Connect to Mother Earth

I walked into the kitchen and had to squint. The morning sun was shining brightly through the door. It’s been a challenging winter; judging by the number of people walking and running outside yesterday, we’re ready for it to end. The cardinals, goldfinch and house finches are emptying my bird feeders again.

I’m itching to get back into my garden—fantasizing about trimming my redbud tree, opening my pond and hanging a set of Japanese lanterns above the Old Pond Garden. It’s time to bring the compost bucket back into the kitchen and thaw the lid on the composting bin. These are all ways I connect with my mother, the earth.

John Muir, naturalist said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Earth is where we come from. One of the strongest connections we have, but we rarely think of it.

I’m taking my classes outside to collect materials for spring art projects. Their resistance reinforced my concern that many kids don’t have the love of the soil and all that grows from it. Richard Louv’s article is hopeful abut helping kids connect to the earth, and how it will help us create the solutions to our Mother Earth’s challenges.

In a speech at Drake University last fall, President Olafur Grimsson of Iceland highlighted the connections between ice, energy, and food. “As the Greenland glaciers and the Arctic sea ice continue to melt faster than ever and NASA issues extreme warnings, some of us ask, a bit bewildered: Why does the political and corporate leadership of most countries honour and respect the Space Agency because it landed a man on the Moon, and recently a robot on Mars, but ignore it altogether when it gives us alarming news about Mother Earth?”

Viewing the Earth as mother gives us a paradigm for our origination from Earth, living as part of Earth, our expected return to Earth, recycled just as all biomass is recycled. When we know at a deep level that we are the Earth, we listen to the warnings and look for the creative solutions.

There are several answers, none really easy. The big answer is, “Use less energy.” Considerably less. Until we have clean energy sources that don’t add to climate change, decreasing the use of fossil fuels really makes a difference.

For me, this involves combining trips in my car, walking or riding my bike when I can. What does it look like for you? Please join the conversation.

Start with Hope

I met with a colleague this morning; she’s launching a freelance career in marketing and communications. We talked about our Be the Change dinner discussion series, and what we hope to accomplish. I’ve thought a lot about how hard it is to communicate in concrete terms, but I came a little closer this morning.

I often feel overwhelmed and helpless when I think about all the problems confronting the world today. When I feel that way, I don’t do anything. Yet I know there is a lot of power in doing something, anything. In fact, the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines is hosting a class called “The Power of Just Doing Stuff” right now. I’ve heard it’s great.

But there’s more than that to Be the Change dinner discussions. Most of my friends are passionate about one thing or another. I’m interested in a lot of  issues, but I’ve had to narrow it down to social justice. That’s still really big, but it’s easier to get my arms around than climate changeguncontrollocalfooddeathpenaltyhealthcarereform.

Then there’s the fear associated with addressing social justice issues. Will anything result from my work? Will I alienate people? Will I endanger my job? We’ve got to look at those fears and figure out whether they’re real and what’s at risk?

Once I know what’s at risk, or think I know, I have to decide whether I’m willing to take that risk. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. So be it.

And finally, what if I can’t see any results of my work? Throwing starfish back into the sea can be tiring, especially when there’s no way of seeing whether they live or die. So I hang on to Rachel Naomi Remen‘s words, “What if what you’re doing right now, is exactly what the world needs at this moment?”

Hope and Courage to Be the Change” will be the topic for Thursday, February 6, 2014. Register for any one event that includes a healthy dinner of fresh, seasonal ingredients for $30 at Christopher’s Restaurant, 2816 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines (Wheelchair Accessible). Pay by cash, check or credit card the night(s) of the event(s).

Let’s Talk Activism

What does activism mean to you? Is it writing letters, lobbying, picketing, boycotting, community building? Maybe it’s volunteering somewhere or meditating on peace.

Most people don’t even consider themselves activists. I think we are lucky, if at some point in our lives there is at least one issue important enough to spur us into action. Why do I say lucky?

Because being an activist means connecting with that which is life on Earth. All issues are issues of living on Earth. Activism is a conscious decision to be part of the creation and chaos.

Author Alice Walker says activism is the rent she pays for living on this planet. What I have to learn to pay that rent is way bigger than what I know.

