Every business should look to the emerging field of community development for tools that will help to grow their corporate culture.

Every community should look to successful business examples of internal cultural development for the techniques that work to establish consensus.

Steps that work:

1 – Ask questions, don’t presume solutions.

Too often external consultants presume that they know what’s best for a group of people – in an organization, community, or corporate environment.  The first and best practice should always be to assess first, analyze later.

2 – The solutions are always within the group.

Group dynamics are the same wherever humans gather.  The process itself is the solution – too often people sit through ineffective meetings where the same things are regurgitated, the same people dominate the conversation, and the leaders don’t know how to lead.  I guarantee you that there is a solution to any problem within any group that has organized around a collective purpose.

3 – Never underestimate the importance of politics.

Human emotions and relationships are irrational.  All fields of study attempt to categorize irrational behavior into sequential and logical portions – that’s a large part of the human quest for knowledge.  We’re doing a great job.

There are always unknown relationships at play.  Step back, hold the big picture (the mission of the group), and know that the process will never go as fast as you would like it to go.  Don’t tell anyone else to do the same thing – when you encounter frustration (or other negative emotions), make time to listen and understand the layers under the surface.

4 – Find shared purpose, and hold on tight.

Why do people organize into communities?  Why do we decide to work for one business and not another?

The answers always come back to shared values. To effectively manage any group, you must constantly remind the participants of the benefits of their involvement.

Studs Terkel said something to the effect that communities form where there is shared action with purpose.  Whenever we get together to accomplish something, we have formed a community.

The largest question that remains:  What do we want to accomplish?


I write to discover.

One June morning in 2008, like all the other mornings that year, I went to Dolores Park to write. I lived in a flat on 19th Street, just a few doors down from Dolores Avenue. Proximity meant I could spend a lot of time in the park. Each day, I would walk with my dog a few blocks to Phil’s to get my coffee, then head back to sit in the park while my dog ran around, sniffing, pissing, and smiling at me with his tongue lolling.

The sun almost always shines on Dolores Park. I was told that there are 37 distinct microclimates in the forty-six-square-mile area that encompasses San Francisco, but the exact number is often debated. I know that Dolores Park is the best one.

I write to observe.

The weather patterns in the city occur too frequently to be overlooked – each day that famous fog rolls in from Ocean Beach, through Golden Gate Park, and heads East towards the Bay. The fog climbs Twin Peaks, and dissipates as it reaches the Mission. The chill dampens the air, and settles in pockets in some low areas. This phenomenon occurs every day, it seems. Almost every day the sun shines on Dolores Park, even when it is cloudy and cold in other places in that small, crowded and unique city.

I have read that Dolores Park was originally a Jewish cemetery, although the bodies were moved over a century ago. The park provided refuge to the victims of the 1906 earthquake. The full name is Mission Dolores Park – its namesake, Mission Dolores, was the first mission on the peninsula that marked the end of the long journey of the Franciscan monks along the California coast from San Diego.

Spanish architecture surrounds the park, and palm trees dot its landscaping, piercing the sky with green explosions that resemble fireworks in bloom. There are tennis courts, a playground, and the J streetcar line runs through the park.

This particular June morning was a Sunday. I couldn’t stay in bed through the sunshine, so I came to the park to drink coffee and slow hangover’s ascent on my brain. I brought my journal and pens, thinking I would write on my unfinished novel. I wanted to work on a scene that happens a few days after the funeral, where the characters have just begun to realize that they have to face life without someone they relied upon completely.

I write to reflect.

As I walked up the hill to take my place near the top – there is a picnic table just near the statue of Hidalgo, and he and I can share the panoramic view of the city and its bridges. I headed for the table, and saw the group of people gathered on the median of the sidewalk.

At nine in the morning on a Sunday, few people are in the park yet. San Francisco is a bit lazy, and likes to sleep in – but this particular Sunday, a group of people had a well-planned picnic already in progress before even the churchgoers had made it out of the house. Big linen sheets blocked off a wide space that comfortably held twelve people with ample space for more. Three small wooden tables held carafes of orange juice, champagne bottles, and plastic cups. A radio was playing Enya – “sail away, sail away, sail away,” and the members of the group were gazing off into the distance.

