A QUEST FOR POSITIVE AMERICAN STORIES: Citizen journalist Neal Moore left the northern source of the Mississippi River in July and ended his trip in New Orleans in December, 2009, traversing the Mighty Mississippi the whole way by canoe. His mission was not only to document his canoe journey but also to report on and participate in positive and uplifting stories of American communities along the way. The following is a collection of those stories:
SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
Skydiving into Alzheimer’s: A tribute to the late Beth VanWinkle
By NEAL MOORE
In Memoriam: Beth VanWinkle (Apr. 6, 1948 – Sep. 18, 2010). I will be forever grateful for the chance to meet, interview, and befriend both Jay and Beth late last year in Mississippi. My hope is that their incredibly positive story will continue to offer courage to the 5.3 million Americans currently living and dealing with Alzheimer’s.
(View the entire, uncut interview with Jay and Beth VanWinkle HERE).
Beth confronted her diagnosis and reality of living with Alzheimer’s with grace, dignity, and humor. Her “caregiver” and husband, Jay VanWinkle, was both positive and supportive. Beth loved to travel, and together, following Beth’s diagnosis, the duo would drive across the country, stopping off along the way to marvel at the beauty of this land. It was important to chronicle Beth’s adventures on video as in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, she’d forget what she had just done. Beth and Jay decided it would be a good idea to come up with a “Bucket List” which the duo launched into with great enthusiasm. Beth’s list included 1) jumping out of an airplane; 2) meeting her favorite actor, Mr. Morgan Freeman; and 3) riding a horse.
Beth VanWinkle jumped out of an airplane following her first year of diagnosis with Alzheimer’s (view the entire skydiving video HERE). I met her in her third year of Alzheimer’s, in Oxford, Mississippi, early last November, 2009. At this time she was about to lead Oxford, Mississippi’s first annual “Memory Walk”, to be followed by a drive out into the country where she and Jay would fulfill her third and final wish – to ride a horse (View the entire video HERE).
I will never forget my time last year with Jay and Beth VanWinkle. I departed Mississippi with a great joy in my heart, with a thankfulness and appreciation for Beth’s take on life, for living it to the fullest, for making the most of every single day. God Speed, Beth. I thank you for your courage and for your smile.
DECEMBER 14, 2009
Brad Pitt’s Green Building Boom
LOWER NINTH WARD, NEW ORLEANS
Considered one of the most famous neighborhoods in America, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is presently undergoing a transformation from the poster child of post-Katrina devastation into the epitome of green, sustainable living. I met with key players on the ground to discuss how this is taking shape and how the environment is playing an active roll in the psyche of the Lower Ninth Ward’s returning populace.
Interviewed in this piece: Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right NOLA; Robert Green Sr., Resident, Lower Ninth Ward; Darryl Malek-Wiley, Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer, Sierra Club; James Perry, President, Louisiana Housing Alliance and Mayoral Candidate for the City of New Orleans; Dr. Douglas J. Meffert, Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University; Professor Mark S. Davis, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Institute on Water Resources, Law and Policy, Tulane University.
NOVEMBER 28, 2009
A Prison Without Walls
I had no idea there was no perimeter wall at Angola as I canoed along the natural barrier that surrounds three sides of Louisiana State Penitentiary – the Mississippi River. The sun had broken thru the morning mist as I made my way upstream from my camp the previous night on Shreves Bar Island, about one and a half miles downstream. The short upstream trip was work but at long last I reached the prison’s ferry landing. I had read online that this was a ferry for prison guards only, and as such, I had hoped to catch a ride into the prison. The ferry was not operating and I was later told that due to high water, they were using a “crew boat” for foot passengers only, but that this only took place during a shift change.
I was preparing to make the trek up to Angola on foot when I met my first convict “trusty”, Charles Martin. Mr. Martin had driven up in a truck while I was pulling my canoe out of the water and had busied himself working on the ferry structure moored into the banks of the river. When asked how far it was to the gate of the prison, Mr. Martin turned towards the road from where he had just come and replied, “What gate?”
