Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rex Helps Shine a Little Light in Tanzania

Children born with disabilities or medical problems in remote villages of Tanzania face a bleak future, made worse by prejudice and poverty. Rex grantee Mwangaza Tanzania ("Mwangaza" means "beacon" in Swahili) seeks out these children and matches them with the best medical resources. They also conduct health education classes to address preventable diseases and medical problems. David Large recently had a conversation with Mwangaza founder/director Paula Gremley, which we're pleased to feature as our latest Food for Thought.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

SF Outside Lands: The Humans are Still Being In

Radiohead's set on Friday, August 22nd, marked a San Francisco first – officially sanctioned live music after dark in Golden Gate Park. Three generations of artists were represented on the roster for the weekend – Steve Winwood, Toots and the Maytals, Tom Petty, Wilco, Widespread Panic, Ben Harper, and Jack Johnson were just a few of sixty-four musical acts. Local and regional restaurateurs served foods ranging from vegan wraps to gourmet sausage, and craftspeople sold their artwork.

Producers asked that sponsors such as Microsoft, Dell, and PG&E participate in ways that accorded with the spirit of the event. The results: an EcoLand where solar panels powered the stage, the vending booths, and a cell-phone charging station; a large circus tent with computers available for audience members to upload their own photos, blog posts, and tweets; and a station for creating and emailing a mix "tape" of mp3s from artists performing this summer at festivals throughout the country.

As I took in the 80 acres of offerings, I couldn't help thinking about an earlier gathering. I was not on the planet to attend the Human Be-In held in the park on January 14th, 1967, but its legend was one of the things that brought me to California. Organizers said that the purpose of that event was to harmonize then-competing elements of the youth movement – people focused on political change and those focused on transforming consciousness. The media coverage brought the world its first eyeful of what came to be called the counterculture. The Outside Lands crowd demonstrated how much some the ideals of those times, like environmental awareness and the revival of craftsmanship, have been accepted by the mainstream.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Perspective on the Digital Divide

In the latest Rex Foundation newsletter, Ken McNeely, President – External Affairs for AT&T California, suggests that there must be a “will to change” among the public at large with regard to broadband Internet service -- and the importance of ensuring universal access to that service. He notes it will take corporate political will, in combination with policy makers, to effect the changes needed to ensure digital inclusion.

Looking at earlier products or services that were deemed so essential as to require subsidized access for those who couldn't afford them, he asks, "Is broadband on the same level as subsidizing food and public education? Should every student have a computer and Internet access?"


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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Mickey Hart: Drumming As Peacemaking Tool

Mickey Hart says:

"Humans are rhythm machines. That’s what life is built on, rhythm, so when you share that with someone you make a connection at a very deep level. You get to understand their emotions, their hopes, dreams, fears, whatever.

"When you entrain you get in sync, you have common ground, you’re touching the essence of life. You’re sharing some kind of sacred space with these people. That makes peace.

"I don’t ever remember coming off of a stage where people were really passionate about playing music at that moment, and feeling bad towards them. It’s always a heightened experience; it’s always enlightening in some way, and it makes you feel good. And it’s fun."


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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Drums for Peace

We're really excited about the latest Food for Thought story on the Rex Foundation site. It's about a recent project in which Christine Stevens, renowned drum circle leader and friend of Mickey Hart, was invited to come to Iraq and teach drum circles to local people as a peacemaking tool. The results were very moving, and we're really proud to have been part of this project.

The story also includes a text and/or audio interview with Mickey on the healing power of drumming. Check it out!


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Monday, December 17, 2007

How Important Is the Net?

Interviewed in the current Rex newsletter, AT&T executive Ken McNeely says he believes that basic broadband service should be available to all, and considered an essential component of Universal Service in the U.S.

Ken suggests that there must be a "will to change" among the public at large in recognizing the importance of broadband service to society and ensuring a level playing field. The question, he says: Is subsidizing broadband on the same level as subsidizing food and public education? Should every student have a computer and Internet access?

Are the benefits of broadband connectivity such that it should be a guaranteed universal service, regardless of location and cost issues? And if so, what's the best way to make it happen? Please give us your thoughts.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

A New Way of Thinking?

In the current Rex newsletter, Rex Advisory Board member Jon McIntire says: "Thought cannot lead us out of our dilemmas — the nature of thought has led us to our current predicament!"

He goes on: "Much of the way we have been thinking, framing our ideas for thousands of years, needs to change if we really want to solve problems like hunger and disease."

In your experience, how can new ways of thinking lead to solutions to stubborn problems? How does inspiration come from unexpected quarters? What synergies emerge in the strangest of places?

Give us your ideas; tell us your stories.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

What Will It Take? Your Thoughts Please

In the current Rex Foundation newsletter, we note that in 1983 Buckminster Fuller proclaimed: "We can now solve all the problems of hunger and need across the world, having all the available resources and technology; all that we need is the political will." And yet, nearly a quarter century later, those problems and many others persist.

For the newsletter, we asked some Rex supporters for their thoughts on the question: “How do we find the will to generate positive solutions to current world challenges?" Here are some of their inspiring responses:

"The will is always a matter of the individual taking small steps and a leader at the top to help show the way." - Phil Eisengart

"Look beyond our own comfortable blessed lives and see how others less fortunate live." - Michael Fasman

"We find the will by being an example for others and working together with others for social change. We need to always have hope.” - Janet Leach

What do you think? We welcome your thoughts. We also encourage a wide range of viewpoints; please treat your fellow participants with respect.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

What Should Public Education Be?

Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education.

In the course of its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation, like many other philanthropic organizations, has helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.

But to consider where the arts fit into public education, we first have to consider the nature of public education itself.

Over the centuries in which it's been a key component of American society, it's been perceived as (among other things) preparing the younger generation for the responsibilities of democracy, giving them the necessary job skills to support themselves and contribute to the economy, providing them with critical thinking skills, or helping them find their own most fulfilling path in life.

A key issue, of course, is that public education is funded by the taxpayers, who not unnaturally see themselves as stakeholders, and hence is greatly subject to the vicissitudes of political wind-shifting.

As you see it — as a citizen, a taxpayer, possibly a parent and certainly a former kid — what do you think the true job of public education is? Where is the current version measuring up? Where is it falling short?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Project Avary: A Better Way

Project Avary: A Better Way

When a parent goes to prison, statistics show their kids have drastically increased odds of heading down the same path. Project Avary takes an intensive approach to breaking that cycle.

 By Mary Eisenhart

Back in the mid-’90s, Danny Rifkin, a longtime Grateful Dead family member and then the Rex Foundation’s executive director, was looking for a new challenge. “It was about a year after Jerry died,” he recalls, “and I was asking friends of mine whom I held in high regard for ideas for what I might next do in life.”

One of the friends he talked with was Earl Smith, who served as a chaplain at San Quentin prison. Smith told him that while there were some community-based organizations that helped former prisoners re-enter the community, and a few agencies to help families while loved ones were incarcerated, there were next to no resources specifically devoted to helping the children of incarcerated parents cope with the myriad issues that come with having a parent in prison.

The results, Smith said, were there for all to see, with sons following fathers following grandfathers into the prison system. But he had an idea of what might break the cycle — and who might want to do it.

Danny Rifkin, Project Avary founder

Rifkin recalls, “When Earl brought up the fact that there were no programs for children with incarcerated parents and that what would be good would be a summer camp and follow-up program, a light bulb went off in my mind. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and with my previous experiences at Slide Ranch and Camp Winnarainbow, I had the experience and potential staff resources necessary to get the project going.

I was, at the time, the administrator of the Rex Foundation, so I wrote a letter to the board asking them if I could use Rex as an umbrella organization until we could establish our own non-profit status and whether Rex would supply a $10,000 start-up grant. The response to both requests was positive. In addition, Caryl, Mickey Hart’s wife, happened to see my letter and offered an additional grant of $10,000 from her family’s foundation, the Ohrbach Foundation. This was very validating for me, and I knew I was onto the next right thing.”

Launched in 1999, Project Avary (Alternative Ventures for At Risk Youth) began with Rifkin and a group of friends taking 32 kids to a week of camp in the Sierras. By the next year it had grown to three weeks, with a fourth added in 2004. But Avary’s work extended beyond just taking at-risk kids to camp — monthly Avary Adventure Days take kids on field trips throughout the Bay Area, there’s a Family Camp once a year, and twice-yearly celebrations gather the whole Avary community. There are leadership retreats and a mentor program to help older youth in the program work with the younger kids.

Underlying all of Avary’s work is offering “The Avary Way” as an alternative family structure and way of life to kids whose regular lives often lack both stability and positive influence. “The Avary Way” emphasizes five areas (see sidebar): Social skills in daily life, creative arts, environmental education, physical activity and nutrition, and life skills.  Along the way there are rituals, gatherings and celebrations to honor the kids and their progress.

Avary is a small, resource-intensive (for example, at camp there’s one counselor for every two kids) effort serving the San Francisco Bay Area — but it offers a clear demonstration that what it’s doing works. Remarkably, of approximately 300 kids who have attended Avary camp since 1999, 159 remain involved today.

Since that first startup grant in 1999, Rex has continued to support Avary with subsequent grants in 2002, 2004 and 2006, as Avary itself has continued to evolve. Says Herb Castillo, who became Avary’s executive director last year when Rifkin retired, “In 2004 there was a surge in teen involvement. Rex funding over the following two years was instrumental in helping Avary expand the Teen Leadership program’s capacity to accommodate the large number of children choosing to commit their teen years to Avary. Today, nearly 60 of the over 150 children and youth participating in Avary are teenagers.”

We recently had a chance to speak with Castillo about Avary’s work, the difficulties, and the rewards.

Herb Castillo, Project Avary Executive Director

Rex Foundation: What are the particular challenges kids with incarcerated parents face? Who are these kids — where do they live, what are their families like?

Herb Castillo, Project Avary: The families we serve are typically “multi-problem families” who face a range of interrelated challenges, including poverty, lack of a stable home environment, lack of educational resources, and physical and mental health issues.

Research tells us that children of incarcerated parents experience trauma affecting their emotional and even physical development. Their ability to trust is undermined. Other problems include anxiety, asocial behavior, and inability to focus or concentrate.

Also, the constant contact children have, through their parent or parents, with the criminal justice system can socialize a child, such that their life chances of incarceration can be as much as five times more than other children’s.

There are an estimated 170,000 to 200,000 children of incarcerated parents living in the Bay Area. Obviously we are only serving a fraction, but across a wide geographic area. The kids Avary serves live in eight Bay Area counties and in 39 cities.

Nearly 60% of Avary kids live with the remaining parent and another 20% with a relative, usually a grandmom. Most of our kids are low-income, live in tough neighborhoods where even a walk to the school is filled with risk, and usually suffer from inadequate health care and under-resourced schools. 

Rex: What’s the process for deciding which kids get to enter the program?

Project Avary: Summer camp is the primary entry point for a new child to join Avary. The child must be between 8.5 and 11 and usually comes to our attention through a teacher or social worker. Thereafter we strive to work with a child into young adulthood and base decisions around advancing into the Teen program on a child’s ability to thrive in our program.

We interview the parents and the referring party to determine a child’s maturity and readiness to attend camp, as well as fit into a community. Many of our kids have suffered emotional and physical abuse (in some instances even sexual abuse) and neglect. We want to be aware of potential problems, but do not screen out kids because they have problems. We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.

Rex: You've mentioned that teens are your fastest-growing constituency. To what extent is this the result of kids starting the program at an earlier age and sticking around? And was this part of the plan from the beginning, or an unexpected evolution?

Project Avary:: Avary accepts only children between ages 8.5 and 11. Their commitment to remain involved in our program begins to form with their first summer camp, when they are introduced to our values and practices.

They are told that during the first two years of their involvement with Avary, they will be held to one-week sessions at summer camp; that if they wish to graduate to two-week status and ultimately enter the Teen Leadership program, they must show that they are meeting the objectives under our Personal Responsibility goal. When they reach 13 and 14, they are considered for entry to the Teen program.

However, while in the program, they demonstrate progress in achieving Community Responsibility objectives. In short, we present to our kids values and goals; we support them in achieving those goals; and, as you can see, many strive to meet these expectations.

Was this part of the plan? Yes and no. Yes, because we saw early on a number of the older kids stay with the program. No, because I don’t think Danny or anyone else was prepared for the number of kids who would ultimately stay with Avary into their teens.

Rex: Avary’s long-term, family-like commitment to the kids who enter the program is very striking.  Could you elaborate on how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: What impressed me most when I joined Avary was the constant reference to “the Avary Way.” The Avary Way is based on values and practices that promote healthy lifestyles and appropriate youth development.

When children attend their first summer camp, they learn that Avary focuses on five areas of development: social skills for daily life; creative arts; environmental education; nutrition and physical fitness; and life skills training.

For children to advance through our program — which means graduation from one week to two weeks, entry to the Teen Leadership Program, and graduation to senior staff — they must demonstrate progress in each of these areas.

Surrounding these expectations is a sense of family, which for us means showing our appreciation and committing our support for one another. We take this mutual responsibility seriously.

Rex: Also striking is the fact that Avary has its own rituals, rites of passage and so on. Again, could you talk about how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: We think that rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage should be used to signal major stages and achievements in our lives. When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.

This is key: the sense of mutual responsibility towards one another. Isn’t this what we mean with all the talk of a civil society? It is more than being respectful; it also means being supportive and available to cheer or help when needed.

Rex: Obviously, for reasons ranging from financial to geographic, Avary can’t help every child of incarcerated parents. Does it have ripple effects with kids and families outside the program? Could the model be adapted elsewhere?

Project Avary: Avary is a very unique organization. We have blended enrichment, mentoring and counseling, environmental stewardship, professional training, and leadership development into an integrated array of activities that promote positive and healthy youth lifestyles.

We see firsthand the positive effects of Avary when our kids commit to Avary in their teen years; when siblings and relatives of one Avary child seek to enter our program; when our older kids enter college or survive multiple foster care placements to live stable and productive lives. I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.

Rex: The kids who started in 1999 would be approaching adulthood now. What’s become of them?

Project Avary: I can only comment on the kids who remain involved with us.

The two oldest are on full scholarship at San Diego State University. The next oldest is in community college and living independently. She is a former foster care child, which makes her current circumstances especially laudable.

Next is a young woman we have integrated into our senior summer staff who will be attending San Francisco Community College in the fall and whose tuition at SF State, where she will continue after finishing with the JC, will be covered by the company with whom she is currently employed.

Rex: One of your recent developments is a mentoring program. How does that work, and do you need more mentors? If so, what qualities are you looking for?

Project Avary: Actually, we launched the mentoring program three years ago with the aid of a federal grant. Those funds have ended, and while we will continue to support the mentoring relationships that are currently active, we intend to focus our energy on developing a mentoring program from within.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.

In the same vein, we intend to develop a buddy system where our older teens are matched to our younger participants for the purpose of providing guidance and support. We think this is more in line with the sense of family that has developed at Avary.

Rex: By your own calculations, you’re serving maybe 1/1000th of the Bay Area kids in this situation. How, if at all, could the Avary model be expanded to serve these other kids without losing quality of service?  What issues are involved?

Project Avary:That’s a good question, and I’m not sure it would be possible — to maintain the same quality of service, I mean. We could expand, bring in more kids, but I’m not sure we would be able to maintain the same feeling of family and community.

In fact, I’m looking at ways to deepen and intensify our familiarity and relationships with the current kids in the program, but that would involve seeing our kids more even more often than we do now.

Rex:Avary seems to be very much about quality rather than quantity. Unlike a lot of weeklong programs that essentially have no contact with kids for the rest of the year, Avary sees the bonds formed at camp as essential and puts a lot of energy into fostering them. Which, in turn, entails a huge commitment of time and energy from not only the kids themselves (and their families), but the staff and volunteers. How do you sustain this energy?

Project Avary: First and foremost, once you become acquainted with the challenges confronting these kids and witness their desire and effort to overcome those challenges, any claim at emotional or physical fatigue is pretty silly.

While I’d been with Avary for nearly a year, I hadn’t attended summer camp until this summer, and I was absolutely unprepared for the profound emotional impact it would have on me.  If I didn’t think so before camp — and I’m sure I’m speaking for many of the summer camp staff — I am particularly resolved, especially after having experienced camp, not to let down these kids regardless of the effort or work required of me.

We call ourselves the Avary family and the Avary community. I believe that referring to and thinking of ourselves as family and community fundamentally determines how we act in relationship to our kids. 

Also, when I interviewed for this position with Danny, he talked about how some day we’d be able to select an executive director from the ranks of former campers. So OK, that’s how I’ve approached this job from the beginning, that our training, expectations, services, and care we provide our kids meet our mission of crafting a safe place where kids will realize their potential.

Why? First, this is the only way that kids with a heightened likelihood of experiencing incarceration sometime in their lives will develop the vision, confidence, and skills to avoid following in the footsteps of their parents. And second, this agency belongs to them — and if this Avary belongs to them, they need the skills and tools to manage it.

“We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.“ – Herb Castillo

“When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.”

– Herb Castillo

Tools and Skills for Life

Avary’s five focus areas provide the skills and tools children need to develop their emotional intelligence and express themselves successfully in the Avary community and in their lives.

1. Social Skills in Daily Life: All program activities emphasize cooperation, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Avary’s approach is child-centered rather than curriculum-centered. Counselors are trained to exploit “teachable moments“: When conflicts or meltdowns occur, they are mediated immediately — within the group or in focused conversation between the counselor(s) and the child or children involved. The conflict resolution skills they learn at camp are tools they can take back to their school playgrounds.

2. Creative Arts: Training in the arts offers a variety of benefits, including opportunities for reflection, self-expression, and communication, comfort with speaking and performing in public, and opportunities to discover and explore talents. Campers get a respite from television and other mass media and learn crafts, graphic arts, music, dance, improvisational acting, and storytelling. In past years, they have collaborated to write and perform skits and work on a community mural that celebrates multicultural awareness.

Children are supplied with two journals — one that Avary keeps for them to use for Adventure Day art lessons and reflection time; another in which they can collect friends’ signatures and their private writings and drawings.

3. Environmental Education: Many of these girls and boys have little opportunity to spend time out of doors. Lessons and experiences are designed to help them feel comfortable in nature, appreciate its essential importance, and develop a sense of their own role as stewards. Nature walks, storytelling, mini-science lessons, “eco-treasure hunts,” and an “Interdependence Day” celebration teach the children about the plant and animal life native to various local eco-systems.

4. Physical Activity and Nutrition: Avary participants are among the millions of American children affected by the epidemic of “diseases of lifestyle”— obesity, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. As participants in our programs, they are introduced to good eating habits and a wide variety of sports and physical activities — from indoor rock climbing and ice-skating to deep-water swimming lessons and aikido classes to traditional sports such as volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Cooperation, teamwork, and fitness are emphasized over competition.

Children sit down every day to three family-style meals preceded by group appreciations, singing, and community announcements. Kitchen staff use fresh wholesome ingredients and only minimally processed foods, and do not use refined sugar. Each of the main meals and two daily snacks includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Candy and junk food are not served.

5. Life Skills: Children learn practical skills they can use to serve themselves, the Avary community, and the community at large. The program has included classes in gardening, First Aid & CPR and cooking. At camp, children are responsible for cleaning up their cabins and are assigned to do chores in common areas, and help with meal preparation and cleanup.

—Project Avary

Xavier Meets His Mentor

From the Project Avary newsletter

“One of the great things about the Avary community is the chance to see synergy happen; to witness connections made between campers, families and staff arise in surprising ways. A great example of this phenomenon occurred at our 2005 Camp Reunion and Holiday Party.

“Pete Sears, a longtime friend of Danny Rifkin and father of one of our counselors, offered to play the piano for our party. We felt very lucky to have the donated time of a professional musician, providing ambiance for the event. When Pete arrived, he happily began playing what seemed to him to be background music for the Avary families, staff, and supporters in attendance.

“While the rest of the children waited for a Bingo game to start, Xavier took an interest in what Pete was doing, and asked if he could play too. It wasn’t long before the pair was jamming together, with Pete establishing a structured baseline to support the boy’s improvisational spirit. They quickly gained the attention of the whole room.

“Most surprising, the young man — just 9 years old — had never had piano lessons. The pair formed an instant musical friendship and Pete soon approached Avary with a request: could he help Xavier develop this talent?

"In 2006, we were able to purchase a used piano for Xavier and match him with Pete as a mentor. Unlike other mentor matches, where meetings are a chance to get out, Pete and Xavier spend most of their time in Xavier’s home in front of the small upright piano that sits at the base of the stairs. Sometimes they just improv jazzy riffs, but often they work at whole songs.

“Recently, Xavier played ‘Amazing Grace’ for his church and received a standing ovation. His grandma says it’s amazing how he’s excelling at the piano. We think the difference a caring adult can make is amazing.”

—Project Avary newsletter

“Many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future, and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.” – Herb Castillo

Maria Schell, Project Avary Program Director

Rex Board Perspective

Rex Foundation and Project Avary board member Cliff Palefsky says: “Project Avary is an extraordinary program that is trying to provide a sense of community and continuity to good young kids who are very much victims of their parents’ misconduct. Rather than be a high-level policy group, Avary literally is out there trying to break the cycle of violence one child at a time.