What struck my alcohol-addled brain first was their location within the park – why would they pick the median of the sidewalk, when the wide expanses of green lawns were available? There was no competition for space at this time of the day – there would be later, when the hipster picnics were so crowded together that walking through the park became an exercise in dodging drunks and hula-hoopers. Now, there were only a few people scattered around – what would make this group of people, who prepared this picnic so well, choose to seat themselves sandwiched on a thin slice of lawn between two large slabs of concrete sidewalk?

I write for myself.

I sat down at my picnic table, and gave a quick salute to Hildago’s statue. I had a good view of the Enya picnic club, and I figured I could pretend to write a little bit, sip my coffee, and spy on the people while I finished waking up. My dog had spotted canine friends and taken off. I pretended to focus on the dog, while trying to investigate the puzzle of the picnic spot.

The members of the picnic group were in their mid-to-late-thirties, it appeared. Mostly coupled up, with a couple of loose singles. Well-dressed, expensive-without-being-ostentatious sunglasses. Nice clothes – a little too nice to just be park-casual, a little more like church-casual. A little too nice for the setting, but no one seemed bored. On the contrary, each member seemed to be attentive around the needs of one man. He sat between two other people, and they nodded deeply and leaned in close while rubbing his back. I was too far from the group to make out any words, and relying on body language to solve this puzzle.

The man at the center of attention slumped forward. His shoulders heaved up and down with sobs, and his friends held him close. Ahhhh, I thought – this must be soon after a funeral. Maybe a week or so after the death – the friends are here for this man, who must have lost his partner. The newness of the death has worn off for everyone but the lover – they have done their crying, it would seem, and are here to help this man to grieve. I assume that he was gay, since the majority of the couples here are as well. This group has known each other for a while – this is not a casual gathering. These are good friends – they give him their full attention, and they give him time and space. Casual acquaintances would not make it to the park at nine on a Sunday morning.

I write to feel.

As the group centered around this one man, I imagined their life together. I thought of the place that they had lived, going through the exercise that couples do. Shopping for furniture, making meals, throwing parties. Holidays, family drama, fights. Tears, laughter, sex. I hope they had sex on all the furniture in the house, I thought. He is crying because he didn’t know at the time that these things wouldn’t be forever. It is easy to assume that the fairytale has been won – there will be plenty of happily-ever-after yet to come. Now his dreams have come crashing down – this man loved deeply, and I am watching his heart break and shatter a thousand times. I see the rawness here, and I imagine the feeling – how the heart is ripped open, raw like a wound scrubbed with salt, aching with a pain that is physical and emotional and spiritual torment, a torture of mind, body, and soul.

At this point I have been watching this group for almost an hour, writing in my journal about my characters who are dealing with their imaginary lives after the imaginary funeral. I am crying while I watch these loving people, for them, for my characters, and for the people I know well who have lost children, spouses, and lovers. The members of the group have noticed me watching, but my tears buy me access to this small community. My voyeurism is allowed, because I share in the grief. Sadé sings from the small radio, “do you think I’d leave you down when you’re down on your knees/I wouldn’t do that.”

A couple of the members have revealed themselves to be the leaders – they must have organized this gathering, I think. They look at each other, one tilting his head as if asking a question. A slight nod is returned, and the nod is mirrored by the questioner. A decision has been made – they both rise, and make an announcement to the group. The group rises in agreement. Someone has been blocking my view – now I see the reason that they have gathered in the park in this strange spot by the sidewalk. A shovel is stuck into a mound of dirt adjacent to a sapling that has been recently planted in a hole. The hole is waiting to be filled in – clarity dawns in my addled brain – they have gathered to dedicate a tree to the memory of their friend. Fresh tears pour down my face with this realization.

I write to believe.

The group organizes themselves in a circle around the sapling, the dirt mound, and the shovel. I count – twelve of them. One is making a speech, his hands restrained – I imagine him to normally be a bouncy and bubbly person, and it looks like he is attempting to be sedate with the gravity of the occasion. He points at another member of a small group, giving a respectful nod of acknowledgement – the other members clap, and I realize that she must have organized the planting of the tree. Ready? Hand signals, thumbs-up, nods – they are going to begin.
Each member of the group in turn takes the shovel and delivers a small heap of dirt from the mound to the hole, and hands off the shovel to the next person. There is weight in ritual, and almost everyone in the group is crying now. I think about the metaphors at play within these actions – this park is a gathering place saturated in San Francisco history. Surely this group of people shared memories here with this now-dead lover. This picnic must be reminiscent of the times before, the moments that in the future will be shared around this tree, a living memory that grows down into the earth as it reaches to the sky. The planting is a new ritual, a tribute where each member of this small tribe can place their grief into the soil so that death can give birth to new life.

