As a self-described “city kid” who worked in government and taught political science as an adult, Gigi Georges became keenly interested in rural life and rural education when she moved to Maine part-time about 15 years ago.

Georges, who has a house in Southwest Harbor, began reaching out to educators, social service providers and students. She was curious about the lives of young people in rural, coastal Maine and about the challenges and benefits of growing up there. From some informal talks with students at Narraguagus High School in the Down East town of Harrington, she became convinced that the students presented a compelling story, about achieving despite challenges, with strength garnered from their rural communities and small-town bonds.

She eventually asked five young women, who all went to the school, if she could follow their lives for a while and tell their stories. The result was George’s book “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” (HarperCollins) which came out May 25 and has garnered national attention. It’s been featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and Georges has discussed it during a virtual bookstore talk with Hillary Clinton. Georges also talked about the book on a podcast with Nino Scalia, grandson of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Georges thinks the book resonates with people because it carries an upbeat message about rural America.

“I think it presents a counter narrative to the idea that rural America is a place of hopelessness,” said Georges, 55. “When I talked to these girls I was struck by a couple of things, about how much they loved the area they lived in and how these communities bonded together despite the many challenges.”

Gigi Georges with copies of her book, “Downeast.” Photo courtesy of Gigi Georges

THE GIRLS’ STORIES

Georges followed the five young women – all students or recent graduates of Narraguagus High – for four years. She went to their school, watched two of them compete on the school’s 2016 state champion girls’ basketball team, fished for lobsters with them and visited them in their homes. The girls lived in the Washington County towns of Milbridge, Cherryfield and Harrington.

Georges’ granted the girls anonymity by giving them pseudonyms in the book, though three have identified themselves publicly since the book’s release. All five of the girls Georges picked grew up in very small towns with limited access to the opportunities and services available in more populated places.

Kelli Kennedy of Milbridge, seen here on the Narraguagus High School basketball team, is featured in “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America.” Photo courtesy of Gigi Georges

Kelli Kennedy – Audrey in the book – was a star basketball player in high school who earned a scholarship to Bates College in Lewiston, then transferred to the University of Maine to be closer to home. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree there with the goal of becoming a speech-language pathologist serving the Down East region. She works as a lobster fisherman in the summer.

Lanie Perry – Mckenna in the book – was a softball pitching phenom who started lobstering at age 8 and captaining her own boat by 17. She’s currently lobstering full-time. Sophia DeSchiffart – Josie in the book – was co-valedictorian of her class and went to Yale University, where she got a degree in archeology and became a research assistant.

Willow in the book was from a challenged home, where substance abuse and physical abuse were present, Georges said, but has overcome those challenges and become a talented photographer. Vivian in the book “questioned the values of town and church,” said Georges, and is now pursuing a career in nursing after studying at the University of Maine.

Kennedy, now 23, said she agreed to cooperate with Georges because she wanted to share with people how significantly growing up Down East had shaped her in a positive way.

“From the community support to the lobster industry, I feel I had what I needed to succeed. However, it is glaringly apparent that this experience is not universal,” wrote Kennedy, of Milbridge, in an email to the Press Herald.

Kennedy said she liked the way she was portrayed in the book. Georges captured the “diversity of experiences in our community, as well as the commonalities that we share,” Kennedy wrote.

Perry, 20, of Harrington, said she agreed to be featured in the book because it was a chance to show others that “no matter what you want to do in life, it’s possible.” She hopes the book will impact people who read it.

“So many people have hardships in their lives but all the girls mentioned in this book tell their stories and show how we pushed through it,” wrote Perry in an email to the Press Herald. “I love the way the book was written and the way it came out in general, but my favorite part is how so many people in the community have talked about it and love reading about the women in our community that are determined to do what we love.”

RURAL CURIOSITY

Georges grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a Greek-American family where education was strongly emphasized as the way to success and contributing to society.

She got her master’s in domestic policy from Princeton University and pursued a career in the public policy side of education. She worked for the teacher’s union in New York City and later as communications director for the New York City Department of Education. In the late 1990s, she worked in the administration of President Bill Clinton as a special assistant to the president and senior counselor to the National Economics Council. She was Hillary Clinton’s statewide campaign manager for senator in New York then became state director for Clinton once she was elected.

As she worked on issues around education in government, Georges said she was “struck by the challenges and opportunities that marked public education in America.”

As someone who had mostly worked in or with urban schools, she wanted to know more about education and how it worked in all areas. While working at various jobs, she got a Ph.D in public administration from New York University with a focus on education policy. About 15 years ago, she got a fellowship at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That opportunity got her and her husband thinking about moving somewhere in New England, where they could maybe raise a family in a place less urban than New York City. After her time at Harvard, Georges began teaching at Boston College.

Georges and her husband decided to split their time between Bedford, New Hampshire – about an hour from Boston – and a family home in Southwest Harbor. Now, with their 9-year-old daughter, they spend summers and many other parts of the year in Maine, when they are not in New Hampshire. Living in New Hampshire and Maine made her intensely curious about education in more rural places.

Author Gigi Georges, foreground, working on a lobster boat with captain Heather Thompson during research for “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America.” Photo courtesy of Gigi Georges

“As my life became more rural, I turned more to questions about rural schools, what rural kids were navigating, and what was and wasn’t working. I wanted to learn and bring my vantage point to what was happening in rural schools,” Georges said.

She reached out to local clergy and teachers who helped her meet with dozens of Down East high schoolers, informally at first. She said she was struck at how much the girls she talked to seemed to excel more than boys in many areas, including academics, arts, ambition and leadership skills. She decided to make telling their stories her work for the next few years, and eventually took a break from teaching to focus on the book.

She spent time working on a lobster boat with the high school’s girls’ basketball coach, and worked on a wharf with one of her subjects. She spent time at a blueberry farm owned by a local family, and visited the five girls featured in the book regularly in school and at their homes.

“I wanted to give them space and time and tell their stories in their voice,” said Georges.

POSITIVE LIGHT

Since the book came out, it’s been garnering attention locally and nationally.

George Stephanopoulos, another Clinton White House staffer, is now a host of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and featured it on that show. The Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., held a virtual discussion of the book in June featuring Georges, Hillary Clinton and DeSchiffart. Clinton praised the book for finding stories that highlight the strengths and successes of rural education as way of looking at improving education for all children. She said she found the book’s message important now, in a country bitterly divided politically.

“It’s really going to take a lot of effort on the part of many people to focus on the problems we have and to try to bring people together around solutions, and it’s always better if, as you look at a problem – as Gigi has so eloquently pointed out in the book – you can be optimistic,” Clinton said.

When Georges began talking to adults and students about education Down East, one of the first places she reached out to was the Maine Seacoast Mission, a nonprofit group that runs health, community and after-school programs aimed at helping the state’s isolated coastal areas. John Zavodny, the mission’s president, said he’s glad that Georges was interested in telling the girls’ stories, and in turn, the stories of the Down East communities where they grew up. He thinks the book gave a fair account of the region as a place that can be difficult to live in, but where challenges and hardships have forged a strength of community that can help people succeed.

“I think the story of these young women is pretty incredible, and the book is really both celebratory of them and their communities,” said Zavodny. “Very often rural communities Down East are misrepresented as down-in-the-mouth, depressed area. Yes, it’s a hard place to live but the folks that grow out of this area are strong, resilient and respond to every challenge.”


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