At the end of December 2011, I asked a few friends and colleagues to send me stories and links that prove we can heal the earth, our society and our lives. I invited people who keep track of things like this — signs of a paradigm shift away from destruction. I was inspired by Arlene Goldbard‘s writing, and lately her link to Lessons of the Loess Plateau, which is a documentary about the regeneration of a huge ecologically devastated area in China, accomplished by the people who live there. Both Arlene and I hunger for people with what she calls “a disinclination toward doom.”
These are some of those people and here are some of their choices (click on the titles for links). Me first.
Al Letson, creator and host of “State of the Re:Union”
State of the ReUnion is a Public Radio show founded by slam poet Al Letson when he won the Public Radio Talent Quest. Its motto is: “Things fall apart – our job is to bring the back together again.” The show explores “how a particular American city or town creates community, the ways people transcend challenging circumstances and the vital cultural narratives that give an area its uniqueness.” Today on NPR, during a piece on Wyoming, I heard a segment that brought tears to my eyes. It was about the town of Laramie, and how much people there have changed since a gay man, Matthew Shepard, was killed in a 1998 hate crime. Says Letson, “Sheriff Dave O’Malley, a lead detective on the case, had to confront his own demons in order to investigate the crime.” Sheriff O’Malley talks about how he came to know and care about the gay community in Laramie, and how he and his wife have become enthusiastic participants in that community and activists for its causes. You can listen to it (Segment B) on the show’s website. It’s heartening. –Linda Frye Burnham
Floating Community Lifeboats in Bangladesh, featured in “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” an exhibit at the UN
“Yesterday we went to the UN and saw a free exhibit, Design with the other 90%: CITIES, which ‘demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives, at home and around the world.’ It’s free and at the UN because the Cooper Hewitt is closed during a major renovation and this is where they thus set that exhibition. Fantastic, because it’s in the big room where people wait to do tours, so it gets a much broader audience than I suspect it would at the Cooper Hewitt. It includes fantastic descriptions and maps and artifacts and photographs of design projects in under resourced parts of the world that are very simply making life better. For example — one place where almost no one has electricity but almost everyone has a cell phone now has a simple cheap way for bicycles to charge batteries. Other projects involve access to water, transportation, inexpensive yet pleasant housing, etc, etc, etc. And the price tags are included, and they are way below ‘market’ value. The Cooper Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian network.” – Jan Cohen-Cruz, Imagining America
Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME magazine
“The Year of the Protester was uplifting in a million, in millions of millions, of ways. Dictators got the heave ho, conversations shifted from shrinking government and tax burdens to just plain old justice. How the hell did we spend 30 years floating the wealth of this country up to the 1% without an uprising? Well we done up-rised. And it looks like we might just be getting started. I hope to get my butt down to the town square more frequently that I did this year, but my heart has been with every protester that spoke up about the misuse of power and the tyrannies political and economic. We need the momentum to carry over to the Spring with a fresh face and a few simple ideas, like get money out of politics and return the banking industry to Glass-Steagall. But I would also just be happy with some new slogans. How about Stop Being Crass Consumers and Start Being Critical Citizens, or Democracy is not a Box Store, or perhaps, Worried About Finding/Keeping A Job, Find an Occupation!” – Joe Lambert, Center for Digital Storytelling
“I really love this site. It is not political, it’s not trying to save me or the earth or poor people or improve anyone’s health. It has no text really. It’s just a photo blog from someone that has great taste and is well traveled, it seems. I love how simple it is. How plain. When I’m bummed out and down about whatever current altruistic thing is on my plate or sad about how I can’t contribute to the dozen or so Kickstarter campaigns that are going on among my friends – I turn to this site and marvel at the beauty of an ashtray, an envelope, an interior, an old window or a stairwell. For me there is as much beauty in man-made things (soup, architecture and design) as there is in nature. This site for me is like taking a virtual valium that allows me to Keep calm and carry on and try to make the world a better and more beautiful place.” – Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, Los Angeles artist
Signs of A World Going Right
several from Bill Cleveland, Center for the Study of Art & Community
1. One Kid, Two Days, Seven Buildings