I write to pray.

After each member of the group has spooned a shovelful of dirt onto the roots of the young tree, the last one uses his foot to push the shovel back into the mound so that the shovel does not fall. The handle is straight, like a flagpole.

A robin lands on the top of the shovel’s blade. The bird has flown between members of the circle, directly to his target. He stands comfortably on his perch in the sunshine at the center of the group, twisting his head and looking around at each member. The group has begun hugging and holding each other, beginning the process of drawing the ritual to a close. Small bits of tension-breaking laughter break out among the group as tears are wiped from eyes.
A couple of people in the circle have noticed the bird’s abnormal behavior – it seems strange for a bird to fly into this place, at this time – and are nudging each other, pointing at the bird.

Quickly the circle of friends is quiet again, watching the bird.

The bird is looking at each member in turn, making sure that its actions are witnessed. The robin steps gingerly, rotating himself in a full circle by repositioning each foot in turn – he pauses to look at each person in the circle, tilting his head slightly up at one moment and to the side at the next. The bird makes direct eye contact. Members of the group pull cameras out of bags, and photograph the bird, who remains on his perch at the edge of the shovel. A couple of the group’s members glance over at me, eyebrows raised as if to say – Are you seeing this? I nod slowly, wide-eyed in wonder.

I glance at the clock on my phone – a few minutes have elapsed since the bird has landed, and I want to keep an honest record of this robin’s visit in the group. It is 10:22 on Sunday morning. My dog has joined me at some point, and he looks up at me, panting happily in the sun.

As I look up from my phone and back to the group, I see the robin hop down to the base of the roots of the sapling that has just been covered with dirt. The top of the robin’s head is barely visible over the rim of the hole, peaking up and disappearing down twice in a row. After the third nod down, the robin pops up holding a worm in his mouth. He flies briefly back up to his perch on the shovel, holding the worm in his mouth. He stands there with his worm, twisting his head, making eye contact with members of the circle. Slowly he makes a rotation, looking at each member of the group in turn. The people are silent now, cameras forgotten at their sides, watching this bird.

We watch in silence. I am in awe. Tears stream down my face – I laugh out loud as I wipe them away. Some members of the group have linked arm in arm, leaning on each other as we watch the bird. Others have gone back to their cameras, and are recording the bird. I look down at my phone’s clock. It is 10:31.

Around us, the park has come alive. A few dozen dogs are visible, catching Frisbees and balls, marking trees and buildings with urine, and sniffing body parts. Picnics have begun to sprout like mushrooms throughout the park – blankets are laid out, sips are taken from bottles inside brown bags, and the mingled sounds of laughter and chatter can be heard from all directions. A faint smell of marijuana whiffs to my nose from an unknown source, mingling with the smell of freshly-mowed grass, flowering trees, and a trace of dog shit.

The robin stayed on the shovel until 10:37, when he flew away, still holding the worm in his mouth. The group of friends broke the circle, and began to hug each other, say goodbyes, and gather their possessions. One of the members waved goodbye to me, and I waved back.

I write to bear witness.

I’m excited about the US Social Forum in June – they’re hosting it in Detroit. http://ussf2010.org/about – I’ve got to figure out if this is the one that I want to go to. A lot of really good conferences are taking place in Detroit this year, as people figure out that Detroit will be the key to America’s sustainable future.

Detroit’s Green Map – http://www.detroitgreenmap.org/ – is pretty cool. I’m excited to see that these different businesses and folks are working the movement.

The New Republic has a sweet article at http://www.tnr.com/article/metro-policy/the-detroit-project – about the ways in which Detroit’s urban strategy needs to be shaped. Race relations is at the heart of the issue, but the article doesn’t really touch that. It comes from a more European-urban-planning perspective of creating viable urban centers, but I think any conversation about America’s urban core needs to include race.

We’re a nation of immigrants – the ancestors of both the voluntary and in the involuntary. The ancestors of the involuntary have not fared as well as their voluntary counterparts. One can view Natives in a similar way, since very few Natives were allowed to keep their ancestral land and were forced into a sort of involuntary migration. I don’t want to dwell too much on Native issues, because this article is about Detroit. It seems (to me) to be fair to say that one can hold most of the issues of the “involuntary (im)migrants” under the umbrella of “cultural assimilation”.