“There are several components to the program. The summer camp is the entry point where the kids get a chance to get away, commune with nature instead of an inner-city environment, and spend time with other children in similar circumstances. The camp helps create the feeling of community and exposes the kids to the culture of mutual respect and non-violence, and tries to help provide them with the skills necessary to navigate the world. The staff is composed of some wonderful, nurturing and well-trained counselors. We have psychologists available to help in individual cases.

“During the year there are monthly Adventure Days where a group of kids get together for participatory activities such as kayaking, horseback riding, and rock climbing in addition to some educational or skill building sessions. We’ve had a mentoring program, which has had a profound impact on the lives of some kids and their mentors.

“This community, families with incarcerated parents, is not among the most sympathetic classes of folks out there, and they’re often neglected by other funders and donors. The foster care system is broken, so these innocent kids are truly victims of the system. That is why it is so important for Rex to support this kind of program.”

“I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny (Rifkin) and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.”

– Herb Castillo

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Wounded Warrior

Wounded Warrior

Project Disabled Sports USA

by Mary Eisenhart

Back in the late ’60s, Kirk Bauer, a decorated soldier, a lifelong athlete, and the kind of guy who had frequently cut school in his native Oakland to go surfing in Santa Cruz, lost a leg in combat in the Vietnam War and endured a grueling convalescence.

“After struggling with seven operations and six months on my back,” he recalls, “they put me back together at the hospital. It was a pretty frustrating experience — a lot of pain, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence about what I would be doing with my life.”

Into this private hell came the National Amputee Skiers Association, launched a few years earlier by other disabled vets.  “Some fellow veterans visited me and got me out of the hospital and took me up skiing,” Bauer recalls. “I really didn’t think I could do it, but I went up anyway just to try it.”

It turned out to be a life-changing event, and a planned one-day trip extended into four. “I was able to actually make a turn down the slope on the first day,” he says. “It was the biggest high in the world to be able to move again, go fast, feel the wind against my face — it was a transforming experience for me, and I couldn’t leave.”

The ski trip made such a difference in Bauer’s life that he immediately signed on as a volunteer. Today he’s served for 23 years as the executive director of the group, now known as Disabled Sports USA. The group has expanded its offerings considerably, with a variety of sports rehabilitation programs around the country for those with permanent disabilities. It also sponsors competitive events.

Most of the organization’s work over the years has been with civilians, but in 2003 DS/USA had an opportunity to return to its roots. A group called the Wounded Warrior Project, which was working with seriously injured vets returning from the Middle East, asked about forming a partnership.

“Both of us were at the hospitals serving the severely wounded,” Bauer explains. “They are there to provide counseling and financial assistance to the family, clothing and so on. They saw what we were doing and said ‘Hey, we love what you do. We look on this as part of what we want to do. Let’s be partners.’

“DS/USA is a sports organization for people with disabilities, primarily civilians and not military. They realized we were doing a great job and wanted to support it; we were looking for funding and they’re one of our major funding sources. So we’ve come together as partners for the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project.

“We’re focusing on those who have lost, or lost the use of, something for the rest of their lives,” he continues. “People with amputations, visual impairment, spinal cord injury, head injury, where they’ve become permanently, severely disabled. That numbers in the couple of thousands so far in this conflict.” Since the project’s launch in 2003, it’s worked with over 700 vets and 400 family members. In 2005, the Rex Foundation, which had previous given DS/USA a grant in 1995, contributed funds to support the project specifically. Rex presented Bauer with a check at that year’s Black Tie-Dye Ball in D.C. — “lots of tie-dyed shirts,” says Bauer, “but not so many black ties.

“We couldn’t do all of this without people like the Rex Foundation,” he adds. “What I find gratifying, quite frankly — and it’s very different from what happened during the Vietnam War — is that no matter whether somebody is for or against the war, they all want to help the guys who’ve been severely wounded who’ve given the most to this country. I am very grateful that the American people have pulled behind this project and supported it. We rely on private sector donations — we do not get federal funding.

“This program is changing lives, there is no question about it,” he continues. “It is making a difference very early on, and helping to set the vets on a good positive track. And it needs support.”

Rex Foundation: Who are the vets you’re serving today — and why have sports turned out to be such a great tool for rehabilitation?

Kirk Bauer, Disabled Sports USA: My experience as a vet back in the ’60s is still very typical of hundreds of these guys that we serve— they’re very active, many of them were and are athletes, they’re big into stamina events like marathons and army 10-milers. So for them, the comedown of being permanently disabled is even greater.

When these guys crash, they really crash. They’ve come from being trained to take cities to lying flat on their back. When I first visit them they’ve got tubes coming out of them, they’ve got pins in them, they’re in pain. The comedown is a huge, huge hit. It tends to create a mental state that involves depression and despair and a lot of other negative things.

We go in there and start talking to them real early, introducing them to the idea that they can be active sports people no matter what, even with a severe disability — and here’s how we’re going to do it.

I’ve had people ask me to leave the room; that’s OK, they’re not ready for it. But it plants a seed early on. Then later on, sometimes only a few months later, we’re actually able to get them out and get them to do something. And that early experience helps to turn their confidence, their mindset around, so they can basically build their lives again.

One of the beauties about sports is that we can introduce it very early. In some cases we can take amputees who haven’t even gotten their leg yet, and we can get them out skiing or water skiing or bicycling without the prosthetic aids.

People say “Gee, you’ve got a triple amputee here, how are you going to teach them to ski or water ski?” And not only can we do it, we can almost do it faster than with a person with all their limbs, because of the adaptive equipment available and because of the trained instructors; they get individualized instruction, which helps.

Recently we had 58 young men and women at a ski event. In order to get on a chair lift you have to be able to make a turn and stop so you don’t kill yourself. You learn how to ski the first day, then we take you up in the chair lift. Every one of them got up on the chair lift the first day.

There were eight double amputees in that group. There were men, there were women, didn’t matter. We were able to get them going, and right away they had a successful experience, just a little thing like being able to turn a ski. This starts to rebuild their confidence: “Hey, I can do this.” It really is a tremendous tool for rehabilitation.”

Rex: How long do you typically work with each vet?

DS/USA: We do whatever it takes to get that person to a point where they feel independent, confident and fit, and ready to take on the world.

The first stage is just to teach them a skill and let them focus on becoming accomplished in that skill. That’s the rehab part — they focus on something positive, and it really begins their road to recovery. That can take place literally within a few months of their injuries. Over the next months and years we make available to them every opportunity they want to take advantage of to learn sports skills. We can teach them over 20 different sports — golf, cycling, rock climbing, fly fishing and many other sports besides skiing.

When they become proficient in one or more skills, we turn information about them over to our local chapters. When the vets get discharged and go back into civilian life, they can take advantage of the programs locally or continue to take part in the project. We are still serving some young men and women who were injured in 2003 and 2004.

The big thing is, once they learn those skills and get that adaptive equipment, they can do that sport anyplace in the country, with anyone. The ideal is to give them the tools to do it anywhere, with or without an organized group like DS/USA. They can do that — they can go skiing anywhere, they can go cycling anywhere. So we sometimes stay with them for not months but years. Our commitment is open-ended until they are back and fully confident in their mobility.

Rex: What’s changed over the decades in terms of who your clients are, and what resources you have available?

DS/USA: Everything.

First of all, let’s talk about opportunity and availability. DS/USA as an organization really reflects the transformation. We started out as one chapter in California doing one sport, winter skiing, basically for one group of disabled amputees. And now DS/USA is 90 chapters operating in 36 states, offering over 20 different sports activities year round.

Also, as far as opportunities are concerned, the cities and counties are starting to open up their recreation programs to people with disabilities and trying to accommodate them. There’s still a long way to go, but the movement is in the right direction.

The second thing that’s really changed is equipment. Using aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, some of the space-age materials, and using some of the engineering that’s been developed around motorcycle cross-country racing, and running dynamics and aerodynamics that are literally performed in wind tunnels for wheelchair devices — you now have a piece of equipment available to all the sports we offer, everything from adaptive prosthetic devices to adaptive vehicles like racing chairs or hand cycles, to adaptations such as swiveling chairs that can be used so a disabled person can operate a sailboat single-handedly.  All those things, developed in the last 40 years, have transformed the availability of adaptive sports to people with disabilities.

The third thing that’s changed is the trained instructors. Back in the late ’60s every time we taught a student we had to reinvent the wheel. Somebody would teach an amputee in California and then somebody else would do it in Colorado, and they’d both be stumbling around trying to figure out what’s the best way to make this happen. Many more teaching programs exist now that enable professionals or volunteers in the field to teach the latest adaptation and to know how to do it before they go to teach a student, so they don’t fumble around. There’s a certification program offered by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, there’s a certification of instructors in SCUBA, there’s certification for instructors in skiing and sailing.

We have a new a program with the PGA — we have trained 36 of their professionals near a hospital where severely wounded vets are being treated, and they’re going to be able to provide continuous instruction free of charge to any wounded warrior who wants to learn golf. They’ve been trained to teach somebody who’s in a wheelchair, somebody who’s blind, somebody who has one arm or one leg, to play golf.

We just employed the American Canoe and Kayak Association to teach the instructors at a new amputee center for wounded warriors. So the opportunities are greater because of more trained instructors.

Rex: It also seems that in contrast to the days of the Vietnam War, everybody seems to support the troops, whether they support the war or not.

DS/USA: That’s true. People now are much more aware that these young men and women are here to serve their country, that’s what they want to do. Back in the days of Vietnam, when people turned against the war they turned against the soldiers as well. That’s not happening in this war, and I hope that continues, because they’re deserving of our support no matter how you feel about the war.

Rex: In the Vietnam days, a lot of the troops were draftees. Today some of them are career military, but a lot of them are also ”citizen soldiers” from the reserves or National Guard. Do you see that making a difference for the vets you serve and the issues they’re facing?

DS/USA: Well, the first thing is attitude. All of the people that are serving did volunteer to serve. Their attitude is much more “I signed up, I knew that I might go to war, and in war you do get injured. What I want to do is learn to how live with this.” That attitude is much more prevalent.

That does not mean that they don’t suffer depression, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have setbacks, but they seem to be more willing to try to move on and accept what happened to them, and try to make the best of it.

The biggest change, though, is the women. Quite frankly, as a male who has seen the war, it’s distressing to see women who are amputees coming back. They are serving on the front lines right along with our young men, and doing this valiantly and heroically. My heart goes out to them for their service, but it’s probably the toughest thing for me personally to witness.

Rex: Does the fact that more of them have families and adult responsibilities have ripple effects on your work and the problems you’re trying to address?

DS/USA: It does and it doesn’t. We’re still seeing a lot of young people, but we’re also seeing a lot of middle-aged people in the National Guard and the reserve, and we also see more who have families. In that respect, they have more responsibility, more pressure on them.

One of the things we’re committed to — and thanks to our partners we’ve been able to meet that — is that no matter what program we offer to them, everything, once they go out with us, everything is paid for. Instructions, lodging, airfare, everything that it takes for them to take part in the sport is paid for. We realize that some of these guys and gals are young, low-level NCOs and enlisted people. They don’t have a lot of money, they’re trying to raise families, and they could not take part in these programs without the cost being paid for. So we are much more sensitive to their financial needs and try to respond to that by making this free of charge.


Rex Board Perspective

Rex board member Diane Blagman says: “The mission of the Rex Foundation is to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, and assist others less fortunate than ourselves.

“The original Rex Foundation grant to DS/USA was many years ago, in 1995. One of the strongest supporters of this grant was Jerry Garcia.  He sat next to me at the board meeting and spoke up to support this proposal.

“I was really proud of Rex when they approved funding for the Wounded Warrior Project/Disabled Sports USA.  Kirk Bauer is an amputee and a Vietnam vet.  He received no federal funding for this project — he simply and quietly went out and helped those who were returning from  Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered loss of limbs.  He showed them that there they can have a productive and fulfilling life, and literally changed so many lives.”

Meet Orlando Gill

Born in the Bronx, Orlando Gill was 19 when he enlisted in the Army in 1992. Over the course of his service he traveled around the world, and was in his second tour of duty in Iraq when he took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Ramadi. The explosion amputated one of his legs at the knee.

That was in October, 2004. When he got to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C., he quickly got a visit from Kirk Bauer of DS/USA. “We came down to the fact that I like snowboarding and snow sports, that I was a snowboarder before,” Gill recalls. “He said he’d get me back up on the mountain.

“And sure enough, in January of 2005 he had me back out on the mountain again. We went to Vail, Colorado. They gave me an instructor and started teaching me how to relearn how to snowboard again. It was great!”

Today Gill, who married a soldier he met at Walter Reed and has a son, is retired from the service and living in the D.C. area. He volunteers full time with DS/USA, helping other soldiers in the program — transporting them to events such as the newly launched golf clinic, helping in the office, and especially visiting wounded vets in the hospital. “I do get all kinds of different responses when I talk to them about doing things,” he says. “Some guys, they’re not ready for this, but we still talk to them, trying to get them into doing it. And then others are all excited and really want to get into the swing of things.”

Gill reports that the golf clinic is turning out to be a big hit with the vets he’s working with. “A lot of them are really excited. When they first go there they don’t know what’s going on — and then they’re all up for doing it again, and asking if I’m going to pick them up next Saturday.”

And it’s not just the vets themselves who benefit — the program helps their entire families, who can all get involved in the sports activities. This is a real boon to overall morale — “It gives the family something to do besides just sitting in the hospital,” says Gill.

While the program has benefited many and received huge support, he says, there are always more vets in need than there are resources.

“The support the American public has given to the soldiers is incredible,” he says. ”We have a lot of support from everybody.

“But there’s never enough to help out somebody; there’s no such thing as ‘I’ve done enough.’ It’s about, ‘What else can we do for somebody?’”

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls

Discovering their inner musician, New York girls

and young women find a whole new way to look at life.

By Mary Eisenhart

"We've found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. – Karla Schickele

For the last two summers in New York City, the Willie Mae Rock Camp has given girls and young woman — mostly local, some from around the U.S. and beyond — a week of total immersion in music. And, quite often, a life-changing experience.

"Rock camp," says the camp's Web site, "is dedicated to youth empowerment through music. The program is founded on the proposition that music can serve as a powerful tool of self-expression and self-esteem-building for girls and young women, and can help combat racism and stereotypes by building bridges of communication and shared experience among girls from diverse communities."

Also, it's a lot of fun.

All Photos by Kate Milford

The Willie Mae Rock Camp (named after blues legend Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton) got its start in 2004 after alt-rocker Karla Schickele spent a couple of summers as a volunteer bass teacher at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon.

"It absolutely changed my life," says Schickele, who, as a proud native of Brooklyn, quickly decided NYC needed its own version. "So I reached out to some other women musicians here, and we spent about a year getting together at coffee shops, planning and working. We did the first rock camp in summer of 2005.

Schickele, a founding director, also had the idea to name the New York camp after the blues legend. "We like to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. We thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock 'n' roll, Big Mama Thornton."

Determined from the beginning to draw a diverse cross-section of girls from one of the world's most diverse cities, the founders planned to offer full or partial scholarships to at least half the campers at each session. Then, they cast their net.

"We used the powerful tool of word of mouth," Schickele recalls. "Our volunteers who were teachers put the word out to their students. Then we also had volunteers on bikes going around to various New York City neighborhoods. Particularly we wanted to target low-income and under-serviced communities in New York, where there are a lot of kids who don't have access to summer programs the way kids do in affluent communities. So we had volunteers going out on bikes, bringing flyers and posters to community centers and schools and shops and just talking to people on the street.

"We were going up to girls on the street and saying, 'Hey, are you into music?'" she laughs.

At the beginning of the weeklong day camp, girls form bands, with whom they'll practice, write songs, and perform in a concert at the end of the week. They'll get lessons in their chosen instrument from a pro. Along the way, they'll get a crash course in other practical realities of band life, e.g. making custom T-shirts and posters. And working together.

The rest of the year, the founders and a host of others in this almost all-volunteer organization (the only employee is a part-time office staffer to keep things running smoothly) work ceaselessly to gather support from parents, the community, industry and beyond. An online list of Willie Mae's supporters reveals a multi-generational, multi-genre roster of artists: Fiona Apple. Neko Case. Ani DiFranco. The Donnas. Deborah Harry. Natalie Merchant.

Probably the most popular fundraiser of the year is the annual Ladies' Rock Camp, which raises money for the scholarship fund. Says Schickele, "Once a year we do a mini rock camp — it's a three-day program for about 50 women who pay tuition. We get volunteers to work at that event as well, so all the proceeds go to the scholarship fund.

"It's an incredibly powerful and moving experience. A lot of the women who sign up for it haven't played music before, and just always thought it would be fun to be in a band. And the transformation they go through in three days is really extraordinary."

The Willie Mae Rock Camp received a grant of $2,500 from the Rex Foundation in 2006. Says Schickele, "We're very grateful to the Rex Foundation for its support, which is really helping us out this year."

We were recently able to spends some time talking with Schickele about the Rock Camp's work, how it helps participants elsewhere in their lives, and where the founders would like to take it from here.

Rex Foundation: An undertaking the size of this camp, with all its space and equipment requirements, isn't cheap. Where does your funding come from?

Karla Schickele, Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls: We do fundraising year round to make the one-week program happen. We solicit musical instrument manufacturers for gear donations; some of them have been quite generous, and given us guitars, drums and amps. We try to reach out to foundations and raise a lot of individual contributions. We hold fundraising events throughout the year to raise the cash we need to buy gear we can't get donated, and to help pay the rent and our other costs.

Rex: How do your teachers hear about you and get involved?

Willie Mae: As with the campers, it's a combination of word of mouth and concerted outreach efforts on our part. We strive to have our campers and our volunteers reflect the diversity of New York City, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, racially and ethnically. So we really wanted camp to be a place where people from different backgrounds and different communities can come together and make music together.

From the get-go we found it fairly easy to attract a diverse camper group, but our volunteer group in the first year was overwhelmingly white. So we've been working to reach out to musicians, women of color who are musicians, and also groups that provide leadership, like the Black Rock Coalition, to try and diversify our volunteer group. It's going great.

Rex: At least half your campers are on scholarship, and some of them come from all over the world. How do you do outreach outside of New York, and how do you ensure that all this diversity doesn't simply lead to conflict and bad vibes?

Willie Mae: We don't do outreach outside of New York. Our mission is to serve girls in New York City. We are open to girls from anywhere, but that's not part of our outreach program. Any girls who find us out there in the world have just come upon us — we get a fair amount of media coverage, and people find us on the Internet.

The question of bringing people together — what we've found, and this is no big news, is that music really brings out the best in people. We've found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. There's something magic that happens when people play music together. It creates lines of communication and builds bridges in ways that I think are unique to music.

It's not that there isn't conflict, because in any band there is conflict (laughs). One of the things we do is provide a band coach to every band. The band coach is an adult, an experienced woman musician who helps the girls find a working process. Like if someone has an idea for a lyric and one of the girls says, "Oh, that's so stupid," the band coach is there to say, "Hey, is there a different way we could talk about this?" So it becomes a weeklong exercise in communication, both through music and also through the working process of writing music.

Rex: You talk about how they form bands on the first day of camp — how does that work, and how do you avoid having it turn into nasty clique behavior?

Willie Mae: Good question.

At the Portland camp originally, they just had the names of different kinds of genres on the wall, and the girls would go to the kind of music they wanted to play, and then just sort themselves into groups, in a way that, as a volunteer, I found very traumatic to watch. It was a little like picking sports teams in school, and didn't seem to really serve the process. So one of the changes we made in New York was to overhaul that system.

Our system is based on speed dating (laughs). All the girls are given packets that have the name of every other girl in the camp, and a couple of questions. Like, if you could be any animal, what would you want to be? And maybe also some music-related questions. But in my experience, a lot of bands get formed not because of a shared musical sensibility — that can be part of it, but a shared broader sensibility can often be a really good foundation.

And also I have a personal aversion to the use of musical genres as a limitation. I don't think anyone should have to choose whether they want to play this kind of music or that kind of music. I'm much more interested in girls inventing entirely new genres of music.

So for these reasons, we do this exercise that involves each girl interviewing every other girl at camp for a few minutes. It's a big, joyous, loud exercise, all the girls talking to each other at the same time — and then after a few minutes they switch. So at the end of the exercise every girl has talked to everyone else. And then they sit down and they write down the names of a bunch of girls they would like to be in a band with.

They hand them to us and go off and do a workshop, and we go into a back room and form bands, based on their requests, but also making sure that no girl is left out, and no girl knows what the other girl had asked for.

We then announce the bands, and they immediately go off and start working. We don't really allow any time for "Oh, I really wanted to be with her…," that kind of thing. Life is too short.

Rex: Why did you decide to name the camp after Big Mama Thornton?

Willie Mae: I like the idea that we really try to pay respect to the early women of rock. We're not limited to rock music at our camp, but we do like to try to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. So we thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock 'n' roll, Big Mama Thornton.