Angola has transformed itself from what Collier’s Magazine once called “the most dangerous prison in America” into what observers are now calling the safest. According to Warden Burl Cain, this about face has taken place with two words: “morality” and “communication”.
The communication in the prison, afforded by Warden Burl Cain, gives the men a sense of freedom, a sense of hope. It is a psychological barrier that has been taken down – and the men are truly appreciative. From my interview with the warden, I was led to a meeting with the radio station, newspaper, and television station, before being brought to the prison’s hospice, into a room where Richard Vinet was on vigil, awaiting his death. Mr. Vinet, age 54, whose liver is failing, has been at Angola since 1984 and is officially now “on vigil” which means he was not expected to last the next 24 hours. As I spoke with Mr. Vinet about his love for the radio station and the chance he had had to request his favorite songs, a USA Today photographer snapped photos. When asked what it was that he wanted most to say, Mr. Vinet pointed towards his nurse, as well as one of Angola’s vice-wardens, Cathy Fontenot, stating, “I want to thank these two women here.” According to Ms. Fontenot, “No inmate here dies alone, a stroke of compassion which tends to lead the prisoners here in hospice to the realization of the gravity of their past actions.” When asked for specifics, Ms. Fontenot quoted a late prisoner who had spent time here in hospice as saying, “I realized the last person I was with when they died was my victim,” going on to say, “I’m truly sorry.”
Warden Burl Cain takes a similar approach when it comes to the men on death row, a people he refers to as “his children”, taking the trouble to hold their hand as they are executed by lethal injection. In so doing, Mr. Cain, who will have worked with these inmates on getting as right as possible with their maker, is able to “communicate” in a wholly different fashion. There is nothing fake or pretentious about Warden Cain. The man commands respect thru his presence alone – when he enters a building. Among multiple people I spoke with, both outside and inside Angola, the idea of Burl Cain as a good and honest guy was unanimous.
Approximately 86% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola are never going home – a sentence of “life” that in the State of Louisiana actually means it. The strategy of Mr. Cain is simply to let these men he has custody over have the chance to better their lives, to communicate, to be men.
As the sun began to set, I asked to be taken out to the prison’s old cemetery, a place where 1/3 of all those who die here will be buried, having no family or friends to take their remains away. I found a bronze marker set up for the “Unknown Buried Here” with the dedication: “Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame; only that I was a man.”
In the end it was two inmates who pushed me and my canoe back out into the Mighty Mississippi. The sun had gone down, and the Mississippi was shiny black, reflecting the lights of the crew boat. I was not afraid. I knew exactly where my island lay, having approached the night before under similar circumstances. There comes a time on this river when you become one with your craft, where the danger of a seriously dangerous river is outweighed by a sense of calm, of a cocoon that envelopes you and lets you know you’re going to be alright. It could very well be due to the fact that I was only a visitor, but I felt this same safety – this same calm feeling the entire day at Angola – my very first day in a maximum security prison. My canoe with my gear in it had been loaded on a truck, and together we heaved it out and into the water. It was a strange feeling to step in and glide away. The convicts whose names I had forgotten to ask waved and wished me Godspeed. The sliver of a moon had broken thru the clouds for a moment and as the current took me, I waved back, feeling a certain camaraderie with the prisoners and their warden, but thankful to be free.
Thanks for making this story possible:
Vice-warden Cathy Fontenot.
My guide for the day was Major Joli Darbonne.
Interviewed for this story on video at the “Ranch House” – Warden Burl Cain.
KLSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) — a 100-watt radio station that operates at 91.7 on the FM dial from inside the prison to approximately 6,000 potential listeners including inmates and penitentiary staff. The station is operated by inmates and carries some satellite programming. Inside the walls of Angola, KLSP is called the “Incarceration Station” and “The Station that Kicks Behind the Bricks.” Interviewed for this story is KLSP disk jockey Keith Alexander. Mr. Alexander is 44 years old and has been incarcerated at Angola for 21 1/2 years.
