Alumni Spotlight: Marsha Washington (’77)

In 1977, Marsha Washington became the third graduate of Harmony School. Now, 43 years later, she has found herself circling back to Harmony, through a job training program that connected her to the opportunity to work in the office this year. As one of our earliest alumni, Marsha is excited to be part of reaching out to alumni and sharing their stories.  This is Marsha’s story (and sort of Harmony’s story, too)…

My family moved to Bloomington from Indianapolis in 1974 when I was 15. My mom heard about Harmony, so she called Harmony and Roc came over and met mom, me, and my three siblings, Joey, David, and Peach. Mom and all of us liked what we heard. Mom was unemployed and recently divorced, so she asked Roc what it would cost. He said we could pay whatever we could afford. Mom was very spiritual and believed she could see the future. Even though Harmony was so new and it seemed like a lot of folks in town were afraid of it – mom wasn’t. She always believed Harmony would be around for a long time and have a big building some day, and that the town would warm up to Harmony.

My family moved from Indy when it was the era of bussing African American students into predominately white high schools. We were being bussed, and there was always nervousness, anxiety in the air. Both sides were fearful, we didn’t know one another. When I came to Bloomington, it felt like a whole new world. I walked down the street and people were smiling at me, talking to me, saying have a good day. I saw more cultures, more diversity here.

At Harmony, everyone was so relaxed. I loved going to school every day. My first impression was – whoa. We had classmates (boys) with hair down to their shoulders, I hadn’t seen that yet. Also the school was in the basement of a church. Totally unfamiliar. We’d have some of our classes in a field across the street, in Dunn Meadow. When we enrolled there were only 12 kids total – my three siblings and I made up a third of the school! We had all ages (12 and up) in one room. You know, we didn’t get in each others way, as siblings, though, even though it was a small class. The school allowed us to explore our individuality. We did some things together, sure, but we were co-existing, we had our own friends, and our interests were different too.

This was a different concept of education, that took you places that you felt you could only reach in your mind. My brothers were into music and performing, and in a traditional high school you probably wouldn’t have been encouraged to go into the library, get stage time, and make a video. But Roc let us do that! Traditional high schools wouldn’t have been into skateboarding. Kids who skateboarded were all over the place, getting into trouble, businesses were yelling at kids to get off the sidewalks, get off the rails and ramps. But Harmony students went to the mayor, and they got a skate park built in an abandoned parking lot.

The wonderful thing was that you had a responsibility not only to yourself but to everyone around you. Roc encouraged us all to think bigger. We did community projects, we got out into the community to help our fellow people, and also out of town, and around the country. We learned about voting rights, and a few of us got to work with one of the first black leaders in the Bloomington community, Elizabeth Bridgwaters. I remember getting to help her at the polling place.

We went on a lot of trips, one or two big trips a year out into the world. The trips were definitely something that was exciting and terrifying at the same time. I don’t think most of us had been outside of Indiana. I remember at the start of one of the trips Roc had to go into a kid’s house and convince them to come on the trip, because they were so nervous about it – “come on, the bus is outside!”

We went to a coal mining town in Appalachia that had been flooded, and worked alongside the National Guard and Red Cross. On the way back to Indiana we stayed with a family in Kentucky where the dad was affected by black lung. We went on camping trips to the Smoky Mountains; Snowball, Arkansas (population 10); the Red River Gorge; to cities like Cleveland and Boston. We went on so many trips that my brother Joey, now a professional artist, created the first Harmony t-shirt with the motto “Harmony School – it’s a trip.”

Initially we were the only students of color at Harmony. But, after awhile… this might sound strange, but race wasn’t even an issue. You didn’t notice it in our group, we got so close. It was only an issue in the places we traveled, out in the world.

I wrote a history of Harmony for my senior project. I learned graphic design to put the book together, worked with a printer, worked with a photographer to develop the film for the photos in the book, and had to raise money to have the book printed. Roc introduced me to the manager of the Bluebird and I had a meeting with him. We put together a benefit concert at the Bluebird to raise the funds.

After I graduated from Harmony, the school got a grant to produce a magazine, Hoosier Harmony, and I got paid to work on that magazine. It was so much fun. I got to teach and do layout and do some writing. I also took some classes at IU, but it wasn’t for me at the time. College was too expensive, I didn’t want a lot of loans.

Roc helped connect me to a job at T.I.S. They had a publishing company, a printing press. Roc’s sister-in-law was working on a book and they had an opening for print layout on that project. Then, I moved to a manager position in the retail store. I worked at T.I.S. for 36 years.

Because Roc is great with keeping up with people, my siblings and I have remained close with him and Harmony over the years. He might hear something about a family member, and he’ll call you up about it to check in. I’ve always appreciated that. And we still have a family connection. My niece, Kayla, is a Harmony Middle School student.

What brought me back to Harmony? Well, I lost my job at T.I.S. almost a year ago. Layed off, after all those years. I was in shock. The past year was hard, with losing my job, and also losing a dear friend and a couple of family members who passed away. It’s been humbling. But all of it has also kicked up my capacity for being grateful. When my unemployment ended, my job counselor found this grant that gave me the opportunity to work at Harmony. Roc was so supportive. He got ahold of the idea of me being able to work for Harmony and didn’t let go of it.

So here I am – me needing Harmony, and Harmony needing me. I have been so happy being here the past few weeks! The energy is like a vitamin for me, a shot of sunshine, just being in the building, being around all the kids – especially my niece. Sitting at an old desk, a desk with a history of people learning and doing good work, the sunshine pouring through that huge window in the office of that big building that Mom foresaw so long ago. I’ve felt so grateful and blessed. I guess Mom really could see the future.

We’re grateful for you and your family, Marsha!

If you’d like to share YOUR Harmony story, or help interview other alumni, please be in touch. Write to [email protected].

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