We also name the rooms: the bass room is named the Carol Kaye room after the bass player, and the piano room is the Nina room after Nina Simone. We also have little bios of those artists up in the rooms so the girls can learn more about different women. We also have a workshop on the history of women in music. We try to get that information in a couple of different ways.

Rex: You've only been doing this for a couple of years, so you don't have a really long-term perspective, but do you see the same girls coming back more than once?

Willie Mae: Oh yeah!

Rex: What benefits do you see from kids going to the camp?

Willie Mae: We've heard from parents about the incredible increase in self-confidence that they've seen in their daughters. There have been girls who were having trouble in school and were incredibly shy, and who only played music alone in their rooms. Or talked about music but said, "I don't know how to write a song." And then we hear about how they say, "I wrote a song!"

A lot of them find ways to play music. Some of them don't play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp and they carry that with them when they go back to school.

Rex: What would you do if you had more resources? What's your wish list, and how do people like Rex help with all of that?

Willie Mae: Support from foundations like Rex is absolutely key to the success of our program and our ability to keep doing it. It's really through foundation support that we've been able to have our part-time staff member, which has allowed us to streamline operations and do a better job.

Our goals are to start an after-school program. There are schools that have expressed an interest in having us come in, and the girls themselves are just dying for the opportunity to do this program year round. So that's high on our wish list.

"A lot of them find ways to play music (after camp). Some of them don't play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp, and they carry that with them when they go back to school." – Karla Schickele

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Monday, May 14, 2007

More Than A Cooking Class

For San Francisco’s Nextcourse, food is a tool for building a better world, and better lives

By Mary Eisenhart

“We believe it is our social responsibility to make healthy food accessible to the entire community, and we are dedicated to preserving local farms and farmland. Chefs are offering up their skills not to make a better chicken, but to make a better world.”
– Nextcourse founder Larry Bain

Once a week at the San Francisco County jail, about 20 women inmates participating in the SISTER (Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery) program leave their cells and gather in a classroom. After listening to some information on health, nutrition and food choices, they join the instructor and pitch in to prepare and eat a meal together. Criteria: the meal is made from fresh, healthful, locally produced ingredients; the meal is delicious; the cost per serving is $5 or less.
Nextcourse founder Larry Bain recruits some Mission High kids to help out at his healthy hot dog stand, Let's Be Frank.

For these women, it’s probably the only decent meal they get all week. As in many institutions, the jail’s food service is the province of a contractor whose offerings are mass-produced, heavily processed, short on taste and nutrition — but highly profitable to the vendor. Ironically, this takes place at a time when California’s prison health care system is so lethally dysfunctional that a federal judge took control of it, so anyone unfortunate enough to land in the system gets a double whammy of food that’s bad for their health and substandard care when they get sick.

The determination to do something about this problem came from a somewhat unlikely quarter — a group of chefs and food professionals who, in their day jobs, cater to a very different, very upscale clientele. In 2003, restaurateur Larry Bain, who among other achievements pioneered the introduction of grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised beef at his Acme Chophouse, decided to do something about healthy nutrition for people who were unlikely ever to be able to afford fancy restaurants. He soon attracted other like-minded food professionals in the Bay Area, and Nextcourse was born.

Offering nutrition, food preparation and camaraderie, Nextcourse’s classes in schools and jails, taught by chefs and other food professionals, provide a potentially life-changing resource to people most likely to be on the receiving end of a food industry more focused on profitability and convenience than nutrition and health. In addition to meal planning and cooking skills, they show how to take advantage of local farmers’ markets to create tasty dishes that are at least as affordable as overprocessed supermarket and fast-food offerings, and which kids will happily eat.

One project where the kids themselves are involved is at Mission High School in San Francisco, where a pilot project last year was such a hit that its participants are now Peer Leaders to this year’s crop of students. They’ve spread the word to friends and family by word of mouth and, most recently, in a community newsletter.

In 2006, the Rex Foundation gave a grant of $5,000 to help support Nextcourse’s jail program, which is perennially strapped for funds. “Rex was a lifesaver for us last year,” says Susie White, Nextcourse’s project director, who took over the running of its community projects when Bain decided to focus his energies on the Food From the Park program, another Nextcourse project.

Nextcourse instructors and food pros Megan Hanson (left) and Rania Long (right), in aprons, teach Mission High School students about fresh produce.

We recently spoke with her to learn more about Nextcourse, its work, and the challenges it faces.

Rex Foundation: What inspired the creation of Nextcourse?

Susie White, Nextcourse: Nextcourse was founded in 2003 by Larry Bain, who at the time was the general manager for Jardinière and Acme Chophouse restaurants. Larry had worked for many years in the Bay Area restaurant community modeling green business practices, particularly in the area of using sustainable foods — fresh, local, seasonal, free of chemicals, humane and just.

Larry and some of his like-minded colleagues were well aware of the growing food divide in this country and wanted to take the message of sustainable eating to people who needed it the most: low-income communities where the risk of hunger is high. Their belief was that eating in a sustainable manner can be more economical and healthier than a diet based on convenience and processed food, and no one was out there advocating this approach of food education.

Because many of our founders were professional chefs, cooks, and restaurant people, and we utilize cooking as a means of teaching people about food, we are often referred to as a cooking class. However, our true focus is to provide people an opportunity to acquaint themselves with fresh, whole foods, and to begin a new and conscious relationship with their food.

While sustainable food philosophy is at our core, our message is consistent with good nutrition, and some of our programs, like Mission High, operate under the heading of nutrition education. We think we have a more effective way to teach people about eating healthy, starting by raising awareness of how our food system has changed. We talk a great deal about the difference between whole and processed foods, and just a small bit about hidden sugars and good fat. Most traditional nutrition education programs spend much of their time reading labels; however, we encourage people focus more on foods that come without labels — whole, fresh foods.

Our belief is all people deserve the highest quality food available, and the best food available is grown locally, picked when it is at its peak of flavor and nutritional content, and doesn’t have harmful additives that detract from good health and well-being. Our low-income communities are under siege by food corporations selling cheap and empty-calorie foods. The people in these circumstances are most in need of what we have to offer, and need inspiration to act on their own power to change things.

Mission High students discover the joy of pie.

Rex: You have quite a few projects addressing different aspects of food and nutrition issues. Given that there’s always more to be done than resources to do it with, how do you decide which projects to pursue?

Nextcourse: We are asked all the time to conduct cooking and nutrition classes for various groups, but in terms of our mission, the educational piece is only the first step. Our choice in projects is based on the potential to involve our participants in improving their own food system. This requires organizational partners that recognize the need for change and have a genuine commitment to our philosophy.

We not only want people to be able to make healthier changes in their own lives and to understand that their choices can be votes for better food, but to also begin to identify ways they as a community can effect change.

Rex: Particularly in view of the much-publicized dire state of California’s prison healthcare system, and the contribution of bad food to the prison health problem, how does Nextcourse’s program at the jail make a difference, and what difficulties does it face?

Nextcourse: The fact that the jail system doesn’t see the correlation between what people eat (or what people are fed, in this case) and the implication for health is just a reflection of that same disconnect in our larger society. We also see this same thing in public schools and the declining health of our children.

When people come to jail, they are usually at their lowest point. They have not tended to their health, may have abused their bodies, and are generally just a mess. Healthy food (and exercise) could do a great deal to curb the diet-related chronic diseases that consume institutional budgets.

In our class, we teach our core concepts about sustainable eating, and prepare a complete meal that highlights simple cooking methods, the importance of fresh ingredients, and affordability. Each serving of our menu is under $4-5. From a practical standpoint, it’s one healthy meal a week the women eat. They also experience the sense of community involved in cooking together and sitting down together to enjoy the meal.

The women participating in our jail program are housed in a special substance abuse and academic facility, so they’re involved in intensive rehabilitation programming. Since how we eat is such a big part of self-nurturing, emotional and physical well-being, it seemed logical that there should be a food education component.

When we started at the jail, we knew the available food was not conducive to the women’s needs. The jail’s food is much like every other jail and prison in our country — based on calories and not nutritional value (or taste). Most of the food is highly processed, with little or no fresh offerings, and it generally tastes so bad that the women don’t rely on their three meals. Instead, they supplement their diets with snack foods from the jail’s commissary.

The regular food service is highly regulated and restricted by budget constraints, so we decided to work with the women on getting better foods in the commissary system. With the help of our class participants, we did a formal assessment of the commissary foods and presented our findings to the Sheriff. He gave us the green light to move forward as long as there was no increase in the costs of the foods.

Working with the commissary provider has been frustrating. It is very frustrating when you sit down at a table with people to talk about a real moral responsibility for the people who are in your care, and you’re spending most of your time talking about profit margins, and this supplier or that supplier that’s not going to budge because they’re not willing to give up part of their profits. It’s a different set of priorities.

The kind of thing that we’re running into with the commissary provider at the jail is no different from any other food corporation, and the way they control the foods that are available in our supermarkets and convenience stores. It’s all about making money and providing the cheapest food so the companies can make the greatest amount of profit. It’s a hard thing.

There has been a small victory on the jail front in terms of the commissary project. When we heard that the contract was coming up for renewal, we went and met with the contract manager for the sheriff’s department, and talked with her about our assessments and our vision for how this commissary system could really support good health and not detract from good health.

This woman knew about the benefits of nutrition from her own experience, and championed our cause. She inserted some language into the RFP (request for proposals) requiring that the new commissary provider provide at least 10 percent of the items that were healthy items, as determined by us and by the sheriff’s department.

(laughs) It doesn’t sound like a lot; it’s almost laughable to say, “You have to provide 10 percent healthy foods, but 90 percent can still be crap.” But I’ll take the 10 percent and work with that, and hopefully next time around we can increase that percentage. It’s really about changing the culture that has been entrenched for so many years.

With regard to the healthcare system in the jails and prisons, if they had a higher priority for healthy food and exercise, they would have completely different outcomes for the inmate population. A lot of people aren’t really paying attention to what’s happening in our jails and prisons, and that’s why things like this are allowed to continue. But again, it is representative of a larger problem in our society regarding health, nutrition and well-being, and just not putting a high priority on it.

Nextcourse instructor Rania Long shows the fine points of preparing kiwi fruit.

Rex: Who are the women who participate in the program, and what happens to them when they get out?

Nextcourse: Because it’s a jail, most of the women we meet are incarcerated for fairly minor offenses and are going to be out within six months. By being in the jail’s recovery program, they’re already trying to turn their lives around. But we do see them come back; some of the women have taken the program a couple of times.

It’s just the chronic nature of substance abuse, that you kind of get yourself a little together, and then when you have an emotional struggle or stress you relapse. And these women have a lot of stresses in their lives. They have children and often can’t make enough money to support them; the kids may be staying with relatives, they may be in foster care. There could be an abusive husband or boyfriend — just a lot of issues they have to struggle with. When you look at all that and see what they go through, it’s not hard to imagine the odds are against them, so we’re always looking at ways to strengthen the program. We’re thinking of doing part of the program in their re-entry center after they’re released, rather than all at the jail. That would be the ideal time for the women to have somebody working intensively with them and integrating their nutrition and their recovery.

Also the sheriff’s department has some needs for food, and we’re looking at ways to see if women who have been through our program could work alongside us in preparing those foods, so they wouldn’t just be getting the content from being part of this program, but also some job training as well. We’re looking at ways we can strengthen the outcome, and the sheriff’s department is very committed to helping us do that.

Rex: How did the program at Mission High get started, and how is it working out?

Nextcourse: The kids we’re working with at Mission High have been amazing to watch, and it has been their steady progress that has really guided the evolution of the program.

We started two years ago as a pilot in partnership with an educational farm called Pie Ranch. We had a straightforward agenda: to provide a small group of students with some classroom-based food education, and to augment the classroom piece with monthly trips to the farm focused on sustainable agriculture.

The students we started working with were from the special education track because they had a less restrictive curriculum that allowed for “alternative” teaching opportunities. On each trip, the kids would learn about and participate in some farming activities, and we would all prepare and enjoy a lunch from ingredients sourced from the farm. There was also some journaling to reflect on their experiences. It was an all-day event!

By the end of that school year, these kids had been transformed. They were eating healthier foods, trying new foods, encouraging their parents or caregivers to buy better foods, and to shop at (health food store) Rainbow and farmers’ market. They become our biggest advocates, and strongly encouraged us to do more and involve more kids. So, we went to work and managed to get some funding, and just this past October started doing our school-based classes and ranch trips with 9th and 10th graders, with the assistance of last year’s students who serve as Peer Leaders.

We hope to grow new leaders from this year’s students, and begin the cycle anew next year.

Sampling fresh fruit in the neighborhood.

Rex: It sounds as if the kids go out and become evangelists for healthy eating in their communities.

Nextcourse:: They do. I definitely feel that way about the kids we’ve been working with at Mission High, because they’ve been so proactive in communicating the things they’ve learned to other students and their families and friends. They have really been an inspiration that has driven this program, because we were just intending to do the pilot program, and weren’t sure where it would go or if it would go anywhere. And seeing how these 12 kids, in a matter of nine months, were so transformed...

It wasn’t just about food, either, it was about this small community that we had been involved in for nine months around food. When you come together and you eat and you make food and you do all those sorts of things, you really start to bond with people. These kids were from the same classroom, and they knew each other, of course, but they weren’t really friends. And I swear, when you see them at the school now, you don’t see one without seeing two or three or four or five of the others. They have really become great friends around this; they’ve had a shared experience that has made them a sort of family, and they often will refer to their class in that way, as a family.

Rex: Given the fact that the Bay Area food scene is overwhelmingly the province of affluent people, how do you avoid the pitfalls of being perceived as rich people talking down to the less fortunate and telling them what to do? How do you make sure people don’t feel patronized?

Nextcourse: You raise a really valid point. So much of the food community is represented by rich white people (laughs) and because we have our roots in that, it’s logical that those would be the people to get involved in this kind of program.

But we’re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. What I think we’re doing is giving people information that they can then use to make different decisions — or they can choose to not make different decisions if that’s their choice. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they don’t like it.

In this case, if they don’t like the food that’s represented in their neighborhood or their community, or that they’re being served at school, because of the information they’ve gained from taking part in a program such as Nextcourse, they know how to go about making changes. They can voice their opinion. We’re not trying to foster a dependence on our program; we’re trying to give people the tools they need to empower themselves, to vote with their dollars.

One of the real benefits of involving professional food people in these programs is that they have a really true passion for food and for the work that they’re doing, and we’ve found that that’s really inspirational and motivational for people, who see that somebody has such a love and passion for what they do and what food can mean in people’s lives. How it can bring people together and families together, and be a source of pleasure and community. That’s the ingredient that they bring to the table. We have a lot of content we share, but using professional food people really brings the passion.

Rex: Is Nextcourse an only-in-the-gourmet-ghetto kind of project, or can it be replicated elsewhere?

Nextcourse: I don’t see any reason why this type of program can’t be done in other areas. Almost every community in our country is struggling with these same issues and questions, and there are people in the community like the people who started Nextcourse who could step up to the plate. There’s a restaurant community, a food community, a culinary community, whatever you want to call it, in almost every area of the country, and these people have a lot of knowledge and skills.

So I think you can definitely use this model in other places. The tools and the ingredients are all there for people to do it; it’s just a matter of bringing them together and coordinating it.

Susie White: “We’re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they don’t like it.”

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Making Peace in the Mideast, One Family at a Time

The Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum

By Mary Eisenhart

Peace is not a prayer, peace is in the hands of each and every one of us. Peace is not just between states, peace is between a man and his friends, man and wife, parents and their children, between neighbors, between partners, between all human beings and between states. The basis for any peace is compromise and reconciliation.

—Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder and chairman,
The Parents Circle–Bereaved Families Forum

Circle of peace: Young Forum members in Italy.

In the Middle East, losing a family member to sectarian violence is a common and grim fact of life, one that often perpetuates and exacerbates conflict. But when Yitzhak Frankenthal’s son Arik, serving in the Israeli army, was killed by Hamas activists in 1994, Frankenthal chose a different path.

“As I was sitting shivah for Arik a friend said to me, ‘Now you understand it is impossible to make peace with an enemy that understands only violence,’” he told the Village Voice in 2002. “And I knew that was all wrong. I knew the only reason Arik was murdered was that there was no peace between our peoples, and I blamed the leaders. The Palestinians were acting exactly as we would if we would be under occupation. The occupation is a kind of terror that we are doing against Palestinians, and they are doing unacceptable terror against Israelis. As a man who loves his people and his country, I decided that I had to do whatever I can to help bring reconciliation and peace. There is no other solution.”

Frankenthal began contacting other bereaved Israelis, garnering, in addition to some abuse, a core of people who wanted to meet; then they began to meet with Palestinians in the same situation. “We couldn’t make reconciliation by ourselves,” Frankenthal told the Voice, recalling the first meeting with people in Gaza. “We share the same sorrow. When someone tells you about his infant killed by a soldier, you cry the same tears as when someone tells you his child was killed by a suicide bomber. We all want no one else to suffer the pain we share.”

Young members of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum. The sign reads, in Hebrew and Arabic, "Yes to peace between us and our neighbors, the pain of peace is better than the pain of war, for our children and yours...Yes to Peace. Bereaved Families Forum, the children of Muhammad Kabha."

From that beginning, the Parents Circle/Bereaved Families Forum has expanded to include over 500 members, many of whom spend a great deal of time, in Israeli-Palestinian duos, speaking to youth and adults on both sides of the conflict — many of whom have literally never met a member of the opposite group.

Along the way spontaneous projects have arisen to increase communication and understanding, often one person at a time. In an area where military checkpoints and severe restrictions on personal travel effectively keep Israelis and Palestinians from interacting in normal human ways, the Hello Shalom/Hello Salaam project is a toll-free line that allows any Israeli to pick up the phone and talk to a random Palestinian, and vice versa. Says Robi Damelin, the Parents’ Circle public relations officer, whose son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper, “We created it in 2002 as a sort of counter to the powers that be that say there’s no one to talk to. Since then we’ve had over a million calls on this line, which is a toll-free line for all Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other.

“Sometimes people scream at each other and say appalling things over our telephone line, but if they give each other their telephone number at the end of the conversation, which has happened, then I would think that there is some hope. That’s the beginning of talking, and it’s not throwing stones or killing each other. For me that’s very important. I don’t see anything negative about people talking to each other. Something wonderful may not come out of it, but nothing negative can come from getting to know the person on the other side.”

Her colleague Ali Abu Awwad, her speaking partner on a recent U.S. visit, also bears the scars of the conflict: the son of a politically active family, he was imprisoned for four years for his efforts in the intifada – “I threw lots of stones,” he says in the documentary Encounter Point (see sidebar). After being released, he was shot by an Israeli settler, and, while in the hospital, learned that his brother had been shot and killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad

In 2003, the Parents Circle/Bereaved Families Forum received the Rex Foundation’s Bill Graham Award for its peacemaking efforts, and we were recently able to talk with Damelin and Awwad about their ongoing work. Says Damelin, ”Our group has a broader vision of two sides trying to find a way to live together, because there’ve been so many peace agreements, and very little person-to-person, people-to-people work on the ground. This is where it’s very important, what we’re doing.”

Rex Foundation: So many people who have suffered losses like yours turn to more violence, more vengeance. Why did you choose a different path?

Robi Damelin: It’s not all black and white. When I heard that David had been killed, when the army came to talk to me, my first reaction was “You may not kill anybody in the name of my child.” Now I have no idea where that came from.

I can’t talk about other people and what they do and what they don’t do. Yes, it’s true that many people think that vengeance is the way to go, but there isn’t any vengeance for a lost child. How many people would I have to kill in order to make myself feel better, and would it? It wouldn’t. So that was not an option for me ever. And I realized that the man who killed my child didn’t do it because he was David, he did it because he was a symbol of something.

So after about six months, Yitzhak Frankenthal, who was the founder of the Parents Circle, came to talk to me, and invited me to go to a seminar where there were about 60-80 Palestinians and the same amount of Israelis, all bereaved parents. I went to that seminar, and I thought that this would be a good framework for me to make a difference. I was working with other groups, but this seemed to me to be the most powerful organization that could really make a difference.

Ali Abu Awwad: It’s complicated. The majority on both sides, they don’t choose violence; they don’t react at all. They are quiet, they are silent — and this is actually a reaction, because when they are silent the other people use them. Everybody becomes a part of it without feeling it.

Most of the bereaved families are not reacting by killing each other. Somewhere there may be people who support violence inside themselves, but they don’t get it on the ground in violent behavior against each other. Maybe they hate each other, true; they are angry, and so and so, but they don’t kill each other.

I grew up in this also, not just in this daily pain and daily suffering; I also grew up in a political home. My mother used to be one of the famous leaders of Fatah, which is part of the PLO. Being in a prison and all that I have been through, I also read about nonviolence. First of all it was a personal choice; I choose it for myself, because I cannot react in violence anyway, because personally I cannot kill somebody.

Before, I was not pro-violence, I was not pro-peace, I was just desperate. And when this happened, it removed me; it made me think deeply about — I want a reason to open my eyes in the morning. So how can I deal with this? Because I believe that even the people who support violence are doing this to deal with the anger, and by showing it to the other side through violent behavior. But I cannot do it, so what shall I do? And then I thought, killing somebody, it’s not returning back my brother. Causing the same pain that I have to somebody else is not making my pain more easy.