LSP TV Station 21 is a one-room television station that serves Angola State Penitentiary. Interviewed for this story: Matthew Morgan, sports editor; and Shawn Vaughn, editor.
The Angolites interviewed for this story are: Lane Nelson, managing editor, age 55, incarcerated at Angola for 28 1/2 years of a life sentence for murder; Kerry Myers, editor, age 53, incarcerated at Angola for 19 years of a life sentence for murder; and Klye Hebert, age 44, incarcerated at Angola for 9 years of a life sentence for attempted murder.
In the hallway of Maximum Security Cell Block D are: Marlo Green and Devon Morris.
Interviewed at Angola’s Hospice: Richard Vinet, age 54, incarcerated at Angola for 25 years.
NOVEMBER 21, 2009
Racial Reconciliation in the Deep South
I joined a number of white and black ministers on my stop in Vicksburg, Mississippi for their special monthly breakfast sponsored by Mission Mississippi. Their goal: To cross racial and denominational lines by building relationships one by one.
Interviewed in this piece are: Rev. Reginald Walker, Word of Faith Church, Vicksburg, MS; Dan Hall, Special Advisor, Mission Mississippi, Jackson, MS; Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya, Christ Episcopal Church, Vicksburg, MS; Rev. Randall Burge, New Christian Fellowship, Port Gibson, MS; Vickar Margaret Ayers, St. James Church, Port Gibson, MS; Rev. Lister Bowdoin, Bovina United Methodist Church, Bovina, MS; Rev. Linda Sweezer, House of Peace, Vicksburg, MS.
NOVEMBER 13, 2009
Life lessons of the dugout canoe
Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic. But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.
Garon, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop. This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.
Helena has a rich and illustrious past. As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children.
Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”
Mr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction. When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take. If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle. And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced. You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again. And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together. One of our mottos here is that the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”
The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil. The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become. Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head. At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become. For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone. The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.
NOVEMBER 4, 2009
Illiteracy to literature in the enlightened South
Known as the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, and one of the finest independent book stores in the nation, Square Books, it came as a shock to learn Lafayette County’s illiteracy level amongst adults equals that of the national average – dead even at 23%.
And so began a search for answers.
One of the first things that catches your eye in Oxford is that folks from all walks of life are serious about the arts. From a rich and illustrious tradition of Hill Country Blues to a celebration of outsider art to the local Arts Council which hosts and funds a revolving door of local events to the three Square Book establishments on Oxford Square, there seem to be multiple celebrations of the arts every day and night of the week.
One of these Oxford institutions is billed as Thacker Mountain Radio – a weekly variety show of music and literature – held via Square Books every Thursday night stringing back to 1979. The show is live and the public are welcome and for those who can’t make it in person, there’s the radio. Thacker Mountain is broadcast on both “Rebel Radio” and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
To take a seat at Thacker Mountain is to get into the groove of the local arts scene. The oversized windows at Off Square Books are opened up and those who don’t get seats pour out into the town’s Square. The night that I caught Thacker Mountain through the lens of my camera was the night I met authors Jessica B. Harris and Roy Blount Jr. Their advice for the public at large – “You’ve got to read” – a mantra which led me to the local Literacy Council.
Nicole Bass is an “Americaore Vista” which is a title and branch of the Volunteers and Service to America. While the council spends most of their time dealing with “preventative” measures – working with children – I thought it would be interesting to tag along for the first lesson of an adult, by the name of Sherry Crocker.
Sherry is in her late thirties and has two young children. She wants to break the cycle of illiteracy in her family and has asked the Literacy Council for help. According to Sherry, she’s taking lessons to “help [her] four year old with homework” as well as to “read [the notes] he brings home from school.”
