Saturday, July 7, 2012

Occupy National Gathering: Reflections and Reconnections

At the Occupy National Gathering in Philly, I ran into friends from Occupy Atlanta whom I’d met months ago while visiting their occupation. Their dedication—and success—in protecting and reviving communities facing foreclosures had left me with the feeling that the movement was learning to dig its hands into the dirt and grow real support at the grassroots level. Only by enacting alternatives can the movement draw people on board, I believed, and still do. Will, an activist passionate about saving homes, said that when people need help, “they call us.” They know they can depend on Occupy. He radiated a beautiful confidence in what his group was doing, which included saving a historic church in a neighborhood called Vine City that a developer was trying to claim.

I slept in that church while in Atlanta, along with other members of the local Occupy movement. The neighborhood was bleak, cast in shades of gray in my memory. Boarded up houses stood stark against the February sky, other victims of a developer and the banks. A 7-11 provided the only food source in town. But the church had been saved, through coordination between activists and the congregation. The bank had caved in to the massive wave of public outrage that would have erupted otherwise. The services were joyous, a place for people to ignite their sense of community and invigorate their own passion to act.

An Occupy member named Big Softy, who I’d met in Atlanta, came to the National Gathering in Philly along with about 10 others. “Remember Vine City?” he asked. “They’re putting in community gardens.” Occupy was working with community members on the project, and everyone was thrilled about it. With 7-11 as their only source of food in the town, people jumped on board to start the project, he said. Rather than depend on corporations for the worst quality food out there, they’ll depend on their own soil and community for the freshest and most nutritious food available.

Occupy Atlanta had also been working on gardens on top of a homeless shelter at Peachtree and Pine streets, and other cooperative endeavors like a bike collective, where trained bike mechanics worked with people staying at the shelter to teach them the skill of bike repair. Participants could take a bike of their own after learning and helping for a time.

At the “Nat Gat,” the concept of saving the commons—or reinstituting them altogether—came up continually. A number of people mentioned Occupy the Farm in California, an effort to grow food for the activist community while standing up for the right to grow our own food. Having land to grow food is a human right, just like having clean air and water. These are only debatable points if we believe that sacrificing human health for corporate profit is acceptable. Our land, water, and air are communal resources by nature, and trying to force them into any other arrangement by law will result only in chaos and destruction.

Taking back our land is a direct action that benefits the community in a very tangible way. Connecting it with the larger effort to reclaim power from corporations allows us to show others why it’s so important, inspiring them to start similar projects. Growing corn, carrots, and broccoli is a radical action if we connect it to the larger story of community sovereignty, so its reach expands beyond our own yard—particularly if we work together as a community to grow our food. When we can depend on each other, we’re far less vulnerable to the corporate system that has exploited us for so long. When we garden for the benefit of the community on land that has been unfairly seized by those who don’t need it, our action becomes all the more radical. A lot of beauty is manifesting now. So if your local Occupy is marching less, ask yourself, what else are they doing instead? And if you see an area of need in your community that no one is fulfilling, consider stepping in, whether it’s protecting homes or starting gardens. In this revolutionary world, we are all models for each other, and you may just create something that inspires a movement just as Occupy Atlanta (and so many others) inspired me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Takoma Village Cohousing Forges Close-Knit Bonds

“It is the most glorious feeling in the world to come home to a place where every person I see is somebody I know,” says Ann Zabaldo of Takoma Village Cohousing in D.C. “No one is a stranger.” Her community, where she has lived for twelve years, has formed into a close-knit family where people recognize one another’s friends and extended family. They celebrate holidays together, have meals together, and constantly teach and learn from each other, she says.

Ann invited me to her apartment, a bright, tidy place with a large stuffed giraffe and a Buddhist altar in the living room. The apartment sat on the second story of the U-shaped complex, above a large common area. Like the other individual units, Ann’s apartment had a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room, a common set-up in cohousing communities, giving members the choice of having privacy or being social. In this respect, a cohousing community can seem fairly mainstream in contrast to some other forms of community living, but the desire for community that brings members together forges close-knit bonds.

While members have their own apartment units—43 total, on 1.34 acres—they share a great deal, such as the common space, regular dinners, and sometimes even cars. They make decisions through a consensus process, and all play a role in the children’s lives.

This mode of living differs sharply from the standard apartment complex, where people often barely know their neighbors, much less share holiday dinners with them. In contemporary American society, “community living” typically refers to life in a nursing home or senior community. After college dorm living, we may go most of our lives without ever living in a community again. However, the communal mode of living is the most natural way of life imaginable, judging by the fact that humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to live together in tribes or villages.  in which everyone depended on one another, in tribes or villages.