And politically, supporting violence is not leading my people to independence. It’s not removing the occupation. People have been reacting with violence, and we are losing, especially the Palestinians. Because the whole world now starts looking at the case as there are these extreme Palestinians and they are killing. It’s an injustice to judge a whole people under occupation in this way, so what shall I do to change?

I got involved after my mother; she was the first one to get involved. What happened to me at that meeting when I met the Israeli bereaved families for the first time, and I saw those people who are talking about our right as Palestinians to live in justice and in dignity, in our own independence, with all of the high price that they paid — it touched me, and I feel I depend on them, I’m part of them, because we have the same pain, we are just human.

Rex: What work are you personally involved in?

Damelin: I’m very much involved in the schools; for me that is the most rewarding work. David was a student, doing his master’s in the philosophy of education. In many ways it’s kind of commemorating who he was. I spend a lot of time in classrooms; over the course of 2005, the Parents Circle did more than 1,000 classroom dialogues in Israel and Palestine. So that is a huge amount of students. We have a group of about 50 members who do these classroom dialogues, and that is a main part of the work we’re doing.

I’m also part of a project to create a television series on the second channel in Israel. It’s a drama series, a fiction drama of 10 episodes, and it will be in Hebrew and Arabic on prime time. It will interweave some of the stories from people from the Parents Circle, but mainly the audience will watch it like anything else you’d watch on TV. There’s no peace message, just the narrative of two families, which obviously would give a greater understanding for both sides, just humanize things a little. And then at the end we’ll show a making-of, and then people will recognize that much of what they’ve seen is true.

Awwad: I talk to many schools as one of the Palestinian members who are active; I talk to universities, I talk to people on both sides. I talk to people who are fighting; I talk to the army. I talk to many people about this movement, about the Forum and about nonviolence.

Many people, when you say peace, they despair. They don’t know that there is a difference between peace and nonviolence. Peace is the end, peace is agreement, peace is the life. But nonviolence is the way to live. It’s the way that could lead you to life. Nonviolence is not a hope, like peace; nonviolence is a mission and a duty.

I used to talk to angry people from both sides. They are angry, because this is the way that they deal with fear and pain. Then when I talk to them, hear their pain, their history, their different experience, their behavior today and the future, I wonder where are we leading ourselves by being so angry, so upset, and violent. As a person who has suffered a lot I can touch them, I can reach them. To show the people how to use the pain, not just how to deal with it.

It doesn’t mean that everything will be OK. It doesn’t mean that the violence will stop and the occupation will be removed tomorrow. But to finish we have to start, and how we start, this is the question: to allow the people to control the reaction, to have this connection between the feeling and the mind, and to get this out through a nonviolent behavior, through a human behavior that will allow the other side to understand your rights, and which will allow you to understand there is hope and there is somebody on the other side who understands you.

Rex: What response do you get?

Awwad: In Israel, especially the students tell me that they have never met a Palestinian before. It’s not surprising, because they see the Palestinian by being in the army reserve, or they see the Palestinian by being in the settlements, and they don’t have any contact with Palestinians. They see the Palestinian in the media holding a gun, and they don’t know what it means to live in a refugee camp.

They ask me, well, if there are many people like you, as you say, where are they? We don’t see them. Yes, they don’t see them, because the Palestinian life is so different from the Israeli life. Palestinians are not demonstrating for the peace, like what is happening in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, but on the other hand they are not doing anything against the peace either.

Nobody realizes that until we meet them. And sometimes they react in another way. Sometimes they don’t want to hear me – I mean, part of them doesn’t want to accept me. But I hold myself there, and keep talking to them, and at last – it’s happened to me many times – at last they come to me and they shake my hand, and they say, you helped us to open our eyes, and to open our minds, because we never thought that there is a human on the other side.

So the Palestinian has to be convinced that nonviolence could lead you to peace, could lead you to independence, but nonviolence is a duty. Even if you’ve been controlled by the occupation, this is a successful way to control your feelings and decide for yourself how to act. When you react with violence, the occupation has an excuse to use this reaction against you.

It’s complicated, you know. It’s huge.

I have a friend; now he wants to give up fighting. When you see the people touched by you, by this message, you feel that you are changing things.

It’s a process; it takes time. We need the political level also; we cannot do it alone. There’s the human level and the political level, but we cannot reach the political level without helping the people understand the other side.

Rex: How do you cope with the problem that’s common to many peace workers, the accusation that you’re betraying “your” side and “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”?

Damelin: Actually that’s very much in the minority. We haven’t come across this very much, and when we do it isn’t from Israel or Palestine, it’s from radical right-wingers in America.

Ali has standing in his community; I mean, somebody who’s been to jail for four years, who’s been shot by a settler and lost his brother can hardly be suspected of being a collaborator.

Of course I’ve had some remarks, I can’t say that I haven’t. But as bereaved parents and families, we’ve paid a high price to say what we say, and generally there is a sense of respect, in Israel and in Palestine, for both of us.

But you do get kooks, and I guess wherever you do work, whatever country, there’s always some extreme people who are frightened by this work, because we shake up their belief system.

Rex: The Parents Circle’s work is very much of a particular time and place, but does it have any lessons for the rest of the world?

Awwad: Sure. I believe that all of us are involved in this circle of our humanity. I believe that our conflict has been used by many other people to kill other people, not just Israelis or Palestinians. And I believe that when I help by also solving another conflict, another hatred here, there, everywhere, it pushes my case to be solved more. Because when I solve your problem you start to care about mine.

And the other thing is, I believe that everybody has a message in his life. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are Palestinian or Israeli or Egyptian or Christian or Muslim or Jewish; you are part of this world. So what are you doing, and how are you doing that? How are you connecting to this identity, or nationality, or religion?

It doesn’t mean I will become an Israeli or a Christian or a Jew; people keep their identity and their religion. But there is another thing more holy than everything, which is their humanity. So if we put this power and this movement and this cycle around, we can involve everybody to help and support us by supporting themselves.

Damelin: We were at a conference on restorative justice in Milwaukee, with professor Mark Umbreit; he’s worked on Death Row introducing families of victims to murderers or perpetrators of the crime. The mother of Amy Biehl, the Fulbright student killed in Soweto, was at the conference together with one of the men who had killed her daughter. And in September we were here for the September 11 five-year commemoration in New York.

So I met with many people from all over the world who have been the victims of terror, or who have created organizations for reconciliation. From that point of view it’s been very enlightening — we’re not just an island on our own. I think what’s interesting is that we have a very profound effect on people, mainly because it’s a Palestinian and an Israeli talking with one voice.

I was in San Francisco in September — a hip-hop artist named Michael Franti invited us to come and talk in Golden Gate Park at the Power to the Peaceful festival; there were something like 60,000 people there.

I have to tell you that when we arrived there and I saw all these amazing colors and dresses and outfits and people, I was quite astounded, because I thought that I had seen it all. But the fact is that there’s a sense of acceptance there; I think if I were wearing a carrot coming out of my head, that wouldn’t have created too much noise.

It’s not music that I understand, but I can tell you that when I did stand on the stage and I started to hear the words and understand them, I started to realize that this is the most incredible protest music. And I felt all the music coming through my legs.

I was there with a partner called Nadwa, and I said, these people are never going to listen to us. But Michael Franti stood up and told everybody to sit down and told them who we were, and 60,000 people sat down on the grass and listened to us for 15 to 20 minutes, which was amazing, because they were all fired up.

And then I walked around, and I saw a lot of hate posters – kill Bush, destroy Rumsfeld, assassinate what’s-her-name, Condoleezza Rice. And that really upset me, because that’s the same language, just the other side of the coin. You know, the things they’re supposed to be anti-. If you’re a peace group, that’s not the rhetoric you should be using. But that’s just my personal opinion.

Awwad: I want to say that it’s not our destiny to keep dying violently, and if we cannot solve this conflict, the world has more power than us. How many people have to die for the rest of the world to wake up and help us?

I think the behavior of the world is going in a crazy direction, which will cost everybody in this world an even higher price. We have to stop it or we will be sorry after a few years.

The other thing is it’s very easy to be right; everybody wants to be right. It’s very hard to be honest. So people prefer to be right, they prefer to be a victim; when you feel you you’re a victim you’re giving an excuse for your behavior against the other side. On the other hand, everybody wants to see the other side as a devil, to excuse their own behavior against him, because if I see him as a human, there is a payment, there is a price, and nobody wants to pay the price.

What I’m asking from everybody, not just in Palestine and Israel, is just not to be stuck by those feelings and those thoughts. Being human doesn’t mean to feel sorry for the other person; I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It means understanding what the people need to live as humans by supporting them.

Robi Damelin: “There’ve been so many peace agreements, and very little person-to-person, people-to-people work on the ground. This is where it’s very important, what we’re doing.”

Israeli and Palestinian kids, members of the Bereaved Families Forum, at a conference in Italy.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tule Elk Park

Tule Elk Park
Child Development Center

By Mary Eisenhart

“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on,
that will be the sort of gauze through which
he or she will see all the world afterwards.”
—Wallace Stegner,
(quote at entrance to Tule Elk Park)

“Rita, who’s she?” an inquiring 5-year-old, pointing in my general direction, asks teacher Rita Hurault, who’s gathering her kindergarteners and 1st graders as they arrive for their after-school program. “Who are you?” says another, looking up at me.

This is my friend Mary, says Hurault. She’s here to write a story about the school.

Nobody tells them they shouldn’t ask questions like that. Nobody tells them they shouldn’t call their teacher by her first name. And, once their curiosity about the stranger is addressed, the kids are off to more interesting pursuits. Playing among the trees. Digging in the garden. Observing the worms and other fauna near the compost bin. They’re especially happy today, because it’s Friday and they don’t have homework (yes, in San Francisco, kindergarteners have homework...), so they’re free to play and explore longer than usual.

Discovering bugs in the compost.

It’s a typical afternoon at Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, a two-time grant recipient from the Rex Foundation.

Originally founded in 1943, as the Yerba Buena Children’s Center, Tule Elk Park is part of the San Francisco public school system, with a full-day program for toddlers and preschoolers and an after-school program for kindergarteners through 4th graders (who also attend all day during school vacations). Says site manager Alan Broussard, “When the program was conceived in 1943, we were in the midst of World War II, and the purpose of the program was to support low-income families, primarily women who were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time, the Rosie the Riveter moms. It was a child-care situation, but because it was connected to the school district, it always had an educational focus, preparing kids for kindergarten. I don’t think we’ve changed that dramatically — our primary audience is still low-income children. We’re really a gateway to the K-12 system; we’re a foundation for lifelong learning.”

Site director Alan Broussard, with tile art documenting
an earlier class's study of alternative energy.

Like most urban schools, the center was, for most of its existence, a barren expanse of concrete and asphalt, in a neighborhood where even a street tree is a rarity. But in 1990, it began a remarkable process of self-transformation that’s still ongoing.

Before the transformation: 20,000 square feet of asphalt.
Photo courtesy of Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.

It all started when Broussard, then a teacher at the school, approached Lynn Juarez, then the site manager, about the possibility of cutting a hole in the surrounding fence to allow his students access to a small adjacent patch of dirt in which to garden.

He explains, “Our kids were mostly inner-city children whose opportunity to experience and be associated with nature was pretty limited. When we took them just to the park down the street, where there was dew on the grass in the morning, and bugs, they didn’t want to sit on the grass, because it was either too wet, or there were too many bugs — it was just completely foreign to them.

'Angels dropping from the sky': a volunteer crew of concrete specialists lays the foundation for the future Tule Elk Park. Photo courtesy of Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.

“We began to wonder why we weren’t supporting kids to really connect with nature. There’s such a deprivation around this issue, particularly with urban low-income kids. And that was the impetus to creating something much more than a hole in the fence — to really think how to use 20,000 square feet of asphalt to create a green space that kids could learn in and from.”

Says Hurault, who came to the center in the mid-’90s, “What these children needed deeply was a connection to the natural world. They were scared to death of grass, dirt and bugs. And that’s the stuff of life.”

With the public school district, like many others, perennially strapped for funds, any such project was going to require serious creativity and community involvement. Broussard recalls, “It was an effort that involved seeking out people initially who were willing to suspend reality and dream with us, and we went about developing this design by seeking out people whose imagination could envision that.

The garden at Tule Elk Park.

“We found a landscape architect who was willing to think this through with us; we engaged our parents by bringing them together on Saturdays to talk about what we had envisioned and ask for their input. We did the same thing in the classrooms, where the children drew and had discussions about what this new playground might look like. Then we reached beyond the school community and began to find people in the broader community, particularly in the neighborhood, who we thought would be receptive and interested in supporting such an idea. And we began to have community meetings.”

The transformation began in 1992 when the San Francisco Conservation Corps began ripping out the playground’s asphalt, but the process was fraught with unexpected obstacles and equally unexpected miracles from the beginning.

“We envisioned this happening in an orderly way in phases as we got some funding,” Broussard laughs, “but after we ripped up out quite a big chunk of the asphalt, what we were left with was mud. And it was winter, and everybody was miserable, and there was no playground, and there were some very challenging points in this whole process.

Entering Tule Elk Park. In the background: a parking garage.

“But then a family who’d had a child here who had special needs discovered that we were in the process of trying to do this; they contacted a relative who happened to be connected to a construction crew whose specialty was concrete work. Over a couple of weekends, it was kind of like angels dropping from the sky: they realized this terrible situation we were in with all this dirt and mud; we found the funding for the materials, and they came and provided all the labor for this concrete work to lay out the structure of the park. They did it for free, and it was connected to this feeling that we had done this very special thing for this very special child, and they had never forgotten that.”

Over the next few years, piece by piece, the garden took shape: trees, an edible plant garden, a butterfly habitat, totem pole sculptures of native animals. Private funds paid the salary of a garden educator, an art instructor, and more. And in 1996, the Yerba Buena Children’s Center got a new name: the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, taking its name from an animal indigenous to the area.

"Peace Pole" in the garden.

Soon Tule Elk was generating its own ripple effects, inspiring the creation of the San Francisco Green Schoolyards Alliance, which successfully campaigned for the passage of a bond initiative in 2003 to "green" other schoolyards in the city. That launched similar projects at 16 schools; a bond initiative on the 2006 ballot seeks funds to expand the program.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school,” Broussard says. “And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.

"That’s why I keep pushing the envelope, even though I sometimes feel, Oh my gosh, where is this going?” he laughs.

The Rex Foundation first gave Tule Elk a grant in 1994, through the Trust for Public Land, to help with the transformation from asphalt to garden. In 2006, Tule Elk received another Rex grant to help fund the ExploStation, an upcoming project demonstrating alternative energy — solar and water power — in a way that’s engaging to the kids. "Thank God for people like Rex, and for people who contribute to things like Rex, who make this possible," says Hurault.

On my Friday-afternoon visit, I learned more about Tule Elk from Broussard, Hurault and garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn.

Rex Foundation: Why is early childhood development so important?

Rita Hurault: It’s critical to all learning that comes afterwards. It’s the foundation. The child is developing at a very rapid clip in the early years; they’re getting their sense of self, they’re getting their sense of community, they’re getting their first real understanding of the broader world around them. So this is when it’s critical that they are given the tools for developing their feelings about the world, about learning and accessing knowledge, that will carry them through their whole lives.

If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet — those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.

Rex: What sets the Tule Elk Park program apart from its more typical counterparts?

Alan Broussard: At the core of the program is the importance of relationship. We truly believe philosophically that in order to help a child learn and succeed, and help a child love to learn, we need to have a very strong relationship with each and every individual child, as well as his or her family. That’s critical. That’s one foundation piece.

Garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn working in the garden.

Another foundation piece is that we strongly believe that relevance is important in their education, and that as the Reggio Emilia philosophy (see sidebar: One Mile Deep, One Inch Wide) says, we have to pay attention to what children are paying attention to. And that if we do that, if we’re good observers of children’s behavior and their interests, then we can capitalize on what’s relevant to them. So we use a project approach; it’s an inquiry-based method based on a framework where we support children to learn about the things that they’re interested in, and to go in depth.

That is a very big contrast to the old-school rote learning method, and a very large contrast to what exists in public education today, because we’re in quite a conservative environment that’s very skills-based. There’s not a lot of thought being given to supporting children’s critical thinking skills, or analytical skills, or social-emotional skills, the kind of things I think the Fortune 500 companies are actually looking for.

The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.

The third piece would be rigor: because it’s inquiry-based, there’s rigor both on the teacher and the student end, because the teacher has to be a reciprocal learner. The teacher can’t sit back and have a canned curriculum and say "Today we’re going to learn about the color red." It’s all got to be in context, and it’s got to be related to what the study is at the moment. It may require the teacher to go online; it may require the teacher to call a professional or an expert or to go to the library. Sometimes the kids want to explore something that we don’t always know a lot about."

Totem pole sculptures depicting native animals, including the Tule Elk (center).

Rex: How do you decide what to study?

Hurault: Everything comes from observing the children and seeing what it is they’re interested in. We’ve all gotten very good at having our ears to the ground and seeing "Well, what is it they’re following now? Could this be a study?"

For example, at the beginning of the summer we started to notice lots of ladybugs in the alder trees, and the kids kept coming up to Ayesha and me saying "Ladybugs, ladybugs! Look, look!" and we knew right away that OK, we’re going to study ladybugs this summer. It was right there in the children’s hands.

Rex: How long do you stick with a particular subject?

Hurault: As long as it takes. A typical project will have sustained interest over a longer period of time, but sometimes there are projects that just happen and last a couple of days. The ladybug project ended when the ladybug cycle turned and there were fewer ladybugs in the trees.

I had one incident several years ago where we were coming in for group time, and much to everybody’s surprise there was a worker trying to fix the windows. And instead of sitting facing me, they sat down facing the guy working on the windows and started peppering him with questions — because they are self-assured enough to ask questions. They are used to feeling that they have a right to ask questions and to have them answered seriously.

The man was wonderful; he stopped in his work and turned around, and I said, “Well, we have some interest here in what you’re doing; do you have time to talk to us?” He answered our questions and showed us his tools, and for the next two or three days it was essentially a mini-project on tools and window-fixing. The children would go into the block area and build things. It was great, just a spontaneous little tiny project. The kids just see themselves as investigators, and worthy of saying, “I want to know something about those windows. Will you tell me, please?”

Waiting for play time.

Rex: And you encourage this, instead of saying, That’s not on the lesson plan.

Broussard: Exactly. “We’re not on Chapter 3 today...”

Ayesha Ercelawn: Our day is like that. It’s questions. Nonstop, constantly, because they know they can ask.

Rex: So much of conventional education is about squelching you and keeping you in line and making you conform.

Broussard: And asking you a question and demanding that you know the answer. It’s very didactic, and not at all about group consciousness, higher-level thinking. We see kids creating an environment where they can learn by asking questions, versus kids who are still about waiting for the question and making sure they have the answer.

Hurault: I see it a lot with my kindergarteners and 1st graders. They seem to have it compartmentalized: “This homework page is where I want to be sure to get it right, but here, questions are good.”

Ercelawn: The time we were surveying bugs, we left it open to them, how they decided to record what they found, as opposed to saying, This is the structure in which you’re going to record and do it. You get these amazing interpretations — this kid is doing charts, and this kid is doing tally marks, and some kids are doing drawings and some kids are doing labels. It is so much more interesting, even for us to see, and they’ve got the chance to do it the way they want, the way it works for them.

Hurault: Which gives us the information about how that particular child’s brain works, how they access knowledge. It gives us more knowledge to reach them in places where maybe they’re struggling; you can go back and see, where this child chose to make circles and dashes instead of writing a number, that maybe they need more work over here, or perhaps that child is a visual learner. The more you let them express themselves in the way that’s comfortable for them, the more you understand about that child. This teaching is just a big circle.

Cape gooseberry bush in the Tule Elk Park garden.

Ercelawn And since it’s documentation and we often put it up, the kids get to see how each other chose to do it, and learn from each other. And they say, Oh, I could have circled each one. I could have done a key for it. And it’s all about roly-polies and worms, so it’s interesting! (laughs)

The new 3-year-olds are learning from the 4-year-olds and the 5-year-olds. Everybody’s teaching each other about what’s OK to do in the garden and what’s not. There’s a whole mentality here of taking care of nature; all the staff signs onto it. It would not be doable if it was just me saying it, but it’s coming from everybody.

You hear the kids now, telling each other “Hey, that’s nature. Don’t step on that ant; don’t pull all those leaves off that plant, you’re breaking that plant.” So they’re watching each other almost more than we’re watching them, which is really nice.

The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them. I spend a lot of time just standing around watching and listening to what they’re talking about, so I know what they’re excited about. For a year they were coming and eating spearmint — which I’m growing to make tea with, but a few of them have discovered they like chewing on the leaves.

Broussard: That whole reverence for living things — the kids come to me very, very carefully with something they’ve found, a caterpillar, a snail, and they’re very protective. They always know, because they learn from Ayesha and the staff, that it has to go back to its home. It has to return to where it was.

