Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pedal People

This week, my partner and I had a most interesting house guest. Ruthy Woodring arrived Monday night by train and made her own way to our house via foot power. She travels light, with her home-made back-pack, a small sleeping bag and a folding scooter. In past trips, she has sometimes traveled with her folding bike. She's not only a bicycle advocate, she has helped create a bicycle-powered livelihood.

I had met Ruthy a couple of times before -- once in Chicago when she was living at a Catholic Worker house. I remembered the beautiful garden she was cultivating there at the time, a productive plot of earth tucked into the urban landscape. Now, she and her partner, Alex Jarrett run a bicycle powered trash and recycling pick-up service in Northampton, MA. They began the business in 2002 and call themselves Pedal People.

Check them out on the web. They've established a brilliant niche in a green economy. Northampton doesn't have municipal trash pick-up, so Ruthy and Alex entered the market by offering to take trash and recycling to the city's transfer center via bike trailer -- year-round. We're talking winter in Massachusetts, and that's serious business when you're hauling 250 pounds through slush and snow. A page on their web site describes what they wear for the weather. If they can carry loads by bike all year in that climate, there is not much standing in the way of other such businesses operating in smallish towns all over.

Ruthy borrowed my bike while she was here to explore Austin, and she was quite impressed with our trails. The home she and Alex bought in MA was chosen because it backs up to a Rails-to-Trails corridor. Their household also has experimented with solar energy -- using a single solar panel that they can move around, which powers their fridge (a chest-style, low-energy model) and a couple of LED lights. They have a garden and compost intensely.

I like Ruthy's special combination of valuing personal independence and community interdependence. I've rarely met a young woman who seems as fearless and sanguine about the world, even though she is wise to the hard things in life and has been willing to give up her own freedom for a time when she spent 6 months in a federal prison for crossing the line at the School of the Americas. She thinks carefully about the resources she uses -- food, water, even small, day-to-day materials. She left us with some colorful, home-made envelopes she had created during her train trip (she travels with a few tools, like scissors and a bike wrench) from pages of calendars she'd retrieved from her recent recycling pick-ups (a winter bonus).

Check out this article about Pedal People published in the last issue of Orion magazine. And here's a quote from Ruthy I like from one of the interviews posted on the Pedal People site:
When asked if she sometimes uses cars, Ruthy responds,
"Oh, sure, sometimes I carpool, hitch, take the bus or the train. But I try to keep my transportation simple and nonviolent. When I'm in a car, looking out at the houses and trees speeding by, I feel for those whose lives I'm unknowingly impacting -- the people who live next to the highway who never hear quiet, the people who have to breathe the air I'm polluting, the people who lost their land to highway construction, their farms to sprawl and strip malls, the animals who can't roam because they can't cross the highway... I don't think any of us uses resources in a way completely consistent with our beliefs. But for me, since I can bike and I like it, this is one way I can minimize my complicity in the violence done to our planet."

Ruthy took off for Mexico on a late-night Greyhound, and we hope to hear about her adventures when she passes back through Austin on her way north next month. Since her visit, my partner and I have been even more aware of our own footprint on the earth, thinking about ways we can, like Ruthy and Alex, creatively problem-solve to live more compatibly with our neighborhood and planet. As always, the power of example is the greatest teacher, and Ruthy opened us to a wellspring of happy possibility.