People get together to share common interests in Takoma Village, Ann says—everything from singing sea shanties to meditation and exercise. Ann and one of her neighbors meditate together regularly. Others hold a weekly nonviolent communication practice group, practice arts and crafts, and teach Spanish lessons.

“In a lot of ways, we’re like a family without a lot of the issues,” she says. “How lovely to be at a Christmas dinner in which a fight did not erupt,” she laughs.

Living in community has taught Ann to be extremely tolerant, she says. She’s learned to be more flexible about people’s different ways of doing things, and to let go of the desire for strict rules. She’s also learned about nonviolent communication, computers, and meditation through shared learning experiences. After seeing the Dalai Lama with her meditation partner, they became serious about practicing early each morning. In the process, they grew to know each other very closely, becoming good friends.

This built-in support network benefits parents and children immeasurably, she says. “Imagine being a parent, and you don’t have to drive anywhere to take your kid. You don’t have to have this schedule of taking them here, there.” It’s more like when she was growing up, she says, when kids would just play with other kids in the neighborhood instead of having a strict itinerary after school. Plus, when kids do have after school activities, parents and other adults often share the driving responsibilities, she adds. “For parents, there’s nothing like community living,” she says. Whether in a cohousing community or another form of community, families have the village support that so many parents and children are lacking today.

The community has also experienced five adoptions, Ann says. She recalls one evening when a man who’d been waiting to adopt a child got a call that twins were on their way. They were right around the corner, and families flooded over to lend a hand and bring bottles and blankets, she says. “He didn’t know if he was getting a girl or a boy or how old,” so he hadn’t had any way to prepare, she says. “People came flying,” she adds. “Stuff just started pouring out. Parents came to help him get the babies settled for the evening.” Single parents like this man are never alone in the community, she says. “They don’t have to do this on their own.”

“I don’t think I could go back to single family detached living again,” Ann says. Before helping to form Takoma Village, she had been passionate about community living for years, and can’t imagine going back to a relatively isolated life.

“Social workers love us,” Ann smiles. “When they come to do the on-site visit, they just love us. They fall in love with us right away. They say, ‘This is a great place for kids to grow up.’” There’s always someone watching out for kids there, she says—and no one, child or adult, ever has to feel isolated. There have been challenges—for example, around the holidays, traditions would sometimes clash—but people worked out the kinks. The people who come to cohousing want to be there for the people, for the neighborhood, for the relationships—which makes them willing to compromise in order to resolve problems, she says. Like a family, they must cope with challenges, but they know that putting community first is crucial. And learning to compromise keeps them growing, deepening their bonds, and strengthening the community they’ve built. “Community happens in the spaces between the buildings,” she says. Community happens in the moments when people say, “I belong here. I live here. I’m important, and I need to stay here.”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wild Roots: A Community Homestead Returns to the Wild

As I sat in an earth home last night at the Wild Roots community near Asheville, North Carolina, listening to the crackling campfire while stewed fruit simmered on the stove, I was struck by the diversity of places where this story gathering project has taken me. Two weeks ago, I was standing in Zuccotti Square in Manhattan as Occupiers celebrated the barricades being taken down. Tonight, instead of navigating my way through the subway system, I’d navigated my way through wooded roads and a forest path. The lights of Time’s Square were indeed far behind me.

Wild Roots was more my speed than a concrete jungle, though. The close-knit community lives closely with the land, on thirty acres that border a national forest. They gather food like acorns and chestnuts from the woods, finding other foods opportunistically. They aren’t shy about eating road kill or dumpster diving, and make regular trips to the city—usually about once a week—to gather food, using their veggie-oil-powered vehicle. So much good food goes to waste in the city, said Tod, trained as an engineer, that it’s silly not to use it.

They have no electricity. No running water. In the warmer months, they bathe in the stream; in the winter, they haul a bathtub to the creek and build a fire beneath it to heat the icy cold water. They practice and teach earth skills such as shelter building, and other practical skills like canning and using hand powered tools like crosscut saws.

Earlier, as I walked up the wooded pathway toward the dwelling where Tod had told me to meet them, I passed a small but beautiful cabin with a clay exterior. Its creator had sculpted an embossed design of leaves and flowers into the surface. A simple deck stood behind it, overlooking the ravine to the side of the path. What a simple yet enchanting life this would be, I thought.