The idea of taking that first step into a first lesson in reading is a daunting prospect for many adults who in so doing are forced to acknowledge they don’t know how to read. There’s a stigma attached to both being unable to read as well as the fact a healthy percentage of our nation cannot read, like unto a secret. A secret that isn’t talked about in polite society – a secret that as painful as it might be, needs to be brought out into the open and turned around and discussed.
The lesson for Sherry was intense and at times difficult. She was not able to pronounce many consonants, but she tried and although visibly embarrassed, was determined not to give up. When asked why it might be scary for folks around the nation to take the bold step that she took this day, Sherry, full of confidence on having completed her very first lesson, beamed, “They’re just scared – but me – I’m not scared at all – I’m enjoying … learning how to read.”
From the basic grasp of consonants to the next step up the ladder of literacy – actually craving the concept of literature – I found the idea of introducing a literary mantra in the epicenter of what some folks refer to as the “Enlightened South” an interesting prospect.
David Swider and Michael Bible are affable and giddy and very much sincere about literature. I joined the duo for a beer at the Square’s greasy spoon, Ajax, to talk shop about the region before sitting down for an interview back on their work-turf of Square Books. Their energy plays off each other when they talk, turning every conversation into a brainstorming session of what would be cool or what could work out literary-wise for the literary journal, Kitty Snacks. At ages 25 and 28, respectively, David and Michael are relatively young to undertake the launch of a literary magazine – but this is their point. They want to make the rather lofty idea of literature a possibility for folks of all ages by offering it to the public as bite sized snacks.
According to Michael Bible, Mississippi “is the fattest, poorest, dumbest state in the country – that is full of geniuses. You have people that can’t read right next to people that win Nobel Prizes – and it’s this weird kind of dichotomy that works to both illuminate that kind of difference but also recently, bring it together.”
“The book is kind of a hard commodity right now,” explains Wayne Andrews, Executive Director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, who immediately saw the potential for the journal and helped to get it published. While “publishers [are] not taking risks on new authors [nor] publishing diverse works, we’re finding new ways to do it.” According to Mr. Andrews, quarterly publications like Kitty Snacks are “leading [people] down the path to discover a magazine and then hopefully discover a book.”
NOVEMBER 2, 2009
Beth’s Bucket List: To Ride a Horse
OXFORD and HERNANDO, MISSISSIPPI
When Jay and Beth VanWinkle saw that their favorite actor, fellow Mississippian Morgan Freeman, was coming out with a new movie titled “The Bucket List”, Beth turned to Jay and said, “I’ve got to see that.” One year previous, Beth VanWinkle had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and has been, as she puts it, “grasping for everything I could get [out of life – before it’s too late].”
The film inspired Beth and Jay to write down a short list of ideas they wanted to accomplish before Beth permanently goes into, what she describes as her “cave” – a place where she will be in her very own world.
Beth’s list included three things she had never before had the opportunity to do: 1) Meet actor Morgan Freeman – which she has done; 2) Skydive out of an airplane – which she has now accomplished twice; and 3) Have the opportunity to ride a horse.
In this report, we witness Beth leading the first annual Oxford Memory Walk as well as the story of Beth’s realization of her third and final wish – to ride a horse – a story which she will now be able to replay again and again, as her memory continues to fade.
OCTOBER 30, 2009
Reclaiming the Sons of Zion graveyard
The Zion Cemetery of Memphis, TN has been in a state of disrepair for many decades – the grave markers in most cases inaccessible thru a canopy of creepers.
The cemetery is important because it was the first African-American graveyard of the region, founded in the 1870’s by the “Sons of Zion”, who were former slaves. The property was in use until the 1970’s but quickly slid into disrepair shortly thereafter. In the 1980’s and 1990’s there were rumors of the gravestones being used as “chop shop” jack props for car thieves and as a result – this was a location that the general public would dare not venture.
