Saturday, July 31, 2010

Green job training and rebuilding in New Orleans

I visited two organizations AND had time to explore New Orleans (see previous post). Definitely could have stayed many, many days, but I had to get out to Taos by Saturday/Sunday so Phil and I booked it across Texas…through Austin and Lubbock…

The first organization I visited in NOLA was called Build it Back Green, a program run through Global Green. Like many organizations, BIBG and Global Green started in New Orleans post Katrina and are involved in the green re-building of the city, primarily the 9th Ward. What was on my mind constantly while talking with the woman at BIBG was: how were you accepted by the community? Both Global Green and Make It Right (the organization supported/championed by Brad Pitt) have a base in Hollywood…funny enough, Global Green is based out in Santa Monica, so maybe I’ll chat with a few folks there when I visit my brother in September. Also, Global Green’s main office is in downtown New Orleans, hardly accessible to many of their target population. So given this information, how were they accepted, especially as out of towners?

My sense is that any help immediately post Katrina was badly needed; so all incoming organizations were confronted with a mix of apprehension and acceptance. The fact that Global Green has survived and continues working within the community is what builds trust. An interesting twist though, from what I’ve heard from both this organization and the other one I interviewed (LA Green Corps), is that the money available for post Katrina clean up is starting to dry up and funders are experiencing something called “Katrina fatigue,” meaning as charitable as someone is, they are nonetheless tired of donating money and time 5 years down the line. Ask for support too many times, and the last time will be a no. It’s the same in other community orgs, even without a national emergency/natural disaster situation. How much is too much? How do organizations avoid donating fatigue? The way that Global Green and Make It Right have dealt with it—by holding fundraising parties with celebs and the rich in Hollywood for “those poor people in New Orleans”—seems a little unrealistic and snooty to me. Again, I return to funding for nonprofits…it is ALWAYS in the top 5 on an org’s priority list (or if not, they are either lucky or they are soon to be in trouble…).

Pretty much everything else I spoke with BIBG about was stuff I was familiar with, but I figure…the more lessons of funding and structure etc etc are pounded home, the less chance I will have of repeating mistakes that a lot of orgs and business make. At the end of the conversation, we started talking about the strength of religious organizations. What Global Green has realized is that if you’re trying to get anything done within a neighborhood, call all the pastors, go to mass, present your message, etc. How does an organization remain secular and still become heavily involved with churches? How does funding for churches work, and can that contribute/help non-profits (or only in a strictly partnering sense can they use money given by churches?)

The second organization I talked with was LA Green Corps. They are one of the luckier non profits that I’ve heard of in terms of funding because they received 1 million+ dollars to start a job training program for at-risk youth and disabled persons (CreateHere was also heavily funded in their start-up phase). 1 million +!!! Whew, what I could do with that money! LA Green Corps is very similar to Build it Green! in NYC and Buffalo ReUse in that they have a warehouse of materials taken from houses, they offer deconstruction services, etc.

When I first got to the job site/warehouse, I got a quick tour of the place. They were in the process of shipping out enormous cypress planks…I just wanted to grab them for myself they were so gorgeous! After a tour through the warehouse…more processing place versus store…I spoke with one of the teachers for the training program for disabled persons. I got the general scoop of how it was formed—three organizations formed an umbrella group which became the LA Green Corps—and talked to him a bit about his own training, how he works with his group, the day-to-day of job training, and the positives/negatives of the Green Corps’ setup.

It seemed from our conversation that teachers are hired mostly on their knowledge of construction, rather than their ability to work with kids. Of course many have an interest in being teachers, but there is no required “how to” training, which I think may be somewhat of a downfall. Having worked in NYC schools with kids labeled as “troublemakers,” it was obvious to me which teachers made the most difference in students’ lives; the teacher who was more interested in the kids and the kids’ lives than what they were teaching that particular day was always more successful. The green corps teachers are trained to teach the general construction curriculum, but the social worker was the one who was sent for when emotional issues surfaced. Perhaps a social worker is necessary, but wouldn’t it be more cost effective if all the teachers were trained in working with kids and the additional social worker wasn’t needed? Besides, doesn’t it create a divide between teacher and student if a social worker is called?

Another thing I learned was that the training program for kids is anywhere from 2-7 months. Both the teacher and I agreed that this was not enough time to unteach learned work habits and teach new things as well that would raise the hireability of a worker, but it all came down to FUNDING. How can a job training program afford to pay workers for longer than a few months? There needs to be an additional income generator…fee for service component and if you’re lucky, a supportive/rich donator. My other thoughts are…what if you were to teach skills to the kids, have them make value-added products and split the profit on whatever they make for x amount of time. They learn a new skill, have an incentive/way to make more money, and you come out with a profit that can fund part of the program. Certainly not a solution to the huge challenge of where to find all the money to fund teachers, kids, materials, etc, but every little amount of money generated counts, does it not?

I chatted some more with the teacher from Green Corps until the head of the organization came in. It is always interesting to meet the people who run the organizations, because oftentimes they are not what you would expect. Suzy, the woman who runs LA Green Corps, is every bit the businesswoman, whereas I expected her to be a more hands-on, construction gal. Suppose I only made that assumption because that’s sort of where I am coming from, but people who are most passionate about the actual work of the kids may not be the most effective in starting an organization and dealing with funders, outreach, etc. So maybe having a businesswoman like Suzy on the job makes more sense!