Another perspective on the life cycle of the ladybug,
and the bird hoping for a ladybug feast.

Ercelawn Occasionally we’ll get a new kid who’ll start here in the middle of the year, a 1st or 2nd grader, and this is their first experience of something like this. That’s when we can all tell ourselves that we’re doing something really good here, because that kid’s knowledge and empathy levels are completely different.

Our kids aren’t scared of bugs and are careful around them, and then we get a new kid in whose immediate reaction is stomp or scream. So we spend a bit of extra time with them, getting them up to speed, and they pretty much get it from the other kids really fast.

Broussard: It’s a good kind of assessment tool, understanding the depth of the appreciation, the awareness, that our kids develop, versus someone who comes in cold and starts from scratch. The beauty now, after 10 years, is to see kids who sometimes have the ability to be here from 3 all the way up until they’re 9 or 10; the body of knowledge that they just sort of naturally walk around with is quite amazing.

Ercelawn I know it’s coming up in the kids’ academic studies, but it’s not a piece of information Tule Elk park kids have just memorized. They have internalized how nature works, and they know it because they’ve watched it happen so many times — for example, that if they plant that seed it’ll probably grow. They complete that life cycle in front of me. They’ll collect a seed and say, ’Can we plant it now? And even if it’s not the season I’ll say ’YES!’ — because they made that connection right there.

Rex: According to your Web site, you have a diverse student body that speaks dozens of languages at home. What impact does that have on the learning process?

Hurault: It’s a very lively environment! The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.

I think it’s one of the strengths of this arts-based, Reggio-based curriculum, because you get this bunch of children in the yard, and everybody is excited about the ladybugs, and everybody’s talking about the ladybugs, and the children are showing each other the ladybugs, and the word “Ladybug” is written on the wall. The children learn from the teacher, they learn from each other; and they generally pick up language very quickly.

Rex: Let’s face it, mainstream education is not very much like this. How do these kids adjust once they’re in “regular” school?

Hurault: I get down about what’s happening overall in American society. I get down very specifically about what’s happening to education for our children and how they’re being pressured; the focus seems to be about beating each other out from the get-go. You’ve got to compete to get into the right nursery school, because if you don’t get into the right nursery school you’re not going to get into Stanford, and if you don’t get into Stanford your life is over because you won’t be able to have five cars. The whole thing gets so crazy.

There is a quote of Gandhi’s: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.

By giving them the foundation we’re giving them, by having this program, by children having a year or two of this experience — I can’t help but believe it changes them forever. That there’s some critical positive little kernel that’s placed in there. No matter what else happens in the rest of their lives, they’ve had this little bright shining moment where things really mattered.

We have children here whose parents work at the various embassies. We have a Russian child in our class right now, and the family’s going back in November. I asked his dad what school is like there, and he said they do not have the attention to the individual the way we do here. I could see he was feeling really torn about having to leave, because his child has been here for two or three years now, and he’s going to go from this environment to a very, very different one.

I worry for him. But I am also hopeful that this experience that he’s had here is something he will always have to draw on, and always remember that there are adults in the world who will listen to you, and hear you in your particular concerns, and help you follow your particular interests — and that those things are worthy.

Oak tree in the Tule Elk Park garden

So you know, every tiny spark you put out there in the world, every tiny seed you plant — you just keep planting those seeds and hoping they come out the right way. We nurture them all we can, but at some point, off they go. You do what you can do.

The kids in my class going to school are transforming their worlds. Right now one of our feeder schools is digging up part of their asphalt to create a garden. It happened because the parents are aware of this environment and what is happening here, and the teachers there became interested in what is possible. There’s a growing movement to have this kind of environment for urban children. The sidewalk is sort of cracking, and the grass is coming through here and there.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little nutty to do this big thing with one little school. And then I think, if one little school doesn’t do it, who will? I think we have to demonstrate that it’s possible in order for others to learn from what it is that we’re trying to do.” – Alan Broussard

One Mile Deep
One Inch Wide

“The way we want kids to learn is to go one mile deep and one inch wide. Traditional education is one mile wide and one inch deep. We really want to support kids to peel those layers back, and to support them to ask the questions. It’s all about asking the right questions, because that’s what’s going to support their growth.”
Alan Broussard

Impromptu study of gravity.

Tule Elk Park’s educational philosophy is derived from the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, which emphasize community involvement, continuous learning by teachers and students, and, above all, a course of study driven by what interests the children at the time.

Whatever the chosen subject — which, at Tule Elk, has included interests as varied as alternative energy, paper, tea, and ladybugs — it becomes the context in which kids acquire knowledge and develop skills.

Rita Hurault with her class's
self-portraits and ladybug art.

So, for example, for Rita Hurault’s kindergarteners and 1st graders, ladybugs became the gateway to learning about words and language (from the word "ladybug" on), numbers (counting ladybugs and recording the results), and science (observing the life cycle and day-to-day behavior of ladybugs, and how they fit into the surrounding natural environment).

Observational drawing of ladybugs,
their life cycle, and predators.

Art is integral to the entire process, as the kids observe the ladybugs going about their lives and record what they’ve seen. The art they create not only shows what they’ve learned, but allows them to share knowledge with each other, to appreciate different styles of perception and expression. And, working with the art instructor, the children helped create ceramic tile murals recording what they’ve learned about a particular subject, leaving a permanent legacy of their learning for those who come after them at Tule Elk.

Rita Hurault greets her students as
they arrive for their after-school
program at Tule Elk.

“The kids are always showing each other things. For example, a kid may be really excited to learn about spearmint. Even if I show it to just a small group, I know word will spread during recess the next day; I know that kid can come back to the garden, and she’ll drag her friends along to share the spearmint with them.” – Tule Elk garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn

Digging in the dirt.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

When I visited Tule Elk, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the outdoor area, with all the different spaces for the children to play, engage in learning and demonstrate their creativity.

Then I talked with Alan and Rita about the program. Having taught 3rd– 4th and 5th– 6th grades back in 1970 and 1971, I knew that Tule Elk was providing a special gift to not only to the students and their families, but also to the teachers and other staff connected with the school.

I have a deep personal conviction that nourishing the minds and spirit of our children is one of the most important responsibilities we all have to ensure the well-being and richness of our communities.

To encourage children to observe the world around them, to appreciate and think about the interconnections of all things, and be enthusiastic about questioning and learning as much as possible, is a tremendous boost to promoting their healthy development, and, ultimately the health and vibrancy of our culture as a whole.

Teacher Rita Hurault: “If you build a strong foundation in the early years, where children feel that they are able learners, and that they are worthy of asking questions, if they feel connected to each other and the planet — those are things that will enable them to thrive in their schools and communities.”

Rita Hurault: “The children who need to learn English pick it up very quickly, not only because they do at that age, but also because we’re child-driven, and child-interest-driven, and their interests are so compelling they tend to access the language quickly in order to get at what they want to know.

Preparing to gather dirt, leaves and rocks.

Rita Hurault: “There is a quote of Gandhi’s: 'Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.' I feel that the early years are our chance. This is the time we have to save the soul (laughs), you know? This is when we can influence them, and the future, the most.“

Suggestions for Further Reading by Tule Elk

Reggio Emilia
Official Web site

"The Best Kept Secret This Side of Italy," by Gary Stager
District Administration Magazine

Reggio Emilia Book List

Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, Lilian G. Katz, Sylvia C. Chard

All Kinds of Minds, Melvin D. Levine

A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine

Photos by Mary Eisenhart

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Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity

of Hope and Opportunity

By David Large

“You are not a human being in search of spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Generation Y – Everyone wants them when they have money to spend. It’s all about “market share.” But what about the ones who aren’t even in “the market”? They’re the subset that no one wants to talk about – the ones who are homeless, or high school dropouts, or juvenile hall parolees, or “aged out” foster kids, or runaways. They are not going to college. They do not have jobs.

And these young adults are “off the grid” – they are not being counted in the Census or by any single Marin County agency. They don’t have cell phones. They don’t have a mailing address. They don’t have email. They don’t have driver’s licenses or cars. They are sleeping on friends’ couches, camped out in the hill above Boyd Park, sleeping in parked cars and who knows where else, doing everything they can to hide from our view and help Marin keep them a secret.

But you’ve probably seen a few of them – hanging outside of Starbucks on Fourth Street in San Rafael, or napping in the grass across the street; gathered on the Promenade in Fairfax, or on the benches of just about any park in Marin. You’ve probably dismissed them as drug addicts and kept your distance. But few of them are drug addicts, they’re just homeless.

For a lot of different reasons, these young adults don’t have family support or adult guidance. No one is encouraging them to go to college. No one is trying to get them off the streets. No one is trying to keep them out of prison. No one is helping them get a job. No one is helping them learn the life skills they need to survive. No one is listening to them.

Actually, that’s not quite true – the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity Project (AHO) is trying. But we need your help.

— Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity

James Hayes, Molly Kron and Zara Babitzke spread the word at a community event sponsored by software company Autodesk.

A Rex beneficiary this year, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity is an innovative, all-volunteer program that provides support to homeless young adults (ages 18 to 25) in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco.

Since incorporating in January 2005, AHO has produced four groundbreaking community forums that brought together business and political leaders, individuals, parents, youth, and various organizations to focus on the growing issue of homelessness among youth in the county. Through these forums, AHO has recruited 13 “Parent Partners” who are willing to act as host families for homeless youth.

The people AHO seeks to help include young people without families, or whose family ties have been severed, military veterans without family support, and teenagers in the child services system — mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement as well as foster care — who are about to exit the system and face living independently, often with few coping skills and little knowledge of such basics as how to apply for a job. AHO’s founder and Executive Director, Zara Babitzke, Molly Kron, AHO’s Youth Program Advisor, and James Hayes, the Youth Outreach Advisor, all have had personal experience with living as a teenager adrift in the world, and this helps them relate to homeless young people, who are often disillusioned by and distrustful of institutionalized efforts to help them.

AHO is on the forefront of grassroots efforts to deal with homelessness. Currently it receives no local, state or federal funding; instead, AHO has reached out to individuals, business and the larger community to provide the funding for the “hand up” and safety net of stable housing, guidance and community connections it provides to youth in need.

Recently Rex talked with Zara Babitzke about her unique program.

AHO founder Zara Babitzke with Youth Outreach Advisor James Hayes

Rex Foundation: Tell us more about the “Parent Partners.” We understand that the young people live in the sponsoring families’ homes for as long as six months, and that you have placed young people with four families so far. How did you find them, and what has their experience been with the program?

Zara Babitzke, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity: Through our forums, we have recruited 13 Parent Partners who are willing to act as host families for a homeless youth.

In our first year, we have had 85 referrals and piloted a program with four youth who were previously homeless. Four host families provided stable housing for these young adults.

Host families commit to housing one young adult for up to six months and to providing the crucial first step toward the stability necessary to begin to build a healthy and meaningful life. While matched with a host family, the young person is also matched with a life coach, who helps them begin their journey of envisioning, planning and actualizing a new lifestyle and future of hope.

The life coaches meet one on one with youth for four to six hours weekly, helping them develop their individualized transition plan with guidance in identifying, accessing and navigating the barriers to resources that match their educational, job and life goals.

Youth, host families and life coaches are matched according to lifestyle, interests, personality traits, and other characteristics that are important for the best match.

All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach and peer mentor. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.

James Hayes and Brian Latady

Rex: You seem to have profound faith in the power of every young person’s inner spirit, regardless of how much they have been beaten down by circumstances and “the system.” Where does that come from?

AHO: Growing up, I was essentially one of these youth myself. Although I knew my parents, they did not have the capacity to guide me, provide emotional support, and acknowledge me as a unique and worthwhile person. My father’s alcoholism and abuse, and my mother’s abandonment and neglect, left me confused, afraid, vulnerable and deeply disconnected from my inner essence and spirit. I longed for someone who could really “see” me and believe in me, someone who would inspire me, and a place where I could belong and feel safe.

What I was searching for in those critical adolescent years is, I believe, a basic human need. With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.

Another contributing factor to my belief in the power of the spirit was a family tragedy involving my younger sister. My sister, a single mom with two children, had brain surgery at age 32 that left her without her physical, verbal and other communication functions. I became the conservator, and the sole support of my niece and nephew. After six weeks in intensive care, professional evaluations by a team of doctors and therapists were completed, with the prognosis that there was “no hope” for her and she would “never be a mother.”

The medical professionals decided that there was no further point in providing any therapy and the other supports she needed because she would never speak, walk, write, read or be able to have a meaningful life. I realized at that moment that without an advocate or family support, my sister would have been discarded by the system. None of those professionals knew what I knew about my sister — her strong and powerful spirit. I knew my sister would prevail if she received the necessary services and therapies she needed. It was my job to advocate for the support she needed at this critical time when she was unable to do this for herself. The result is, after years of care she has defied all the odds. Today she has a normal, healthy life and is giving back to the community by supporting others who are facing their own life crises. Her basic communication skills have returned. She exercises, walks daily and is an inspiration to all who meet her.

This tragedy with my sister was my initiation into “the system” of social services. Just as I realized that my sister, without family, or a caring advocate, would have been discarded by “the system,” I see the same thing happening with our young adults today. Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them, are being discounted and discarded by society.

I know from my own experiences, and from what might have happened to my sister, that the human spirit is the strongest force in determining whether someone will beat the odds. It is the human spirit in all of us that can make miracles happen.

Zara Babitzke and Molly Kron

Rex: A unique aspect of your program is that your staff have all had personal experience with life as a teen set adrift. How did you find these people, and what futures do they see for themselves?

AHO: I believe that AHO’s mission and message are universal. They touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. They are looking for a way to give back and make a difference. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, individuals who have had similar or difficult childhoods are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.

Rex: Marin County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, if not the country. How do you reach people who believe that “we don’t have a homeless problem here”?

AHO: It’s truly been our biggest challenge, but we are definitely making inroads into that mindset in Marin.

To illustrate the challenge, the County created a visionary team of nonprofits and individuals to design the County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. AHO was not included on that committee, and yet, there were no organizations advocating for the largest growing homeless population — young adults ages 14 to 25, who represent 40% of the growing homeless population, according to the 2000 Census. AHO is the only organization I know of whose sole mission is preventing the growing population of homeless among at-risk youth.

I tenaciously lobbied to have AHO included on that committee; we were eventually included, but it was difficult.

So you see, we are educating the entire community about this issue — one day, one speaking engagement, one news article, one committee meeting at a time. AHO youth and myself have met one or more times with the political leaders in the County — Director of Health and Human Services, Marin Community Foundation, all of the Board of Supervisors, the Director of Marin County Office of Education, Chambers of Commerce, Rotaries, and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. In addition to our four community forums, we did a Comcast cable interview, and there have been 10 feature articles in local papers, including Pacific Sun, Marin Independent-Journal, North Bay Business Journal, NewsMarin, Marin Magazine, Mill Valley Herald, and Southern Marin Business Expo.

Zara Babitzke and James Evans with Comcast host Terri Hardesty;
taking the message to community TV.

Rex: You’ve been in operation for just one year, but you have already garnered all that publicity. How have you managed this?

AHO: With commitment, dedication, persistence and tenacity and a true belief in the spirit, wisdom and capacity of today’s youth. I feel I have been led to educate and bring light to this issue.

As the founder of AHO, I believe that all young adults, regardless of their histories, have the compassion, wisdom and soul to become responsible future leaders if they have the hand up and safety net they need through the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood. However, without a safety net at this important juncture in their lives, they will not be able to actualize their potential.

Also, I believe that my entire life experiences (personal, educational and business) have led me to this mission with youth. This includes my own family experiences, my direct experience in marketing, public relations, and building enduring individual and community relationships.

Rex: Your budget is very modest. How do you manage to do so much with so little?

AHO: AHO has been an all-volunteer effort (33 volunteers in all, including myself) since its inception last year. Our successes to date have been driven by the 24/7 intense commitment, dedication, passion, and heart-and-soul belief of those 33 volunteers that the future of our culture depends on harnessing, supporting and nurturing the gifts and strengths of our youth.

In spite of this commitment, however, we are at a critical crossroad, and will need to generate more funding to move to the next level of our Host Family, Life Coach and Peer Mentor programs.

Austin Willacy's Youth A Capella Group Til' Dawn performs at AHO fundraiser.

Rex: What would you like the readers of this piece to learn about the homeless youth problem, not only in Marin County, but also nationally, that they may not have appreciated before?

AHO: This issue is not going away on its own. The problem has been building over the last 10 years, and has not been adequately addressed.

The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports, and still others face even greater demands because their children have physical, mental, or behavioral problems.

More striking, some youth have no families at all to fall back on. These vulnerable youth — those with mental or physical disabilities, those with pasts in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems, those leaving special education programs, those aging out of foster care, and those young adults who are homeless — are on their own without a safety net.

Some of the challenges youth are facing today are considered in the recent book On Your Own Without a Net by Osgood et al. This is an excellent resource for those interested in learning more about this subject.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

Jonathan Frieman called me regarding AHO. Jonathan has been a longstanding supporter of our events and very active in community issues, so the fact that he himself was so involved with AHO compelled my immediate desire to learn more about the program.

“I felt that AHO’s work was particularly important for Rex to support because AHO was helping address what is otherwise one of the most troublesome concerns in our society right now — youth falling through the cracks and becoming lost in a downward spiral.

“I went to an AHO event and met one of the young men who had been helped by AHO. He told me he was now attending the University of San Diego, an option he might not have had without AHO. Seeing this bright young person doing so well, as opposed to being lost, affirmed that we must do all we can to nurture our youth to be healthy, engaged members of the community. I am glad that the Rex Foundation is not only supporting AHO, but also bringing more attention to this critical issue that affects all of us.”

Molly Kron
Youth Program Advisor

Once homeless herself, she now helps others at AHO

“I am a recent graduate of Dominican University, and was born and raised in the urban setting of Denver, Colorado. At the age of 14 I dropped out of school and ran away from home more times than one would care to count. Eventually I found myself living on the streets and hopping from couch to couch, whenever possible, for nearly two years. During the last six months of that experience with homelessness, I become involved with an organization like AHO whose purpose it was to help mobilize homeless youth in order to remove them from their current way of life. Because of this support network, I was eventually able to reconnect with my family and became actively involved in education.

“I heard about AHO and met Zara through my professor at Dominican University in March of 2005, while completing my thesis on government policy regarding youth and child homelessness. Since then, I have both sought out guidance from Zara, and seek to assist her in the development of the Ambassadors of Hope Project, especially with the peer mentor program of AHO.

“Currently, I am facing the reality of life in transition since graduating from Dominican. I am dealing with similar uncertainties that I experienced six years ago when I was homeless. Today however, contrary to my past experiences with homelessness, I have the support, guidance and safety net that I did not have previously, and because of this, I have been able to formulate a plan to attain long-term, stable housing. I hope to help other youth at AHO on their own path to a better life.”

“The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Brian Latady

Helped by AHO, he’s now attending college

“Born in the Orwellian 1984, I grew up in Los Altos Hills, California. My parents divorced when I was almost 10. It became completely clear that I was depressed when I was 14, about freshman year of high school. It got to the point that I wasn’t attending classes at all; I would just be at home, in bed, feeling like I was falling deeper and deeper into my despair. I battled two years with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I was sent to school counselors at first, tested, and then the private therapist visits began. We were going to doctors for the CFS, and psychiatrists and psychologists for my now mounting diagnoses (currently it’s: the ADD form of ADHD, Clinical Depression, Social Anxiety Disorder, OCD, and Bipolar Disorder, Type II).

“I went from school to school, and eventually landed in a SED program at Lynbrook High School near Saratoga, California. About a year and a half into my time there, my mother called the police and told them she was worried that I would commit suicide… Imagine my surprise when six police officers file into my house and up into my room. They seemed to think it was necessary to have me hospitalized. So I was taken to the county hospital for some observation. I was there on September 11, 2001, and then I was shipped off to Herrick, the Psych part of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, for about a month.

“From there, after just turning 17, I was sent to an all-male 'residential treatment center.' When that place closed down a year later, I went off to another 'residential treatment center,' Sunny Hills. At that point, I was 18, and when I graduated high school that was my aging out point, when my funding ended and I had no place to go next. Sunny Hills placed me back with my father (which was not a healthy situation for me, either before or after residential placement). Eventually Sunny Hills started a transitional housing program, where I met Zara, who had been hired to design and manage that program.

“With stable housing and the support and guidance of Zara, I began going to the College of Marin and figuring out how to survive on my own. Within a year in this housing, Sunny Hills closed the program and I was out on the streets again. It was at this point Zara started the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity to provide a safety net of housing and support for youth like myself who would be otherwise homeless.

“Through AHO, the care of Zara, I was given the opportunity to live with one of AHO’s host families, and begin solidifying myself as an adult in this world, with all the entailed responsibilities. With AHO’s continued support, guidance and community connections I am hoping to enter UC Berkeley in the next two years and work in the field of BioInfomatics.”

"Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them are being discounted and discounted and discarded by society.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Cost-Effective Help

In February 2006, Rex gave AHO a grant of $5,000 — the amount it takes to keep a young adult in the program for a year. Because of AHO’s large volunteer base and community alliances, that money goes a long way. It provides a year of healthcare, stable living, a host family, life coach mentors, money management and savings support, education, clothing, transportation, internships and jobs — and the all-important security deposit on an apartment.

