hearing him hum his songs under his breath. His music filled him inside and you could feel it and hear it, be touched by it, sitting close to him. When I was little, I also loved watching the accordionist Myron Floren on Lawrence Welk with my mother and grandmother. At age ten I started to take accordion lessons at a community music school in Columbia Heights.

Barb is on the left. Circa 1960.

I wrote my first song lyrics when I was thirteen, with my sister. My family was on a hunting and fishing trip in northern Minnesota. We wrote Tell Pretty Pearl (my mom’s name) to the song, Tell Old Bill to recount the story of my dad’s hunting adventure. I had started playing the guitar that year, inspired by the rich mushrooming folk music scene in the early 1960s—traditional folk ballads and protest songs brought to life by Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and others. By high school I was singing in the school choir and was in a folk trio that performed at school.

Religious Radicals at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota

When I graduated from high school in 1967, I was very devout. My religious, spiritual sense came from my mother. I was looking for a small Lutheran college. I thought I wanted to be a French teacher and my high school French teacher had gone to Concordia in Moorhead, Minnesota, so I applied there. The political radicals in the faculty on the Concordia campus were in the Religion Department! In our required religion course freshman year, the professor brought visiting speakers to “explore the social gospel:” Father Daniel Berrigan, who was underground at the time, was one of the speakers. A group of Black students on campus came to our class to speak about the Civil Rights movement. I think Louis Alemayehu was among them. I remember him talking about growing up in Chicago. He was a senior and his stories impressed me.

There was a lot of antiwar organizing on campus and at Moorhead State. We had teach-ins on campus. I heard Doug Marvy, one of the Milwaukee 14, speak about resisting the draft. I would know him later as David Tilsen’s cousin. Brian Coyle was another anti-draft organizer I first heard speak in Moorhead who later became a friend. My radicalism took root up north.

Introduction to Radical Feminism at the University of Minnesota 

I put myself through college. After two years, I moved back to Minneapolis because I couldn’t afford the tuition at Concordia and I didn’t want to increase my student debt. I transferred to the U of M in the Fall of 1969 when things were exploding on campus—anti-war rallies, civil rights, the women’s movement. I attended rallies and meetings, and eventually got involved in organizing, It was at a U of M anti-war rally, probably in 1969, that I first I heard a speaker talk about male chauvinism. I went up to her afterwards and asked her what that word meant. It struck a chord! I started going to feminist meetings. Women were coming together to talk about their lives and what changes were needed. The personal was political.

With the Elizabeth Blackwell Women’s Health Collective, Women’s Counseling Service and some radical feminist groups, we formed an informal speakers bureau to speak about the women’s movement. The first time I was one of the speakers for a high school group, I wrote an outline. When I went up to the podium, I got so flustered, I just read my outline. I eventually got more comfortable speaking in public, but I’ve always found it easier to sing than speak in front of a large crowd.

Experimental College at the University of Minnesota

As a French major, I took courses in the College of Education. Some of my classes focused on the politics of education, how to redefine learning to center transformation and growth. Starting in 1969, there was talk of developing an experimental college program at the U of M. During the student strike, in the spring of 1970, I started going to those meetings. Experimental College (EC) was approved, funded and began the fall of 1970. I was going into my senior year. They had a lottery for students to get into the program and my name was drawn. Val and Clare Woodward and Diana Johnstone were several of the professors from Experimental College who had a big impact on me.

Experimental College is where I first met David Tilsen. I remember him from our organizing meetings the summer of 1970. He joined the staff as a teacher when EC began. In EC we organized Science for Vietnam, and study groups on peace, local and international politics, art, feminist thought and action.

Left politics re-directed my plan to be a K-12 immersion French teacher. I was focused on social change—on sexism, racism, capitalism and imperialism—all those things we talk about now in the language of intersectionality. I focusing my academic work on women studies and alternative education. When I graduated in the winter of 1972, I was, as far as I know, the first student to get a BA in Women’s Studies from the University of Minnesota, creating my own major within Experimental College. This was before there was a Women’s Studies Department at the U of M.

