NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – While Nashville now takes pride in being one of the more culturally diverse cities in the south, it hasn’t always been that way.
Forty-five years ago, Ellen Gilbert left her Ohio home and came to Nashville to study teaching at Peabody College.
“I remember I called my mom and said, ‘I’m in outer space,’” she recalled.
The lessons she learned in her first few years here made Gilbert want to stick around and make the city a more inclusive place to live.
“It was hard to get used to the south because it was so divided,” she explained to News 2. “The schools weren’t integrated, which was a new experience for me as I student taught.”
Soon enough, Gilbert adjusted to life in Nashville before she began looking for ways to change the social order, including creating a school outreach programs that used the arts to teach students about cultures different from their own.
“I started the program mainly with information about Africa and Native American cultures,” she said. “Then as refugees and immigrants came in from Laos, Cambodia, a few from Thailand, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Russia, I started adding these other cultures because the parents in the schools would ask me to.”
As Nashville grew, so did the need for more multi-cultural programs.
“I pulled together parents who had been artists in their homeland, but then came here and had to take other jobs and we formed our founding board,” Gilbert said.
In 1996, she bought the historic Richland Hall building on Charlotte Avenue and opened the Global Education Center.
Inside the center, the world comes together in a multi-cultural hub of 110 artists from 40 countries and cultures.
“A lot of immigrants come here because we have a thriving economy and a lot of our Chinese, Indian, they come here for tech reasons for either college or technical jobs and they like it and they stay. In fact, we do cultural exchanges with schools in China and I can’t tell you how many teachers have purchased homes here and want to come back someday,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said she is proud of the progress she has experienced first-hand.
“I love it because when I came to Nashville it was pretty much black and white and they were very much segregated. I love some of the neighborhoods now… every hue and languages,” she said.
With more than 120 different languages spoken in Metro Nashville Public Schools, Gilbert has helped make our city the kind of place she hoped to find so many years ago.