photo of Ruthy from Pedal People

Friday, January 23, 2009

History in the making

What an exhilarating week! Just to open the paper and read good news ... eloquent words affirming of the values of inclusion, openness, equality, dignity, global understanding, human rights ... It feels like emerging from a long, dark tunnel.
The brightness of MLK Day seemed to set the tone for all that followed. That morning, two of my buddies with Nonmilitary Options for Youth met me at Huston-Tillotson University to man/woman our literature table, and it was a great sight to see the hundreds of marchers arrive from UT and the capitol, filling the space near H-T with voices, smiles and excitement.
We had a wonderful day. The mood was infused with anticipation of the next day's inaugural festivities, and there were lots of Obama images to be seen along with the MLK quotes and pictures.
At our Nonmilitary Options table, we set up our Peace Wheel of Fortune, as described in earlier blog posts. Folks loved it. Bunches of kids and adults came by to give the wheel a spin and to see who among the persons featured on it they might know. The idea is, those who can tell us something about the peacemaking efforts of the person on the wheel, wherever it stops, choose a prize ... and get to learn something in the process.
The peace heroes and sheroes featured on the wheel were: MLK, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Barbara Jordan, Helen Keller, John Lennon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Flobots, Gator, Julia Butterfly Hill and Aung San Suu Kyi. How many of these folks do you know? Long live our (ongoing) peace history!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Still kickin' in Austin

Well, I thought we were going out to hear our multi-talented neighbor, Robert, play his theremin as "background music" at an event at BookPeople on Friday night. Or so my partner had told me -- which was reason enough for me to want to go!

Have you ever heard a theremin? It sounds like a musical saw and works as though through magic. Robert made his own instrument, which is housed in a small, painted wooden box with an antenna-like rod extending from it. Robert moves his hand around in the electro-magnetic field surrounding the rod, bringing eery tones out of thin air. He used to play it with an actual theremin orchestra that grew up in Austin, but most of those players have moved on to spread the gospel of theremin to other locales. So, if Robert had an occasion to make music outside the box, I wanted to be there!

What I didn't expect was to hear Robert include my name along with the other 24 surprised recipients of Spike Gillespie's "Umpteenth Annual Kick-A** Awards (and birthday party)" that the theremin baited me to attend! For my ostensible peacemaking efforts (including this blog, apparently), I was handed a trophy that has a judo guy on a pedestal ... um, kicking a horse's keester. As I accepted the award, feeling a little wobbly with surprise, I wondered how I was going to explain that to my mother. (Actually, she loved it. In her community in Wisconsin, she is, at 83, still one of the most active keester-kickers in town.)

It was a very cool event all around, despite my flustered self. It was very inspiring to hear the introductions, both funny and sincere, of the other awardees -- local movers and shakers who help make Austin the a**-kicking kind of place it is.

I'm talking about people who are artists, entrepreneurs or unsung social service providers, and often are all three at once. These are folks like Peg McCoy, owner of the Farm to Market Grocery on South Congress and Marla Camp, publisher of Edible Austin -- both enterprises that have been effective engines of the local food movement. There were author/comedians, Owen Edgerton and Les McGehee, who presented trophies to each other and had the crowd rolling. Owen also presented an award to his spouse, Jodi, who accepted the trophy while nursing their newborn, Oscar, who appeared to be quite at home eating dinner in front of a roomful of smiling admirers. And Jodi, in turn, presented a trophy, in absentia, to her midwife (who was, at the moment, delivering another baby, "or so she says," said Jodi.)

There were luminaries of Austin theatre, including Barbara Chisholm, Ken Webster and Madge Darlington. There were stars of the Austin Chronicle, Margaret Moser and her dashing brother, Stephen Moser. There was the happily wired (even though he'd just come from yoga) Austinist co-founder, Allen Chen, and there was a former Buddhist monk and a current Buddhist monk, both of whom are much beloved caregivers in the community.

With the serious strife in the world, and even in our fair city, it can give us a boost to recognize the positive, creative change that people do accomplish. Hearing the testimonies, the funny stories, the heartfelt appreciation offered to and received by all these awesome people gave me a real kick in the you-know-what to keep on keeping on.

Thank you, Spike Gillespie, for this gift you've given Austin on YOUR birthday! When Robert (who was presented with a Kick-A** trophy himself last year) played "Happy Birthday" to Spike on the theremin, I felt, in an Austin kind of way, like there was new life sprouting all over.

check out Spike's blog to see a photo of Robert and his theremin and Spike's kick-a** history of the Kick-A** Awards.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Encouragement all around

I'm feeling hopeful about a lot of things these days despite the mess left by the Bush Administration. Maybe it's partly because of the Bush catastrophe that people have been taking matters into their own hands -- educating themselves about the environment, growing more of their own food, supporting local businesses, riding bicycles and public transportation, creating their own music, films, visual art, spoken word...
I like this trend!
Almost every day, I see something new that confirms this positive direction. Today, I came across a great video about the hip-hop band, Flobots, and their work with at-risk kids in Denver. Flobots' CD, Fight With Tools, is one of my very favorite releases of the last year. I hope they come back to play Austin in '09.
Just before the new year, I really enjoyed reading the following open letter to Barack Obama, written by two Peace Corps volunteers, who propose a "Hope Garden" at the White House and offer themselves to be the "First Farmers"...