Local activist Ken Hall of Volunteer Mid-South has been working with local volunteers to correct that for the past nine years.Currently, approximately eighty percent of the property is still covered by overgrown brush, weeds, and thorn bushes – but Mr. Hall is optimistic that one day this will change.
In the accompanying photographs, he supervises the work of 100 local teens from the non-profit Bridge Builders comprised of 50% white and 50% African-American youth. Armed with machetes, mowers, and clippers, they go in search of the gravestones of the Sons of Zion by re-claiming the land for the future generations of those buried here.
Video by Neal Moore. Photos by Ken Hall.
OCTOBER 29, 2009
Livin’ the Blues with James “Super Chikan” Johnson
James “Super Chikan” Johnson’s chicken shack, out back behind his family’s Clarksdale home, is a work in progress. He’s currently expanding it out to accommodate his art, guitars, and inner sanctuary that he calls home.
Blues enthusiasts from all over the world celebrate Super Chikan’s unique, old school take on the blues – including a wide variety of homemade guitars that he both plays and sells. Here you’ll find the diddley-bow hybrid he calls a “bow-jo”, his rooster guitar, ax guitar, 38 calliber gun guitar, and ceiling fan guitar. A simple cigar box guitar will set you back around $3,800, while a diddley-bow bow-jo will run you closer to $5K. And they sell.
But before his success, Mr. Johnson “lived the blues” in a different context – as Wikipedia explains, “moving from town to town [as a child] in the Mississippi Delta and working on his family’s farms.” From a sharecropping existence, picking cotton, to working the John Deere tractors that replaced the sharecropper, to driving truck throughout Arkansas and Tennessee, Mr. Johnson made a conscious decision to stay in the South and to do it with a smile.
Which life lessons led him back to his early childhood memories, back onto the front porch where he’d listen to the likes of blues legends Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, among others, who would stop by to visit his grandfather, to talk shop, play their music, and in so doing, to quite literally live the blues.
OCTOBER 28, 2009
At home with the Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band
The Delta Bus Line took me from Clarksdale to Memphis to Tupelo in search of the Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band – one of the hottest little bands to come out of Mississippi’s north rolling hills since the North Mississippi All Stars. The terrain up in these parts is dramatically different from the flat plains of the Delta. It jukes and jives in soft, rolling thrusts. As does their music. The sound of the north hill country is electrified and the sound is alive. It comes full circle, right back at you, like a character in a story who changes his ways.
To witness the Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band is nothing short of a religious experience. Ryan is seventeen, Kyle is fifteen, and Taya has just turned eleven. Yet the kids are press savvy and no strangers to the road. All three are gregarious – all three quick on the smile. They laugh readily, they speak about the joys of family and as such they tend to agree.
I was prepped for my interview by both the Delta Blues Museum at Clarksdale as well as the Blues Foundation in Memphis. Explained Joe Whitmer of the Blues Foundation, “The Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band ooze the blues when they speak [and] when they sing.”
OCTOBER 26, 2009
Embracing the Economic Blues
When you walk the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can still hear the voice of blues legend Robert Johnson – ringing from the shop windows as well as from passing cars. There’s a revival going on here and it’s all about the blues – about a respect for the first generation bluesmen who are honored and revered.
But it’s not just about a cultural renaissance. The blues pays, a concept that folks from all walks of life have begun to latch on to.
OCTOBER 24, 2009
Politics Meets the Blues with Mississippi’s Bill Luckett
Here at Ground Zero Blues Club of Clarkdale, Mississippi, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial contender, Bill Luckett. In this complete and uncut interview, Mr. Luckett, who co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club with Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, answered a barrage of questions ranging from the cultural renaissance of the blues to his candidacy for governor.
OCTOBER 19, 2009
A safe place in the City of Good Abode
I had the pleasure to visit the “Youth Villages” Poplar Group Home of Memphis, TN, which is designated as a “safe place” for the abused, runaway, and homeless children of the area. Here the boys of the house are carving pumpkins and preparing their first pumpkin roasted seeds. Thanks to the outpouring of volunteers from the local area, via Volunteer Mid-South.
