In most of this country, Fairs are a summer tradition. State or County Fairs are about pride, agriculture, social enjoyment, rides, and food. Think Charlotte’s Web or the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, State Fair. Unless it is a year for presidential campaigns, they are generally non-political and the nearest thing to controversy is concern about the calorie count of deep fried candy bars.
This Fall, however, New York is rife with Advocacy Fairs, events where social justice organizations set up tables for conversations, mailing list sign-ups, and possibly, recruiting new volunteers. There has been at least one each weekend since the street fairs stopped in November and recruiting moved indoors. Maybe, one each weekend since the fair set up at the Women’s March. Today’s, Democracy Sunday, was linked to an all-day event on urban activism around social justice. It included (and, for me, began) with a program aimed at people who are already active volunteers in the local public schools. From Volunteering to Advocacy was aimed at increasing the comfort level so that what we already do, Direct Service promoting reading for one or two children, becomes advocacy, activism and organizing.
The Fairs are of particular interest to me not just because I agree with many of the causes, but also because I have long had an interest in the politicized Fairs of the mid-19th century. My research, which is usually exhibition-driven, keeps looping back to this on-going concern with how women supported social advocacy causes at a time when they were not allowed to manage money. In other words, how can you fund raise without access to funds? I call the full project “The Origins of the Cake Sale.” So, while I was at this morning’s sale, learning about current organizations, I was thinking about Abolitionist, Jubilee, Sanitary, and Freedmen Fairs of the 1850s – 1870s. The engraving shows volunteer staff at a Brooklyn Sanitary Fair in 1864, NYPL Digital Collection. Larger skirts, so the folding chairs and tables would be replaced with much larger furniture; no e-mail or telephone numbers, and even pens and paper might be limited, so the sign-up process would be different. Probably tea and coffee would be offered, but no pile of clementines. Probably biscuits instead of bagels. Same level of avid enthusiasm and commitment to inclusion, and, tragically, some of the same causes.