Contrast that with AHO's estimate of the annual costs commonly incurred by homeless youth without a safety net: homeless shelter, $23,400; jail, $60,000 for juveniles and $26,690 for adults; psychiatric facility, $208,050. All are costs that can be avoided, AHO points out, by helping homeless youth now, before their problems reach crisis levels.

“With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Statistics on Youth Leaving the Child Services System

Within 2-4 years of leaving the child services system (foster care, community mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement):

35% are homeless
40% are on public assistance
50% are unemployed
25% of the males are incarcerated
50% of the girls have given birth

• National Runaway Switchboard
• Bay Area Social Services Consortium Research
• Assemblywoman Karen Bass’s Select Committee on Foster Care
• Honoring Emancipated Youth (HEY)

According to the 2000 Census, young adults ages 14 to 25 represent 40% of the growing homeless population.

“All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.”
Zara Babitzke, AHO

Kids Helping Kids
Philanthropist Jonathan Frieman on AHO

By Mary Eisenhart

Marin County philanthropist and community activist Jonathan Frieman, a longtime Rex supporter, first suggested Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity as a possible Rex grantee.

Eight years ago, Frieman was putting his law degree to work at the Homeless Advocacy Project in San Francisco, and decided he needed to experience the reality of homeless life for himself. So, with a few companions, he left his money behind and lived on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

It was, he said, an eye-opening time. “Even though one’s needs are very simple, it’s still a very stressful experience,” he recalls, "not the least because of the attitude towards homelessness that society has, which is that those people are good for nothing and they should just get a job, and they’re drug addicts.”

In fact, he says, a fair number of homeless people actually do have jobs. “Those are the invisible homeless,” he says. And, as with AHO’s clients, who for various reasons aren’t on the radar of more conventional homeless services, “we don’t see them on the streets. It could be a family has been living paycheck to paycheck, and they got that one bill, a medical bill usually, that they couldn’t handle. So the father goes out on the streets; the mother and maybe one of the kids goes and stays with a friend; maybe the other kid goes with one of the grandparents. The father works until they can save enough to get another place. That’s still stressful, because everybody’s apart, they’re not in the home unit.”

One day a couple of years ago, he got a phone call from Zara Babitzke, who was in the process of launching AHO. She’d read a profile the Marin Independent-Journal had done on Frieman, and decided he was the one to help her get started. “I start nonprofits, and she was starting one. I work with kids, and she works with kids. At that point I was starting to get somewhat known in the County and had some contacts, and I just helped her out in that regard. She’s got a vision. She saw a need and went ahead to fulfill it. It’s something that I just felt needed some strong support.”

Frieman, who went on to join AHO’s advisory board, marvels at the force of Babitzke’s vision and her effectiveness in bringing together a large coalition of business, healthcare and community groups to help out — including such groups as the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors, not usually associated with helping the homeless. “It’s a coup,” Frieman says. “That’s her.”

What makes AHO’s program successful, he says, is that it’s based on formerly homeless kids helping their peers. “It’s these kids helping each other, and it has to be that, necessarily so, because they’re the ones who are going to know who’s out there. It really is an invisible group. That’s one of the things that does set AHO apart: it’s these youth helping these youth. They mentor each other. It’s a group of people trying to help each other.”

"I believe that AHO’s mission and message touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, they are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.”
Zara Babitzke, AHO

TJ, Zara Babitzke, James Hayes, Molly Kron, Brian Latady

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Rock The Earth

Rock the Earth: Defending the Planet 'One Beat at a Time'

By Mary Eisenhart

“For the environmentally-minded artist, we’re one-stop shopping – not only can we take action on the issue, but we can also conduct the necessary education, publicity and fundraising to mobilize their fanbase and fund the advocacy activities.”
– Marc Ross, Rock the Earth

In 2001, under the stars at an outdoor concert at Mount Shasta, Marc Ross had an epiphany.

Having worked as an environmental litigator in both the public and private sector, he’d become acutely familiar with the fact that when it came to environmental issues, the legal deck tended to be stacked in favor of industry. By virtue of large consortia and industry associations, even the most egregious polluters and violators of the law were often able to avoid legal consequences by sheer firepower, overwhelming the resources of concerned citizens and grassroots groups trying to hold them accountable and make them change their ways.

Ross suddenly realized that combining his lifelong loves of music and the environment might be the key to evening the odds a bit. Many artists were already vocal about various issues; what if they and their fans joined forces to advocate for them? What if the resulting organization were able to offer legal and technical assistance, pro bono, to those under-resourced concerned citizens and grassroots organizations?

Inspired by this thought, Ross began recruiting music fans with expertise in environmental law and sciences, as well as the fundraising, marketing, media relations and Internet technology skills needed to sustain such an organization, and in 2001 Rock the Earth was born.

A 2005 Rex grantee, Rock the Earth uses tours and concerts of like-minded artists — dozens of shows a year — to reach the fans and spread the word, setting up information booths at shows to explain the issues and recruit new members. A relatively young organization — and, with the exception of a part-time office manager, all-volunteer — it’s successfully fostered a remarkable synergy between artists and their fans that’s become a powerful tool.

RtE’s Marc Ross (l) with Ozomatli at Bonnaroo 2005.

Says longtime Rex supporter David Gans, one of the artists scheduled to play at the Rock the Earth benefit September 17 at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco’s McLaren Park: “I think Rock the Earth has taken a lot of inspiration from Rex and SEVA: modest but meaningful projects as opposed to large-scale endeavors, and a strong belief in the power of community. I’m really impressed with these people and how they’re going about their work.”

We recently spoke with Ross, who told us about Rock the Earth’s current activities and achievements, as well as the obstacles it faces.

Rex: There are lots of environmental groups out there — what’s distinctive about Rock the Earth, and what inspired the founders to launch this group rather than work within others?

Marc Ross, Rock the Earth: What makes Rock the Earth unique is that we are an environmental advocacy organization born from and serving the music community.

Our volunteer staff and volunteers are, for the most part, recruited from the music community. The projects upon which our legal and technical staff work are suggested by artists and their fans. Our outreach, education, canvassing and membership solicitation are done in conjunction with the music community — at concerts and festivals throughout North America.

RtE Intern Matthew Schmidt educates a fan about RtE.

Not only do we provide a service to the individual artists who wish to see action taken on the issues about which they care, but given our expertise in music industry publicity, we are able to mobilize the artist’s fanbase as well. For the environmentally-minded artist, we’re one-stop shopping – not only can we take action on the issue, but we can also conduct the necessary education, publicity and fundraising to mobilize their fanbase and fund the advocacy activities.

What caused us to create a whole new organization to work in this manner rather than working within the umbrella of another organization was twofold. First, there really is no other environmental advocacy group out there whose specific mission is to work with the music community on the issues that matter most to the artists and the fans.

Second, we had a general concern and dissatisfaction with the business model employed by most environmental organizations, who rely in large degree on foundation funding while their members are really rather passive. By joining our members to the artists that they admire, and tying the organization to a multi-billion-dollar industry (i.e. the music industry), it is our aim to not only increase grassroots activism in this country, but to wean our group off of foundation funding, which can, when relied upon too heavily, mean the difference between pursuing an issue or not.

Rex: Did any particular issue or crisis lead you to start Rock the Earth?

RtE: Our founders all had experience either as environmental professionals or activists, and all of us were concerned about the effectiveness of some environmental advocacy organizations. Particularly the smaller, less-funded ones, who really did not have the financial wherewithal to pursue what may be valid claims, due to a lack of qualified legal or technical counsel, lack of experienced media relations assistance, and a lack of ability to raise funds to really present a challenge to either a purported polluter or the government.

Rex: According to your Web site, the grant RtE received from Rex last year went to further your defense of the Colorado River wilderness in the Grand Canyon. Can you explain the issue, to those who might not be aware of it? And what were you able to do as a result of the Rex grant?

RtE: The stretch of the Colorado River that flows through Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) is one of the most sought-after river trips in the world. People from around the world raft this river, seeking to view the natural beauty of the canyon from the river and experience a trip like none other. Many of those river enthusiasts are do-it-yourself river runners with plenty of experience and gear.

Most who come to take these trips — whether done on private, commercial trips or on public permits — seek out a true wilderness experience, free from the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life. In fact, the Grand Canyon is known internationally for having some of the best natural soundscapes in the world.

Since 1980, the National Park Service has recommended that the stretch of the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon be protected as National Wilderness and that all motorized use cease. Sadly, even under the latest plan, the Park Service has ignored its own recommendation (and therefore the laws, regulations and policies which bind the Service) by continuing to allow motors through an area that is eligible for wilderness.

This is our primary objection – the continued use of motors on the river in GCNP. The outcome of our litigation could have wide-ranging impact as to how all wilderness areas in the U.S. are treated and whether motorized use in them is necessary and/or appropriate.

A second issue is regarding access. Prior to the new Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP), the waiting list for non-commercial, public trips down the river stretched up to 20 years. This meant folks really only had two options: pay a commercial concessionaire hundreds or thousands of dollars to take you on a trip (practically whenever you wanted), or get on the waiting list.

Now, for non-commercial public trips, the Park Service has eliminated the waiting list and implemented a lottery. Therefore, folks who have been on the waiting list for years now get into a gamble as to whether they will ever get a permit or face paying concessionaires big money to ride the river.

In addition, the private concessionaires, even under the latest plan, still are awarded the vast majority of the permits in the most popular seasons, only adding to the inequitable access that the general public is given to one of our National Parks.

Our final issue is that the current plan for the Colorado River ignores the impact of the Glen Canyon Dam — a structure that, by all accounts, is having the greatest impact to the environmental life dependent on the river corridor. The operation of the dam not only impacts the entire ecosystem, but likewise impacts recreational use and should have been fully evaluated as part of the recent Management Plan.

With funding from the Rex Foundation, Rock the Earth was able to help form a coalition of wilderness advocate groups (including River Runners for Wilderness, Wilderness Watch, and Living Rivers) to challenge the Park Service’s mismanagement of the Colorado River by suing the NPS in federal court. It is our intent that our suit will not only draw a line in the sand as to how our precious wilderness areas will be managed, but ensure that equitable access to the Colorado River will result and that the Park Service will finally review the deleterious impact that Glen Canyon Dam is having on the entire ecosystem.

RtE: You’re at quite a few shows this summer. How do you choose the shows, or decide which audiences are likely to be a good fit?

RtE: Rock the Earth tries to work with a variety of artists each summer, and diversification is the key.

In some cases, there are artists known worldwide for their environmental activism, with whom we make it a priority to work (like Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt). Other artists are supporters of RtE (like String Cheese Incident and Jack Johnson) and we want to work with them as well. Sometimes, as with Bon Jovi, the band is seeking to educate their fans on environmental issues and seeks us out. Sometimes it is merely a matter of tour routing.

Bonnie Raitt with RtE’s Marc Ross at Bonnaroo 2005.

It really varies from tour to tour, festival to festival. But every summer, we try to have a presence on three to four major tours, as well as working over a dozen festivals throughout the country. While we have worked with over 30 artists in our organization’s history, we have yet to find a band that was a “bad fit.”

Have we had bad nights on tour? Sure. But usually the next night turns out successful, making it more a function of the venue, location, crowd, etc., than the artists themselves.

Rex: How closely do you work with artists, and how does that process work?

RtE: How we work with artists really varies from artist to artist. Some artists suggest environmental issues upon which we should work. Other artists feel strongly that while they don’t have a particular issue about which they care, they are passionate about the environment and want us to have a presence on their tour. Still other artists, instead of working with us at their shows, donate memorabilia, tickets or merchandise to us. It really depends on the artist.

When on an extended tour by a particular artist, we try to cultivate a relationship with artists themselves so that they can feel comfortable suggesting an issue to us. This often takes time (and access), but then again, sometimes when asked, the artist already has an issue that they can relay to us.

Unfortunately, sometimes even though we’re on a tour for a period of weeks or months, we never gain access to the artist to tell them about us and pick their brain.

Rex: Since road trips are obviously a lot of work, what’s the benefit? What can you do at a show that you can’t do elsewhere?

RtE: While it is true that putting a team on tour for 17 weeks a year is a lot of work and can be expensive, Rock the Earth has enjoyed tremendous success with our annual Outreach and Education Summer Tour. We try to mix the tour up with having traveling teams and local volunteers help out as well.

Having a presence at the shows really demonstrates to the public that there’s a partnership between the bands and us. We also take online and mail-in memberships, but those numbers are far below the numbers that we can achieve by having a physical presence on a band’s tour.

In some cases, RtE may be some young people’s first opportunity to meet folks associated with an environmental group, and the ability to turn them on with our message, attract them with our membership premium gifts, and for them to see us being “sponsored” by the bands, cannot be duplicated by simply engaging in a cyberspace campaign.

Further, there’s no way that we, as an organization, could cultivate relationships with the artists themselves without being out on the road with them. By our being on the road, the artists (and their management, friends and families) can witness our work ethic and the interest that we generate with their fanbase.

RtE interns Chandra Ruff and Kathryn Blau with
RtE advisory board member Michael Franti (Smilefest 2006).

Rex: Any stories to relate of interesting connections on the road, cosmic coincidences, new friends in new cities, etc.? Do the performers show up for unscheduled meet-and-greets, etc.?

RtE: We always meet interesting folks on the road. From would-be up-and-coming musical artists, to the band’s management or family, to folks in the “green business” community looking to collaborate with us. No night is ever a dull moment.

Usually, once or twice a tour, there will be the anti-environmentalist or corporate, industrial type that will come up to the table with the sole purpose of trying to grill us about particular issues, and sometimes even try to pick a fight. Those can be some of the best conversations, especially when they realize that RtE is not an “extreme” environmental group. We base all decisions on science and law. Sometimes, these would-be “foes” will even end up becoming members.

RtE president and executive director Marc Ross (l) with Al Schnier of moe.

Yes, sometimes the performers unexpectedly drop in. In April, we were working the Green Apple Music Festival in NYC, when who should come to our table but Bela Fleck, looking to join RtE and get a long-sleeve T-shirt. Earlier this summer, at Summer Camp (a festival in Chillicothe, Illinois) Al Schnier of moe. was helping out HeadCount at the booth next to ours, when he came over and started pitching RtE to would-be members. I think he even signed up a few. Of course, Al was one of our "celebrity” drop-bys back at High Sierra Music Festival in 2004, when he approached us rather anonymously, inquiring about the group and signing up for our newsletter.

Rex: Who works the booth at shows? What do they do during a typical day at the venue?

RtE: RtE booths are either staffed by our touring team of volunteers/interns or a local team of volunteers. At a typical show, the team engages the audience throughout the show, educating interested patrons about the organization and the important issues upon which we’re working. We also inform visitors about the importance and benefits of membership in the organization and ask folks to become members, or, at the very least, to sign up for our monthly e-newsletter.

When feasible (meaning during slow parts of shows or when we have more than two volunteers working), the volunteers take turns enjoying the show. We will typically stay open until the crowd thins out after a show, as post-show can sometimes be one of our most productive times to gain memberships.

RtE volunteers, including Marc and Barbara Ross,
with Spearhead’s Dave Shul at All Good Festival (2005).

Rex: With no shortage of environmental issues and crises out there, how do you decide where to put your resources? Any successes you’re especially proud of? Failures that are still really hard to take?

RtE: Ideally, the issues are all derived from the music community (though some of the issues upon which we’re working, like the Colorado River Management Plan, pre-date our tax exempt status and public launch of March 2004).

We have a flowchart and matrix through which our Legal & Technical Committee passes all potential project suggestions. The issue needs to be ripe for involvement. In other words, RtE needs to be able to take action on the issue. If, for example, an artist suggests an issue to us because they read about a governmental enforcement action against a polluter, the issue isn’t really one in which we can have an impact.

We also try to work on issues that don’t have the entire environmental community’s involvement (like global warming). There also has to be a reasonable likelihood of success.

Lastly, we will not act as private attorneys for rock stars who want to play the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) game… there actually needs to be some important environmental issue at stake.

In terms of successes, the ability to bring our first lawsuit in only our second year – well ahead of our business plan – is really remarkable. I am especially proud that our challenge to the Colorado River Management Plan could have such a monumental impact throughout the country.

Being such a young organization, our victories (and defeats) are rather few, but I’m also proud of the Bush Administration’s decision to use the Antiquities Act to protect the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as a National Monument. For the past year, we’ve been promoting the issue with funding from Jack Johnson and alongside of our Hawaiian partners, KAHEA, announcing our intention to challenge what we believed was going to be a substandard management plan. Now it will be our job to ensure that the regulations implementing the Monument are as stringent as the Bush proclamation.

As far as hard failures, we thankfully have not really encountered any in terms of environmental issues, although the Park Service continues to ignore our arguments, the evidence and public will to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – an issue that we’ve been fighting for over four years now. Frankly, the hardest “failures” are when artists want to see us at the table on a particular environmental issue and the environmental groups already involved in the issue lock us out of the process.

Rex: Anything else Rex supporters should know about that we haven’t talked about?

RtE: Rock the Earth is approaching a critical point in our organization’s development. We’ve enjoyed success by just about every measure (especially grassroots support, with over 1,100 members strong), but still have yet to get over the funding hump so that we can pay folks to work on RtE full time. Currently, all of our staff (including myself as a full-time executive director) are voluntary, save for a part-time office manager.

While we are looking to expand our paid staff in the coming months to include a part-time development director and a part-time membership director, we are still lacking the funds to take RtE to the next level. Please consider joining RtE and help us to “Defend the Planet, One Beat at a Time.”

On the Road

For both Rock the Earth and the Rex Foundation, outreach at shows is both essential and fun. Rock the Earth’s summer-long tour schedule is a far more ambitious undertaking, involving dozens of volunteers, while Rex outings are fewer and, currently, involve only Peter Kliegman and executive director Sandy Sohcot. But when it comes to the unique opportunities a tour offers to get the word out and build relationships, both organizations tell the same story.

RtE Interns Chandra Ruff at Kathryn Blau at Dave Matthews Band in Pittsburgh (2006).

As RtE’s Marc Ross puts it, “Since the organization was created by and for the music community, what better place to conduct outreach than at concerts and festivals? Not only does it allow us to directly educate the fans and promote the issues about which the particular artist cares, but it’s also a pretty fun place to engage in outreach.”

Sohcot adds, “Being at festivals or similar types of events provides the opportunity to have personal connection time with people who are, by their being at the festival, likely to be interested in our work. Being able to talk a little, tell stories, answer questions, provide information, hand out newsletters and so on gives a more personal face to Rex than what will happen by visiting the Web site. This means people who visit will more likely better understand what we do, and may then want to get involved. It’s also more possible that word will be spread about our work, as the people we see then talk to others about their experience.

"The other advantage of being at a show or festival," she adds, "is the opportunity to establish more in-depth relationships with the event producers and the musicians who participate — again, something more challenging to do by phone or email. This may be the music world’s version of 'playing golf,’" she laughs, "though a lot more grassroots and people-connection oriented."

And you never know who you might meet. Sohcot says, “At the 10,000 Lakes Festival, Rex did not have a booth. However, I spent time wandering around checking out other booths. I stopped at Rock the Earth, having not yet met Marc. Marc looked up and asked if I was familiar with RtE, and I told him I was pleased to say the program was one of our grantees! It was fun to meet that way and see him and his wife in action.”

Rex Board Perspective

It was board member Andy Gadiel who first brought Rock the Earth to Rex’s attention. Says Andy: “I’ve known Rock the Earth for years through their presence at music festivals and live music events. What really drew me into them as a fit for Rex is that they bridge the concert with awareness of issues that are affecting everyone.

“It was a natural fit for the mission of Rex, and when I proposed a grant for them (my first since joining the Rex board), it was great to hear just how obvious a choice they were, and so in line with why Rex was started.

“What’s even more impressive is that the people behind Rock the Earth are educated and trained professionals in the area of legal issues and lobbying, to actually make a difference and see the cause through to action. It’s one thing to have a great idea, but a whole different level to actually be able to make it happen.”

RtE’s Marc Ross (l) with Bela Fleck.

“By joining our members to the artists that they admire, and tying the organization to a multi-billion dollar music industry, it is our aim to not only increase grassroots activism in this country, but to wean our group off of foundation funding, which can, when relied upon too heavily, mean the difference between pursuing an issue or not.”
– Marc Ross

“Usually, once or twice a tour, there will be the anti-environmentalist or corporate, industrial type that will come up to the table with the sole purpose of trying to grill us about particular issues, and sometimes even try to pick a fight. Those can be some of the best conversations, especially when they realize that RtE is not an ‘extreme’ environmental group. We base all decisions on science and law. Sometimes, these would-be ‘foes’ will even end up becoming members.”
– Marc Ross

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Friday, September 29, 2006

The Innocence Project

A Rex grantee in 1995, this law clinic at the Cardozo School of Law is often the last hope of the wrongfully convicted.

by Mary Eisenhart

On May 5, 2006, a Virginia jury awarded Earl Washington Jr. a $2.25 million judgment against the estate of state police inspector Curtis Reese Wilmore, having found that Wilmore, who died in 1994, had deliberately fabricated the evidence that sent Washington to Virginia’s Death Row in 1984.