President-Elect Barack Obama Kluczynski Federal Building
230 South Dearborn Street Chicago, IL 60604

Dear Farmer-in-Chief Obama,

Congratulations on your victory and welcome to your new home on Pennsylvania Ave. Knowing how much you love fresh vegetables, we'd like to help you tear up the lawn and plant an organic garden!
In the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden and inspired by Michael Pollan's vision in the New York Times Magazine, we humbly suggest planting a Hope Garden on the White House Lawn. In these days of
rising food prices, global climate change, and deteriorating health, the President's Hope Garden could grow as a model of sustainability for the nation and, indeed, the world. It's a model of a simple way to enhance food security while reducing our ecological footprint and improving our families' health with fresh local food.

We nominate ourselves to be the White House's "First Farmers." Here's our vision:

  • Serve fresh organic Hope Garden produce at State dinners and to the First Family, to lead by example and improve White House food "security";

  • Give tours of the Hope Garden to journalists, students, and other visitors as a means of educating the nation about healthy eating, organic techniques and the power of growing your own food;

  • Use the Hope Garden to support urban gardening initiatives in the D.C. area to show that eating local is possible for anyone anywhere;

  • Donate surplus Hope Garden produce to local food banks to feed those without gardens;
    Produce a variety of organic heirloom fruits and vegetables all year round, using cold frames and hoop houses.

We are Peace Corps Volunteers about to return home after three years of service in Paraguay, working to improve food security & nutrition, promoting gardening, and helping Paraguayans diversify their farms sustainably. We have studied these issues at the University of Wisconsin's Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. More than just avid organic gardeners, we also have experience in science & environmental education, research, and program management. And, perhaps most importantly, we are filled with hope and excitement about working with you!

Sincerely, Justin Mog, Ph.D. & Amanda Fuller, M.S.

cc: Dale Haney, White House Grounds Superintendent

Amanda Fuller and Justin Mog just returned from three years of service as Agriculture and Environment volunteers in the Peace Corps. They left for Paraguay in 2005 after earning graduate degrees from the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Letter posted on
Common Dreams on Dec. 29, 2008

Monday, January 5, 2009

On the corner of 6th and Lamar

Since the beginning of the Israeli offensive into Gaza last week, people have been gathering at various places in Austin on a daily basis to publicly denounce the siege. News reporters covered the gathering on Monday night at the capitol, but I have not seen reports of the ongoing local demonstrations since then.

Today (Sunday, 1-4-09) there was a call to gather at noon at the corner of 6th and Lamar to hold signs in response to the ground offensive against Gaza. I was able to spend about a half hour at the intersection on my way to a meeting.

The sign I brought today read, "Every Palestinian and Israeli death diminishes us." Earlier in the day, I had been reading the latest newsletter of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, which included a report from the team in Colombia. I have friends there working in conjunction with CPT, so I am especially interested in what is happening in their area. The report described a vigil held in front of the home of a community member who was murdered on Thanksgiving Day. Instead of calling for vengeance, the CPT member wrote that the vigilers "sang songs, lit candles and listened to community leaders insist, 'Enough! We cannot tolerate any more assassinations in Barrancabermeja. The death of one of us diminishes us all.'" So, I painted my sign accordingly. What would happen, I wondered, if, instead of using bombs, rockets and ground forces, groups of people stood in front of the homes of all war victims and said, "Enough!"

