Cottonwood in the Flood

I had the opportunity to view a special showing of Cottonwood in the Flood, Saturday, June 11 at the International Firehouse Cultural Center (IFCC). Bottom line: two thumbs up, beautiful exploration of history through the lens of one family.

I graduated from Portland State University in 2008 (unbeknownst to me, it started as Vanport College). In my studies, which focused on urban planning, community development, and geography, Vanport was mentioned a few times. It can be summarized thus: ship building, segregation, and a big flood. The conversation was sometimes the start of tracking a history of Portland race relations where, often, poor and black found themselves the object of eminent domain (Memorial Coliseum, Legacy-Emmanuel Hospital, I-5 corridor), and most recently the increase of gentrification in North Portland. What was never clear to me was where Vanport was, who it really affected, and how we could have let something like this happen with the flood.

A friend in housing-social justice recommended I see Cottonwood in the Flood, so when the opportunity presented itself, I had to say yes.

Cottonwood in the Flood, written by local playwright Rich Rubin and directed by local artist Damaris (rhymes with “glamorous”) Webb, was a beautiful collage of local headlines, radio reports, and relevant history, knit together through the story of one family. The companion piece is the exhibit IFCC hosted on their second floor gallery, where you can see maps, local headlines, and other stories about what happened in Vanport.

What happened in Vanport – it has ended with a muddled history and retelling, until now. For example, to give a nod to the suffering, there is a display on one of the transit stops giving space for the history where it happened. It would be like taking all the suffering of Hurricane Katrina and siphoning it to one train stop. A train stop that has a particular audience, is off the beaten bath, and you have to be in the know to know it’s even there.

Thanks to people like Damaris Webb and Rich Rubin, along with the actors in the play and their community partners, we can explore this complex history more fully. Rich Rubin’s play, Cottonwood in the Flood, explores the allure of hope and a better way for a family under the cloud of war. His play explains the changing tensions, the unfairness, the subtle racisms, the overt racisms, the government double speak, while telling it through a family you easily fall in love with. Grandpa, mom, dad, and two brothers, who all they want is a better life where they can achieve their own human potential. It’s their story of how they navigate the social constraints, how it affects their moods, their livelihoods, and how they overcome … or don’t.

I spent four years at Portland State, and I never got a comprehensive story of what Vanport was. Two hours plus a 30 minute discussion, and I finally have a working understanding of the hope, the devastation, and the work we have to do to never forget.

See also…

The Mercury’s review
Vanport Mosaic
Damaris Webb
Rich Rubin

Equity in 2013

One good, tangible measure of sustainability is the triple bottom line. The idea that we find ways to and enact on measuring equity (people), environment (place), and economics (profit) in equilibrium. We take each, and if one is failing – if we don’t make enough money for example, then we consider that we haven’t achieved a sustainable mark over the time in which we are measuring these indicators.

So, how sustainable are we in 2013? We have surpassed predicted carbon emissions, indicating we are on a road for disaster in an ever-changing climate induced world. Our recession still has a strangle hold making it hard for families to get ahead. And, we have reports every day – it seems – about another company cutting corners in such a way that its workers suffer the most egregious abuses.

And, in the midst of that, while working in an organization undergoing its own transition and struggle with change – the obvious thought reveals itself in startling clarity – we don’t value people.

Sustainability argues that we must hold these things: people, place, profit in tandem. We must balance them equally lest the three-legged stool topple over for ever more. And, what I have realized for the better part of the last 7 years is that we value equity least of all in this triptych. We grasp onto the things we can measure easily. We can measure if we made our profit – or not. We can measure if we planted enough trees – or not. These are easy things in which to define success.

But, when it comes to people, the number of indicators to use grows exponentially. What do we measure? Do we measure wages? Do we measure healthcare? Do we measure access to healthcare? Do we measure … happiness? In a sense, I think it boils down to the latter. This ubiquitous, moving thing that is difficult for an economist to measure strictly against a black and white line… so instead of trying, as a society, we just don’t.

Then it rears its ugly head in contract negotiations, workplace equity, overall societal health. It impacts the never-ending challenge of balance between work and family life – because we chase the greasy buck instead of the success of the people earning the buck. It turns loyal people unloyal. It makes people seek autonomy elsewhere. It creates and fosters toxic work environments where blame is placed haphazardly, and instead of listening to the real problems – petulant children are blamed and then reinforced the excuse on why we don’t need to listen.

So, where are we in 2013? Where is our equity? I would say it is far away, despite recent Supreme Court rulings and in spite of recent Supreme Court rulings. I would say there is more of this conversation to have – where we need to collectively assess our values, envision work-life balance in harmony, and propel ourselves to a future we do want to pass onto our children.