I’ve been writing for a class about the Oak Park Strategy. My home town of Oak Park, IL is cited throughout Urban Studies and Race Relations case studies as an example of successful integration. In the 1960s there was a huge wave of migration throughout the country as tensions flared in rural areas over forced segregation. Lots of black folks moved into urban centers, and the American ghetto was born. I use the term in a somewhat archaic context – an impoverished area, racially divided from other sectors of a city.

I grew up a few blocks from Austin – one of Chicago’s worst ghettos. I was told that I should avoid it, so my first exploratory mission into Austin occurred when I was in kindergarden. I followed a little girl home from school, got lost, and knocked on someone’s door to call my mom. She came to pick me up and brought me back to the safe side of Austin Boulevard – the dividing line between Oak Park and Chicago.

A few years later, she bought a house only a few blocks away from that line. As a teenager, we crossed it to go buy booze – the Arab-run store on the Chicago side would sell us beer. Oak Park was a dry town. It was started by a Prohibitionist who bought a few taverns – just to shut them down.

The Oak Park Strategy was defined by Carole Goodman in her book by the same name. Written in 1979, it outlines how Oak Park successfully engaged on a campaign to “celebrate diversity”.

The village planners saw that Austin was being blockbusted – real estate agents would “bust blocks” by hiring black folks to push strollers up and down streets, and point to them as they convinced “white flighters” to sell. Those panicky white folks would compete with their neighbors to sell their homes, and they got the hell out fast. From 1969 to 1979, Austin went from 99.9% white to 99.9% black.

Oak Park created a marketing campaign to celebrate diversity. A few core players sold the concept successfully to the real estate community, and did some fundraising for a national ad campaign. They successfully solicited the liberal elite, and convinced them to move to Oak Park to raise their families in a diverse and tolerant environment. Previously a Republican town, Oak Park voted Democratic (overall) for the first time in 1984.

I was born in Oak Park Hospital (which sits on Austin Boulevard) in 1980. I grew up in a climate where diversity was discussed. I am still doing some research and working on a list of questions to ask of the people who have a bit more historic perspective than I, but my core experiences have led me to a strong conclusion.

Detroit needs a diversity campaign. Right now, the city is primarily black, and has been for some time. It may not be politically correct to say this, but my perception is that the black social community as a whole exists independently from the white one. When I bought a house and started a business in Austin in 2006, I had to adopt a different set of cultural values.

I am not qualified to offer opinions on Detroit’s culture. It is incredibly arrogant of me to offer an opinion on Detroit’s needs – I have not been to the city since I was a child. I am really excited about contributing to a movement towards a new Detroit, and to the vision of what that future looks like. It will take many years to conceive, and decades to realize.

Chicago experienced some of the largest population growth after the time of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 – I’ve heard it was one of the largest increases that America has ever seen. It was due to the amazing publicity that Daniel Burnham was able to generate for the World’s Fair.

I’ve grown up in these examples, and I want to make that experience relevant. I’m really excited to build this Detroit project into something – my intuition tells me that helping Detroit will ultimately be my life’s great work.

More to come…

At the beginning of this year, I made a pact with a dear friend who had been a roommate in Oakland, California. She’s a therapist, and the center where she was working closed down. I had decided I wanted to work in nature with kids, and I was looking at farm-based educational programs when I came across “Wilderness Therapy Jobs.” I had never heard of such a thing, and I forwarded it over to Kathryn, thinking it might be just the thing to cure her stuck-in-a-rut blues. It didn’t even occur to me that I should apply, until I was dared to do it – “I’ll apply if you do” – and two weeks later, we were on our way to The Last Frontier.

On a cold evening at the end of January, earlier this year, Kathryn and I landed hard in Wrangell, a small island in Southeast Alaska. It was snowing, the runway was icy, and the pilot burnt the rubber of the tires so hard that the cabin of the plane filled with smoke. The whole plane let out nervous laughter – welcome to Wrangell! some folks shouted. I’d made friends with a loud and gregarious woman who spent a full hour telling me all about what a great town we were headed to – she’d moved there with nothing a few years back, and people had been kind and generous from day one. She assured us we’d have no problem finding her in the bar in the future, and offered to watch my dog for me if I needed it.

We were picked up, along with a few other co-workers-to-be, and taken on a quick 4-minute tour of the town – that’s about all it takes. There’s the post office, 2 grocery stores, 3 bars, the museum, and 7 churches, plus however many houses. About 1,800 people live on the island, all told.