OCTOBER 17, 2009
In Her Shoes: Surviving Domestic Violence
Upon entering the Cairo Women’s Shelter, in Cairo, Southernmost Illinois, one is immediately greeted with the smile of a lifetime.
Meet Jeannine Woods, Executive Director of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, who along with her rather gregarious staff, have made it their life passion to bring a sense of normalcy to the many battered women and children who, on a daily basis, buzz their way into the shelter. From that smile comes the prospect of a bona fide safe haven where the woman or often mother can begin to consider the prospect of – quite possibly for the very first time in their lives – thinking about themselves. Which can lead to positive goals.
When asked about the importance of goals, Natasha, mother of seven and resident of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, explained, “I pray every day for strength to keep me to do this – to give me the power to keep going … to keep it in me that I am here and I’ve got to protect my kids and that when I leave here, that it’s still going to remain the same.”
Buzzing with activity, Jeannine and myself, looking for a place to conduct the interview, decided it best to step outside, seeing as how it was such a picture-perfect day. Which brought us in view of the projects of Cairo – a place that Jeanne explained was safer than one might think.
“See that mother, just down the road, that one with a baby on her hip and another holding her hand?” Looking just down the road from where we sat, I could see it, the silhouette of the trio moving positive in the other direction, along the lane between the government formed homes. “She’s not scared,” explained Jeannine. “She’s walking with confidence, and she’s walking with pride.”
Above and beyond the shelter, Jeannine wanted me to see and experience the brighter side of Cairo – a town which has been on the decline now for several decades – often stereotyped by the media in a rather negative light. In so doing, she asked me “not [to relate] the plight of Cairo, but the positive of Cairo.” Which, thanks to a number of community and political leaders quite busily making a difference, turned out to be an easy task.
“The people who choose to stay [in Cairo] represent [a] picture of hope for our community. They don’t represent the dwindling and dire circumstances… they stay because they have hope for their community… because there is a glimmer of hope here.”
A positive spin on hope, to be sure, which in turn plays directly back into the shelter’s mantra of inner strength – a strength which helps the women of the Cairo Women’s Shelter find the wherewithal to move themselves forward.
“When she takes her shoes and plants them in her new life,” explained Jeanne, “she’s [facing the prospect] of a new life … [of a] hope for her children.”
OCTOBER 11, 2009
The Great Migration of Cairo, Illinois
The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.
OCTOBER 9, 2009
The Shotgun Restoration Project
In a town showcased by major media as an epicenter of “urban decay”, it was encouraging to find a group of folks standing up for the historical “shotgun” architecture of the local area. Featured in this video are Professor Bob Swenson of Southern Illinois University’s School of Architecture, his students, Jim Schmidt, 25, and Toni Lettiere, 23, Shandll McGoy, 31, and local “Vision 20-20” entrepreneur, Bill Harrell. According to Mr. Harrell, one “could buy a local ‘shotgun house’ for between $600 to $1500 at auction [plus your own labor + $10,000] to make it livable.” Not a bad proposition for those looking to step into their first home – and save the living history of the community at the same time.
OCTOBER 29, 2009
Moving positive with Habitat St. Louis
ST. LOUIS, MO
Alfton Denise Jackson, a single mother of two young boys, was in tears when the news came through that she had qualified for a new home. “I received a letter from my case worker,” reported Ms. Jackson, “stating it was a program to build your own home and if I was interested in the program, to come to the site.”
The “site” is one of the largest Habitat for Humanity projects in Habitat St. Louis’ history, encompassing twenty-four new homes for this year, adding up to ninety-one total for the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood alone.
The Jeff-Vander-Lou district of Mid Town St. Louis is historic – first and foremost due to the fact it was the first place in St. Louis where African Americans were allowed to own property. Explains Habitat for Humanity St. Louis Director of Resources, Courtney Simms, “A lot of African American businesses were down in the corridor … a couple of blocks over, so to be able to come into this neighborhood and build homes… is quite significant.”