Washington, a young, mildly retarded African American man, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the 1982 rape-murder of a young mother in Virginia. The only evidence against him was a "confession," extracted a year after the fact and consisting entirely of elements spoon-fed to Washington — who happily deferred to all authority figures by way of compensating for his disability — by law enforcement. Inexplicably, his defense attorney failed to point this out at trial, or to present evidence of Washington’s limitations at the penalty hearing.

Earl Washington (Photo: AP)

Washington came within nine days of execution in 1985, surviving only because a New York law firm took his case pro bono and secured a stay of execution.

"Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld, one of Washington’s legal team, said later in an NPR interview. "His lawyer did a bad job. There was police and prosecutorial misconduct, and there was a coerced confession from a man who was retarded."

By the early ’90s, DNA testing had made it clear that Washington could not have been the rapist-murderer, yet he languished on Death Row until 1994, when an outgoing governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Six years later, another governor gave Washington a full pardon. After nearly 18 years in prison, most of it under sentence of death, Washington was free — but his parents, who’d stood by him when he went to prison, had long since passed away.

To date, despite the fact that DNA evidence has pointed to another man in police custody, there have been no other arrests in the case. Neufeld told NPR that while normally prosecutors would be eager to seek an indictment with such evidence, to do so here "would require a public admission that Earl Washington was completely innocent, and that an innocent man was almost put to death."

Outrageous as Washington’s case appears, it’s far from unique. DNA evidence has conclusively exonerated hundreds of prisoners to date, many of whom had been awaiting execution.

When DNA testing first emerged as a viable forensic tool in the early ’90s, Neufeld and colleague Barry Scheck, both veteran defense attorneys and professors at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, saw it as an opportunity to address the problem of wrongful conviction. In 1992 they launched the Innocence Project at Cardozo, as a legal clinic that put law students to work pursuing justice for the falsely imprisoned.

Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck (Photo: Uli Holz)

The Rex Foundation was an early supporter of the Innocence Project with a grant of $10,000 in 1995. IP had come to Rex’s attention via Jonas Kant, who was then working with the group; Jonas was also the son of Rex board member and Grateful Dead attorney Hal Kant, who became a strong advocate.

"With regard to violence, I’m a law and order kind of guy," says Hal Kant, currently Rex advisory board member emeritus and still a strong supporter of the Innocence Project. "Which makes it incumbent upon me to help make sure the innocent are not convicted.

“‘Better 100 guilty should go free than one innocent be convicted’ is an essential aspect of American justice,” he adds. “The Innocence Project has led the way in getting the innocent exonerated. It also teaches law students to be suspicious of government, prosecutors and unjust laws — while respecting the judicial system, which is the best there has ever been.”

IP director of development Audrey Levitin notes that in the years since 1995, the Innocence Project has grown from a startup legal clinic to “a leading organization in the effort to strengthen the fundamental integrity and truth-revealing function of our criminal justice system.”

Now an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Innocence Project continues to train Cardozo students (over 500 to date) in its legal clinic. Besides its legal work, IP now has a policy department working to bring reforms to the criminal justice system. In addition, it’s inspired a national network of more than 30 organizations engaged in innocence-related work.

And slowly, change is coming. “After years of a singularly ‘tough on crime’ approach in criminal justice, the paradigm is starting to shift,” Levitin says. “The work of the Innocence Project and the exonerations of innocent people have shifted the national debate about crime from a discussion of rights, which was not capturing mainstream support, to a discussion about innocence, which is — and by so doing have created an historic opportunity for bringing greater integrity to criminal justice.”

We recently spoke with Ms. Levitin about the Innocence Project’s current work, the need that drives it, and what people can do to help.

Rex: How widespread is the problem of wrongful conviction, and what are its causes? Has it always been there to this extent, or is it a new problem?

IP: It is impossible to estimate how many wrongful conviction cases there are nationally, but since 1992 the Innocence Project has received thousands of letters from inmates across the country who are trying to win their freedom. Today, we continue to receive an average of 250 new letters each month from inmates writing to us for the first time.

After more than 10 years of working to free the innocent, the IP has identified many of the systemic causes of wrongful convictions. Chief among them are:

• Mistaken eyewitness identifications
• Careless or disreputable forensic science
• False confessions
• Use of jailhouse informants or snitches
• Police and prosecutorial misconduct
• Poor defense lawyering

These problems are not new and have always plagued our justice system, but in earlier eras, when wrongful convictions were overturned, those cases were seen as exceptional and not indicative of widespread problems. However, the IP’s pioneering work with DNA has proven that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events.

DNA exonerations have created a wealth of cases that can be studied, where innocence is not in dispute because it is supported by objective scientific evidence. Research has revealed a handful of disturbing causes that are common throughout the majority of these cases and proven that these trends are endemic. In response, the IP has crafted a forceful plan for reform to address these issues.

Rex: How do you decide which cases to take on?

IP: The IP has one standard for accepting cases: if biological evidence from a case still exists and that evidence could be subjected to DNA testing, would that testing yield conclusive proof of innocence?

The IP does not require that the biological evidence be found and secured before we accept a client. Our Cardozo law students take on the task of tracking down evidence once a case is accepted.

The Innocence Project does not accept or reject potential clients on the basis of their previous criminal records or their character. In essence, our process is blind, based only on the facts of the case.

Rex: Is there any common pattern in those cases, beyond a defendant who says he’s wrongfully convicted?

IP: Those who have been exonerated span the spectrum of America’s racial, economic and ethnic diversity. The IP’s clients include a Marine corporal from California, a 20-year old truck driver and volunteer firefighter from Virginia, a college student and army veteran in Texas, and a Cuban-American immigrant.

Rex: Once you’ve taken on a case, what do you do, and who does what work?

IP: Once we decide to take on a client, the search to track down the biological evidence begins. Cases are assigned to one of our three staff attorneys based on geographic location. Attorneys then divide their cases among the Cardozo clinic students assigned to them.

Clinic students have a variety of cases in different stages of investigation and litigation. With a new case, the first task is to determine what evidence might exist and set about finding it. Because many of our cases are 10, 15, or even 20 years old, and because there are no uniform regulations for the storage and preservation of evidence in states or even between local jurisdictions, the evidence search stage can take many months and often years. Once evidence is located, our attorneys can move forward with a motion for DNA testing and other litigation.

Rex: What factors affect the outcome of the cases you take on, and how long does it take to achieve that outcome?

IP: The IP faces numerous hurdles in litigating all of our cases. The search for evidence in a case can take many years and often ends with the discovery that crucial evidence has been destroyed or has degraded after having been kept in unsuitable storage facilities. Because the IP works in all 50 states and has a limited travel budget, the vast majority of student inquiries must be conducted over the phone and through correspondence with police departments, courthouses, and storage facilities.

Furthermore, while over half of states have some form of post-conviction DNA testing statute, in many, our clients face an uphill battle to win access to the evidence from their cases. Prosecutors are able to prevent testing due to highly restrictive state laws that exclude many prisoners and force defense attorneys to enter into lengthy litigation. These delays can thwart efforts to prove innocence, again putting biological evidence at risk of being destroyed or becoming too degraded for testing.

As a result of the unique factors in each case, the length of time it takes to achieve an exoneration can vary from a year to as long as a decade.

Rex: Have there been instances when after all your work, the evidence conclusively proved your client guilty? And, if so, does this discourage you from the overall mission?

IP: Yes, in approximately 40% of our cases that reach the testing stage, results come back with a positive inclusion. The Innocence Project makes clear to every client that the results are based on science and will reaffirm guilt when that is the case. We have accepted that inclusions are part of the process.

Rex: In many cases, your wrongfully convicted clients are released after decades in prison. What difficulties do they encounter in getting their real lives back? What resources do they have to help with the transition? What happens to them long-term?

IP: Exonerees face enormous challenges upon release, including an immediate financial crisis if no family is available or able to help. As time goes by exonerees face a lack of job opportunities and adequate housing, and often experience post-traumatic stress.

Most people are shocked to learn that exonerees in the majority of states do not receive reentry services (for housing, jobs, education, financial support, substance abuse treatment, psychological services, and more) provided to prisoners on parole. They must fight to have their conviction records expunged and often need to file lawsuits to get any type of monetary compensation.

Many exonerees have been able to successfully rebuild their lives with the help of family members and friends, but there are also those who are still in need of help. This issue is of great concern to all of us at the IP, and the organization has recently taken steps to address it. This year, our Board of Directors voted to create an Exoneree Emergency Fund, which provides small needs-based grants of up to $10,000 to exonerees, as well as other funds for long-term support. In addition, we have hired a part-time social worker to act as a caseworker for exonerees in need.

Rex: What resources do you need to do your work, and how do grants and donations help? What can individuals do to help?

IP: Since its inception, and with the start-up support from friends such as the Rex Foundation, the Innocence Project has built its organizational capacity to 27 full-time employees. Currently, our greatest needs are for more attorneys and policy experts. Grants and donations from individuals make it possible for us to expand our staff, and support the exoneree fund.

We also rely on the generosity of our valued volunteers and clinic students, and especially the many law firms who offer pro bono support in some of our most complex legal challenges.

If we had more resources we could focus more on public education about our criminal justice system and outreach to prisoners in states where we have very little correspondence relative to their prison population. For example, in 2004 only 50 of the over 3,000 letters we received that year came from Mississippi, a state with a harsh prison system. With more resources, we could find out why some prisoners can’t or don’t write to us.

More resources would also allow us to take on more cases and devote time to pursuing important legal challenges to current standards of eyewitness identification and forensic evidence that often hamstring our work. Legal rulings that help remedy these problems can have a powerful impact, and also take effect immediately.

Rex: Do you see any hopeful signs of the problem of wrongful conviction being addressed at a systemic level?

IP: The collective force of DNA exonerations has galvanized public support for progressive reform of the criminal justice system — a trend that was unimaginable just a decade ago. Enormous progress has been made on several fronts to reform the causes of wrongful convictions and make all Americans safer from wrongful prosecution. Now, close to 40 states have some kind of post-conviction DNA testing law.

Several states and major jurisdictions across the country have adopted our recommended reforms to eyewitness identification procedures, and more are engaged in pilot programs to test their effects. Crime lab misconduct has been uncovered and led to the lab being shut down in the city of Houston, which sends more defendants to death row than any other county in the country. Audits of lab work are being conducted there, as well as in Virginia and Cleveland.

These are just some of the victories that have been won, and the IP is determined to capitalize on the growing momentum for change sparked by DNA exonerations.

Exonerated Prisoner
Thomas Doswell
19 Years

Photo: The Innocence Project

After spending 19 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit, Tommy Doswell was set free. He's now pursuing a music career.

On August 1, 2005, Tommy Doswell was reunited with his family after spending almost 20 years in prison.

Doswell was convicted of rape in 1986. His case involved a troubling identification procedure: When his photograph was shown to the victim, it was marked with an “R” to suggest he was a rapist, though he had never been convicted of any sexual assault.

Doswell first contacted the IP in 1996, hoping that DNA tests could prove his innocence. While he waited to win testing, he turned down parole four separate times because he refused to admit guilt in a crime he didn’t commit. His evidence was finally tested in 2005, conclusively proving his innocence.

Since his exoneration, Doswell has spent time with his two sons, who were toddlers when he went to prison. Both are now grown men. He has also successfully pursued his music career. In the fall, he opened for blues legend B.B. King in Pittsburgh.

Exonerated Prisoner
Robert Clark
24 Years

Photo: The Innocence Project

Robert Clark and some of his supporters on the day of his release: (l-r) Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld, Cardozo law student Annie Eisenberg, Robert Clark’s son Rodrickus, Robert Clark, IP staff attorney Vanessa Potkin, Cardozo law student Emily Robb.

Robert Clark was wrongfully convicted in 1982 at the age of 21 for the rape of an Atlanta woman.

A week after the crime, Clark was spotted driving the victim’s car and arrested. Initially, police did not consider him a suspect because he did not match the victim’s description of her attacker as 5’7” (Clark is over 6’1”); Clark told police he got the car from a friend, Tony Arnold, who at 5’6” was closer to the victim’s description. Yet, once the victim picked Clark out of a lineup, the police narrowed in on Clark and never investigated Tony Arnold.

After 24 years, DNA testing proved Clark’s innocence and he was released in December of 2005.

The test results also identified the likely perpetrator as Tony Arnold, after a CODIS DNA database search of the evidence matched his profile. Arnold has been in prison since 2003 and was due to be released in January 2006 until these results came to light. After the CODIS match to Arnold, the Innocence Project also learned that he had been matched to two other unsolved Georgia rapes in 2003, yet had never been charged with either crime.

Today, Clark is employed at an Atlanta warehouse company and is working towards his GED.

Further reading

The Innocence Project

Actual Innocence; Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Jim Dwyer; (ISBN 0451209826)

"Fatal Flaws: The Case of Earl Washington"

"Exonerated Death Row Inmate to Get $2.25M"

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Tiny Group, Huge Impact

North Bay’s New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS) helps working families, by getting often-hostile factions to form coalitions and work together

by Mary Eisenhart

"Winning the Community Benefits Agreement from the SMART train transit district has really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.” – Ben Boyce, NEWS

The old track still runs through downtown San Rafael

Getting the voters to pay for transit projects is often a hard sell. This November, when the voters in Sonoma and Marin Counties, north of San Francisco, go to the polls to decide whether to charge themselves a half-cent of additional sales tax to pay for the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART) train, the measure they’re considering will enjoy unusually broad community support. Even from groups who are normally a little nervous about being in the same room with each other.

Say, major developers, workers’ rights advocates, union leaders, and environmentalists.

This is no accident. Because these groups and other local stakeholders figured out how to put aside their differences and work together on common goals, the transit plan incorporates a number of community-driven features that probably wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Instrumental in building this consensus was Santa Rosa based New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS), a Rex grantee in 2003 and again in 2006. NEWS helped put together the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, which hammered out the agreements with the transit district in return for supporting the ballot measure.

“The SMART board’s political motive was to get all of these groups lined up endorsing the rail tax, which will be on the ballot in November,” says Ben Boyce, coordinator of NEWS' Living Wage Coalition. ”As a result of our involvement, the Santa Rosa SMART train station project is using union labor; it is using green building materials and techniques, and there’s going to be a very large affordable housing component, as well as a living wage requirement for commercial properties within that district. It’s like hitting the trifecta.”

Members of the Living Wage Coalition stand up
at a rally for the United Farm Workers

From Rex’s standpoint, as board member John Leopold explains (see sidebar: Rex Perspective), helping fund NEWS’s SMART train effort in 2006 was a sort of trifecta of its own. Rex originally gave a grant to NEWS in 2003 after Leopold, who’d been involved in similar efforts in Silicon Valley, heard about the Living Wage Coalition project. Since those days NEWS has racked up impressive achievements in the region, from helping pass living-wage ordinances in a growing number of cities to organizing community input in development projects. Most remarkable was its ability to bring disparate groups into coalitions around common interests. All in all, supporting NEWS allowed Rex to support multiple efforts with a single grant.

NEWS is a volunteer-based community organization with several hundred members. Founder Marty Bennett, a longtime labor activist and a history professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, and Boyce, a graduate of Sonoma State University’s master’s program in public policy studies, are the core staff. While Boyce is busy with alliance building, community organizing, and activism, Bennett’s responsible for research operations, which have so far resulted in the publication of three papers and numerous articles on subjects related to the regional economy.

A growing concern is that the North Bay’s economic growth is increasingly lopsided — a so-called “hourglass economy,” with growth in very high-paying jobs and very low-paying jobs, a vanishing middle class, and a general lack of economic sustainability. Addressing these issues led local groups from lobbying for living wage ordinances to the idea of “accountable development”: the notion that, if public funds are going to be used to fund or subsidize a project, it must truly benefit the entire community.

As early as 2000, Marty Bennett invoked the principle of accountable development in connection with the building of the Petaluma Sheraton, a nice hotel on a municipal marina for which the city was lending the developer millions in taxpayer redevelopment money. Bennett successfully persuaded the city council that in return for this largesse, the hotel jobs would pay living wage (so, after all, the workers wouldn’t be forced to get health care from the public sector at taxpayer expense), and the hotel would not oppose its employees’ efforts to organize. “As a result of that, we have a union hotel in Petaluma,” says Boyce.

Petaluma Sheraton worker

We were recently able to speak with Boyce about NEWS’s ongoing work, and in particular the real-life challenges and rewards of coalition-building.

Rex: For the benefit of those who are new to these issues, could you explain a bit about your work, and why it should concern everyone?

NEWS: We’re trying to challenge the assumptions that are condemning about a quarter of the population to low-wage jobs that typically don’t pay health-care benefits, that are very unstable, highly insecure, and don’t actually pay people’s bills. So people have to work two and three jobs and engage in lots of underground economic activity to make up the shortfall.

The NEWS director, Marty Bennett, has made it his mission to awaken policymakers and the citizenry to the growing crisis of the working poor — so they can make appropriate policy solutions for the problems generated by low-road economic development, which has been going on since the ’80s. We’re setting up demonstration projects, and showing people: “This is an alternative. This is what it could look like.”

NEWS founder Marty Bennett, speaking at the
Limits of Prosperity conference in 2005

Different models of economic development place different emphasis on the role of labor and the function of government in relationship to the role of public policy in regulating job markets. The currently dominant philosophy that’s coming out of Wall Street and out of the neoconservative movement is what we call the low-road economic strategy, or free-market fundamentalism, which basically regards labor as a cost center.

What we’re trying to do, at NEWS and with the Living Wage Coalition, is reframe the discussion and introduce people to what we call a high-road, sustainable economic development model, one that looks at labor as an investment; one that seeks public policy that provides incentives for companies and employers to create more good full-time jobs with health benefits, jobs that pay a self-sufficiency wage or a living wage.

We’re establishing a metric other than the minimum wage in order to talk about wages. As the comedian Chris Rock says, minimum wage means “If we could pay you less, we would.” That should not be the standard by which wages are measured. A more adequate standard is the self-sufficiency wage — what it takes to pay for food, gas, rent, basic expenses. That’s the living wage.

From a moral standpoint, paying a living wage is the right thing to do. We as a society have chosen to value work as a way of demonstrating commitment, by showing up and doing the work. There’s something morally odd about a situation in which people make that socially positive gesture, but it doesn’t pay off in terms of being able to support their family. This is not inevitable; this is not because it was decreed by the invisible hand of The Market, like a commandment from God; it’s the result of deliberate corporate decisions, which are then reinforced into the legal structure by their bought-and-paid political functionaries. The crisis of the working poor is a socio-economic phenomenon that we have the capacity to address through public policy.

In our view, the purpose of public policy is to set some kind of norms so it doesn’t become this kind of social Darwinist race to the bottom — particularly since the spread of this low-wage economy is actually reducing our total economic growth. The bottom end of the wage scale has been pretty much stagnant for decades, and increasingly that end of the population is not able to participate in wealth creation: they can’t save; they don’t have the money to spend on the plethora of consumer goods being produced.

Ben Boyce of NEWS addresses the Sonoma City Council

In areas where they’ve passed living wage or minimum wage laws, there’s a measurable uptick in local business activity because of increased disposable income for working people. We support creating this virtuous cycle of economic activity by raising the wage floor, as contrasted to creating a vicious cycle of working poverty through low-road wage and benefit policies.

Rex: There’s a strong presence of churches and religious groups in your coalitions, which some might find surprising.

NEWS: Part of that is the result of a conscious effort on our part, as there’s been a growing realization nationally that we need to bring back into the fold the progressive elements of the religious community.

The high-water mark of the progressive movement in this country was the civil rights era, when there was a deep involvement of the religious community. A number of things — not least of which was a sort of residual hostility on the part of a lot of secular activists toward religious expression — drove out of the movement what should be a natural ally.

This left the field open to the right, which has been vigorous in recruiting the evangelicals and the various conservative religious movements, even to causes that are contrary to their own constituents’ economic interests. So we’re making a deliberate effort to welcome and engage with the faith community.

Also, for us it’s a natural way to help create community support for low-wage workers, who in this area are mostly Latino and Catholic. One of the greatest sources of support for worker organizing we’ve had from the beginning has come from these Catholic social justice groups.

We’re currently supporting the drive to organize the health workers at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa. Many of these workers are Latinos, and some of them are parishioners at my church, St. Leo’s. St. Leo’s has also served as base for a local organizing drive for nursing home workers at the Sonoma Valley Health Center in Sonoma, and it gives these workers a great deal of comfort to know that the people who go to the same church they do and share their values are supporting them in their struggle to get representation.

Rally in support of union organizing efforts at Memorial Hospital
in Santa Rosa. Photo: Dogzen Arts

A lot of my colleagues who are what I call secular fundamentalists have this belief that they are oppressed if they have to hear religious language. What I explain to them is that they’re defining a public square in which the only way religious allies can enter is if they shed their religion when they walk in. Now, that’s not going to work, when in fact their primary motivation for being involved is that Moses and Jesus said that you need to help the poor. It’s not that you have to believe it yourself; it’s that you have to allow a space for them to express their engagement in the cause in a way that works for them.