That night we ended up at a small gathering, where everyone welcomed us, gave us food, beer, and sang songs while playing guitar. It was a fitting introduction to a town that prides itself on its friendly and hospitable demeanor.

I was there with about 45 other people for staff training, to be field guides in a wilderness therapy program. For seven weeks we’re gone from the world, immersed in the Alaskan (and Canadian) wild lands. We work with kids from all over Alaska, some that have never seen trees before, because they’ve been in the near-Arctic tundra their whole lives, in villages that depend on hunting whales, seals, wolves, caribou, or other animals for survival.

In my experience with kids, I knew that getting them away from their iPods, video games, and families would give them time to think. I knew that the wilderness gives people space – it makes some people nuts for a while – to really consider themselves in the context of a world that is vast and rich beyond our ability to understand it. When I was being interviewed for the job, I was asked if I was familiar with their program and curriculum. “To be honest, I’m excited to get to know it,” I replied, “I think it’s great that you have a program, but I think that the wilderness is the therapy.”

I didn’t really have an understanding of just what it is like to grow up in Alaska – the wilderness is a part of the people there, I believe. It is impossible to pass by the drama of the light – for many months, the only light is that of twilight, as it hovers between dusk and dawn – and to not be affected by the constant variations that are exposed where mountains meet the ocean. I thought that I was going up to teach kids how to be in nature, but in reality, I was going there to teach them how to come back into society.

Over the next six months, I got to know the town quite well. I spent a lot of time with folks that were there to work in the same program, and also got to know many of the locals. I worked a handful of shifts bartending at the Totem Bar over the Fourth of July weekend, the town’s biggest party each year. I got to run my own radio show a few times, playing records and songs from my laptop on dreary rainy Sunday nights. Knowing that we were the only station available on the island was a cool feeling – “you’re stuck with me!” I could imagine folks driving along in their cars, or in lonely cabins out on the winding road that snaked along the perimeter of the island, only to meet its end 20 miles away from town, forcing you to turn around and head right back where you came from.

I had heard elsewhere of the seclusion that comes from living on an island. I learned recently that the words “island” and “isolation” share the same root, and those words played a significant role in my thinking over this year.

I met a man who has spent the past 15 years paddling a rowboat around the islands that dot the ocean waterways of the Southeast. He approached a table where I was drinking beer with a couple of guides – we’d just gotten back from the field, and were full of the nervous energy that must be decompressed by adult company and beverages. He came straight up to the table, wearing his homemade paddling gear – tons of pockets, nothing cotton, many layers, all function and no nod to style – and looked at us each in the eyes in turn quickly, saying, “You men look like a wiiiiillllllld bunch of fellows out for trouble tonight!”

We all had a good laugh, and he told us a couple of crazy tales that I wish I could remember. Up there, the abnormal is completely just a way of life – each visit to the bar or the library (my two main haunts, aside from the houses of friends) offers interactions with people who live on the complete fringes of what I once considered to be American society.

It left me thinking about the nebulous nature of society – we are whatever we think ourselves to be, really. When I would talk to kids who grew up in villages of a couple hundred people that proudly proclaim themselves to be Bloods or Crypts, it would make me nuts. I’ve worked with gang members in Chicago and Oakland. How dare you assume these cultures as if they were your own – you don’t know what they represent to me, or to the people who have lost their loved ones to the insanity and uselessness of gang violence. In a way, it’s the same feeling that I got here in Portland, when I saw a little woodcutting that was hanging for sale in a hippie coffee shop here. It showed a tribal-gear-wearing hippie chick with dreadlocks, tattoos, and piercings facing a generic Native American wearing a blanket, feathers, and with braided hair. The title of the piece was, “The Struggle is the Same.”

No, it’s not.

In February, we were brought to the Chief Shakes Tribal House – an amazing structure that was built in the ancestral ways, without nails, levels, screws – anything but joinery and outstanding craftsmanship. The totem pole that stands in the Smithsonian as the example of the Northwest style was carved in Wrangell. The petroglyphs on the beach near my house were thousands of years old… this island has major history.

Marge Byrd and her niece Norma are Tlinkit, of the Raven Clan, I believe. They wore regalia that they had made, they sang us songs of welcome, and they told us how they had lost their land, their language, and their stories. Marge talked about the impact that it had on her grandchildren to be brought back to Wrangell as adults and finally given names, with a ceremony, to become part of the tribe. It’s something that would normally have happened as children, but they had moved to Seattle and had lost touch with the old ways.

