By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Visitors to the Middlebury Farmers’ Market are well accustomed to the cheerful, small-town skyline of tents and colorful pavilions that appears twice a week during the summer and fall.
But one tent slated to crop up at this coming Saturday’s market won’t be peddling the usual assortment of local produce and fresh flowers.
Part interactive art project, part activist awareness prop, the tent is the central symbol of the Tents of Hope movement, a national art project aimed at promoting awareness and action to end genocide in the Darfur region of the African nation of Sudan.
The local incarnation of the project comes to Addison County this month care of the Middlebury College Chaplain’s Office and the Middlebury Area Clergy Association, and will travel to two more Middlebury locations, appearing for three consecutive Saturdays this month before eventually being sent to Washington, D.C., for a rally on the National Mall in November.
“Our main goal is to kind of bring the situation in Darfur to the front of peoples’ consciousness,” said Tim Franklin, the pastor at the Bridport Congregational Church and one of the project’s local organizers. “This is something that for many people is on the edges of their awareness.”
Townspeople will be invited to help paint the tent, and information and petitions will be on hand for those interested in learning more about the Darfur region of western Sudan. The region has been the focus of international attention since government troops and militia groups known as janjaweed began conducting widespread civilian killings in the area in 2004. At least 200,000 individuals are thought to have died, and more than 2.5 million others are believed to have fled their homes in the region.
“It’s been talked about in churches, at Havurah, at the (Stand Up for Darfur) student organization,” said Ellen McKay, the coordinator at the Middlebury College Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life. “But there’s no sort of focal point for the community.”
In addition to serving as that focal point, Franklin said, he thinks the tent project is a “great way to rally the community” — particularly in a county where residents fall along a broad spectrum of political and religious beliefs.
“Addison County’s a pretty diverse community,” Franklin said. “Yet, there are some things that can really bring us all together. This was something we could all agree on and get behind.”
Organizers hope that the tent project will also serve as a visual reminder of the refugee camps in the neighboring nation of Chad, where many Darfur refugees have taken up residence.
“The symbolism of the tent is that there are hundreds of thousands of people … who are living in tents just like this tent, whose homes have been burned, whose villages have been destroyed,” Franklin said. “The tent is their life. It’s not just a symbol for them. It’s the way they live.”
The project coordinators are not yet sure who will accompany the tent to the D.C. rally, but they’re excited at the prospect of joining hundreds of other communities from around the country who are undertaking similar projects.
According to McKay, it could well be students from the college who take the tent to Washington — the national Stand Up for Darfur organization, which has a branch at the college, will hold its national meeting at that same time. But the first trip those students will be making will also take them off campus, though only across town.
According to McKay, the chance for Middlebury College students to interact with local residents and collaborate on a common topic was one of the things that made the Tents of Hope project attractive to the Scott Center.
“We like to look for things where Middlebury College students can get off the campus and get involved with other activist groups from around town,” McKay said.
Bridport Central School art teacher Bruce Lee designed the overall look of the tent, which Franklin said organizers wanted to reflect the spirit of the community from which it comes. The four walls of the tent will each be decorated with a scene depicting each of the four seasons in Vermont, interspersed with messages of support for those caught up in the Darfur struggle.
“I just encourage and ask people in the county to come out and support us and to use their voice, to give us five, 10, 15 minutes, whatever they have, to speak for the refugees, to speak for the homeless, to speak for those who have no voice or have no power,” Franklin said.
The tent will be on display for the first time this Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market in the Marble Works complex from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The tent will also appear on Sept. 20 on the Middlebury Town Green from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on Sept. 27 on the main quad of the Middlebury College campus from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.