Suzy knew more of the technical/logistical stuff and directed me to several resources that I will check out when I have a few minutes. She told me that anyone looking to get involved in job training corps like the one she started should first connect with local businesses who are able to hire and WILLING to work with the kids. They did it sort of backwards and are now doing a little backpedaling and trying to create businesses that can actually hire their trainees. This makes sense, though I am wondering…if you have an income generating business, why do you need to have an attached nonprofit for the trainees? Perhaps you can do less community work as a business because you need to make a profit to float, but then you’d be truly selective in who you train. Though, if you’re training them in life skills rather than in specific skills pertaining to what your business does, I guess it makes more sense to have a nonprofit training component so you could focus less on your business as the be all end all for the person you hire and focus more on helping them achieve their own career dreams…

From talking to Suzy, one thing is for sure: I need to get better at networking. Talking to people in the trades, selling my ideas, getting people interested in seeing me succeed, because that’s when the money starts flowing and that’s how you magically find yourself on a path that’s headed somewhere (rather than just circling in your head)…

Her name was NOLA...

I was in New Orleans on Tues/Wednesday (in Taos, NM now…), and was entirely blown away by the fact that NOLA is the SAME SIZE as Buffalo, yet there are people shopping in stores on every street, people playing music on the corners and in the plazas, and there are just people everywhere walking outside! Sure there are people out and about in Buffalo, but not en masse, and it seems odd that there are more people out in NOLA weather (hot/steamy) versus the wonderful summer weather in Buffalo. What makes NOLA different than my hometown?

Well, for one thing, any new builds or additions must comply with zoning regulations…in NYS there are certain setbacks, lot sizes, etc. I’m not familiar with the present codes in Louisiana, but the old New Orleans certainly missed the enactment of larger set backs and larger lot size regulation. Mixed use buildings everywhere, residential on top of commercial, buildings crammed in next to each other…all this helps to create a more communal space and makes people feel comfortable with living closer to and interacting with each other. Is that all? I think no, not entirely...there must be another reason. Maybe capitalizing on music and cafes? What section in Buffalo could be turned into a French Quarter or a Garden District? Is that even possible? The New Orleans of the Northeast?

At the same time that I am blown away by the amount of cafes, galleries, etc that are supported by this city of just 300,000 people (and the many tourists), I am also well aware of the disparity here. It's odd when the place we stayed was a GIGANTIC mansion-like house on Louisiana Ave and 2 streets over it looked like the east east side of Buffalo...abandoned buildings, collapsing structures and all. It’s odd that I spent all morning wandering the French Quarter, walking in and out of expensive galleries, and took a 5 min drive to meet with someone from an organization and all I saw around me were signs of reconstruction, of gutted homes and the people still trying to remake them…

Despite the short stay, there are a few experiences from my first time in New Orleans that I will not forget. The one that I most want to recreate is the music we heard the last night in town. Phil and I had visited two major music cities—Memphis and Nashville—but had hardly spent time in either, thus missing the reason why most people go and visit them. I couldn’t quite understand the importance that people lent to this idea of an energy filled music town, which makes for the heart of a city. In New Orleans I was hoping we would spend a bit more time learning the heart of the place, and luckily our host had a music venue in mind! I say luckily because it is rare to find people playing music solely for the love of music, and that’s what I experienced at the Candlelight Lounge in Tremé. The musicians came in and out throughout the night; new ones added, some left, but always a core group that brought the audience through the 2 sets. I watched each guy as he was playing his trumpet or tuba or trombone (yay trombone!), and the joy of playing was evident; each player was having a ton of fun egging on each other, which made it SUCH a great experience. For the first time I came to understand the deep roots that music has in Memphis and Nashville and New Orleans and how it can have a real power in bringing people from all walks of life together. Maybe just for 2 sets and a 20 min intermission, but there is something there that taps into our inner spirit, binds us together. I want to know…how can/does this tremendous power manifest itself in our day-to-day interactions?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Art in Arkansas

Before I go into how I would move to New Orleans if there weren’t hurricanes and scary venomous things, I’m gonna post on ACAC. ACAC is short for Arkansas Community Arts Cooperative. The basic structure is that members buy into the cooperative ($20/yr) and receive access to other artists, to performance spaces, to gallery space and to an org who can publicize their work. I interviewed them mostly because I was interested in the issue of access to arts materials for poor artists and the idea of having engaged community involvement in the arts.

What I learned regarding these two points wasn’t necessarily interesting; ACAC lends tools to members who don’t have money upfront to afford certain expensive materials, and their engaged community thus far has mostly been their own paying members. What I found interesting in talking to this organization was board interactions and its decision-making processes, risk taking in trying to build a larger funding base, and how to convince people to take ownership of a collective.

Taking ownership in a collective is something that Maura and I have talked a lot about, but this organization was no further along in answering this question than we ever were in our conversations. Does a project have to start off as a collective, with a collective spirit, to be successful? Or can this collective spirit develop over time? The ACAC’s position is a little different given its non-profit structure with a board. That automatically makes a top-down triangle structure of leadership. What’s going on at my house is much more organic, but also in some ways much more intentional. It seems that in the present day, people are quick to write a check, but are less willing to become involved…luckily, I think Maura has been successful in inviting the right people in to learn baking and to take a more active role in contributing to the collective…but how does one nurture those few who could be the core, the solid base of something great? Encouragement only goes so far...