I cried when they thanked us for working with their children. Many of my dreams have totemic symbols and imagery in them, and I felt really connected to this place through my dreams. I told Marge that, and there were tears in her eyes as I hugged her.

On a greater level, I realize, the struggle is the same. My ancestors swept through Europe, conquering tribes and converting people to Christianity. In many ways, my people are responsible for eliminating untold languages, stories, customs, and religions.

Part of the work that I came up to Alaska to do was to understand these forces up close and personal. Some of the places that the kids come from have had their first missionary contact within the past 50 years. Others, like Wrangell, were bought and sold by various colonizing forces. Wrangell proudly states that it is the only town in Alaska to have flown 4 flags – Tlinkit, British, Russian, and American.

There were elements in Wrangell that made me sad. Most of the buildings there are built from imported materials, and (I’m guessing here) less than 1% of the food sold in the grocery store is from local sources. Everything is shipped in, and people leave their trucks running during the summer months out of habit – for 20 minutes while they chat with people. People buy large boats, large trucks, and large houses – it reminds me of the values of suburban America, with a strong Southern flair.

The people of Wrangell are some of the nicest, most kind human beings I have ever met. I was told repeatedly that, “No one will ever starve here. All you have to do is knock on a door around dinner time, they’ll feed you.” Our neighbors would give us freshly caught fish, home-grown vegetables, and other goodies. When asked why they were so generous, they would simply say, “you work with the kids,” and leave it at that. I could never walk the mile down the road to or from town carrying any kind of bag without being offered a ride.

Unfortunately, I’m not going back next year. I came up this year with the promise of work, and I’m still struggling to catch up on my bills. I didn’t work for most of March or April, and I made do on $45 during March. Without the generosity of the people around me, I never could have done it.

There is an organizational mindset that runs through the place that I worked, seeming to devalue their employees. Maybe it’s because they’re the largest employer and source of income for the entire island – there is no one to hold them accountable. The people of that island are some of the kindest, heartiest folks that will band together in a pinch to help each other out – I find it entirely plausible that those people simply don’t look for the dark side in the same way that my city-bred cynicism seeks it.

I talked to a lady who has worked for them for years – she told me that the state passed a Medicaid provider cost-of-living increase a while ago onto the organization, and she’s still waiting for it. She said she went to the head honcho, and he told her that he was “looking into whether or not we have to pass that money along.”

I talked to a guy who got fired after working for them for years. The general consensus in the rumor mill was that he had pushed back, questioning the practices of the company in the ways that they managed risks, logistics, and employees. He was apologetic, and complimented his bosses and co-workers. He said that what made him saddest was the way that the people he had long considered friends had immediately shunned him, and no longer spoke to him any more. I witnessed it, as I sat next to him on the barstool and saw most of the people who worked with us carefully avoid coming close to where we were.

Next year, they want us to pay them to train us on how to do the job we’ve already done. It’s not a lot of money, just $150, but when you add up the other expenses, it becomes a lot. They’re willing to pay us for the classroom time – $10 an hour for 8 hours each day – but once we go into the field for “field training”, we’re supposed to reimburse them for the cost of our food.

Most of the guides don’t live in Wrangell – during the winter, the already suffering economy seems to practically shut down. The fishermen and loggers aren’t working, no construction gets done, and there aren’t any tourists. The few viable service jobs are already taken by locals, and so the nomadic field guides normally go home to spend some time with loved ones in the off-season.

I made the decision to come to Portland. It’s got the west-coast food scene that I missed, plus I figured I could score a cheap room and a tolerable job. It’s worked out well. It’s about as cheap as it gets to fly to Wrangell from here – cheaper than Anchorage, even, although I couldn’t tell you why.

All told, when you combine the extra cost of food, lodging, and airfare, it’ll cost me about $850 to go to training. When you add in the $150 that they’d like me to pay them, it would’ve cost $1,000. In my mind, there’s a great reason why I can’t afford to pay that: I only made $10,000 this year. That even sounds like more than it is – it cost me about $4,000 in airfare, gear, and the Wilderness First Responder training that I was required to get. That means that after netting $6,000 in annual income, I’m supposed to shell out to come back and get trained on how to do the job I’ve already proven I can do?

They also made the decision to cut the pay of their top people who have been their the longest, and to add additional responsibilities to an already-obscene list of things that the Head Guide on each program takes on.