Bread and Roses Living Collective

In 1971, a group of us who wanted to create a living collective, started meeting. Most of us were part of Experimental College. We called our commune Bread and Roses and moved in together in September of that year. Our commune held together from 1971 to 1980. We found a dilapidated house in South Minneapolis at 28th and Stevens Ave. South and fixed it up. There were eight adults and a child in our group. David Tilsen was part of that group. My relationship with him started in 1972.

Throughout the course of its existence there were seventeen people who were formally part of Bread and Roses Collective, and more who lived there for short periods. Two of our children were born there. It was a wonderful group, and many of us are still friends today. Between us all we were connected to a lot of the organizing happening in Minneapolis. Some of us were in a theater group together. We helped start one of the food coops, and a child-care coop. We were part of the political organizing against the war, unemployment, solidarity, and education. One of our members worked at the People’s Garage fixing cars. We wanted to live in a way that did not engage in the exploitative economy. We shared cars, rotated cooking, cleaning and shopping between us, and supported each other in many ways.

Alive & Trucking Theater

In 1971 a group of friends staged The Independent Female or a Man Has His Pride, a funny show about sexism and sex roles written by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. People in the community loved the show and wanted it to continue, so folks decided to form an ongoing political theater company, Alive & Trucking Theater. David was part of that first production. I started playing accordion with the theater when Independent Female was adapted as an outdoor show to take around the parks. I became an ongoing musician for the theater playing the accordion, guitar and singing in most of the plays. Plays were collectively written. Theater members wrote a new original play about sexism called Pig in a Blanket. We also put on a a people’s history-themed production called People Are a River, one on urban renewal called Battered Homes and Gardens, and a clown show on unemployment called, Clown Wanted. We had a juggling pre-show, that became an act all of its own, called The Slippery Bananas. I played accordion for the jugglers in our outdoor shows. The scripts for three of Alive & Trucking’s plays were published by the theater in 1973 in a book called “Stage Left.”

Twin Cities Women’s Union 

In 1972, many of the women I knew felt we needed a women’s organization that had radical politics and was women-centered. Another woman in Alive & Trucking and I sent out a call to organize a conference, and a group of us worked to organize a weekend founding meeting. A lot of women from Minneapolis and St. Paul showed up that weekend, and we formed the Twin Cities Women’s Union, a socialist-feminist group. We had connected with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.

Chicago Women’s Liberation Union office, 1974

One of our members in Bread & Roses had been in the Chicago Union and we went there a few times to have workshops and meet with Heather Booth and other Chicago organizers. We didn’t have an official relationship with them, but they were a real sister organization to us. The Twin Cities’ Women Union sponsored a Women’s School, and had many working groups focusing on such issues as health, child care, worker rights, peace and justice.

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Music Moves to My Center

My work in Alive & Trucking Theater was key in how I thought about myself and my music. In the early 1970s I began singing at peace programs and picket lines, at Women’s Union events, Native American Solidarity Committee workshops and conferences, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom programs, Unitarian Church services, and more throughout the 70s. May Day Parades began in those early years, and I was one of a small group of musicians playing and marching in the early parades.

Barb and her Great Uncle Ernie Nyberg

In 1976, I decided music was the main way I was going to be involved in political work, playing and writing lyrics and performing as part of organizing projects and movements. I’d always been both an organizer and an artist, the two forming a dynamic of how I relate to the world. In the mid-seventies I decided to put them together and do my political work primarily through songs and cultural organizing. Musically, my biggest influences and role models were Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, and later Ella Jenkins, too.

Minnesota Committee for New Song

Starting in the late 70s, I was involved in the Victor Jara Memorial Fund which later grew into the Minnesota Committee for New Song. Throughout the 1980s we brought musicians from Central and South America: Quilapayún, Inti Illimani, Daniel Viglietti, Guadabarranco, Isabel Aldunate, Cutumay Camones, Isabel and Angel Parra, (the children of Violetta Parra), and others, pairing them with local artists in concert. The North American artists we brought included Ancestor Energy, John Trudell, among many others. I opened for Inti Ilimani in our concert in 1980.

