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Aylette Jenness

Originally appeared in the March 2013 Nauset Neighbors Newsletter:

There is a theme in Aylette Jenness’ life, and you find it in the books she has written.

Pick up her book, Along the Niger River, An African Way of Life, look at the pictures, skim the text and find yourself compelled to read more. It is about 1974 Yelwa in the northwestern corner of Nigeria before Al Qaeda’s North African wing reared its ugly head, before the 2012 suicide bombs in Yelwa’s churches. Aylette spent three years in Nigeria then and produced a memorable photo documentary of a way of life long gone. The pictures and text are fascinating, and now forty years later, Aylette’s daughter has digitized hundreds of old photographs and they are working together on a website that will make them available to universities, libraries and other interested parties. 

Pick up her book,  In Two Worlds:  A Yip’uk Eskimo Family. Aylette first went to Scammon Bay, Alaska on the coast of the Bering Sea in 1962. The village had no roads, about 125 people, no other inhabitants within a day’s walk. She arrived with her anthropologist husband, a two-year-old, a newborn, pen, paper, camera and an inquiring mind, and stayed for a year and a half. Her stories about diapers and baby food did not make it into the books she wrote of her time there.

Aylette went back to Scammon Bay in 1985. The village, connected to the world by telephone, satellite dish and plane, had grown to about 350 people, and Aylette became friends with Alice Rivers, who was born in the village. The two collaborated on In Two Worlds, an account of Alice’s family in their traditional world and in the world as it was in 1985. 

Fast forward over twenty five years to the present. There are about 450 people in Scammon Bay now and it remains physically isolated, but Aylette knows from Alice that much has changed. While the children in 1985 had computers in school and played video games like the children in the other states, there was no Internet. Aylette is looking forward to returning to Scammon Bay hopefully within the year to witness the changes there in our hyper-connected world. 

Pick up her books, Families, A Celebration of Diversity, Commitment, and Love (1990), and Come Home with Me:  A Multicultural Treasure Hunt (1993) that Aylette wrote during her twenty four year tenure at the Boston Children’s Museum developing exhibitions, programs, festivals and workshops. Both books took on topics difficult for the time and paved new ground. Families asked what families were, and answered, “Your family is the people who take care of you, who care about you.” Seventeen young people described their families, and gay and lesbian families were included in the mix, groundbreaking for the time. Come Home with Me, a “Kids Bridge” book of the museum later made into an interactive video and exhibit, dealt head on with issues of prejudice and discrimination that kids found in their lives. The Children’s Museum in multicultural Boston was one of the first children’s museums to feature these issues, but it was not known how it would be received. Through a “Talk Back Board,” also not common in museums then, they learned the exhibit had been successful. 

Aylette traveled to other places and wrote other books, but there is space only for the highlights here. Her lifework is beautiful, and clearly she is not done.

Aylette is both a member and a volunteer for Nauset Neighbors. Hers is the voice that members hear after a service is completed and asks how it went. She says she has the best job at Nauset Neighbors because she continually hears the gratitude of our members. She is the right person for that job. There are reasons for the rest of us to be grateful to her.

-Esther Elkin