I can definitely understand the reasons behind all of this – organizations need to save money, and it’s good to cut costs. Salaries and pay need to be reviewed, and where things should be adjusted, they should be.

According to my calculations, there are exactly 3 people who were impacted by the cut from the top. Does that really make sense not to grandfather in the salaries of those people in that have demonstrated their ability to implement a really challenging program?

Let’s take a look at the expectations of the employer in this circumstance:

– Work 55 days straight with no breaks (49 days in field, plus 3 days prepping & 3 days closing down)
– Work 16 hour days, more if the kids don’t go to sleep when they’re told (which they certainly don’t always)
– Maintain constant, 24/7 responsibility for the lives of 11 other people in what the Coast Guard considers to
be the harshest climate on the continent
– Write approximately 900-1,500 words of paperwork each day on each kid (amounts to well over a novel for
each guide on each program)
– Implement therapeutic goals in absence of outside involvement, transforming lives of children & setting them
on path to success
– Manage logistics of 49-day wilderness expedition that may include (but is not limited to) hiking in a
rainforest absent trails, canoeing in high-traffic oceanic waterways (about 150 miles from where a lot of
“Deadliest Catch” is filmed), paddling down one of the world’s largest rivers, and climbing a 10,000 foot old
volcano with a glacier on the top of it.

It’s not an easy job, although it is by far and away the most rewarding experience I have ever undertaken. I am so amazed to be a witness to the incredible people who take this on – I would never want to be a head guide for this company. Every time something life-threatening happens, or a kid has “behavior”, it means more paperwork for the head guide – in addition to what has to be already done. All that means is that the guide team gets less sleep. Sleep deprivation is considered to be one of the best forms of torture, but it is assumed that you will sacrifice sleep for paperwork.

During my time doing this, I was being paid $120 a day. That sounds good, except for the 16 hour days… it works out to $7.50 an hour, less than minimum wage in Portland. Let me be very clear – I was thrilled. I was not there for the money, nor was I going to go back for the money – it was all about the experience.

Knowing that they were trying to cut costs, I would certainly be happy to help out, if I could. While I was working for them, I got to see a lot of wasted money – knee-jerk reactions to situations that resulted in thousands of dollars spent on jet boats, float planes, and airfare across Alaska. I personally escorted a kid back home, flying from Wrangell to Anchorage, staying overnight, and coming back – it cost the company $1,400 in airfare and hotel, plus another $200 to pay me – and I wasn’t needed (although that could be debated).

There were so many situations where transportation and administrative costs were pissed down the drain – and it’s really hard to see your employer wasting money and simultaneously telling you that they can’t pay you. It’s even worse to hear that the training is mandatory, and you’ve got to pay for it.

I told them I couldn’t, because of the financial situation I was in, and that I didn’t think it was fair to ask… and they thanked me for the feedback and wished me luck in the future.

I’m sad, because I wish that I could relive that experience. All the excitement of my Alaskan experience – the first time seeing the unending range of mountains that are simply nothing like anything in the lower 48, the experience of getting 9 adolescent boys to sing the Golden Girls theme song together (“Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road and back again”), watching 6 humpback whales fully breach 100 yards from our canoes – scared shitless that they would pop up under our tiny vessels but thrilled with every second of it, making it to the top of the mountain and falling through the glacier, catching myself on the lip of the ice.

There are so many more stories in my head. I know I’ll be back, someday – that town, and that place are forever carved into my mind. I want to paddle on the ocean there again, looking for glacial streams to drink from, eating berries from the bushes while scouting the bear tracks all around, seeing wolves, watching seals, whales, eagles, and ravens playing…

Wrangell, you have given me the monumental, life-changing experience that I sought, in more ways than I could possibly have expected. I learned about community, survival, peace of mind, the benefits of a slow pace, laughter, music, and much more.

I’m sad that I won’t be there this year to share all of that with you. I know that good will come of this, because I’m going to work to take these lessons of the wilderness with me. Thank you for what you’ve taught me – they will stay cherished jewels in my heart forever.

Kathryn and I shared a great experience, coming up to Alaska, and we are heartier people for it. We pushed the limits of what we thought we could endure, and took on greater challenges than we knew we could face. Wrangell became my home in the wilderness, a small town that I looked forward to being in, where she and I were once dubbed the King and Queen of Wrangell karaoke.

As silly as it all is, those songs still play on in my heart.

Detroit is the future of urban gardening, and will be the hub of the green movement.

