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EDITORIAL: Paij Wadley-Bailey: A Treasured Life

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by Nat Frothingham

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Paij Wadley-Bailey

Many of us here in Montpelier and across Vermont and beyond are feeling the loss of our deeply loved and admired friend and mentor Paij Wadley-Bailey who died on August 18 in Montpelier at the age of 77.

In looking back on her life and measuring its many powerful impacts — Paij seems almost beyond labeling and classification. If anything, Paij was a force of nature.

She was also the mother of four children: Denise Bailey, Richard Bailey, Lance Bailey and Carrie Robinson and she also had three grandchildren.

She was an African-American woman whose thirst for knowledge took her to Vermont where she earned a Master’s Degree in Social Ecology from Goddard College.

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As an African-American, she knew her African and American roots. She knew her people had come from Nigeria. She knew her family’s slave history in America. When she spoke — and she was not afraid to speak — she spoke truth to power.

In a long, many-sided and productive life, Paij was always learning, always a student and her determined pursuit of knowledge made her a powerful teacher.

Her Niece Wrote About Paij

Shortly after her death, her niece, Barbara Wadley Young, wrote three pages about her aunt.

In the words she used to describe Paij — Barbara captured  some of her aunt’s amazing intellectual and spiritual energy.

Here are the words that Barbara used to describe Paij: engaging, intelligent, compassionate, creative, active, purposeful, seeking, exposing, unifying … and pushy.”

Yes — “pushy” — Paij never stopped pushing whether she was taking charge of a “Reading to End Racism” program or leading the “Vermont Anti-Racism Action Team” or teaching at a “Holocaust Studies for Youth” summer institute.

As a 21-year-old college student, Barbara recalled being recruited by Paij “to direct a bus full of Jewish students from Vermont” who were visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.”

Earlier, as a girl growing up in New Haven, Connecticut — Barbara had great memories of Paij — “teaching us African chants,” or during the summer, singing late into the night on the big family porch of the house “where all 24 of us lived.” Singing songs like “We Have Come This Far by Faith,” or “Necessity,” or “Hambone,” or “Glorious” — all favorites.

Paij never lacked for guts and Barbara wrote that Paij “taught my oldest brother Maurice that (the Wadley family) fight their own battles by sending him back outside to fight two boys that were older and bigger than him. Maurice lost out in the fight. But he learned that the (Wadley family) will fight when they have to.

Wrote Barbara, “Paij was teaching her family that fighting with knowledge and purpose packs an incredibly hefty blow against ignorance.”

Barbara thanked her aunt for exposing her “to fine arts, performing arts, creative play, museums, writing, libraries, higher education opportunities and benefits and other cultures.” She also remembered Paij as a great storyteller.

Paij’s Outreach Work in Rwanda

Glenn Hawkes and Emily Gould remember Paij from her outreach work in Rwanda, an East African country that suffered from a devastating genocide that claimed thousands of lives in 1994.

During the 1990s, Glenn led an outreach project to Rwanda and beginning in 2002 Glenn turned to Paij to assist him with his Rwandan work.

In Rwanda, Paij taught English as a Second Language to women who were working with people living with HIV/AIDS. Glenn remembers Paij as a very effective teacher.

During her time in Rwanda (and Paij made five or six separate trips to Rwanda usually staying for several weeks at a time) Paij worked in partnership with local African women to form a chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), one of the oldest peace organizations in the western world.

Emily who now carries on Paij’s outreach work in Rwanda said she feels fortunate to follow in Paij’s footsteps.

About Paij’s experience in Rwanda, Emily said, “She loved being there. She travelled all over the country. Even though transportation was difficult, and sometime expensive and sometimes non-existent, that didn’t stop her. Gould said that one of the biggest things that is happening in Rwanda is the story of women’s growing empowerment and leadership. According to Emily. According to Emily, Paij organized the old-fashioned way, door to door. “She was really, really loved. She’s an organizer of great skill. She was fully met by the people she was working with.”

Then turning back to a personal reflection, this time a memory of Paij in Montpelier, Emily said, “In her heart and bones, Paij was a teacher.” You only had to walk with her into downtown Montpelier to see the number of young people under 21 who were relating to her on the street, who had been touched and influenced by her teaching.

Sha’an Mouliert Remembers Paij

Sha’an Mouliert first worked with Paij in January 1996 when the two women, both African-Americans, collaborated at a Martin Luther King birthday event in Burlington.

Over time the two women discovered how much alike their backgrounds had been. Both women had degrees in education, both women shared similar philosophies and continued collaborating with each other through college courses, high school courses and community events.

Sh’an admired Paij’s teaching abilities. Said Sha’an about Paij, “She had a manner of communicating the issues that was very persuasive. She was direct, sometimes earthy in deconstructing the issue. There was an elegance in her capacity of communicating. She was just as comfortable talking with a three-year-old as she was with a group of teens and senior citizens. She was also able to engage meaningfully with people of different races, cultures, sexual orientations and abilities. There were times when we were really angry about things. We laughed a lot. We found humor in everyday existence and challenges.”

At the end of August and beginning of September 2001, Sha’an and Paij attended the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Remembering that trip, Sha’an said, “Paij and I knew how to tap into our ‘inner child.’ We were so excited we behaved like little girls again, holding hands and skipping through the JFK Terminal. We were known to break out into Miss Mary Mack — a patty-cake game. We got a rope and taught 9th graders at Harwood Union High School how to play “Double Dutch.” In a heartfelt remark about Paij, Sha’an said, “I thought of Paij as my racial justice mentor, my confidante, friend and the older sister I never had.”

Paij loved singing. Paij and a few people from Montpelier would gather at John Harrison’s house in Plainfield to sing gospel songs. That was the start of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir. Her daughter, Denise Bailey, a Montpelier attorney, sings in that choir today and said, “My mother and I bonded most closely and lovingly when we sang together. She especially loved the song “This Little Light of Mine” and I feel so blessed to have so much of her light in my heart.”

A Life of Large Significance

Paij ended her life on her own terms using Vermont’s “Death with Dignity” implementation. At one of the gatherings of friends that preceded her death, Paij was up there, dancing. And according to Emily Gould, on the day before she died Paij was still planning meetings with people.

In today’s world so deeply fractured by racial, ethnic, religious and national divides and conflicts, we need women like Paij Wadley-Bailey.

When Emily wondered aloud about the long-term impact of Paij’s work in Rwanda, she said, “We don’t even know all that her work in Rwanda will achieve.”

Nor do we know all that her work in seeking racial understanding did and will achieve.

What we know is this: “Her work goes on and on.”