My thoughts are that there must continue to be a fun, light-hearted and creative atmosphere for people to want to stay involved in collectives of any kind. For me, that means most importantly that the solid core of the collective must be happy and healthy and not burnt out…no one wants to be involved if an environment is stressful and the people are strung out…

The second point I’m wanting to think more about in starting and running organizations is risk taking. For example, ACAC is taking a big risk in the coming months moving from an affordable space into one where they will have to find ways of generating more revenue in order to afford it. How much risk is too much, and how much is just enough? Can I learn to be a better risk taker? I like everything to be under control and often it is hard to let go…is this just something you learn to do if you’re interesting in starting your own venture? What the person from the organization said about this risk was two things: first, it is a calculated risk. Based on what they have in the bank and what he thinks they can fundraise, he thinks it is worth it. Secondly, he has adopted the opinion…if taking this risk does not work out and ends in the closing of the organization, then maybe they weren’t meant to stick around anyway. It’s sort of like the attitude that I encountered both at Against the Grain and CreateHere…the org will continue to exist if there is a need, but if things don’t work out we shouldn’t dwell on it and we should be off to the next thing! Wow, I should just let go and really try to adopt this attitude…

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I've been taking my sweet time writing about the various organizations that I've talked with down here in the south. Mostly because I feel I need a few days to reflect before I jump in with any thoughts or criticisms, but brain does not function in weather that is hotter than 90 degrees. I don't remember the last time it was less than 95 degrees and humid. Like walking into a shower, only instead of's sweat, and it's not refreshing. Since there is no cooler weather in the future, I will attempt to describe the orgs I have visited, but you'll have to excuse my half-formed thoughts...

Right before staying at The Farm, we drove to Hohenwald, TN to meet up with a woman who started the Center for Holisitc Ecology (CHE). Unfortunately we were unable to meet person to person, but I had a good phone conversation instead. From what I learned about CHE, the few things that I took away with me were:

1. Do not take on huge projects alone. You can be the coolest, most ambitious, super hard working person EVER, but without major will be the end of you, and ultimately the end of the organization you put so much time into. The woman who I spoke with has started most of the projects run by CHE and it is up to her to find the funding, do the ideas work, do everything promotion-wise, and STILL teach at Gaia University, the other endeavor she is a major player in. Sure, there are other people on staff, but only until September...then what? Instead of enjoying your life AND making a major impact, it would seem that neither can function well...stress and little sleep seems what you'd be signing up for.

2. Decide: Global? National? Local? An organization can be all three. It is really important though to maintain an organized structure, and if the organization is pretty global, there must be strateges in place for how to connect on a local level within a community you're working in. Reading about orgs making large impacts, one of the suggestions was to make the volunteers and the people who are cheerleaders for the organization feel like they are wanted. When others are convinced of what you're trying to acomplish, it is that much easier to convince local leaders that you are doing good wouldn't have a lot of cheerleaders if you weren't well intentioned. I have become interested in organizations' sizes and am curious how EDs manage larger, more national/global organizations. I can barely handle keeping in contact with a handful of people, let alone a whole world! My worry is that big organizations, while they may have more capacity to help and often can make larger impacts, end up being really impersonal. But...impersonal for who? Perhaps the local chapter of an org has a good relationship with that specific community and people involved on both sides of the help feel completely engaged! Maybe it just ends up that the ED and the staff in the big national office are the ones who lose out on that personal interaction...

3. I am still interested in this idea of the role that women play in the green movement. The idea of the 7 sisters program started by CHE is all about telling the stories of inspiring women in the green movement. The hope is that other women reading these stories will be inspired to become engaged...but...who will read these stories? And stories are stories...not money for you, not a job, not a real life experience that makes you feel empowered, etc. I need to brainstorm what sort of program would work for me, make a bigger impact, etc.

4. Find an income generator! CHE conducts permaculture classes and makes other money somehow through grants, but hearing of their financial struggles in funding staff I immediately began thinking...couldn't they start selling the stuff produced at their permaculture farm? Couldn't there be a consulting/building component for strawbale housing or for even landscaping using permaculture techniques? I know the org is all about education, but there must be something that makes money...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Take that, Ozarks!

According to Acadia, my college buddy and native Arkansan, the Ouchita Mountains are equal to if not better than the famous Arkansas Ozarks that everyone talks about. Well, I haven't seen the Ozarks, but I will say that the view from Flatside Mountain in the Ouchitas was pretty impressive. Especially with the sun setting and a huge lightning storm in the background!

We've been spending a few restful days in Little Rock. Boy, it's been nice not to drive. Admittedly, Phil has been doing a lot of driving...I've discovered that my lids start closing about 3 hours into driving and we have to switch places...but it all works out. The day before we got to Little Rock, we stopped off in Memphis, which is a city I'd like to see more of. Went to the Civil Rights Museum which was of course EMOTIONAL, especially given its location in the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated, and after took a wander through Beale Street. The music street akin to Times Square in NY. If you're a tourist in Memphis you gotta go, but I would say probably good to avoid on a day to day basis as a local Memphis-ite. We got to Little Rock (3 hours away) and...ahhhhh rest at last. We've been staying here since Friday night and are headed out tomorrow morning to New Orleans.

So far, we've just relaxed. We visited Heifer International Ranch and saw the villages that are part of their educational program for students. Houses that are replicas of traditional homes in Thailand, Guatemala, Appalachia, etc. They also have animals which are examples of what sort of aid thety give to families across the world looking to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Meet Raj the camel!!

Afterwards, since it is SO UNBEARABLY HOT in the South, we drove to a watering hole and jumped in! The water was disappointingly warm and not totally refreshing, but worth it nonetheless. We ended the day with the hike up Flatside Mountain that I described above. Today has been about learning the city and meeting with local orgs. Met with ACAC, a local artist collective, and talked about their structure a bit. More reflections on them and CHE (the one in TN that I haven't talked much about) soon...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Building School at The Farm

While on the Farm, Phil and I stayed at the EcoVillage Training Center...when the huge split happened in the 80s where people either left or formed some sort of income generator or non-profit on the Farm, a natural building/earth-loving training center was a natural progression...

