by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Teacher, poet and activist, Paula Paul, used to visit art museums and leave behind stinging notes for the director. “You have hundreds of paintings in your museum, and only 12 of them are by women,” she might write. “Why is that?”
Paul, 74, of Germantown, has spent much of her life pursuing gender and racial justice. She lived that philosophy long before politically correct folks began parroting those terms. As a young white teacher at a largely African American school, Paul worked to build trust with her students and their families. “I had to educate myself about African American history and culture,” she said. “I also sought grants and resources to make classes rich and engaging.”
Paul discovered a two-way street in her interactions with her students. “I learned a lot about resilience and caring through the heroic way my students and their families faced challenges in their lives.”
At the start of her career in 1970, Paul not only built trust but classroom furniture too. “My classroom had wall-to-wall carpeting but not enough chairs for my 42 students.” She ended up making tables and chairs herself from Tri Wall to accommodate everyone.
A native of Wynnefield, Paul had empathy for her students, many of whom balanced lots of responsibilities. Raised herself in a single-parent family, Paul worked from the time she was 14, babysitting, raking leaves and later in a department store on Saturdays.
She took typing and shorthand at Overbrook High School and landed a job in the stenography pool at General Electric after graduating. One of her bosses noticed how bright she was and asked her why she wasn’t attending college. He made the initial phone call that resulted in Paul’s receiving a scholarship to Temple University.
At first, Paul majored in English — she still writes poetry — and later switched to history. “History puts things in context,” she said. For Paul, college was like sitting down to a feast. “I thought college was wonderful. I was exposed to so much.”
At the end of her freshman year, she joined a three-week study trip to Puerto Rico’s El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system. Paul and students from Latin America ate rice and beans every day. “Some of the other students had lived through three revolutions in their home countries. I realized how naïve I was about the larger world.”
Retiring from teaching has allowed Paul and her husband, Len Belasco, whom she first met at Temple, to travel more to enjoy her son, two stepdaughters and four grandchildren.
Paul also pours energy into celebrating the arts in Germantown. “I’ve always loved music, painting, all the arts, really,” she said. “Germantown is a unique community. On one hand, we have more pockets of poverty than other communities that many Philadelphians associate with the arts, but we also have amazing architecture, magnificent trees and rich history. We don’t yet have a charming, hip business district or arts corridor. We’re more like a village, more spread out. I wanted to bring our incredible artists to light.”
In 2011, Paul helped organize several meetings that resulted in the Germantown Artists Roundtable. “The Roundtable is a volunteer-led network of visual, literary and performing artists who live in Germantown, work here, or both,” she said. The Roundtable casts a wide net that also includes art educators, art aficionados and groups and businesses devoted to the arts. “Germantown has at least 1,000 artists,” she said. “They encompass a wide age range and include painters, potters, weavers, writers, musicians, architects, composers, filmmakers and more. Germantown has a treasure trove of artists, and they should be acknowledged.”
The Roundtable stands on a bedrock of diversity. “If you want an organization to be diverse, the leadership has to be diverse from the beginning,” Paul said. “A diverse group has to hammer out the bylaws and the mission statement. You have to be intentional about it.”
The Roundtable has achieved a certain prominence. “It’s become the go-to organization when someone wants a local artist for an exhibition or a performance,” Paul said.
The Roundtable has developed imaginative projects that invite everyone’s participation. For example in April, National Poetry Month, the Roundtable sponsored “Hanging out with Poetry,” an event where local poets and neighbors shared their favorite poems by clipping them to a clothesline in Maplewood Mall. Philadelphia Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher hosted the event.
On Parking Day, a citywide event, the Roundtable took over a parking space and transformed it into an arts hot spot for the day. “It’s another example of bringing arts to the community,” Paul said.
Next up for the Roundtable is a weekly radio show, “The Artists Roundtable: Germantown’s Creative Voice,” focusing on the area’s artistic life. It will feature interviews with Germantown artists. “It will soon be aired on 92.9 F.M.,” Paul said. “The theme music is by local composer Alex Morgan.”
The Roundtable has still more projects on the drawing board, but needs volunteers to get them up and running. To learn more, visit www.germantownartistsroundtable.org/. To volunteer, contact email@example.com.