I was the third person to arrive at the corner of 6th and Lamar, so I had a chance to talk a bit with the other two people who were there before the gathering grew. I learned that the young woman holding the Palestinian flag was an Iranian grad student and the young man who handed me an "Austin Permanent Peace Protest" leaflet was of Palestinian Christian background, currently teaching at ACC. A friend of theirs soon arrived who accepted some fliers to hand to passersby. She mentioned offhandedly that she had been imprisoned in Iran for a year when she was 18 years old simply for distributing leaflets. I learned that she has just published a memoir called In the House of My Bibi [Bibi means grandmother], about her life in Iran, and that she had, in fact, just done a booksigning yesterday at Borders. She is scheduled to do another signing at Book People on January 14th. I hope to attend.

When you see people standing on a street corner holding signs and passing out fliers, you may be inclined to lump them all together in some category or other. But, don't be too quick to do that. You may be surprised. I would not have expected to be standing next to a woman from Iran whose family was persecuted under the Khomeini regime. But, there she was, a survivor of religious extremism, asking aloud, "Wouldn't you think that after all these years, we would have learned?" Yes, you would think.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Voices that carry

I like this piece by Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!. Her tribute to social justice activist/artists who died in 2008 was published on Common Dreams, reposted from the Capital Times in Madison, WI.

Remembering Voices of Resistance
by Amy Goodman

Strong voices for peace have left us this year, people who used their art for social change, often at a high personal price.
Odetta was a legendary folk singer of the civil rights movement.
Considered the "Queen of American Folk Music," Odetta introduced audiences worldwide to African-American folk, blues and gospel music.
New Year's Eve was her birthday. She would have been 78. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most to her, she replied, "All of the songs Odetta sings."
Odetta sang "Oh, Freedom," an African-American slave spiritual, at the 1963 March on Washington. Early on, she attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Her voice, her talent with the guitar and the natural style in which she maintained her hair -- later to be dubbed "afro" -- set her as an icon of the civil rights movement. She told an interviewer in 2003:
"When I first started, I would sing these prison songs ... it got to a point where doing the music actually healed me ... it was music from those who went before. The music gave them strength, and the music gave us strength to carry it on."
She inspired Bernice Johnson Reagon, an early member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers. She had been suspended from college in Albany, Ga., for civil rights protests, then went on to Spelman College, where historian Howard Zinn and his wife, Roz, brought her to folk music concerts by Joan Baez and Odetta.
Reagon recalls the first time she heard Odetta:
"In Georgia, where I grew up in the country, the roads were built by chain-gang labor. I knew the sound, because as the men worked, they sang. But I never thought I'd hear it coming from a concert stage ... when she sang prison songs or work songs. ... She was just what I needed to begin my life as a freedom fighter and as a Freedom Singer."
Reagon later went on to found the women's a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Another great liberation singer we lost this year was Miriam Makeba of South Africa, known as "Mama Afrika." She sang against apartheid, then went into exile for decades. Belafonte also helped her gain recognition.
In 1968, she married SNCC leader-turned-Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, for which she was blacklisted in the U.S. until the 1980s.
Soon after her death, I asked the Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu about Makeba. The South African archbishop smiled: "Her singing, her voice, helped many people to know a little bit more about the vicious apartheid system. She was just a tremendous human being, a great loss to us and to Africa."

Also blacklisted in 1968 was singer and actress Eartha Kitt, who died at age 81 on Christmas Day. In 1968, she was invited to a celebrity luncheon at the White House by Lady Bird Johnson, who asked Kitt about urban poverty. Kitt replied: "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam." The first lady reportedly burst into tears. For years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas and was investigated by the FBI and CIA.

Another voice we just lost sang out from the written page. Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve in London. Though too sick to travel to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he sent a video address: "The majority of politicians ... are interested not in truth but in power. ... To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance. ... What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies." Pinter was referring to U.S. policy from Guantanamo to Iraq.

As these icons are laid to rest, their voices continue to inspire millions. Barack Obama will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation on Earth, promising change. But it will now take the actions of those millions, heeding these echoes of the past and transforming them into their own voices, to effect real change.

Photo of Odetta