The whole place seemed in a state of "almost finished," but we later learned that it is because all of the structures being built are only worked on during classes or if the interns who are on-site make it their project to finish. This means there are so many cool projects that are half built. Not a problem really, but it does give the impression that the folks at the training center have a hard time wrapping things up. Does this matter? To me, no. Perhaps to funders looking to continue to fund their work, yes? As silly as it is, it always seems to come down to how projects are perceived by the funder or how they look within a community. In the urban landscape this becomes much more of a problem. If I were to have a training center within a cityscape...could I leave projects half finished? My inclination would, since it could be an eyesore for neighbors and it may be dangerous if structures are only half finished and there are people wandering through at night. But, how are normal construction sites dealt with? Can't there just be temporary fences erected or something?

It was a neat place for sure and got me excited about building out in Taos. Can't wait to get my hands dirty! As I walked in and out of the structures and explored the waste treatment bogs/ponds I was reminded of why I want to be involved in this makes SO much sense! Human waste and food waste are composted and recycled back into the gardens, the gardens produce food to eat, the waste water is treated and then can re-enter the watertable, the water used in showers is heated by the sun, the chickens are fed by the food waste compost, etc, etc. Like the song in the Lion King: It's all a circle of life! (Duh.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

CHE and The the middle of TN...

I'm here at The Farm right now, in the middle of Tennessee. Uhhhh, where exactly? hmmm...I hope I'll find my way out eventually...

We got up at 7 in Nashville and Phil cooked breakfast at the place we were staying for that night...a bachelor pad of sorts, with these two med-techs who were SUPER friendly and totally welcoming. We got to eat some greens not dripping in oil and have real non-diner coffee! I had to be at the Center for Holistic Ecology at 11am, so we made our way out into central Tennessee on back roads after breakfast. The landscape has changed from beuatiful mountains, to farm valleys, to now just farm fields and forests, like home. When we got to CHE, apparently there had been miscommunication and the woman thought we would meet her in another location 30 minutes away at 11 when we thought we were meeting at the unfortunately I had to conduct a phone interview. Ah well, such is life. After the phone interview (which I will talk about in a future post) we went for lunch at ANOTHER mexican restaurant (3rd one in 3 days). I think the one in Chattanooga was the best of the three...Taco Mamacita, and then Local Taco in Nashville, and then this place, really in the middle of nowhere. I'd rate it similar to Gramma Mora's in Buffalo. The other two places were fabulous though! GOOD Mexican and good portions and good/fresh salsa and guacamole.

Then took a leisurely drive out to The Farm, which is where I am now. It's an interesting place to say the least. If you're not familiar, they're an intentional community started back in the 70s based on principles of nonviolence and love for the Earth. An experiment in communal living, though these days their numbers are very much reduced...went from 1500 to about 200 over the years, though recently there has been a returning of 2nd and 3rd generation "Farmies." Anyway, it was very calming to be there, and I can see why folks would find it comforting to live there. What I question, though, is...what are the merits of an intentional community?? Isn't that already exclusive in its formation? How are we as a society supposed to lift each other up if we selectively leave out some?

One argument could say that bringing together an awesome bunch of people into a living situation could spur positive change within a larger community, but how is that the case if the intentional community is so far removed from the rest of development (say in the middle of TN for instance)? What if something like the Farm is transplanted into the middle of a city neighborhood? Would it still be insular, or would it reach out to the outside community? I have yet to find really good examples of intentional communities who effectively reach out to a wider community, though I am willing to accept it if someone knows of one...

Is there a way to create an intentional community that is part of a wider community? Is it all in what passes as the intention for forming?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Green design

Visited a green supply and design company today to get a little bit of the business side of what I'm interested in. For some reason, it seems difficult to find a good middle ground between the for-profit feel of business and the money as secondary attitude of non-profits. Despite the fact that the actions of a business owner may be well-intentioned, the necessity of making money turns a warm, fuzzy feeling into more of a straight forward, clean cut business attitude. Not cut throat, but definitely no-nonsense.

The feeling inside n-habit was very similar to other supply businesses I've been in, which makes me question whether I really want something like that in the future. How does one integrate the business side and the non-profit? Is it about the atmosphere of a place or the way in which the person who runs it presents themselves and the space? Is it about offering some unprofitable programs and not batting an eyelash? How does a business make sure it is making money, but also making people in their community feel welcome to just stop by?

The thing I took away from n-habit that was most helpful for me is perhaps getting to talk to a licensed architect and asking her about that profession. What I've been wondering is...what types of licenses will be necessary for what I want to do?? There are many things I could be licensed or certified in (architect, BPI, LEED AP) but...where does that get me?

It's a funny game we play in the professional world. You could hire the least qualified person for a job just because he or she went and got a certificate that says they know more than perhaps the most qualified person who simply lacks a piece of paper that tells other that. I realize certifications are smart to have, if just for show, but there are SO many! I doubt one can get certified as an artist/builder/planner all in one? Darn, didn't think so...

Create Where??

CreateHERE!!!!! (see previous post on the organization) This is the second of two organizations that I visited in Chattanooga. Walking into their workspace, you would think that you are walking into more of a play space than any type of office. There are folks bouncing balls and brainstorming on whiteboards, the conference table has a huge bowl of candy and there are large couches and plush chairs for people to crash on. My immediate thought was 'I want to work in a place like this!' Important to remember for my future plans: a creative space that nurtures innovation and provides an atmosphere for shooting around ideas. After being bounced around from person to person, learning about what each team within the org does, I walked away with both a positive view of the organization and a few...not so positive, though definitely not negative thoughts.