They don’t claim to live completely sustainably. But I’d say their consumption is certainly far below that of most Americans. They don’t have massive, elaborately constructed houses and huge plots of wasted land. Their small houses, made of natural materials, are tucked into the woods, a simple earth pathway leading from one dwelling to the other. They don’t have mass amounts of material goods, just the things they need to get by, like storage barrels and tools—most, something tells me, recycled.

I was wondering what the neighbors think even before Tod brought it up. He told me how one neighbor said most of the others don't really "get" the Wild Roots lifestyle. But, he said, the neighbor then added that he thinks everyone will come to people like the Wild Roots community when our unsustainable contemporary way of life eventually collapses. 

Many of the neighbors are third-generation descendants of the area’s original homesteaders, so their ancestors depended on the land for their own livelihoods. Still, they didn’t live quite like the Wild Roots community, as Tod pointed out. Tod, his wife Talia, and the other folks at Wild Roots have had to work to relearn the skills that, for so many people in contemporary society, our ancestors lost many hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Learning these skills gives people an easy confidence, said Talia. It’s not a prideful confidence, she and Tod both added, more like a steady sureness in themselves. When people grow re-skilled to live on the land, they know they can take care of themselves, whatever happens to the economy and modern society, they said. And, I’d imagine, the knowledge that life doesn’t have to be frantic and stressful would give a person a deep sense of peace. Leading a calm, simple life means we don’t have to worry so much. We can just be, knowing how to tend to the few basic needs we have, with plenty of time for the other things we love.

As we talked this chilly January evening, they told me how the lush vegetation springs forth to crowd the homes when the forest reawakens. People often visit the Wild Roots community in the warmer months to learn from them and experience the feeling of living with the land. After my own all-too-brief visit, I just might have to come back to live and learn with them too.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Farm Thrives in Lower Manhattan

In a small coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights, I met with Camilla Hammer, the manager of the Battery Urban Farm in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park. “People would walk by and say, ‘What are you doing?’” she laughed, describing the farm’s beginnings. “We still get this all the time—‘What is this? A farm in Manhattan? Why are you doing this?’” Still, most people were very positive, if surprised, she adds.

The farm encompasses about an acre, shaped like a turkey and surrounded by a bamboo fence, which gives the space a protected feel, says Camilla.

The Battery Conservancy, a nonprofit that works alongside the parks department to maintain Battery Park, hired Camilla in January 2011 as an intern for its farm project. The Conservancy was just initiating the project at that time. They essentially wanted her to guide the project, and in the span of one growing season, they promoted her to project manager and then to farm manager.

I asked her if the city kids are eager or afraid of getting dirty. There’s a misconception about city kids not wanting to get dirty, in her experience, Camilla says. “Some of them love it, some of them don’t, just like kids in the country,” she says. “It’s a real mix,” she says. Some of the private school kids with country homes love to garden; others don’t.

“The kids love the worms,” Camilla says. “I have to hide them; they get so distracted. One girl had never seen a worm before, she adds. “This one girl came to the farm, she was probably six, and she had never seen a worm before. She was kind of shocked, I mean, she was scared,” she continues. “But then I picked it up and held it out to her and said, ‘Come here, come look at it, this is a worm.’ She knew what a worm was; she had just never seen one. She actually kind of ended up liking it. …Even the ones who are initially grossed out by the worms, eventually, once they see the other kids touching them, and they see that it’s okay, they just love them.”

In addition to educational programs for kids, the farm gives all community members the chance to come out and volunteer for a day, or on a regular basis. Short-term opportunities are important because they let people try it out, Camilla says. In the project’s first year, half the space served as a community farm, and the other half became adopted plots where individuals, families, or businesses could grow their own food. They’re phasing out those plots to make the whole space an educational community farm, she says, to make sure the space is used to its maximum potential.

I asked Camilla about the challenges she dealt with in the farm’s first year. “The rats were a problem,” she said. “And because I was the only paid employee—I had ten interns—because I’m the farm manager, and it’s kind of my responsibility to deal with the rats, it’s hard for me to make the unpaid workers do it.” They had a powdery mildew issue and a few minor crop diseases, but nothing major.

The city is planning to install a bike path through the farm in the coming year, hopefully after the growing season, Camilla says. However, they’ll move the farm to another, permanent location, taking a year off during the construction phase.

Originally the farm was just a one-year project. That has since changed. “We’re going to make it permanent,” she says. “And that’s a really incredible thing, and it just shows what happens when people really come together.”

This means a lot to the kids, she says. “They get really proud of it. That’s a big thing. They’ll always bring their parents and say, ‘This is my farm.’”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

OWS's Energy Bike Project: Powered by the People!