The Influence of Tilsen Family Activism

My political involvement broadened even more in 1972, when I became a part of David’s family. Our committed relationship began in 1972, and we got married in 1976. There is a legacy of activism over several generations in his family. His grandmother is beloved poet and writer Meridel LeSueur. His great-grandmother Marian LeSueur was an eloquent speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, teaching women about birth control. She organized public libraries and taught English at the People’s College in Kansas. His great-grandfather Arthur LeSueur was the first socialist mayor of Minot, ND and was on the presidential ticket with Eugene Debs. His mother, Rachel Tilsen, worked on the Committee to free the Rosenbergs, did voter registration in the South in the 1960s, and worked with David’s father, Ken, on many issues. Ken was a brilliant attorney, defending draft resisters, particularly the Minnesota 8 who were charged with destroying draft files around Minnesota.

Wounded Knee Legal Defense Offense Committee

Ken Tilsen was the primary attorney in the Wounded Knee Legal Defense Offense Committee, (WKLD/OC) and later in the cases stemming from the shootout in Oglala in 1975. We all felt the impact and importance of those events in the family and the work we did and the relationships we formed then became a significant part of our lives at the time in both big and small ways.

At the time of Wounded Knee, I was producing a women’s radio show as part of Experimental College called the Women’s Clearinghouse (which I continued doing after I graduated from the U.) We were a weekly five-minute radio broadcast on KUOM, the University of Minnesota radio station. There was a Native American radio program right before ours. When Wounded Knee events unfolded we combined our programs to give them broader coverage. David went out to South Dakota as part of the legal team. I was part of organizing and support here.

Later some of the people who had been in WKLD/OC including Rachel, David and I, formed the Native American Solidarity Committee to continue doing support work. We did a lot of outreach and education around treaty rights and Native organizing efforts across the country. We supported the Black Hills Alliance organizing against uranium mining in the Black Hills, and building towards the International Black Hills Survival gathering in 1980.

1980 International Black Hills Survival Gathering

The Black Hills Alliance was a coalition of Indigenous, Environmental, and farm/ranch-based groups, that had come together to oppose uranium mining in the Black Hills in South Dakota. The South Dakota relatives in our family were key organizers and we all joined in, and worked along with others to organize a 10-day outdoor conference filled with workshops, speakers, and musical performances about the issues of mining and exploitation of mineral deposits in the Black Hills, environmental justice, alternative energy, genocide, treaty rights, and strategies for change.

It was an incredible gathering of native nations and grass-roots people from around the country along with nationally known speakers, musicians and leaders. Each day 10,000-12,000 people attended. I sang at the Survival Gathering several times as well as at organizing events in Minnesota leading up to it. David’s brother, Mark, was one of the main organizers of the whole thing. We camped out and met on a rancher’s land right in the Black Hills and spent ten days exploring the connected issues of sovereignty, environmental damage, militarism, health, etc. I was one of the coordinators of the main stage during the day along with Margo Thunderbird and Judy Gorman.

Musical Networks

The Survival Gathering is a beautiful example to me of the way ripples spread out in ever expanding waves from the significant experiences we have. People still talk today about the impact it had in their lives. It laid the groundwork and nurtured the connections for me with musicians around the Midwest and beyond. Before the Gathering, I had worked to recruit musicians to attend it. I reached out to Charlie King who was one of the founders of Songs of Freedom and Struggle, a network of political musicians around the country. They were based mostly on the east and west coast. I thought a network such as that would be an important thing to organize in the Midwest. Some of the musicians I met through the Survival Gathering formed the nucleus of people organizing with me to form the Midwest People’s Music Network.

We met at Folklore Village in Wisconsin in 1981 to form our group, and met twice a year for a number of years, drawing musicians together from South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. Our weekend gatherings were filled with sharing songs, stories and ideas about making music for social change. We met frequently in Wisconsin, but also in Minnesota and Michigan too. We went down to Kansas at one point when our gathering was organized by members of Rosie’s Bar and Grill, a wonderful women’s trio there.