In all honesty, I find myself still unclear of what exactly CreateHere does. Or maybe, what it doesn't do? When it started, the organization was primarily to support artists as drivers of the cultural economy of Chattanooga. Move cool artists to the region, support artists within the region, etc. But as they grew bigger, they took on additional societal problems...the question for them we deal with these issues, and if so, how? CreateHere functions on the idea that the methodology that they have created works in most cases on pretty much every issue, so they are able to tackle anything that is a certain size. I suppose the how, the method, is THE question for non-profits. Where is the line? When do you stop? For CreateHere, they stop in 200+ days. There is a time limit to the organization...something I've never really heard of before. What are the pros and cons of a timeline? Like I said in a previous post, many orgs that have been around for too long often lose sight of their mission and continue doing things just to be "doing things." Perhaps this is an alternative? With a set time limit, there is a need to find tangible solutions NOW and to act on them NOW. But after the time is up...has everything been put in place to continue that solutions-driven work? Do they expect a leader in the community to pick up where they left off? How can you be SO involved in creating solutions and then just pick up and leave? I've been thinking about this, and for the most part...I actually like their concept, but I think it only applies in certain situations. They are good at targeting specific problems within a community and fixing it, but I don't think this 5 year time limit works well when entering and committing to assisting with many social can't give services, help people so they are reliant on your aid and then say "okay, time limit is up...goodbye!" That's like foreign aid. Not that I'm saying CreateHere is doing that, but more it is something that should be--and for the most part I think is--in the forefront of their minds when starting new initiatives...

Another question that arose when speaking with them about their mission was: well, what exactly is cultural economy? Is it the vibrant nightlife, public art, good concerts that exist in a region? Or is it that the economy has risen to such a level that the residents are able to support the arts/artists? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Artists that act as a boost for economy, or a boosted economy which will act as the supporter for artists? Like the chicken and the egg theory, I think it is totally circular; artists will bring their social commentary and their creative ideas to change a region's economy, and the economy does or doesn't support their continued stay. CreateHere talks a lot about cultural economy, but I am wondering...what about calling it the creative economy??

After leaving, Phil and I talked a little about what we thought of the organization and came up with a good descriptor: sleek. CreateHere is good at marketing themselves and they have an image which screams "we creative people will find a solution!" Problems seem like they are dealt with in a matter-of-fact fashion...if something works, great, and if it doesn't, throw it away and start on something new. On the surface, there is this can-do attitude, but for me, it all seemed a bit overwhelming, so I decided to go back to the basics of the organization to understand its structure and how it functions. The structure is very different from most other orgs I've encountered. As Sheldon explained, there is the "mom and dad" (the founders) and then there is everyone else. There is equal power in decision making for the most part, though each team has very well defined tasks and stuff they need to be working on so the decision making process, at least on the surface, does not seem to be haphazard. I like this model, only I worry about it's scalability. To a certain extent, they've proved it to be unscalable; last year they found themselves at 30 staff members and have strategically downsized to 15 this year, a more manageable number. With my experience in non-hierarchical structures (yay EcoReps!!), I'd say that's about right. Though it's a little different since the staff at this organization is being paid a little more than I was at the time, there is an issue of pointing fingers, becoming disorganized, and simply not being able to follow who is doing what and what tasks are being forgotten. To have a successful large non-hierarchical structure, there would have to be one person hired just to manage what all the groups were doing! All in all though, I thought that CreateHere had some really neat stuff going on...the only other thing I need to seriously think about is the tendency for gentrification to creep in with the kind of stuff they are doing...

Choo Choo

Went to Chattanooga…I don’t know how I feel about it. Perhaps it is because we mostly saw the gentrified areas and talked to people about creating a better Chattanooga, but it all seemed a little too perfect. Bike friendly, pedestrian friendly, lots of public art…but no mixing of cultures, no bunches of people smushed together and forced to make things work. Too planned is the word maybe? Makes me wonder how effective having very clean cut development plans actually are. Everything seemed a-okay, but there must be conflict, no? And if there isn’t…am I uncomfortable with it because I don’t know what that could or would look like? I’m thinking it’s more of the former than the latter. I certainly hope if cooperation and beautification and celebration, etc. all worked in tandem that I would be intelligent enough to recognize a good thing when I saw it.

In any event, I met with CWLI (see previous post on it) today. Rather, I met with a woman named Marj, one of the seven founding members of the woman’s organization. It was interested in meeting her on two levels: 1) I learned some answers and more to the questions I had about her specific organization and 2) I learned a little about why she is so passionate about it, how it got started, and why she is still (13+ years later) just as enthusiastic about it as she was in the beginning. I’ll speak to the second point, since this is something I have been thinking a lot about lately…is it possible to remain just as passionate about and effective in an organization 5, 10, 20 years down the line? In many organizations that have been existing for what seems like f-o-r-e-v-e-r, I often find it the case that the employees are simply carrying out tasks that were invented and implemented ages ago, regardless of their effectiveness. That has less to do with personal passion and effectiveness, though I think the effectiveness and passion of the top runners often has a heavy influence on the attitudes and actions of the employees. From what I gathered from her conversation, she is passionate about women's issues because, well, she IS a woman. I'm curious though, even if leadership is something she still so strongly believes in, how can she continually be so convinced in the mission of her organization? How does one avoid burnout on an issue?

We talked a bit about organizational structure, which became much more relevant with interviewing additional organizations, especially women-focused orgs. I was correct in my previous blog post when I said I thought CWLI targeted natural leaders within a community, women already making something of themselves and working with them so that it hopefully trickles down to other women who are not so self-motivated and who I guess would be classified as the "down and out." This trickle-down theory...does it actually work? This is a question that I asked to an organization in Nashville today who works with the "down and out" population...and was not surprised to learn that though they may work with women that are lower on the totem pole, it still comes down to the fact that whoever is participating--either in CWLI or Against the Grain--has to WANT to be there. Has to volunteer themselves to change.