 

Community Coaching

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Allegory of the Good Gov...
Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Allegory of the Good Government (left view, detail) - WGA13485 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, I had the opportunity to tell my buying club’s story to another buying club. This new buying club just started. They had only completed only two buys and were working on their third.

Levi and I joined them while they were debriefing after their second buy. They are meeting weekly, by the sounds of it. It was amazing to hear this group figure out problems from the beginning. A diverse group (in age, gender, and ethnicity), they were drawing from a diverse set of experiences. Clearly a smart group, it was fascinating to watch as they respectfully deliberated.

I’m not sure they really knew what I had to talk about, but I knew what I wanted to talk about, so I began by describing, from my buying club’s perspective, Buying Club Best Practices.

In Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government, he pictorially describes the perfect, healthful balance of farm to city – and its opposite. When there is harmony between farm and city, managed by good governance, there is peace and health in all the lands. The city can give intellectual stimulation and arts while benefiting from the healthful countryside.

While “educating people on the importance of a sustainable society” and “bridging the gap between farm and city”, how can I help? I can share my buying club’s story. No, it’s not over, but we’ve done a few things, problem solved, and continued to evolve and get good local food. If I really want to help bridge the gap between farm and city, one way I can do that is by sharing our story so others can make new and more interesting mistakes and not the ones we’ve already made!

So, I shared. I skimmed through my notes, eliminated a few slides, and fast tracked towards lessons learned.

I was amazed at how enthralled this group was. This group, who likely didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to say were on the edge of their seats. It was amazing and empowering for me.

Are you in a buying club? What are your lessons learned?

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Monday, May 14: Spreading the Food Word

Mommy & Levi
Mommy & Levi (Photo credit: alexis22578)

Tonight, I had the opportunity to discuss buying clubs with a newly formed club. They were focused, enthralled, and concentrated on every word I said. It was like I was telling a beautiful fiction they’d never heard, simply focused on everything I had to say. And, to think, I wasn’t even sure on the intent of my being there once Levi and I got there.

A friend mentioned to me a few weeks ago that people in her neighborhood were starting a buying club. Connecting the distance between the city and the farms which we depend on is important to me. So, if there’s an opportunity to chat with people about buying clubs, I take it. I offered to chat, and my friend made the connections. She told me the time of the meeting, and I told her when I could be there. I neglected to ask if there was a standing agenda or how much time I’d have.

We didn’t make it by 6:30pm. We made it by 6:50pm. They were gracious and encouraged us to sit and listen. Us was of course me and Levi. Unfortunately, there were no other kids. When there are no other kids, Levi gets quite excitable. That is, he gets rambunctious because he’s not getting the attention he wants.

Suddenly, the door to the room adjacent opened and an older gal gave a 5 minute warning. I understood that to mean 5 minutes until we had to leave. Now, I was questioning why I was there. Why did we bust our bums to get out there, 30 minutes away from home, to not share any knowledge with a bored 5-year-old who wants attention?

The organizer must have noticed my grumpy face because she clarified the agenda for me. It was 5 more minutes of the separate groups and then the groups got together to debrief together. Perhaps, I considered, my time wasn’t wasted after all.

They debriefed and started finishing their debrief, at which point Levi told me he had to go to the bathroom. So, we went to the bathroom. Naturally, this was a longer visit. Finally, we emerged and everyone was quiet. And staring at us! The organizer told me they were ready! I quipped we had good timing. Now, I was relieved that we hadn’t got there at 6:30pm. We’d have waited an extra 2o minutes… twenty minutes longer than we already waited!

I still wasn’t sure what they were expecting, so I simply went from what I planned on saying. I began by introducing myself and why I was invited to come, my connection to the group through a mutual friend. I checked my assumptions that the group was newly formed and had only completed a few buys by asking the questions to the group. I stood up the whole time.  And Levi literally ran circles around me. I had my notes. I had culled through my notes after listening to them talk. They didn’t, for example, need a rehashing of why buying clubs are necessary. They are living why.

So, I talked. I talked about what we do, and how we do it. I was flying through my notes. Occasionally instructing Levi to be calmer. Suddenly, a gal in the back said, “Wow, you have a lot of really rich information.” Oh! This is my time check. How long have I been talking? How long did I have? It didn’t really matter. It was 8 o’clock, and people want to go home. So, I passed out business cards and gave a sample of my presentation. Then, chatted with various people in the groups. We’ll have more meetings. Must get them invited to the buying club get togethers!

The point is bringing the city closer to the farms. Or rather, the farms to the city. Good governance is the mission, and through food. With everyone so enthralled and so excited – it is within reach.

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Sunday, May 6th

Okay narcissistic rants aside – I do enjoy writing every day. As the (over written?) introvert, I do better when I can process. Writing allows me to process.

But, what to process? The never-ending balancing act and working towards my deemed purpose.