Rex: How did the Accountable Development Coalition emerge?

NEWS: Over the last few years, the living wage movement has evolved to a broader agenda of accountable development: that public money should not be used to subsidize low-wage employment that benefits the owners of the business but has a deleterious effect on the rest of society by offloading their costs, in terms of the low wages and lack of health care benefits.

The thing about the use of public money is that you, we, as a citizen’s group, have standing to come before councils, boards and commissions and demand an accounting. There has to be some accountability for how this money is used. Literally tens of billions of dollars are given away every year under these redevelopment grants, and it’s typically a very shadowy, opaque process.

Two years ago, we joined forces with the North Bay Labor Council, the building trades, housing advocacy groups, environmental groups and others to form the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, looking at a broader picture of a sustainable and equitable economic development.

We wanted to find a project where we could interject ourselves early on and make a difference, because what normally happens is that people don’t get wind of things until they’re practically a done deal; by the time it’s been endorsed by the planning commission and approved by the city council, it’s too late. And people feel frustrated because their government is not responsive.

There was a $100 million project proposed for downtown Santa Rosa, revitalizing the downtown — the anchor depot for the SMART train. A couple members of our coalition were on the SMART train campaign committee, and they said, this is a project where we should get involved.

The old can become the new

So we got in early on. We lobbied the public officials involved, we held a number of forums and public events to educate people. As a result of close to a year and a half of lobbying work, public education, op-ed writing and lots of groundwork, our group was able to produce an excellent Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA.

For us it’s been very encouraging. It’s proof that this kind of coalition-building works.

Rex: And without that broad network of contacts, you wouldn’t have had allies on the SMART board giving you the heads-up.

NEWS: Exactly. I think it’s really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years — the housing groups have been doing it, the Sierra Club and the environmental groups. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.

We’re very disciplined; we all walk in, half a dozen of us, we’ll get our speaker cards all in a row, we’ll have caucused with each other so we don’t just get up there and rant about the same thing; each of us is touching on a different point. So they know that these guys mean business. We have material to give them; we’ll be lobbying them. We’ve become hard to escape (laughs) and that’s our goal.

Rex: What are the biggest challenges you face going forward?

NEWS: Currently we’re working to pass a living wage ordinance in Petaluma, which is going to mean negotiating with some of the council conservatives. That’s a difficult process, but I actually think we’re succeeding with that.

Our ultimate goal with that is to pass a countywide living wage ordinance; our biggest opposition in that comes from the Chambers of Commerce, who, at least on the national and state levels, if not the local levels, are dominated by free-market fundamentalists who are ideologically opposed to intervention in labor markets.

In terms of our accountable development work, it’s a constant challenge to hold the coalition together.

One of the places it’s easy for the coalition to break apart is between labor and the environmentalists. The people in the building council — they want to see construction going on. And there are certain elements in the environmental movement who, if it involves pouring concrete, they’re “agin’” it. And so our environmental allies kind of have to keep a wing of their own constituency in check.

What we’re trying to do is move away from this idea of environmentalism as preservationism, toward an idea that environmentalism is more of a strategy that involves what we call smart growth. As long as the population’s growing, there’s going to be growth; the real issue is if it’s going to be intelligently designed and economically viable.

We’re working as a coalition to try to encourage that city-center, infill kind of development, concentrating development along the 101 corridor. So we have our internal work of selling parts of the environmental community on this vision, as opposed to stopping everything they can, a strategy that has historically diminished their power. If people’s only options are unreasonable people who will oppose any project, no matter how socially valuable, or the right-wing guys who will approve it, you’re forcing people into their camp.

We need to provide an intelligent alternative that involves not just approving anything that comes along but looking at whether it meets certain criteria. We try to establish those criteria and make it part of the public conversation. I think that’s a real challenge for us.

Our internal meetings can be pretty fierce. But we try to iron it out behind the scenes so that when we do step forward publicly we’re speaking with a united voice.

Rex: How do you manage to get so much done with so little?

NEWS: Marty Bennett is a driven man. (laughs) He’s 24/7 and brings me along in tow. We have quite a bit of volunteer help; a number of members of the coalition put time and energy into helping us with our lobbying projects or helping us with our materials.

To really get up to speed we need to hire a Spanish-speaking organizer; that’s the missing piece for us organizationally. So much of our work in support of the low-wage worker organizing is with the Latino immigrant community, and it would be really good if we could get someone who’s bilingual and bicultural. I’m not that person.

And at some point we’d like to get a development director, or a consultant that we could hire, because it’s very time-consuming. Marty puts a lot of time into it and I help him, but the funding thing is a whole world in itself, and personally I prefer putting my energy into the organizing part rather than the fundraising.

“In my personal experience, I have found that coalitions of interests working together to create community change make the most difference,” says board member John Leopold, who first brought NEWS to the Rex Foundation’s attention several years ago.

John had worked on living-wage issues with a group called Working Partnerships in Silicon Valley, and seen for himself the results that could be achieved when local community groups figured out common goals and worked together. Thus he was intrigued by the fledgling organization’s Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma project. NEWS was achieving remarkable results with very little — and, like many small grassroots groups in outlying areas, it faced a very uncertain future, to the point where a well-timed small grant from Rex could make the difference between surviving and not surviving.

“They were having a hard time getting the attention of funders,” John recalls, “because Sonoma County isn’t considered a major urban area; it wasn’t considered on the front line of the effort to change the way local government treated its workers, or the people it contracts with, their workers, or environmental concerns. But to me they were doing very interesting work. That was a good match with Rex, because so much of what we’ve funded in the past is activity that’s going to benefit many people, where our money can make a big difference, and maybe they haven’t attracted mainstream funding. I thought it was an excellent marriage of interests to create positive change for the community.”

At John’s suggestion, Rex made a grant to the Living Wage Coalition in 2003. Three years later, he says, NEWS’ success in putting together the Accountable Development Coalition and in winning major community benefits as part of the SMART train development were a perfect fit for more Rex support on several fronts. “What impressed me was that they were leveraging the work we had already funded,” he explains. ”They were bringing together the coalitions they had formed around the living wage campaign in Sonoma County to create a larger coalition around community benefits with this SMART train station: Environmental issues, human rights issues, worker rights issues, and transportation issues. Within the SMART train activity were issues we’d supported individually in the past, and here it was all wrapped together.”

The coalition NEWS has helped spearhead has not only produced some short-term victories for the community, says John; the entire process has served as a model for future collaborations. He says, “There are several benefits to the local area: the actual construction and jobs that are created; the environmentally friendly way it’s going to be created, which has a long-term community impact; the fact that everybody who works there is going to get paid a livable wage, that has ripples. But it also becomes an important activity for the community to say: These are the values we care about as a community. So when it’s building the next office park, the next highway or the next school, these are issues that have been identified and supported by a broad base in the community. The ripple effects are that it will affect other projects in the area that will hopefully impact lots of different people, outside the ones directly impacted by just this one train station.

“One of the interesting things that could potentially flow from this is that they’ve brought more people into the coalition around these issues. Once you’ve got a county supervisor who’s worked with this coalition on these various issues, when you come to them and say, now we’d like you to support a living wage initiative at the county level, they’ve already been won over. They’ve already supported that kind of activity, and that will make it a lot easier to leverage this kind of work to the next level of NEWS’s community work.

“To me, people working together is always more powerful than people working separately. When you’ve got, for example, the building trades and the environmentalists and the progressive students working together, you’ll be able to do a lot more things once people have the experience of working together. You’ll find a lot of common goals.”

Suggested Reading

Ben Boyce Recommends:

The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right, By Rabbi Michael Lerner

A look at the rift between the political left and the faith-based world, and how it might be mended.

The Great American Jobs Scam. By Greg LeRoy

An exposé of how vast sums of public money are handed out to developers in the name of jobs creation and other public benefits, and how little public benefit actually results.

“Maximum Support for Raising the Minimum”

Pew Research Center report on increasing bipartisan support for raising the minimum wage.

“Minimum Wage Lowest in 50 Years”

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised for nine years, a period in which Congress voted itself pay raises totaling close to $35,000 a year.

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Food for Change

Buy Local, Buy Fresh at Oakland’s People’s Grocery
By David Large

"We envision a future model for the organization in which a farm and a grocery store work together as one whole. This will be an innovative model in reformulating the role of a grocery to become both a central hub of wellness services and of food systems localization."

Since the 1970s, many of us have come to think of more than taste and convenience in considering food — nutrition and health have also become key issues. But they're not the only added concerns.

In recent years, spurred by the growth of the organic food movement, the food supply system — where the food we eat comes from and who benefits from its production and sale — has been linked to the larger issues of community control, access, sustainability, and environmental health. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, People’s Grocery, a Rex grantee in 2005, is at the forefront of this new consciousness.

Gathering spot near the People's Grocery chicken coop.

People’s Grocery is a community-based organization working to find creative solutions to the nutritional needs of Oakland’s residents by building a local food supply system and economy. Believing that “food justice” precedes food availability, they focus on the issues of food supply and quality as grassroots organizing tools for community building, self reliance, socially-responsible enterprise growth, youth entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture, and health in the largely low-income community of West Oakland, an area currently served by 40 liquor stores but just one grocery.

People’s Grocery staff members grow produce in urban garden plots, then sell it out of a mobile market van that makes regular stops at local senior and community centers. They also operate an after-school snack program in 10 Oakland schools; they hire and train local youth to farm urban gardens and operate the market van, and to participate in interactive workshops for their peers on topics such as nutrition, food-related disease, and the health and environmental issues surrounding the fast-food industry.

Recently Rex talked with Brahm Ahmadi, who along with Malaika Edwards and Leander Sellers founded People’s Grocery in 2003.

Brahm Ahmadi

Rex: What was your initial inspiration for this project, and why did you choose West Oakland?

PG: Two other local residents and I started People’s Grocery after observing that limited access to nutritious and affordable foods in the West Oakland community was having significant impacts on the health and quality of life of its low-income residents. Seeking to stem the tide of diet-related chronic diseases in our community, we developed People’s Grocery to address local food security and related health issues, while also addressing the local need for economic development and youth training and employment.

My personal inspiration for launching People’s Grocery was rooted in a desire to shift away from a type of activism that was focused on fighting against problems rather than working for solutions. I was burning out from a model of confrontational activism that seldom had tangible results. I wanted to do something that had results I could see and feel and point at. Working around food seemed an obvious choice.

I also wanted to transform my lifestyle to live healthier and be closer to the basic elements of the planet: land, food and water. My inspiration also evolved out of interests in the subjects of community economic development, cooperative business and economics, urban planning and sustainable agriculture.

Rex: Could you envision having People’s Grocery in other communities? If so, what factors would you consider in deciding whether or not to pursue involvement in a given community?

PG: Although the staff and board of People’s Grocery have discussed the subject of expansion/replication, we have not felt that this is really a relevant concern for the current stage of the organization. People’s Grocery is still a small organization with limited capacity. And while we are building our capacity at an accelerated rate, the needs in West Oakland alone require everything the organization is able to muster. This will likely continue to be the case for a while and we are committed to ensuring that we establish a strong foundation for change in this community before considering any expansion.

Also, it is not a value of ours to replicate ourselves in the traditional franchise sense. Rather, we believe in honoring each community's autonomy and unique characteristics that derive from place, culture, history and local sensibilities. Thus, if we ever choose to pursue expanding our efforts beyond our community, we will utilize an approach that adapts our model to the unique needs and ideas of those locations.

We also value community control and would not want to pursue creating a national organization, but rather a type of cooperative network of autonomous entities working together.

People's Grocery staff.

Rex: How do you acquire plots of land suitable for urban gardening?

PG: We gain access to all of the land we farm through partnerships. We partner with residents, organizations and schools to establish gardens. Partnering saves money and brings value to the garden through greater capacity. Our current partnerships are with the North Oakland Land Trust, the local YMCA, Spiral Gardens, Ralph Bunche Middle School and Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE).

The fact that we don’t own any of the land we work is a vulnerability — we are always at risk of losing land in the future. The North Oakland Land Trust does, fortunately, present the opportunity for some long-term security, and we are interested in expanding the land trust model to ensure the longevity and continuity of our urban gardens.

Rex: What do you think helped influence both the younger and older members of the community to want healthier foods rather than the “junk food” they had been buying before? Why is this happening now rather than before People’s Grocery got involved?

PG: People want to have healthier lifestyles for one primary reason: to avoid suffering for themselves and their families. West Oakland is a community that has been severely impacted by chronic disease. Heart disease is currently the # 1 killer, with diabetes coming in second. We believe an epidemic of diet-related diseases is devastating this and many other communities.
This experience, coupled with an increasing number of efforts to educate people about healthy eating, is resulting in a shift in low-income consumers’ attitudes. This shift is also associated with an emerging desire to experience a higher quality of life through proactive measures. We categorize these consumers as the “emergent shoppers,” which means that many low-income people are at a threshold for changing their lifestyles and desire a healthier, more active and vital way of living.

Every low-income person carries core aspirations for a better life. Diet, healthy eating and expanded food choices are being recognized as legitimate ways of achieving this.

Another significant factor here in West Oakland has been the reaction against local liquor stores, which culminated in the burning of two stores. These events made it publicly acceptable to criticize the prevalence of unhealthy food sources and demand better ones. While little has transpired on the side of city government in response to this, non-profit organizations such as People’s Grocery are seizing the newly opened door to engage in a conversation about changing the way people eat and live.

People's Grocery staff in the mobile market van, which sells fresh produce at local community and senior centers.

Rex: Your promotional materials make it clear that your work is about much more than just “better eating,” that the inadequacies of the local food supply become a symbol for much larger issues of community-building and self-esteem, of “food justice” and personal growth for young people. Can you elaborate on how you see these issues connected?

PG: The modern industrial food system is replete with social and economic inequities that disproportionately impact poor people on both ends of the food chain: producers and consumers.

The perpetuation of cheap prices for global food commodities is inherently dependent on government subsidies and the exploitation of human labor. The working conditions of global food production are often inhumane and deplorable. For those of us here in California, the sight of immigrant laborers working in difficult conditions is not uncommon. The current model of food production depends on cheap labor precipitated by unjust production practices.

Simultaneously, here in the U.S., there is severe inequity in the distribution of food, to the extent that many low-income communities, urban and rural alike, are faced with severe limitations in accessing better food. Across the entire country hundreds of communities have the same experience: too few outlets for quality, fresh foods, too many outlets of liquor, candy, and unhealthy, processed foods.

With severely limited access to healthier foods, poor people have little choice but to consume foods that are low in nutrition, high in saturated fats and sugar, and loaded with synthetic chemicals. The result is an epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, infertility, and cancers.

Because People’s Grocery understands the dynamic of inequity and social injustice in the industrial food system, we insert social justice and human rights at the center of our movement for change in the food system. From this understanding comes the concept of “food justice” — the belief that all people, regardless of social and economic constraints, have a right to access to healthy foods at all times.

The organic food industry has arisen in astounding success in response to the environmental destruction precipitated by industrialized agriculture. This is a necessary and important movement. However, organic foods are not easily available or affordable to many poorer consumers. Thus, we are beginning to see a two-tiered food system in which the affluent have access to healthy and high quality foods, while the poor only have poor quality and unhealthy foods.

The food justice movement is a response to this development in the organic food system — while we support the growth of organic and sustainably produced foods, we want to ensure that social justice is also central to the production model so that both workers and poor consumers benefit from the organic industry’s growth.

Finally, food justice is an approach grounded in traditions of grassroots organizing that are linked to many social justice movements across the world. Food justice is an approach to change that places those most affected by the problems at the center of leadership and voice. Thus change comes from the grassroots level and is not led by external entities using charity models that do not facilitate self-reliance over time. The inclusion of poor people, especially youth, in building a more just food system is the best approach for creating long-lasting solutions.

People's Grocery has regularly scheduled work days in its gardens, and community members are invited to come and help out.

Rex: What have been the most challenging issues you have faced in getting your organization to where it is now?

PG: There are three primary challenges we have faced: funding, staff and knowledge.
As with most nonprofits, the staff of People’s Grocery is constantly faced with the anxiety of having to maintain funding. Over the last several years the organization’s growth has really strained the fundraising abilities of its founders. Periodic layoffs and suspension of programs have occurred. Yet the organization continues to survive and show promise for gaining a stronger financial footing in the future.

The problem of finding, recruiting and retaining quality workers has also been a challenge.
The final challenge of knowledge has been related to the staff and board, and the founders in particular having to constantly learn new systems and techniques relevant to the new stages of growth of the organization. For example, the founders are activists with no background in business. The learning curve has been steep and holds the prospect of continuing to be steep for quite a while.

Rex: Where do you hope to go next with the project?

PG: People’s Grocery’s mission is to build a local food system that improves the health and economy of the West Oakland community. Our primary strategy for creating a local food system is to grow a chain of production, distribution, and educational activities into an integrated network.

The future goals of the organization are to engage in activities that are spread out across the entire food chain. On the one hand we will increasingly become a producer of food by developing urban gardens and micro-farms in the local area. Eventually we hope to develop a larger farm that can make direct linkages back to our activities in West Oakland. And on the other hand the organization will increasingly become a low-cost distributor and retailer of healthy foods in West Oakland. This will primarily take the shape of a cooperative grocery store and wellness village in which food is placed at the center of personal and community health.

We envision a future model for the organization in which a farm and a grocery store work together as one whole. This will be an innovative model in reformulating the role of a grocery to become both a central hub of wellness services and of food systems localization. The grocery and farm together will become a model for how a new food system might look — one in which there is a closer relationship between the producers and consumers of food in a local region. And all of this will be supported by a foundation of education and social marketing focused on engaging residents in transforming their lifestyles towards healthier living and engaging them as participants in forming a local food supply system.

Rex: What else would you like our readers to know about the issues facing the West Oakland community?

PG: An important challenge facing the West Oakland community right now is gentrification — the influx of more affluent populations drawn to the community for its rising real estate values and its ideal location. While an influx of more affluent populations will strengthen the economy and facilitate much-needed development, it also poses the risk of displacing many low-income residents who cannot afford to live in these new conditions.

The challenge before us is to facilitate community development that celebrates and welcomes the new residents while ensuring that existing residents are also honored and included. Our hope is that West Oakland’s future is one of true multiculturalism in which all residents of diverse backgrounds can live productively together. Such a vision has many positive attributes for a future food system in which all cultural traditions are honored.

People's Grocery mobile market worker Aswad, with kids of PG staff members.

Aswad, working the mobile market van out of a park in Oakland, pats two little kids on the head as they pick up two bags of organically grown corn chips. He’s 27, with two young children, and was formerly unemployed. Now he’s “the man” for those kids, and for the adults that he hopes will follow this day.

His enthusiasm for the work is infectious. When we asked him what he has gotten out of his work with People’s Grocery, he responded, “Getting close to the earth and helping people get better food is good, and I’ve learned to focus.”
Aswad is just one of several young people in West Oakland that this organization has helped as they in turn help their community.

"Every low-income person carries core aspirations for a better life. Diet, healthy eating and expanded food choices are being recognized as legitimate ways of achieving this."

Additional Resources
To learn more about the environmental, health and economic implications of our corn and petroleum-based industrial food system, we recommend Michael Polllan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (The Penguin Press, 2006).

Another great read is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
To find markets nearest you that specialize in locally produced, fresh foods, go to http://www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarketsfarmersmarkets.

For a quick guide on how to eat right, and other interesting articles on related subjects, see the "Eating Smart" section on Time's Web site.

Buying produce that is in season is always preferable to buying items shipped from distant growers. Search the Internet for a seasonality chart that applies to your area: for northern California go to www.cuesa.org/seasonality.

Other recent Rex grantees that have food-related programs are NextCourse (2006), Organic Farming Research Foundation (2005), Sustainable Fishery Advocates (2005), Californians for GE-Free Agriculture (2005), and Community Harvest (2005). Descriptions of these programs and others can be found on the Rex Web page under the “Grants and Awards” link.

"The current model of food production depends on cheap labor precipitated by unjust production practices."

Rex Board Perspective
The idea to fund People’s Grocery came from Sandy Sohcot, Rex’s Executive Director, who says:
“I first heard about People’s Grocery about a year ago. A friend and I were discussing various issues related to providing greater accessibility to healthy food. At the time I was talking about my daughter Hilary's work in the Bayview/Hunters Point district of San Francisco in conjunction with her Community Fellowship work at the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. Hilary's project involved analyzing why there were not more food choices in these communities and identifying strategies for increasing access to healthy food. As a Commissioner on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, I was also interested in this issue. As I related this to my friend, she suggested checking out People's Grocery as an example of a community-based program addressing these issues.

“With this introduction, I did my own research, including talking with people who were familiar with the program from their own funding research and work in Oakland. It became clear to me that People’s Grocery was a program that was doing work consistent with the Rex Foundation’s mission.”

Rex believes that the “food justice” movement has legs. Programs like that of People’s Grocery are springing up in communities all over the world. The author Michael Pollan (see above) explains it this way: “…food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalization poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity.” We’re glad to have had the opportunity to make a contribution to this movement.

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