Making A Living With Children’s Music

When I graduated from the U, I made a living doing administrative office work for the university experimental program called Living Learning Center. After our first child was born I had a home typing business. When David and his brother Mark began a fundraising firm, I worked for them full time as a bookkeeper.

I was singing at political events and organizing concerts in support of local issues and efforts. In 1987, I organized a concert with another woman to raise awareness when a serial killer was targeting Native women. I was part of organizing concerts with Charlie King, The Thunderbird Sisters, Bright Morning Star, San Francisco Mime Troupe, International Women’s Day events, Take Back the Night. As a family we organized a celebration of Meridel’s 90th birthday in 1990 bringing Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert in concert, and I was also one of the performers. I sang in testimony at public hearings about the hazards of nuclear waste, at Earth Day events and the Mississippi River Revival. I worked with the American Indian Movement publicizing cultural events and pow wows. Two Rivers Cultural Explosion was another significant 4-day event we organized with AIM and MRR in 1991 bringing together environmental and indigenous groups exploring issues of treaty rights and environmental exploitation. I was one of many performers there. I sang in testimony at public hearings about the hazards of nuclear waste, at Earth Day events and the Mississippi River Revival. I worked with the American Indian Movement, publicizing cultural events and pow wows. Two Rivers Cultural Explosion was another significant 4-day event we organized with AIM and MRR in 1991 bringing together environmental and indigenous groups exploring issues of treaty rights and environmental exploitation. I was one of many performers there.

Through the Midwest People’s Music Network, I met  people like Kristin Lems, Stuart Stotts, Bruce O’Brien, and Tom Pease—wonderful musicians and good friends to this day—who introduced me to the Children’s Music Network. There was a lot of overlap in these two groups—musicians coming together around common intentions and goals of changing the world.

In 1986, Pat Berg, a friend of mine teaching music in a private kindergarten, had to leave in the middle of the school year. She asked me if I would finish the year. She called the program Sound Beginnings. I took the program over and found that I loved it.

In 1992 I had this vision that if I expanded my children’s program, I could earn my living doing music in Minneapolis, rooted with my family rather than gigging on the road. I quit bookkeeping and built a business working primarily with infants through 6 year olds, though I did some K-12 as well. I got on the State Arts Board’s Artist-in-Education Roster so I was able to be hired by school systems.

The goals for my work with children, were the same with adults: singing around themes of respect, self-esteem, friendship and community; resolving conflict and creating peace; and building a better world in fun and playful ways. For a number of years, I was on the staff of the Minneapolis Children’s Theater and on the faculty of West Bank School of Music. I lead the Soaring Voices choir with my daughter and we sang at peace programs, Bird Releases with the Raptor Center, and other programs. They performed on my first CD. I loved working with children, they kept a playfulness in my life.

I served on the Children’s Music Network (CMN) Board from 1999 to 2008. My focus was on building CMN’s website and online presence. After 9/11 one of my main projects was to build an online resource of peace songs that people could use in their programs for children. Working closely with our website team, I created the Peace Resources pages—songs, books, and articles on peace—that ultimately grew into the CMN Song Library with its first songbook on peace.

Collaboration with Other Artists

In 1993 my good friend and puppeteer Margo McCreary and I created a summertime arts project for children in our neighborhood. A vacant lot around the corner from us had been transformed into a beautiful community garden called the Artstop, designed to be a creative space for community, art and flowers. Margo and I invited children in the surrounding blocks to meet with us on Saturdays that summer to create a traveling front porch musical puppet show. Together we wrote a play with the children on issues of violence, safety and community and took it on a 14-show “front porch” tour around the neighborhood. It was a wonderful collaboration and was the model for us to work with other neighborhood artists to organize ArtPower, a series of summer arts activities for children from 1995-2002 at the ArtStop. We put two different artists from different cultures and art disciplines together each Saturday to do an afternoon creative project with children throughout the summer. The Artstop was a corner of creative arts and community-building that involved many artists from all around the city and many children throughout the neighborhood.