...really? What if someone wants to better their life, but it takes a program like AtG to figure that out? If AtG spends money on training a woman who fails their program and only relaizes after the fact that they need to do a complete that wasted resources? For the most part, I would think the answer to that would be no, not wasted, but it certainly puts a strain on the organization when proving success rates to funders...

Anyway, back to CWLI. It was certainly nice to connect with a woman in TN and hear the same issues that are in Buffalo are in TN, are in Iowa, are name it. But I knew that. It's like the story that Marj told me about CWLI starting: everyone got together weekly to talk about things that has happened during the week, complaining about inequality, etc. but nothing ever came of it! What was more interesting to me was the topics that were discussed in the mentorship program that they run. Many of the topics were about using knowledge of the male-dominated world to the woman's advantage ( to be politically savvy, using power, authority, and influence effectively in the workplace....). What this basically says to me is...act like a man to be accepted as a successful business/career woman in our society. Yikes. I understand that it can be necessary to use some of these tools and "act like a guy," but I believe this thinking is problematic. By assigning gender roles to specific qualities and by assuming that power and authority doesn't come naturally to some women, which it definitely does, we already have a huge gender separation! I don't know if there is much of an alternative and I think this argument is rather like the argument surrounding race (if you talk about it, it will continue to exist, but...if we ignore it, it may get worse because it doesn't seem like race and racism will disappear anytime soon...) In any event, meeting with Marj has gotten me to thinking about target populations, how an organization talks about and frames the issues it is tackling, and about teaching/mentoring models...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Apparently, we were all mistaken; the Titanic did NOT sink into the Atlantic on that fateful night almost 100 years ago. The Titanic was landlocked in Tennessee!

The drive into Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far one of the most horrendous examples of capitalism and overstimulation imaginable. Think Clifton Hill times 300. One thousand even. You still will not understand what Sevierville, VA is like. In addition to passing a gigantic “sinking” cruise ship with fake floating iceberg, we were coughing and choking in the 100 degree heat, which seemed to only get worse as we sat through lines and lines of traffic entering Dolly Parton’s Stampede (the cowboy version of that Medieval Times place). Perhaps think a combination of Las Vegas, Clifton Hill, and any 1970s stop-off on the highway and you might just be getting an idea of what I’m talking about.

After suffering through the traffic and million billboards before the park--much of which I slept through since Phil was driving—we arrived desperate for any kind of physical activity to stretch our legs. The ranger pointed us in the direction of three hikes, of which we chose Chimney Tops.

Hey, I thought my roofing days were over!! The climb was very steep, basically hiking up the side of a mountain, but when we got to the top…geez, what a view. The mountain is made of this uplifted rock that is sometimes grey, but also shiny like copper at times. The surrounding mountains…indescribable.

We left the national park and were STARVING, so we stopped off for a bite to eat. Phil tried the fresh mountain trout…you just have to when you’re in the area, no? Unfortunately though, we finished much later than expected. Given that we had to be in Chattanooga the next morning, we were shooting to stay at a state park in the near vicinity. Welllllll, state parks close at 10pm and we didn’t arrive until midnight…slipped under the radar, though unintentionally and not for lack of trying...

Smokey the Bear says a low chance of forest fire...

No need to worry about forest fires, because there has been a steady onset of rain the past two nights. The first night we got all the way past Beckley, West Virginia. The drive through West Virginia is breath-taking...very mountainous, cool clouds, etc. No sight of mountaintop removal, though I suspect they keep the dynamite and the unsightly coal mining production out of the sight of tourists. We certainly don't want the tourists connecting the idea of West Virginia with those terrible coal mining companies! *gasp*

We stayed in a state park almost on the state line between West Virginia and Virginia. There were these hummingbird feeders next to the check-in cabin, and right as we were checking in, there were no less than 10 hummingbirds at the feeders! They reminded me very much of seahorses since they are very awkward looking and seem to be very good at hovering. Something like 20-25 wing beats per minute for medium sized birds??

As we sat down to eat our dinner (thank you, Phil's mom!) the sky opened up. We took the food to the car and had our first official road trip dinner awkwardly munching and chatting over an open map. Our plans were to tackle the Great Smokys and then head towards Chattanooga for my first few meetings with folks there...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I'm like Spaceghost...coast to coast!

Typical last minute packing...I don't have anything ready. You may assume that I was running off to the beach and hanging around at the Italian Festival...but you'd be wrong. Instead, I was reroofing up until 3 hours ago. Ick. The good thing is, that section of my roof is done! Anyway, I feel like I need a break from things that I am supposed to be doing, so I am blogging instead of packing...

FREEEEEEEEEDOOOOMMMMMM (as William Wallace would say)! I am leaving thoughts of responsibility behind. I cannot control everything around me and nor should I try...just go with the flow and follow the tide. For a minute I thought I'd be a little sad about leaving Buffalo behind, but...nope. You see, Buffalo's like an old friend; it will always be there when you get back from your adventures. Or rather, when I get back from my adventures. If you're reading this, then you're in for a hell of a trip. Through the back roads of Tennessee, down to Cajun country and then out to the desert of the southwest...never quite knowing what we'll see, who we'll meet, or precisely where we're staying that night...stay tuned for some (mis) adventures! Mom and Dad, I promise I won't faint and knock out my two front teeth this time...

Friday, July 16, 2010

CHE (outside of Nashville)

The Center for Holistic Ecology (CHE) is exactly about what it sounds: a holistic approach through integrating self, social and ecological systems. Never environment over people or people over the environment...all together at once. To accomplish this approach, they capitalize on the power of networking--bringing people, resources, services and organizations together to get the conversations started.