I want to educate people on the importance of a sustainable society. So, I’ve picked volunteer projects, paid jobs, reading material, and seminars to support that idea. I’ve started endeavors to support that idea. Every choice I make tries to support that idea.

My thinking on what I should be doing with my life has always been ongoing. Growing up Catholic, there is a certain amount of time dedicated to thinking about listening for God’s calling. I never felt like I had one. I only knew to follow my interests. My interests have always been consistent in the environment and education. When I was 18 and a freshman at Michigan State University, a first year at James Madison College eagerly awaiting my studies in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, I thought maybe I would or could be a lobbyist. I’d lobby for the virtues of the environment or education. I thought maybe I’d need a law degree, which always has intrigued me.

Then I got a bunch of loans through two universities, and suddenly spending more money I didn’t have on law school didn’t seem so important. In between those two universities, the school of life focused my studies on environmental thought, food, and community building. Those themes coalesced at Portland State University with the opening of their Sustainable Urban Development minor. My studies then concentrated on geography and urban development. Two themes where I continued to think about food, people, and how to make it all work together.

Is it any wonder then that I work intimately with a food buying club that focuses on local food sustainability and an environmental nonprofit that guides its thoughts in stewardship? One of my parting studies introduced me to the concept of “servant leadership”. It’s this idea where you lead from behind. A great example is how I stopped arguing with my husband about what to have for dinner and just focused on whole foods, home cooked foods, and organic foods (as budgets allowed). Now, he tells me the virtues of the food we eat.

Each refocus can be identified by a shift in thinking and impatience with the day-to-day. Like when I finally graduated. I had spent so much time thinking about my degree, that when I finally got it all I wanted was to put all those studies into action and work towards some semblance of a career. Then, there was the (housing) crash of 2008. Just one month after I graduated. I was loathe to apply for just any job – I had an idea of what I wanted to do. So, I focused on environmental jobs. I applied to be program coordinators and managers. I tried for AmeriCorps jobs. I tried for a plethora of administrative jobs. I had interviews. I had second interviews. I applied for more than 300 jobs in three years (starting in 2007).

I get a job. And, well… it proves to be more or less as dysfunctional as the twenty some jobs I held in my twenties. So, maybe working for others doesn’t work for me. I don’t get their lack of vision. I don’t get their lack of leadership. I don’t get their in ability to properly facilitate meetings. (Meetings that could identify vision and leadership and focus the organization past dysfunction!!)

These weeks of not writing have been thinking about all of that. It’s been spent thinking and doing the day-to-day, just to get by. It’s been pondering how to fix the rut and get into a career. I think I have some ideas. Now, to put them into action.

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People Forgetting People

Iraq War soldiers and bombing
Image via Wikipedia

It was 2004. The Iraq war had waged on for about a year. I, and my friends, [we] were still in shock over all that happened. He hadn’t listened! We protested. We wrote. We petitioned. We called. We bitched. We complained.

We didn’t want another Vietnam. We can’t do that to our people again. We can’t do that to our brothers and sisters. We can’t let them suffer for a cause, for a rich man’s war, that isn’t really about freedom at all.

So why is he doing this? Why? Why is this Yale graduate, son of an oil man, baseball team owner, married to a librarian enforcing this war?

The simplest answer, and the most comfortable one for my little brain to wrap around, has been that he was simply taking care of those he cares about. On the surface, it seems that he cares about contractors making $6k to $10k per day more than soldiers without shoes. On the surface, it would seem an oil company was more important than the people working for the company.

I related it to my own cirlce. I want my family and my close friends taken care of. I want them healthy. I want them to have secure jobs that give them benefits to help ensure good health. I want them to have access to clean, healthy food. I want them to be educated on healthful (clean air, clean water, clean soil) ways to take care of their families. I want them to have access to the American Dream, and not just the same station in life in which they were born.

My wants certainly can’t be that different from Mr. Bush’s, can they? On that macro level. On that big, 50,000 mile high level. We all really want the same things. We want our loved ones to be taken care of.

The difference is who the loved ones are. And, someone, in this myriad tangled web of life, we forget about people we don’t care about.

Mr. Bush is an extreme, political example, but I hope it highlights what I see happening all over. Recently, I was a part of a conversation where it was argued that the only thing missing out of a particular sustainability equation was the Environment. I was shocked, since the conversation was about an organization that only does work in the environment. No where, though, were people mentioned. Not the people who do the work voluntarily. Not the people who get the details done to do the work. Simply, people were missing from this conversation, and no one recognized it.

Sustainability was put on hold the year I graduated from college. With bank, market, and housing crashes – all fell like dominoes after 2008, it’s as if we couldn’t focus on anything but that which was right in front of us. And, still, three years later we are reeling. We’re still trying to calm the frenzy around us in order to organize our lives and dream about the American Dream.

