Tuesday, August 26, 2008

SF Outside Lands: The Humans are Still Being In

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

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

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

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Change of Priorities

Interviewed in the current Rex newsletter, Annette Gellert of Women's Environmental Leadership Network proposes that the will to change, the momentum needed to solve the world's most intransigent problems, proceeds from a set of priorities very different from those that currently prevail.

"We need to consider our children’s health and quality of life first, with our personal interest and financial rewards second, which is the reverse of the current situation," she says. "We must consider how to take care of each other and benefit future generations, not just focus on quarterly profits."

If you look at the world with those priorities, how do your choices change? What issues become most urgent? Share your thoughts here.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

More Than A Cooking Class

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

By Mary Eisenhart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rex Foundation: What inspired the creation of Nextcourse?

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

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

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

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

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

Mission High students discover the joy of pie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sampling fresh fruit in the neighborhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tule Elk Park

Tule Elk Park
Child Development Center

By Mary Eisenhart

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

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

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

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

Discovering bugs in the compost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The garden at Tule Elk Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Peace Pole" in the garden.

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

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

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

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

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

Rex Foundation: Why is early childhood development so important?

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

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

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

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

Garden educator Ayesha Ercelawn working in the garden.

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

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

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

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

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

Rex: How do you decide what to study?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for play time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cape gooseberry bush in the Tule Elk Park garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak tree in the Tule Elk Park garden

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

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

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

One Mile Deep
One Inch Wide

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

Impromptu study of gravity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging in the dirt.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing to gather dirt, leaves and rocks.

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

Suggestions for Further Reading by Tule Elk

Reggio Emilia
Official Web site

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

Reggio Emilia Book List

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

All Kinds of Minds, Melvin D. Levine

A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine

Photos by Mary Eisenhart

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Rock The Earth

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

By Mary Eisenhart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RtE Intern Matthew Schmidt educates a fan about RtE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rex Board Perspective

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

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

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

RtE’s Marc Ross (l) with Bela Fleck.

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

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

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Food for Change

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

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

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

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

Gathering spot near the People's Grocery chicken coop.

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

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

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

Brahm Ahmadi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People's Grocery staff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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