“This one may seem a somewhat micro but for me it is a powerful reminder that the imaginative power we need to manifest a healthful and whole world is all around us all the time. During the days following Christmas Carla and I had the privilege of spending time with my kids and their kids in Oakland, CA. A good portion of our time together was spent hanging out in my daughter Heather’s living room singing songs, telling stories and joining our grandkids at play. During this time, Carter, my just turned four, youngest grandson, was intently engaged in a series of non-stop building, un-building, rebuilding projects in the middle of the living room rug. His construction materials consisted of a big basket filled with old-fashioned wooden blocks and a wonderful set of multi-colored magnetized building squares and triangles called Magnatiles. The resulting buildings were as magical as they were ephemeral. In a matter of a few hours a drive-through restaurant serving fish tacos became a solar farmhouse filled with kale and green tomatoes that was in no time was transformed into a space capsule that doubled as a mountain cabin with a big mouth singing Puff the Magic Dragon. The structures and stories came and went continuously. Watching them unfold, migrate, and mutate was thrilling. It was also a reminder that this kind exuberant, joyous, fearless manifesting energy is as natural and abundant as the air. Left to their own devices with a safe and encouraging environment, a warm fire, and a few baskets of raw materials, children will inevitably create— continuously. It’s what they are born to do. Carter’s menagerie of architectural wonders was just a natural byproduct of his creative life force rising up. I am thankful I was there to share it with him.” – Bill Cleveland
2. Pillsbury (No Dough Boy)
May 2011 production by Pillsbury House Theatre
“The next encouraging sign of a world gone right is the Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center, in Minneapolis. Pillsbury House Theatre and Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center have been located in the same building for the past 17 years. During this time, they have share both resource and community outreach efforts to their mutual benefit. Recently, Pillsbury has committed itself to more deeply integrating cultural practice into its community building efforts. To accomplish this, they have merged the Theatre program and the Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center, and placing them under the leadership of the Theatre’s Co-Artistic Directors, Noel Raymond, and Faye Price. The long-term goal for this amalgamation is to develop a cultural community hub that will become “a new model for nonprofit human service work that recognizes the power of the arts and culture to stimulate community participation, investment and ownership. This new model, which has been under development for the last year, extends these reciprocal relationships to full collaboration. This means that human and health services are becoming a primary gateway through which individuals access the theatre, and the theatre will be a catalyst that creates opportunities for personal advancement and community development. It’s important to keep in mind that the extraordinary theater work happening at Pillsbury House feeds off of its relationships with the Centers constituents and surrounding neighbors. They are regularly recognized as one of the most inventive and powerful companies in the Midwest.
“The Center is also creating a comprehensive, creative community development program to strengthen and build ‘creative clusters’ as a way to help fulfill community-building goals in the Powderhorn-Central neighborhood. This goal is informed, and guided by research conducted by Susan Seifert and Mark Stern, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP). SIAP’s research shows that neighborhoods with very dense, highly interactive networks of artists and arts organizations produce specific benefits for those communities. These benefits include poverty reduction, population retention and growth and increased civic participation. They postulate that the power of culture derives, in part, from the dynamic social networks it creates, particularly among active cultural participants. They also say that the presence of cultural organizations produces high levels of ‘cross-participation’ in a neighborhood that stimulates residents’ involvement in other civic activities.” – Bill Cleveland
Daniel Kish. Photograph by Steve Pyke, from Men’s Journal
From Men’s Journal by Michael Finkel, via Bill Cleveland: “Daniel Kish has been sightless since he was a year old. Yet he can mountain bike. And navigate the wilderness alone. And recognize a building as far away as 1,000 feet. How? The same way bats can see in the dark.
“The first thing Daniel Kish does, when I pull up to his tidy gray bungalow in Long Beach, California, is make fun of my driving. ‘You’re going to leave it that far from the curb?’ he asks. He’s standing on his stoop, a good 10 paces from my car. I glance behind me as I walk up to him. I am, indeed, parked about a foot and a half from the curb.
“The second thing Kish does, in his living room a few minutes later, is remove his prosthetic eyeballs. He does this casually, like a person taking off a smudged pair of glasses. The prosthetics are thin convex shells, made of acrylic plastic, with light brown irises. A couple of times a day they need to be cleaned. ‘They get gummy,’ he explains. Behind them is mostly scar tissue. He wipes them gently with a white cloth and places them back in.
“Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy — Kish is now 44 — he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish, I can confirm, is completely blind.
“He knew my car was poorly parked because he produced a brief, sharp click with his tongue. The sound waves he created traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second, bounced off every object around him, and returned to his ears at the same rate, though vastly decreased in volume.
“But not silent. Kish has trained himself to hear these slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does — he calls it ‘FlashSonar’ — but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.
“Bats, of course, use echolocation. Beluga whales too. Dolphins. And Daniel Kish. He is so accomplished at echolocation that he’s able to pedal his mountain bike through streets heavy with traffic and on precipitous dirt trails. He climbs trees. He camps out, by himself, deep in the wilderness. He’s lived for weeks at a time in a tiny cabin a two-mile hike from the nearest road. He travels around the globe. He’s a skilled cook, an avid swimmer, a fluid dance partner. Essentially, though in a way that is unfamiliar to nearly any other human being, Kish can see.
“This is not enough for him. Kish is seeking — despite a lack of support from every mainstream blind organization in America — nothing less than a profound reordering of the way the world views blind people, and the way blind people view the world. He’s tired of being told that the blind are best served by staying close to home, sticking only to memorized routes, and depending on the unreliable benevolence of the sighted to do anything beyond the most routine of tasks.
“Kish preaches complete and unfettered independence, even if the result produces the occasional bloody gash or broken bone. (He once fractured the heel of his left foot after leaping from a rock and has broken a couple of teeth.) He’s regarded by some in the blind community with deep veneration. Others, like a commenter on the National Federation of the Blind’s listserv, consider him “disgraceful” for promoting behavior such as tongue clicking that could be seen as off-putting and abnormal.
“Kish and a handful of coworkers run a nonprofit organization called World Access for the Blind, headquartered in Kish’s home. World Access offers training on how to gracefully interact with one’s environment, using echolocation as a primary tool. So far, in the decade it has existed, the organization has introduced more than 500 students to echolocation. Kish is not the first blind person to use echolocation, but he’s the only one to meticulously document it, to break it down into its component parts, and to figure out how to teach it. His dream is to help all sight-impaired people see the world as clearly as he does.
“Kish and a handful of coworkers run a nonprofit organization called World Access for the Blind, headquartered in Kish’s home. World Access offers training on how to gracefully interact with one’s environment, using echolocation as a primary tool. So far, in the decade it has existed, the organization has introduced more than 500 students to echolocation. Kish is not the first blind person to use echolocation, but he’s the only one to meticulously document it, to break it down into its component parts, and to figure out how to teach it. His dream is to help all sight-impaired people see the world as clearly as he does.” – Michael Finkel via Bill Cleveland
From the ServiceSpace website via Bill Cleveland: “ServiceSpace is an all volunteer-run organization that leverages technology to inspire greater volunteerism. It’s a space to explore our own relationship with service and our interconnection with the rest of the world. ServiceSpace allows our inherent generosity to blossom out into small acts of service for the community around us. It’s a space to learn how outer change is closely tied to our own inner transformation. It’s about changing ourselves, to change the world.
“ServiceSpace was conceived by volunteers, was built by volunteers, and is run by volunteers — all for the benefit of volunteers. Our projects range from a daily positive news service, to an acts-of-kindness portal, to a gift-economy restaurant. Regardless of the endeavor, we act in concert to create service opportunities for each other and to support each other’s service journeys.
“We are currently in the process of changing our name from CharityFocus to ServiceSpace. Founded in 1999, CharityFocus was originally started to help non-profits with technical services. Over the past dozen years, the organization has become an umbrella for many generosity-driven projects. Thus we have expanded our services from focusing just on helping charities, to encouraging everyday people to contribute in meaningful ways to the world around them. As the name suggests, our new expanded ServiceSpace platform allows people to stay connected with others interested in service, participate in service opportunities through any of our dozen projects, organize their own local service event using our tools, and stay connected to inspirational content. Above all, we believe in the inherent generosity of others and aim to ignite that spirit of service. Through our small, collective acts, we hope to transform ourselves and the world.” -From the ServiceSpace website via Bill Cleveland
See also: The Tao of Charity (a pdf)