Though it seems like they do take a really holistic approach to everything and they offer classes in my favorite thing (natural building, of course!), what I am more interested in is their Seven Sisters Program, though I don't know if it's through them, or if it is just another program...I was confused by their website. The first sentence on the "about" section of this particular program is: "...women please stand up—and take your place at the head of the green movement." Ummmmm YES, okay. The program seeks to provide support for women trying out inspiring ideas that help the planet. Support monetarily and emotionally. I really see this as a valuable component to their entire program since women have SO much to bring to the table, especially considering the independence and ambition of working women (not that it has changed, but that society has made it much easier over time...). Apparently though, no one is currently running this program, which is a bit sad to hear given that I wanted to interview them about their target group of women, their perspective on women in the green movement, etc. I will definitely ask them about this, but may have to focus more on other things given that the program isn't up and running...

Regarding the organization as a whole, I am curious in asking about location. Personally, I think it makes a lot of sense to be close to or in a city and teaching much of this holistic approach. In cities are where most people live, not to mention that there are enormous social problems (racial divides, one school district favored over another, poor/rich neighborhoods, least in Buffalo, etc) which seem to happen everywhere, but on a much larger scale in urban settings). To be sure, there are definite advantages in teaching permaculture in more rural settings, but I want to see what pros/cons were weighed in the decision process of CHE's place selection.

Lastly, I am curious to ask about what else but natural building. Natural building using what materials? Do they offer classes on it? Are their structures built using natural methods? From what it seems, CHE connects with the Farm who offers classes...

...The Farm? As in THE farm? If you've never read about it and about intentional communities, you should. I wonder if CHE is an intentional community like The Farm, or if it more mainstream, more of a classroom rather than a place for people to live, founded during the hippie era, etc. My friend Gwen just wrote a story on intentional communities like the Farm and Arcosanti (in AZ), so I am sorta curious to check it out. Maybe I'll stop by at The Farm on the way...

ACAC (Little Rock, Arkansas)

Gettin' close to time of departure. T minus...2 days and less than 12 hours! I'm continuing researching organizations (last minute)...I have no organizations yet that I am visiting in Little Rock, but there are a ton that I want to chat with. I'm almost positive I'm meeting with Arkansas Community Arts Cooperative (ACAC), so I'll report on them...

I consider myself an artist of sorts. I am involved in the building trades, green construction, and material reuse...but I believe that nothing should be done unintentionally...building should be done in an artistic way because I believe that buildings can be both green AND uniquely beautiful! This is part of the reason why I am visiting arts organizations, because of my interest in the arts. The second is that I believe that artists make up a large part of a region's culture and thus supremely important in sustaining a healthy city.

In addition to simply being curious about this organization, what I am perhaps most interested in speaking with ACAC about is the issue of access since this is a topic that I have come across often. In the mission statement it says "resources to artists and the community including those who would not normally have access to them." I am curious to see what has been successful in terms of outreach, receiving money to do stuff like providing resources at low or no cost, etc.

The second thing that caught my eye on their website was encouraging involvement. This interests me primarily because I am looking for strategies for community development and I am wondering if they've used public art and involvement in large art installations at all to get conversations within the Little Rock community started.

If so, perhaps something to think about in Buffalo...large "art days" where it goes beyond lot clean up, brings together both artists and community members, and results in long-lasting art installations. Paintings, mosaics, building structures (see cityrepair website...village building convergence...) The important thing to be considered in that is...bringing together people in a fruitful way that focuses on INVOLVEMENT, not exclusivity...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

(n)habit--environmental supply + design (Nashville, TN)

(n)habit is the first BUSINESS I am visiting. I have chosen to visit a combination of both organizations and businesses because I am curious to judge the differences between the two. What makes sense as a business and what makes sense as a non-profit? Are there ways to do both? The whole field of socially-minded business seems to suggest that there is, but what ideas will actually work in the sort of set up that seeks profit (yet not too much) and helps the community (but only to the extent feasible)? Hard question to even begin to answer, yet it is always interesting to see what others have to say on the subject.

Specific to (n)habit: It is a green building supply and design company. They also offer some installation services...and they promote other businesses (where to get biodiesel, solar panels, etc)? A nice gesture, but also means that maybe they lean more towards information sharing and promoting a greener healthier future than ONLY seeking profit.

Looking through the products offered on their website, I find there are some products that would be considered questionable as a "green" product for many building professionals. It returns to the question that I and all people involved in green construction ALWAYS return to...what do you compromise on? Concrete retains heat very well and is used in many radiant floor systems, yet Portland cement is not the most eco-friendly of we compromise and use it? And should we offer tints for it? Where are those tints from? Are things locally sourced? Why sell paints in cans...could they mass produce natural paints which are even better than the manufactured ones and just tint that? The salvaged lumber that they list on the website...salvaged from where? Nearby? You get the idea.

It'll be interesting to speak with the people at (n)habit, for sure. There is a green supply store of sorts that just had their opening in Buffalo this past week (I couldn't go on account of the Fancy and Delicious Fundraiser...), and so it will be interesting to see how the two differ as they continue to grow....

Against the Grain (Nashville, TN)

Against the Grain's mission: "...empowering single mothers and their children, enabling them to become responsible leaders in their homes and communities." Though I am certainly not a mother yet (...if ever...sometimes I think to the chagrin of my mother since she would LOVE grandkids), I can connect on the basis of women's empowerment and thus why I chose to look into what they do...

AtG's main program as it is presented on their website is 180, so called because women who enter the program have realized they must do a 180 in their lives in order to become more self-sufficient and successful or else they are doing themselves and their children a disservice. This program includes both life skills classes like Budgeting 101, parenting classes, Jobs for Life, Financial Stewardship, Purpose Driven Life and Self Esteem classes and referral services/educational opportunities (through scholarships and partnerships with several local colleges and tech-schools). It is a two year program, which is something that is unique and encouraging. My sense from having looked at other programs is that 6 months is way too short to turn someone's life around, so 2 years is a much better commitment--both on the part of the organization and the women enrolled.