In the frenzy, the environment wasn’t forgotten. The Sierra Club is still doing their job. I”m not saying the environment doesn’t suffer, I’m simply saying it wasn’t forgotten. But, people were.

Wages dropped. Homes were foreclosed upon. Details were lost that made people homeless and lose their jobs. benefits were lost affecting the health of many.

People were forgotten.

You can’t have a balanced three-legged stool without people. You can’t have a true balanced Triple Bottom Line general ledger without people. You can’t have a world, without people.

I am dismayed that after all we’ve been through, we still take two steps back. I’m dismayed that people are still forgotten and the gap between the haves and have nots widens. I’m dismayed that people are forgotten.

But, as if by a miracle, a group has risen up and shouted to not forget us. My question, today, is this: Can the Occupy Movement get people to remember people?

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S-S-S-Sustainability!

Cover of "Ecotopia"
Cover of Ecotopia

“I want to educate people on the importance of a sustainable society.”

That’s what I want to do with my life. In some shape or form, anything I am doing, I want it to mesh with that belief. The belief that we should live in a sustainable society and we owe it to ourselves to get there. The belief is also contingent upon the thought that what we are doing is not sustainable and that there is oodles of room for improvement.

I heard of sustainability first, while reading Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia. In it, he referred to this concept of sustainability as a stable state system. A system in which everything is in equilibrium with everything else. There was a process for nearly everything to make sure that you really had the best information moving forward about making a decision. You harvested the wood if you wanted a wood frame home, for example.

A co-worker, during one of those nice “just go out to lunch with one of your co-worker” things, prodded me after I asked him why he was doing Construction Project Management. He returned the question. I wasn’t expecting that. I started with, “Oh, I don’t know.” But I had to pause. Because, I knew it wasn’t true.

I was at the end of a nearly 5 year break from college. I had gained more life experience, talked more with different people, read more about different ideas, and began formulating my own. Yes, in fact, I did know what I want to do … and I apologized for my cop-out statement and came up with that.

“I want to educate people on the importance of a sustainable society.”

Sustainable. But, what does that mean? I had the opportunity to go back to school, and back to school I went. What a fortunate time it was. Sustainability was popping up everywhere! Lucky for me, minors and specialized programs were too. I didn’t want to do another dual major attempt but rather, efficiently wrap all my interests under one degree.

One of the amazing opportunities I had after I decided on my minor in Sustainable Urban Development was to visit Italy for two weeks on an agri-tourismo property that specialized in sustainability. We were a crew of about 15. Some of us were young, some were middle-aged, and some were fresh of the boat young college kids. One of my favorite attendees was a Bosnian gal who spent much of her adult life in the US. I loved hearing her cross-oceanic view of the world.

People, she said to me, in one late night conversation around the farm table with tea and wine. People. People often forget about people. Labor. The people who do the job.

As someone who was raised in a blue-collar family with white-collar dreams, I can relate.

What did my minor say about that? Only that to define this stable state equilibrium, we should measure people, profits, and place on the same playing field. A field in which they all get equal play and are measured so that no one suffers. Equity, Economy, and Environment. The Triple Bottom Line. The Three-Legged Stool. Sustainability.

But, why then, if that’s a decent measure of how to define sustainability, do people still forget people?

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An Open Letter on Food Security

Milk & Honey Bread
Image by alexis22578 via Flickr

Dear Friend,

I co-coordinate a food buying club in my neighborhood. This idea arose from many things, one the example is the one set by my grandparents who always had access to local food through their garden, animal husbandry, and local grocery co-op. Mostly, though, I do this because food quality for my small family is very important. I also do this is a way to increase food security for everyone.

Nary a day goes by where we don’t hear about another food recall. These food recalls largely involve large industrial food complexes, like confined animal feed operations. I don’t buy from those operations. I buy directly from the farmer. My family eats fairly locally and seasonally. We learn how to preserve our food and make things from scratch, like bread — a lot like my grandparents learned post World War II. We develop relationships with our farmers, our distributors, our producers of the food we eat. We do this to increase our food security. We know where our food comes from. We visit the farms. We know the names of our farmers’ children. We are invested in them, and they are invested in us.

But that investment is being threatened. The City of Portland has hosted several meetings to revise the food zoning laws for our locale. Their recommendations are to increase the hurdles one has to go through to have access to local food.

This is a problem. A big problem. And, I need your help to tell them it’s a problem. 

Find out more about the city’s plans and please take the survey. Please tell the city they are going in the WRONG direction for CSAs & Buying Clubs. Tell them it matters to you because food security matters to you. Tell them having access to local food is important to you. And, most importantly, pass this message on and have your friends and family take the survey.

Thank you for your help.

In food!

Michelle Lasley
community advocate | green coach | nurturer
www.michellelasley.com

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