I learn from, and I am inspired by others. David Korten said, “Life is most vibrant and creative when each living being finds its place of service to the whole. For our species to thrive and prosper, we must each find our place of service to one another and to the larger community of life on which our continued existence depends.”

by Kyla Cox, Next Step Program Coordinator


Hope is a Verb

It’s hard to be hopeful when we’re bombarded with news 24/7. Sometimes it’s next to impossible to scare up the courage just to go out into a world where it’s ok for almost anyone to carry an automatic weapon.

Much less to speak up about what we believe, whether it’s a big issue–climate change or a small one. Well, after a fairly thorough search, I’m pretty sure there ARE no small problems. Maybe a few inconveniences.

But I read an article this afternoon in More Magazine that takes it down to the simplest of solutions. Go back to the things that comforted you in your childhood. Mira Bartok talks about rabbits, both literary and plush. She also writes of a photo of an absent friend on her fridge; I have a small gallery of mentors who have passed away on my dresser.

I can look into their eyes at the beginning of the day and find the courage to go out into the world to seek my fortune. I also have a necklace my friend Jill made me from beads she collected while she was in Peace Corps. When I was going through a particularly difficult time of my life I wore it to meetings where I felt vulnerable and needed the courage to tell my story.

That experience of reporting an incident of sexual harassment didn’t seem like it would change the world, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that can.

A young friend of mine, at great personal cost, brought charges against a doctor who harassed her. Her courageous action means he no longer can practice. She’s made it safer for women to trust the professionals we rely on.

Jane Goodall spoke at Drake University a few years ago. She sees a fairly dire future for the planet, her beloved chimpanzees and all of us. But she talked at length about hope and about the work she continues to do to turn the curve of climate change, “What else are you going to do? You can’t just give up!”

Work for Equality

My mom was born in 1915, five years before women got the vote. She was a working mom when it wasn’t so common and I took care of my brothers, loosely speaking. Many a time I was asleep in my Dad’s armchair when mom got home with no idea where the boys were.

But as I got ready for college, I was advised to get a degree in education so I would have something to fall back on if something happened to my husband. But guess what! I graduated in 1972 with no MRS degree and no clear plan for what I wanted to be when I grew up.

That was the year Title IX was signed into law, which greatly changed sports for girls and women. My daughter swam through high school and college. I’m so grateful for the opportunities she had that weren’t available before Title IX.

I was fired from one of my first jobs because I was what would now be called a whistle blower. I worked for Community Court Services, an organization designed to protect the rights of people who were arrested but couldn’t afford to post bond.

My boss asked me to fix the stats on pretrial release recommendations so they aligned better with the Court’s decisions. I refused, resigned, gave an interview to a friend who worked for the television station, and was promptly fired. I was 24 years old.

Anita Hill brought attention to sexual harassment sometime during my career as an educator. It’s still a huge risk for a woman to make an accusation such as she did. I can only tell you I’ve had only a few male bosses that wouldn’t have qualified for harassment charges over the years. I finally took a complaint to the university. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Women across the world are at various stages of equality. Biology and culture are just two of the things that contribute to uneven rights, pay, and treatment. The work of the women’s movement is far from finished.

We must continue to negotiate for fair pay, for protection from abuse, for the right to work with dignity. I’m so grateful to all the women who came before and to those who will continue the work long after I am gone.

Remember Evelyn Davis?

I started working in Des Moines in 1980 when I was fresh out of graduate school. Iowa State University Extension hired two urban 4-H professionals to fill one position. The Polk County Extension Director’s reaction was not warm. “There’s no such thing as a free puppy” was his frequent response to our requests.

Extension negotiated with Evelyn Davis for free rent in exchange for free programming with the families, kids and staff at Tiny Tots, and we moved into an old classroom on the second floor of the old Nash Irving Middle School, then the home of Evelyn Davis’ Tiny Tots Center. It was a cold day in February 1980, and Horticulture Specialist Mohammad Khan took us on a breakneck tour through the “hood” in his tiny Nissan. Things have improved a lot since then. Hofmaster and I learned our way around the city by being lost a good deal of the time.

Evelyn Davis’ work continues through the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. The Center houses Gateway to College and other programs for individuals and families that struggle to make ends meet, much less get ahead. Ms. Davis was a force of nature that impacted me personally as well as professionally.

I felt my baby’s first kick in the hallway at Tiny Tots waiting out a tornado warning. When I brought Kate to the center a month or so after she was born, Ms. Davis took my crying child from Charlene Owens’ arms and she quieted and settled against that warm caring heart immediately.