Year one: The women in the program are partnered with a life-coach. Questions immediately arise...what is a life coach? How involved are they in a woman's life? Are there daily, weekly, monthly check-ins? How supportive is the relationship between the coach and the woman? Can it or has it ever become accusatory, or negative in any way? How are the life-coaches trained, if at all?

Year two: "the life-coach and the AtG staff work with the mother to ensure the implementation of the training and completion of their customized plan. The mother also becomes an encourager for a new mom beginning the program." How is year two different from year one? How is it the same? Does the mother get trained to be an encourager? Can they eventually become a life-coach?

In reading past newsletters and other pages on their website, I also came away with additional questions that I hope will be clarified once I speak with someone at the organization: in addition to helping the mothers, does the organization help their kids as well (what is the kids 180 program, what is the Image Builders Mentors Program)? How much does religion play into this organization? How are the women supported...financially, emotionally, with accomodations, food, etc. What are some examples of women passing through the program? What types of encouragement or check-in has proven to be most effective in leading to success and empowerment of women? What is the "incentive pantry"? Do life skills that are taught include homeownership and DIY projects?

Monday, July 5, 2010

CreateHere (Chattanooga, TN)

In the ABOUT section of CreateHere’s website it reads, “we love our city for what it is, has been and could become.” Funny, since that’s what I think when I think of Buffalo. I see Buffalo for what it could be. So much potential! In stating this sentiment, the organization CreateHere could be anywhere, really—a city in Nebraska or a city in England, or wherever—because it is a universal sentiment: pride of place.

Pride of place. What does that mean? How does this idea manifest itself in an organization? Well, the idea of placemaking--of creating a space where people want to live and interact and invest in--has been around for ages, but what does it really mean to “make a place?” For CreateHere it seems as though making places comes with investing in the people of a place. Not necessarily first, but perhaps in conjunction with the beautification of an area, with supporting local businesses, etc. What caught my eye about this organization is the way in which they use their programs as a method to “harness the economic potential of creative individuals.”

Who counts as a creative individual? At face value, a creative individual might be an artist, a person who paints, sculpts, carves, photographs, makes t-shirts, and generally documents a place. The result of their work is a commentary or criticism on the place or the social happenings of that place. Well, what if we took those individuals and supported them monetarily? It would be a statement of: “we believe in fostering the creative culture in our city.” Not only that, but perhaps these rising artists within the community fostering the creative community may have a creative influence on other sectors of the city such as organizations, businesses, and even government. CreateHere has a program called MakeWork which grants money to individuals. Under the stipulations of receiving money, each artist must attend sustainability sessions through their other program SpringBoard.

Being an Environmental Policy major, I immediately thought sustainability in an environmental context, but what SpringBoard seems to be more is a peer-to-peer network of individuals who throw ideas around and come up with strategies for success. This can definitely help ensure the longevity of the influence that the artists have in the Chattanooga community, but I am also interested in my original thought. What if these artists had to attend environmental sustainability sessions? Would the materials and dyes and paints and methods become way less toxic? Would their work be influenced by this idea of environmental stewardship? If the economy is a “green” economy, what will that mean for the creative minds of a city in the near future? I think that CreateHere has their mind in the right place in supporting first, and then providing the artists tools for their continued success, because without those first 2 steps there would be no room for talking about toxicity of materials, etc. But I wonder…could there be a third step of environmental stewardship which would make the program increasingly unique and perhaps more attractive to a wider range of funders?

My second interest lies internally: how does the organization function? Who are the leaders? How do they do outreach? How do they give all this money to support artists?

All questions to be answered in an interview, but what I noticed immediately about this organization was that like the CWLI (see previous post), CreateHere believes in having good leadership to drive their mission and to drive change in the city they love. To this end, they have created a program called LeadHere. The program is made of fellows who are selected in an application process. The fellows enter into CreateHere and experience hands on community building efforts, which is something that I think is invaluable. How does one get experience in leadership and community building efforts by simply studying it? A person must become ENGAGED. The best part of this program seems to be that it fosters and encourages creative solutions to pervasive problems within the community, though that could be me just hoping that this is the main goal of the LeadHere program. Often organizations function very differently from what it seems like on the surface, so I will have to investigate upon interviewing them. I was thinking, though, that there needs to be something similar in Buffalo…an organization that gives creative people the power to achieve innovative solutions, since doing the same old same old often seems to fall a little short, no?

Saturday, July 3, 2010


To clarify, in looking at organizations and businesses, I am looking at the following categories (plus a few more if I have time):

Organizational Structure: Who is in charge? How is it legally set up (nonprofit, business, through gov't, etc)? Are there checks and balances to avoid power struggles? Is the day to day functioning organized or totally haphazard?

Resource Capacity: How are they funded? Do they have several funders? Who is working on fundraising? Do they have the potential to generate their own income and cover overhead costs? Are they expanding, shrinking, staying the same?

Programmatic Capacity: Do they have a variety of programs or focus on one thing? Who is in charge of running the programs? Do they have employees or volunteers spearheading programs? Who is their target audience? Are there programs that maybe they should undertake but do not have the capacity to do so?

Networking Capacity: How are they connected to the larger community? Is their board influential, involved in other things? Do they do outreach beyond their target audience?

Political Capacity: How are they perceived within their community? Do they work well with government officials in the city? Are they in the news often?

The "green" factor: Are they taking steps toward a greener economy?

I will not always comment on every category, just the ones I find most interesting about the organization/business being highlighted. Let me know if you think of additional categories that I should be considering...