Gayla Ellis and I grew up a block apart from each other. We were in Bluebirds together. The second song I ever wrote is one I wrote with Gayla, about my first kiss and crush on a boy. Gayla and I lived at Bread & Roses together, worked on organizing the Twin Cities Women’s Union together, as well as so many other projects. She’s been present at all three of the births of my children and is one of my dearest friends. We have a natural artistic connection, combining the vivid imagery of her photography with the lyrical imagery of my songs, creating musical slide shows on many themes of peace and social justice as well as celebrating the natural beauty of the world. We’ve worked together in my arts residencies in schools, and performed together for many years. 

Kimberly Rose and the Run For Freedom

I have a niece, Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart, who is Lakota and was born on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She was named for Kimberly Rose Means, a young girl who was killed on the Run for Freedom focused on prison conditions in South Dakota in 1981, when she was twelve years old. When our Kimberly was turning 12 she had a dream to finish that run. She made a book about her dream. The family got behind it and supported her, helping pull it together. I had written a song about Kimberly Rose Means, and Kim and I performed my song and her book together. Gayla Ellis photographed Kim’s book and we created a musical slide show of it to perform. At times if Kim couldn’t make it, my daughter Molly would read her part. We helped spread the word about the Run, selling her book to help raise money for it.

Barb Tilsen and Kimberly Tilsen Brave Heart

Many of us in the family—including most of my children, my nieces and nephews—went on this Run with Kim, along with children from the Means family and other children from the rez. The original Run was heading to Sioux Falls State Prison but it stopped where Kimberly Means was killed. Our 1993 Run for Freedom began where Kimberly Means died and ended at the Prison. It was a profoundly moving experience. Gayla came on the Run and photographed it, I interviewed many of the children who participated as runners. We created another musical slide show with my song, photos of the Run and excerpts of the children talking about why they ran and what it was like. An excerpt of my interview with my niece Kim after she finished the run is on my CD, Sacred Ground.

The Influence of Meridel LeSueur

David’s grandmother, Meridel LeSueur, is one of the biggest influences in the way I write, and how I think about art and politics. When I had my typing business she had me typing her journals. I would literally type them in triplicate, and she was literally cutting and pasting them into her poetry and writing. I was swimming in her imagery and her language. I learned so much from her, about how to write from the essence, the center, the heart.

Meridel was the person I turned to for feedback, information, background and inspiration in my songwriting. I treasure the memories of performing together, of working together. She was grandmother, mentor, artist, activist, and family to me. She died in 1996 at the age of 96. I’m one of several in the family who has worked on Meridel’s legacy over the years, handling contracts, permissions, a movie option, keeping her books in print, and continuing to share her insightful work in the world. (meridellesueur.org). I’ve set several of Meridel’s poems to music. One of my favorites, “Communal Global Day,” on my latest CD, ends this way:

The light returns on no enemy faces,
But upon the communal chorus,
Roused in villages of the earth, to cry salute and sing,
Shout in choruses of millions,
Rising toward communications, toward extremities of nadirs
Of total expansions, in the entire solar light, on all flesh,
On all fields and all villages
Roused from sleep, rouse us,
Let us seek each other and move from the violent, the broken, the predatory,
To tnormous and myriad fertile and impregnated harvest,
the global village
We sing with you in choruses of millions.he e
Barb Tilsen and Meridel Le Sueur circa 1985.

 

 Rachel Tour in 2000: a Civil Rights Pilgrimage

David’s mother, Rachel Tilsen, went south during the civil rights movement after Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker, was murdered by the KKK. Like Viola, Rachel worked on voter registration. She continued to do supportive work and organizing around civil rights issues back home in St. Paul. Out of those relationships and that work, a teenage civil rights activist from Mississippi named Rosemary Freeman came up to Minnesota to speak and became a part of our family too. Rachel died in 1998. In 2000, David’s sisters, Joci and Rosemary, organized the Rachel Tour for our extended family. Four generations, and some close friends, went by bus to key civil rights memorials and museums in the South: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was shot; Selma, where we walked hand in hand across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; the Civil Rights Institute, and the 16th Street Baptist Church where the four young girls were murdered in Birmingham; and Martin Luther King’s Memorial in Atlanta. We were family and close friends, black, white, and Indigenous, telling family stories and the history of the fight for civil rights and freedom. It was incredible—this mix of personal stories and the sweeping politics of the time. I led our singing throughout.