Check out this great article from 2007 in Harper’s – it does a great job of explaining the cultural context to understand Detroit’s place in the past, present, and future of America.

“Creating this new economy starts by accepting that there are no solutions except the ones we imagine and implement.”

Go back, read that one more time and think about what it means. It’s worth it.

Tiffany sent me a link to an incredibly well-written article that is grounded with all the sense and wisdom that a 94-year-old activist, writer, and educator could attain. I went to the website for the Boggs Center, where I read up on all that this woman has done.

Watching this amazing elder speaking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now is great – her thoughts, her energy, her courage to continue to inspire and motivate the world around her to recognize our place in history is amazing.

When she spoke with Danny Glover, the conversation was more interesting. “Evolution is not only anatomical, but is social and cultural,” she said. “[W]e are now experiencing the collapse of industrial civilization.” I’m really curious to keep reading more about this woman’s work – she’s been in the trenches for decades.

Her discussions sparked a lot of thoughts for me – I’ve been puzzling through the idea of “this whole Detroit thing”. I’m really interested in helping to spark a revolution there, and I guess I’m just not ready to pack up my bags and move over to Detroit. At least not yet. In the mean time, I’d like to get involved, and I want to inspire other people to act.

That’s a big part of the idea of the Superhero Action Project – helping people to find their inner Superhero and to take Action. I think the idea of projects works really well for people, since that’s the way that my generation seems to work. We take on projects – a documentary film, an internship, a consulting gig – I look at my restaurant job as a project. It’s something I do now for a variety of reasons, but seeing it as a project allows it to have a conclusion. Used to be, folks thought in terms of careers… now we think projects.

So embracing this – what can I do from Portland to help out Detroit?

I think I’d like to sell t-shirts and seeds.

How will that help, you say?

The Boggs Center has these dead-sexy shirts – plain black or red with white lettering that says


on it – because revolution is evolution, get it?

I think it would be really neat to sell seeds that we can send to Detroit, and to sell garden equipment that we can send there – to get people to donate their old gardening supplies would be awesome. I’m sure that people could use them – and seriously, is there anything better that could happen there than more vegetables going in the ground? Screw federal bailouts – let’s pay poor people to grow themselves food. Grace Lee Boggs has been mobilizing youth to plant community gardens for years – let’s send them the supplies to keep doing more.

Grace Lee Boggs, you have reminded me that we are in the middle of the revolution that began in the 1960s, and I thank you for that. Because I was born into this time, it is hard for me to know the historical context of my surroundings – but thank god for great history teachers. In hundreds of years, when decades are explained away in small sentences and no longer even merit paragraphs, much less pages, they will write of this time as one of great change.

“May you live in interesting times.” – old curse.

Here we are people, in the middle of a great revolution. You are a Superhero, surrounded by turmoil. Victims are all around you – those who need food, water, shelter, and love. The villains are behind gates and security devices, guarded day and night by hired professionals – they are the same ones who took federal bailouts to rake in huge profits… What do you do?

Thank you to a living Superhero. Thank you, Grace Lee Boggs, for reminding me of how I want to spend my life – who I want to be when I reach 94 years of age. Thank you for modeling the behavior of what it means to be human.

“What’s to stop us now from turning Detroit — its highly trained engineering talent, its skilled and unskilled workforce desperate for employment, its underutilized production facilities — into the Arsenal of the Renewable Energy Future?

If we did, Detroit could go back to building something America needs. As a nation, we could prove that we can still make things. And while we’re at it, we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.”

Thanks to Julia for sending me this link to Time Magazine’s most recent installment in their Detroit series. It’s clear to me, and to a great many of other people, that this nation needs jobs. Detroit is a prime example of why the quality of the jobs is just as important as quantity. As a nation, are we ready to wake up to the fact that we have an incredibly huge under-educated, under-served urban underclass of people who are very poorly qualified to hold jobs?

This makes me think back to my time living on Chicago’s West side… in a neighborhood that was worse than Detroit’s current 28.9% unemployment. I remember the two-block-long line for jobs when a new dollar store opened up. One politician there said that the unemployment rate of her congressional district was about 60% unemployment – and that was in 2005, when few people recognized we had a problem.

Who is going to go into Detroit and implement Van Jones’ green jobs program? Who is willing to invest time and energy into an area so blighted that there are no services, no food, and no neighbors?

This sounds like a job for some serious superhero action…

More to come. Stay tuned!