Ms. Davis helped our nutrition education programs connect with other organizations in the community, and let us hone our teaching skills on her staff and clients. Our joint efforts brought additional ISU staff to the community to work with parenting skills, nutrition education and advise on home improvement. We turned those three classrooms into a real inner city Extension Office that impacted the community for four years.

Now the site of the old Tiny Tots Center is Evelyn Davis Park where we held our first 4-H Portable Challenge Training. We brought Sam Tower in from Washington State University to spend a week with 12 professionals from Extension, Des Moines Schools and Employee and Family Resources. Those five days began the adventure movement in the Des Moines area. That fall we created a physical education class for kids who were at risk of dropping out of high school because they were failing PE. Soon we added afterschool and summer programs, and finally corporate training and work with adult students.

Ten years later we started the Adventure Learning Center with Living History Farms and Polk County Conservation, still the premier course in Iowa. And that’s where I learned to climb poles. But that’s another story!

Celebrate Service

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming up in a week, I want to put something out there about service-learning, and how important it is to upcoming generations. This video is taken from my radio show, “We’re Entrepreneurs. We Can Help.” It features Nikola Pavelik and Lucy McCormick. Lucy is teaching humanities at Hershey Montessori School in northeastern Ohio and Nikola is Community Engagement Coordinator for the City of Dubuque.

I find that they are not unusual in their commitment to service and to mentoring young people. During the interview we all remarked at how these young people, then in their mid-20s talked about working with younger kids. Travis Wells was on the same page. He is featured in last month’s video “Kids These Days.”

Watch this spot for more words of wisdom from Generation Y. My research says there are more of them on the planet than Baby Boomers now. I personally hope they can get us out of the mess we’ve made of things. But my daughter’s response to that is “Don’t put that on us!” I think they’ve already started the job; let me know what you think after you watch this.


Scratch a Woman

“Scratch a woman; find rage” a counselor once told me. Scores of reasons can excite feminine rage, but the one scratching at me now is the social conservative labeling women who need birth control sluts and whores. The same party that screams “Second Amendment” when asked to control automatic weapons, legislates to limit abortion rights.

What’s going on?

My theory is that men, on some subconscious level, are reacting to women’s economic and political gains over the last 45 years. Remember that women didn’t have the right to vote in the US until 1920. My mom was five years old then. Women haven’t even had the vote for four full generations yet.

I was alive and awake for the women’s movement in the late 60s and early 70s. I didn’t burn any bras, but I sure don’t miss the other restrictions I grew up with. I was an honor student in high school, but it was very clear that my career choices were nursing, teaching, motherhood, and office work. I went to college expecting to find a husband and get a teaching certificate to “fall back on.” What a rude awakening when no husband showed up, and I hated teaching. Looking back, though, thank goodness. Otherwise, I’d never have learned to fly.

My anger is directed at men of the Baby Boom generation, who have benefited from the sexual freedom women felt when the pill became available. Mine is the first generation with a reliable means of birth control, able to enjoy sex without always worrying about unwanted pregnancies. Some of the same men who would make a woman pay for her own birth control, have exercised sexual freedom without recrimination for years, and famously. The only way I can make sense of it is to look at the bigger picture–the rising majority of educated women and people of color coming over the horizon in the next few decades.

China and India are nipping at western heels. Chancellor Angela Merkel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have blasted through the glass ceiling. We have a Black President. Fight or flight provides the natural choice when we are threatened. But where’s a white man to go? Now don’t get me wrong. I have sympathy for some confusion when it comes to gender roles. What I will not tolerate is the scapegoating of women and other oppressed groups.

What’s a woman to do?

My approach, after a little ranting, is to ask, “How do we move forward?” I have some ideas, and here are a couple to start–

o REALLY listen to people. There’s a guy in my art class that’s always spouting off political views I find absurd. I’ve reacted angrily before, but now I find something amusing if I can’t find a kernel of truth. I’ve asked him to help open my paint tubes, and I work at seeing his good–he loves his granddaughters, and he practices yoga.

o Read history. I’m looking forward to reading Catherine the Great, and finding out how many of the legends about her life are really true. She and Cleopatra, another powerful woman, have been rumored as ultra-sexual beings. Maybe their lives provide some clues to our current dilemma.

How about you? How will you move forward?

Get Healthy

Driving to Florida for vacation, we listened to three books–Connected, Thrive, and Switch. I learned about all of them when I worked with Healthy Polk 2020 last summer. My task was to gather a group of experts around the priority, “Empower more people to take more responsibility for maintaining their health.”

