I guess I have always been kind of a third party guy. When given a list of choices, it's not unfamiliar territory for me to feel like “None of the Above” would be a better option than anything covered by A thru D. It's my understanding that some of my elementary school teachers read these columns and I am pretty sure they can attest that my status as a square peg in a round hole started at a pretty young age.
One of the first points that I recognized this trait in myself was as a teenager. I was on the tail end of a generation that was basically required to make a decision between the Beatles and the Stones. And I went with the Who. It's just that they felt better to me. Yeah, I love the Big Two bands and they apparently got more girls, but Keith Moon drove his limo into a pool after he kicked the hotel security guard's ass. Maybe it was the first signs of a latent bipolar disorder, but I was drawn to those extremes.
More so than Moon and his antics, it was the message in the songs that engaged my teenaged psyche. Where Moon, Entwistle and Daltry constructed the signature sonic foundation for the band's messages, they were powered by the words of Pete Townshend. He was the first real rock poet and the quintessential angry young man. His stories of honesty, angst and social anxiety were extremely personal odes and they resonated hard with me. Things were going to get better, because the disaffected youth were going to take on the establishment. Better than anything else, all this was gonna happen on Main Street, in full view of the public. It would be the ultimate self-crucifixion, while the whole world finally saw what we'd been through and finally heard what we'd been talking about all along.
But one problem happened on the way to anarchy. Like Townshend's contemporary Jimi Hendrix suggested, I got experienced. I met more people - many of them like me and many of them apparently more accomplished than me in any way that society might choose to measure. In the realm of potential world changers, I realized I was just some guy. Even more than that, I got the chance to travel. While I was in industry I had the opportunity to do business in 45 countries, including many who had a rich history of civil disobedience. Honestly, that path did not look like it usually ended well.
None of these experiences, however, weighed on me as much as one that happened right here on American soil. By sheer coincidence, I was in Seattle for a senior management meeting in 1999 at the same time as the “riots” against the WTO. I watched it with several of my coworkers, who hailed from all over the world, from the window of a mid-level suite at the Four Seasons. It was scary. It was ugly. It was embarrassing. And, as much as I loved the Who, it was not nearly as cool in person as it was in a song.
One of the statements that struck me that day was from one of my Malaysian colleagues. As we looked down on the mess, he said, “There has to be an alternative to all that anger. Imagine if they took all that energy and did something positive instead.”
It struck at that moment that he really had a heck of an idea. In fact, it still does.
E'Ville, Indiana - Taking Back a Block
One of my inspirations for community activism goes back to when I lived in Evansville, Indiana. Like many towns of a similar vintage, there were parts of Evansville that hinted that the city had seen better days. One neighborhood was a particular problem. It had crack houses before we really called them by that name. Rumor had it that this was where you would go to get a streetwalker. It was a nasty situation. There were any number of potential solutions bandied about, including increased police presence or even demolishing many of the structures.
Instead an interesting thing happened. With very little fanfare, around 20 young professionals bought every house in the neighborhood. The moved in as a group, remodeled, rebuilt and remade the area in one summer. No cops or government funds, just a group of people with a common vision of revitalizing a corner of the city, making the most of their own space and creating a comfortable place to raise a family.
Gone were the stumbling drunks; in rolled the double strollers. Basically, they got in there and got after it. It's a compelling and simple concept - one that is overlooked as we look for solutions to the problems that confront us today.
Do-it-yourself is and always will be the most direct route to results.
Free Your Mind and a Fest Will Follow
The first time I met Ben Cohen, I was serving on the Board of Directors for D-Street Entertainment when he showed up to pitch an idea for an original music festival to be held in Freeland. If you had to pick one word to describe my first impression of Ben, it would have been “purposeful” and, in the grand tradition of the Little Rascals, his purpose that day centered around “Hey, kids, let's put on a show.”
The best part was he wanted it all to be free. So that's what he did. That first year it was cold out, but people showed up and had a good time. Those who had supported or sponsored the festival were pleasantly surprised at the outcome. When you talk to Ben, one can see he is still stunned with the moment he looked out from the stage and “saw all those people - people with their families - and all of them seemed to be having a good time.”
The idea wasn't built on complacency, and the Free Music Fest has continued to grow since that first year. Ben indicates that the decision to add a charity disc golf tournament at the course adjacent to the park in Freeland was a big turning point. Ben said, “When Raymond Benaway came on and built the charity event, it gave the day so much more meaning. Now we have a reason that we are out there and it really brought everything together.”
Concertgoers agree with Ben, as attendance has grown in each year of the event. The charities agree, as events related to the Free Music Fest have now raised thousands of dollars for local causes. And sponsors agree, as they have continued to step up to the plate with financial support and volunteer staff. And local bands agree, as Ben now fields calls well in advance of the event asking for the opportunity to play.
You have to love it when a plan comes together. When you talk to Ben about how this effort has blossomed, he makes an interesting point. “I spend an awful lot of time on Free Music Fest. More than I probably should. But I spend so much of my life scrambling just to make sure I can make things work for my family, I feel like I need the outlet. I needed something else to make all that effort worth it and this festival is my way of giving back.” It's not like my opinion on the subject matters much, but Ben Cohen is a cool guy.