 

Family: The Center of My Heart

The influence of family has been so important in my life. On my side is the salt-of-the-earth, grassroots culture of blue-collar workers and farmers. On the Tilsen side, it’s been the generations of activism, organizing and writing. Our family is a beautiful, big sprawling mix of cultures and backgrounds. It is a family with Judaism at its center and room for the mix of all the religious traditions and beliefs that we encompass. It is a family of people with Indigenous roots, African roots, European roots, Middle Eastern roots. It is not a blend where everything disappears. It is a vibrant mix, where everything is present and we have an influence and impact on each other.

David and I have had a lifetime together of love, growth and change. He is my partner in all things that matter. Our children—Becka, Eddie and Molly—are amazing people and I’m really proud of them. Each of their births was among the most profound experiences of my life and I know that being a mother and now a grandmother to my beautiful grandchildren is at the very center and heart of who I am as a person.

 

Barb with her grandchildren, 2015. Photo: Gayla Ellis

 

I was pregnant with my first child in 1976.  David and I were living at Bread & Roses then, and I wanted to have a natural child birth, but also wanted a hospital setting in case there were complications. We decided to enter a nurse-midwife program thinking we might have the best of both. I had an unexpectedly early and very short labor, an hour and 20 minutes all told, and didn’t make it to the hospital. I had Becka in the front seat of our old car. I caught her in my arms, David stopped the car, got out and ran around and opened my door and asked “What should I do?” It was December 22nd, in the middle of the night, and five below zero. I said shut the door, get back in the car and drive to the hospital! Gayla was in the back seat, and had passed a quilt her mother made me that she had grabbed on our way out the door so I could wrap us up in its warmth. We got to the hospital and they tried to admit us to the ER, not understanding that Becka was already born. Finally I ended up in the midwife unit, and they took her away, saying it was a dirty birth and they had to check her out and isolate her. I was mad. David went and found her and brought her back to me. Finally they agreed to let her stay in my room.

I was done with vehicle births, so when I was pregnant with our son, we had lay midwives we planned to birth with. But my labor was 45 minutes and none of the midwives made it. David caught Eddie in his arms. It wasn’t until our third child, that I actually had an attended birth with midwives. David’s sister was one of them and she stayed in the neighborhood so she could come immediately when we called that I was in labor. My labor with Molly was also about 45 minutes. It was beautiful to have calm, support and skills right around me.

After Becka was born, I wanted to write a song about it but couldn’t find the words. It wasn’t until after Eddie was born, and I was in the middle of typing Meridel’s journals for her, that I found my voice swimming in the sea of her imagery, earth-based, primal, sensuous, rooted in spirit and the land. In my words, “A force that can move mountains and it’s inside of me” in my song, you can hear her influence on me as a writer.

 

Endings, Beginnings, Deepening

I retired from my work as a teaching artist and music educator in 2014. I had put out Make a Circle Like the Sun, a children’s music CD in 2000. Since I retired I have done two more: Take the Seed (2015) —children’s songs— and Sacred Ground (2017) songs for adults. I’ve continued to write, record and perform. I write songs and poems about what’s important to me—people, stories, issues, and events from pipeline protests and treaty rights to the healing power of love. (barbtilsen.com)

I had a devastating illness in 2016. I was dying. I was intubated and unconscious for eight days. I went through a profound experience with that. It was a long recovery. I talked constantly and wrote myself through it, putting myself back together and healing. I wouldn’t say it was life changing. It was life deepening.