                               Photo by David Shankbone, c/o Time's Up!

Early in the Occupy movement, the various segments of the Zuccotti Park encampment in New York decided they no longer wanted to rely on unsustainable gas generators for energy. The Sustainability workgroup in particular was looking for viable alternatives to gas. When they learned the gas generators were about to be seized by police, they knew the time had come to fully implement a better system: bicycle-powered energy.

Keegan Stephan, from Time’s UP! (an NYC-based direct action environmental organization) and the OWS Sustainability workgroup, spearheaded the energy bike project. While I was in NYC, we spoke at Time’s Up! in Brooklyn, where the group worked to create the energy system.

“The first bike was a really big hit, within the community. We brought it in late at night, and people sort of just flocked to it. We had a light going, because we hooked up a light and a radio to it, and it was like moths to a flame.” The bikes grabbed so much attention, he says, that “It was actually a little bit problematic for us working on the bikes at the park, though we were trying to do a lot of the wiring and stuff there, because the volunteers really wanted to be there, in that space…it was a magnetic space.”

The first bike got people in the movement interested in creating a more extensive energy system, and drew in passersby who had skills to share or wanted to learn more. “People knew what we were doing because we got coverage for that first bike, and then very professional electricians, a nuclear physicist, who ended up making our electrical schematic, they just stopped by at the park, and they would say, hey, I heard what you’re doing and I want to help.”

“People just poured out of the woodwork to help with it. It was difficult to manage that many volunteers,” he laughed.

Time's Up! and the Sustainability workgroup collaborated with other organizations like Brooklyn Machine Works, Occupy Boston, Pedal Power NYC, and MIT Pedal Power to get the bikes up and running, too.

Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response to the bikes, creating power together is incredibly empowering—all the more so in this case because people generated this power with their own bodies. Anyone could hop on a bike and start peddling. The power used by the people came from the collective efforts of the people—and the people’s collective skills in creating this energy system.

                                Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh, c/o Time's Up!

The police raid happened just four hours after Keegan and other volunteers had installed all of the bikes. Only a couple of the volunteers were able to get into the park after the alert about the raid, he said, and many of the bikes, stands, and batteries were damaged or lost. Keegan, who was at a meeting at Time’s Up! in Brooklyn, raced to the park on his bike and repeatedly tried to ride in with the traffic flow, since traffic was still being allowed through--only to be arrested when, at the officers' request, he began walking away. 

However, the experience of creating and using the bike generators taught members of the movement, and the greater public, a lesson that won’t be so easily lost—that sustainable energy systems are more viable than we might think. And the bonds formed by this experience certainly will remain strong. By combining our skills, we can lead each other into a radically healthier world, building vibrant community in the process. Keegan and Time’s Up! plan to continue promoting sustainable energy in the NYC community with the energy bikes. In fact, he says, spinning classes have approached them about generating power with their bikes, so perhaps the project will have more widespread effects than anyone even imagined.

To learn about creating your own energy bike project--for your home, your neighborhood, even your business--check out this nifty how-to from Time's Up!

To learn more about Time's Up!, visit:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Occupy Vacant Lots, Philadelphia Works for Food Justice

I'm thrilled to see sustainable solutions emerging from the Occupy movement. The ideas may not all be novel, but applying them in any particular place requires creativity and dedication. In Occupy Philly, I met two young women working on an Occupy Vacant Lots project. Philly has 40,000 vacant lots, they said, so why shouldn't communities put the land to good use by turning them into gardens? Community gardens provide healthy, inexpensive food for people to share, helping communities become healthier and providing valuable educational and community-building opportunities.

I asked one of the project leaders, Bri, how communities responded when her group approached them, and she said people had been overwhelmingly positive. She didn't want to come across as elitist when approaching the communities, but she did want to share her growing knowledge about the importance of local food systems with people who could really benefit from community gardens. So far, she said, people have been very interested in starting gardens, eager to have access to nutritious, home-grown food.

In other words, while being perceived as elitist can be a concern for college-educated people working in lower-income neighborhoods, it's a concern to address through open dialogue that seeks feedback from communities. Assuming these communities wouldn't be interested in food soveriegnty would be the truly elitist stance. Everyone deserves access to healthy food, and that's a concept that may resonate somewhere deep within all of us, even if we're not used to eating the best quality food. 

It was just last week that I visited Occupy Philly and recorded Bri's story--she had a beautiful story about being presented with a Lenape squash, and feeling deeply moved by how this native species has survived for generations after so many have been lost. Being January, it wasn't exactly gardening season, but I have a feeling there will be a lot blossoming in the spring!