My team thought the wording of the priority judgmental. They took out “responsibility” and raised the bar from “maintaining” to enhancing. Their proposed priority reads, “Empower more people to enhance their health.” By building on strengths, people can leave stymied life roles behind, and move forward through trust-based relationships.

Of the ten Healthy Polk 2020 goals identified in 2009, this is the broadest, and the only one that addresses lifestyle and behavior. That’s where Switch comes in. It’s by Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, a book I’ve loved, shared, and used as reference for several years. Switch frames research about how change happens around a metaphor of elephant and rider.

All that Priority #8 of Healthy Polk 2020 seeks to change is, well, just the way we take care of our health, not just our physical health. My expert team defined health in broad terms, not just metabolic risk factors or healthy weight, but in terms of mental, spiritual, cultural and financial health. That’s where Thrive comes in.

Dan Buettner has conducted research all over the world, traveling to communities where people live the longest, happiest lives. One result is Thrive. Another is the Blue Zones Web site where it’s easy to spend a chunk of time, learning about yourself, and the things you can do to be healthier and happier. The Expert Team aligned their definition of health with the research of the Blue Zones project, addressing community, flow, meaningful work and other life style choices.

One of the cool things that happened with my Healthy Polk work is that about the same time we were wrapping up our work, Governor Branstad launched the Healthiest State initiative, and Wellmark announced funding for the Iowa BlueZones Project, through which ten Iowa communities will be able to develop tools and programs to live longer, happier lives.

Another gap my team identified was that neighborhoods and communities are not empowered to support and promote health. The action needed to close this gap needs further definition, but the vision is for churches, schools and neighborhood associations to develop networks that support healthy habits. Which is where the third book comes in. Connected explores the profound effect that our friends have on us. The research that caught my eye first is that people who hang out with obese people tend to gain weight. It makes sense, but surprised me nonetheless.

As my team discussed what “more people” meant, they envisioned a ripple effect, beginning with us, and spreading through our community organizations and friends. What do YOU think we need to do to start that ripple? Do you want to be a part of it? Let’s do it!

Reflect on Service

I love service learning. It’s fun to help kids help people, in preschools, retirement communities, parks and gardens. Service learning is a respected way to get kids involved in their own educations.

But it’s not just about doing projects that help communities. For service learning to be valuable to young people as well as to the people they work with, we have to involve them in every step of every project–investigation, planning, action, reflection, demonstration and celebration.

After Global Youth Service Day last spring, Jessica Krough, Melissa Simmermaker of the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, and I talked about innovative ways to reflect on the state-wide day of service. We decided to experiment with Internet based radio to bring kids together from different GYSD projects around the state. About eight kids joined me on my show, “We’re Entrepreneurs–we can help.” Three of my Earth Heroes, and two students from the Hoover High School STARS program came to the studio. Two students from Lamoni Middle School and their facilitator joined us by Skype.

The Earth Heroes talked about the ongoing project they’re doing for Global Youth Service Day. Jessica visited the garden, and helped them read the Governor’s Proclamation. They were still clearing the garden, building their dragon, and planting vegetables.

As Kyla, Terrance, I work with the Earth Heroes at the Des Moines Botanical Center, we talk about

  • What happened?
  • So what?–How did you feel? What did you learn?
  • Now what?–What’s next? How can you use this experience in the future?

Here is some of their wisdom–

  • “When I’m special, I work really hard.”
  • “I didn’t know broccoli grew on a plant.”
  • “Digging is fun!”

The Earth Heroes walk down the hill from Boys and Girls Club at Carver Community School to the Botanical Center, and we form a circle. The kids know the FIRST thing we do is the “Name Wave.” The kids lead the Wave, starting with everyone yelling out their name as loud as they can. Then come “compliments and appreciations,” a chance for everyone to say thank you, and talk about what we like.

It’s September, and the 2nd through 5th graders are harvesting squash, pumpkins, watermelon, beans, tomatoes, okra, onions, potatoes, peppers and sunflower seeds to take home. Any gardener knows fall is time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, what got done, and what didn’t. What was lost? Where did the summer go?

So, they’re taking photos in the gardens, and next week we’ll create a map of each of the 20 ten-foot X 10-foot raised beds, making notes about what grew, crops that worked well together, and what the Heroes learned from experiments with okra, mulching, and fall planting.

Service learning is a powerful way for young people to find relevance in education, dream about the future, and change the world.