The experiences we have—events and gatherings we are part of—plant many seeds, and the soil they can sprout and bloom in is made in part by our relationships: our connections with each other over time. I have been committed to making transformative change in our world throughout my life. I’ve sung at rallies and marches, picket lines and protests. I’ve sung on the steps of the capitol, in testimony in public hearings, in concert halls and coffeehouses, at weddings and at funerals, in classrooms and workshops, living rooms and porches. My songs celebrate and chronicle the many ways we come together as a community. It’s the people in my life who have helped set me on a path, spoken to me in a way that went right to my core, and shaped and guided the directions I’ve gone.

 

 

Pandemic, George Floyd, Homeless Encampment in Powderhorn Park

We live on Powderhorn Park, six blocks from where George Floyd was killed. It was our neighborhood, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods, that were up in flames after he died. This poem expresses my grief and hope.

Breath: A Poem for George Floyd © Barbara S. Tilsen

Then it catches you almost by surpriseSometimes it moves through the air
Like a current in the stream
Just under the surface
flowing beneath you
Hardly perceived or realized
But not really
This rising wave of grief
Tangible in the palpable way
of truly communal mourning
And you rise and fall
on the ebb and flow
of waves of sorrow
Flowing beneath the skin
A river of tears
For the beautiful man
Whose brother said everyone loved
Who spoke up for anyone hurt
Whose last breath flowed
Out of his body
under the knee
of cold indifference
callous power
racist intent
the dispassionate
brutal face of hate
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds
His “I can’t breathe”
Carried on the wind
Through 50 states
Circling the world
Gathering cries
Chanting no more
No justice no peace
As people join hands
Stand together and march
Take a knee, raise a fist
To breathe his name
George Floyd
Chanting no more
No justice no peace
As people join hands
Stand together and march
Take a knee, raise a fist
To breathe his name
George Floyd

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief not only what’s at stake, but also what kind of profound change is truly possible. Because of our health conditions, David and I are careful to stay at home. We do see people, observing protocols of safety, but are mainly using FaceTime and Zoom to be involved. The world has come to our doorstep. In addition to the murder of George Floyd, we had the encampment for the unsheltered in Powderhorn Park. We need solutions to homelessness that are respectful, long lasting and address the causes that put people in that situation. Their presence poses the same question as the people at our borders. As a country, do we follow the promise of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming people to our shores, or do we do it with guns and walls, barriers and fears? That is the elemental question.

How Do You Treat the Stranger At Your Door? © Barbara S. Tilsen

How do you treat the stranger at your door
The one who comes in need of comfort
with no place to sleep
Little food
Just the few possessions they can carry in one move
This question is before us all around the world
People displaced, on the move
from the dangerous and intolerable
The refugee, the homeless
the one seeking harbor and safety
at the border, on your doorstep
fleeing the storms of the world
How do we treat the stranger at our door
Like the Lady in the harbor raising the torch
poetry in her arms welcoming all to this shore
Or with barbed wire, the wall, the guns, the fear
It all comes home to rest in our front yard now
Just across the street in our beloved park
Yes we need compassion and love
But the harsh reality of hunger, unmet needs
of no place else to go
demands concrete solutions
As neighbors we act to meet the need
Bring food and supplies
We call and organize in all the ways we know to
pressure the city, the park, the county, the state
To answer
Not with elusive shifting drifting responsibility
or bureaucratic dysfunction and entanglements
Not to keep people languishing in tents
But to find the solution that is safe for all
Respectful, effective and long lasting
This is not the first nor the last time
we will need to answer
How do we treat the stranger at our door

Though these are tumultuous times, I believe we are in a sea change—a deep, pivotal, historical shift in attitudes and actions. In small towns and big cities, anti-racism and BLM are on the signs, the lips, the hearts and minds of people in ways it’s never been before. We’re taking a deep look at what public safety really is, on policing, on healing, on what it takes to get through these hard times together. Mutual aid and grass roots support is deepening and evolving. We are at the epicenter of this watershed moment. I keep thinking about how Meridel would feel looking at what is happening right now. She was always so hopeful. She believed in people’s capacity to survive and change. It feels like one of those moments, where real transformation is possible.