Apathy. Decay. Violence. Opportunity. Sustainability. Vision. These are the range of terms that quickly jump into the conversation when you sit down with Padraic James, founder of Grow Saginaw. The year-old non-profit was founded to find solutions for urban redevelopment, mainly around cleaning up and maintaining some of the 7,000 vacant lots that dot Saginaw's residential neighborhoods. The annual cost to taxpayers for even a minimal maintenance on these plots runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Over a cup of coffee, Padraic told me “I used to be angry about things, but I found that it felt better to actually do something about it.” It's fair to say that's what Grow Saginaw is “doing.” In its first year the organization established several community plots, focusing mainly on landscaping or creating green spaces. James is currently working with city government to see if there are ways to expand his organization's role. Current ordinances make it difficult to grow food crops in the city limits or on city owned land. Local food production is a staple of the community gardening movement and would be a great addition to the local effort.
The local rules also currently place tight restrictions on the acquisition and ownership of properties currently held by the land bank. Allowing a group like Grow Saginaw to purchase and take responsibility for some of these spaces might create a real opportunity to clean up neighborhoods that need the attention and, in effect, create a public park system operated by a local non-profit. Grow it and they will come, if you will.
It is too early in the process to see how Grow Saginaw will evolve, but I wish Padraic the best in his efforts. He is a keeper and one of the real gems in our activist community.
Smashing the Hats in the Ring
Chris Girard comes from a long line of doers. For around 40 years, his family has been involved with Do-All, an organization that creates educational and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. It is an amazing organization that has a positive influence in our community, as well in the lives of the people it serves. From its manufacturing operations, to the culinary program, to the retail art and book stores, it is a model of innovation, delivering quality programs that are generally much more cost effective that simply parking the target clientele on a long term entitlement program. In full disclosure, I serve on the Board of Directors for Do-All and am very proud to do so.
This year Chris filed for a spot on the Bay City Commission and was seated recently after winning an unopposed election. Unfortunately, many offices in Bay City have only one candidate, so Chris is not alone in this regard. Even more unfortunate are his early experiences in the office. The most obvious example is in the aftermath of a very contentious vote with respect to wages paid on city contracts.
I've never talked about the topic with Chris and my guess is that we probably disagree on the value of a prevailing wage ordinance. What we can agree is that the outpouring of venom toward him - and threats aimed at Do-All - in social media and on-line comments to news stories following the vote - is reprehensible. And people wonder why no one throws their hat in the ring for these offices.
I knew before he sought office that Chris Girard was more conservative than me in his worldview. I also knew that he has spent a lot time improving the lives of people that he has no obligation to help. Rather than slag him for a vote I wish was different, I am going to shake his hand for serving, put an arm on his shoulder, continue to bend his ear and do everything I can to make sure my opinion is worth listening to.
What Would Harry Do?
Recently, I have been thinking a quite a bit about one of my biggest influences, a guy named Harry Roberts. I met Harry though his two sons, with whom I spent a couple summers in the 80's inspiring Kid Rock songs in the Great Up North. Harry was an original Bohemian, having hung out with Ginsberg and Hoffman and all the other sages of that generation as a young man in upstate NY. He's has been deceased for several years now and I have to say I really miss him.
I remember once when I was locked in a particularly infuriating situation, where someone who didn't mean it, but certainly should have known better wronged me. It was really just a result of a bunch of young people living their own lives in close proximity to each other. When I downloaded the story on Harry and asked him how I ought to handle it, he gave me a phrase I have fallen back on repeatedly throughout my life - “Matt, sometimes you just have to be a hippie about it.”
This saying has morphed in meaning over the years as I have been on my own personal quest to understand its true weight as a guiding principal. At one point I did my best to take it literally, but my own version of the road trip in the Electric Kool Aid Acid test was clearly not a sustainable path. And, though I still occasionally take to the street with a sign in hand, I am not much of a threat to incite a riot these days.
Seattle weighs heavily on my mind.
What I have finally settled on is an idea I shared with the subjects of this story as I investigated their community building efforts. I'd summarize it like this: Even if it is all true and the bad guys are winning, there is a “they' - all the conspiracies are right and the government is actively working to suppress our potential; I am still going to get up and try to have a great day. I am going to seek out positive people. And I'm going to try and do something difference-making myself.
In many ways what I am suggesting is a very American solution. Despite the current version of the myth, we didn't start out as a capitalist society. The first European settlers here established one of the great communes in recorded history. They landed on this Continent without a real good grasp of what they were getting themselves into. What they did in that crisis was get to work, doing what they knew how to do best.
The cabinetmaker made cabinets and traded them for corn. The cobbler repaired shoes for the wainwright and the blacksmith as the created farm implements from scratch, based on the materials at hand. It was a society based around effort, mutual success, and mutual failure.
It wasn't assumed that any one person was sustainable on their own. It sounds like the kind of place I'd like to live. And, if I continue to meet the right friends and manage my time right, it's apparently the kind of place I live in right now.