Alexander, age 12, and Ledra, age 7, the two young sons of home-builder Alfton Denise Jackson, are excited about the family’s new prospects. Their reasons are first for safety, and second because they will now each have their own bedrooms. “We used to live next to a man who would beat on his wife,” explained Alexander. “But now we’re moving to a safer place.”
When asked if the present neighborhood where Ms. Jackson, Alexander, and Ledra now reside is safe, Alfton was quick to reply, “No … We [currently] stay in some nice apartments in an area [St. Louis] is trying to build up around here but we’re right next to some of the projects … it’s somewhat scary but [although] we [have] learned to cope with it … it’s not a place I would want to raise my kids because it’s kind of dangerous.”
Asked if he was at times scared of his present location in life, Alexander reported, “Yes. There was a shooting,” going on to explain there are gunshots nearby that ring out at night.
The Jackson family are gregarious and affable. They smile frequently, and it’s not only for the camera. There is a love and a bond that one can readily detect. Alfton is quick to tell me of her sons’ recent school honors, of “all E’s” and awards, and of a hushed thankfulness that her sons are so fond of their school – a school they will not have to change when they move into their new home in Jeff-Vander-Lou come late November. Catch phrases like “peaceful” and “pride” and even “college” are part of her young boys’ vocabulary. As is an excitement for a future they are proud to step into.
Looking around the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, it is exciting to see a community quite literally on the rise, rolling up their shirtsleeves in an effort to reclaim a past pride, a past history that folks around here point to with symbolic reverence. There are the odd dilapidated structures of days gone by, before the factory jobs moved out of town. There are a large number of vacant lots, and amidst the vacancies there is a whole new community that is quickly taking shape, rising up from the dust.
Driving up and down the streets, Courtney Simms smiles broadly as she explains which new homes were built in which year, which vacant lots are owned by Habitat, as well as an impressively large row of homes, set out on multiple city streets, which are currently under construction. She takes a genuine pride in her work, showing and explaining the LEED Certified achievements of the new Habitat homes, of where a holistic approach to plotting and planning is merging cost saving features with the natural environment. “When you consider that … where these houses [now sit] were vacant lots and now they’re thriving families that will be raising their children … [we are together] rebuilding the community.”
And yet while folks are hopeful, the fact is that the recent history of Jeff-Vander-Lou is not exactly rosy, as seen most readily in the multiple stop signs strapped with stuffed teddy bears, of stuffed dolls of various shapes and sizes, pinpointing the intersections where children from the neighborhood have at some point in time lost their lives.
Which is where the desire for hope and for change have caught fire, where the sense of community, at least locally, is making a sincere power play. Where “ninety-one thriving families” are most certainly coming together, hammers in hand via Habitat for Humanity, made up of volunteers from CEO’s to Senior Vice Presidents to the average, typical “Joe” – together here unified, quite busily making a stand.
2006 Habitat homebuyer Wendy McPherson, who is now volunteering as a “mentor” to Alfton Denise Jackson, amongst others, explained the phenomenon of what is happening here best by bringing the word ‘community’ down to its brass tax. Explains Wendy, “It says a lot about ‘community’ because it teaches your neighbors to come together as one and not just be next door – but to get involved … It helps others to become more aware of their surroundings and to draw together as a community and work together. It makes a difference when you know your neighbors and you look out for your neighbors and everyone comes together.”
SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
Twilight with Twain
Couldn’t believe and still cannot believe the chance I was given to sleep over in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Many thanks to the Town of Hannibal — ‘America’s Hometown’ — along with all of the wonderful people I was able to meet. Here’s the full report of my rather magical Twilight with Twain.
SEPTEMBER 21, 2009
The renaissance of America’s Hometown
Like unto Samuel Clemen’s legendary protagonist, Tom Sawyer, Alex Addison, the present-day, barefoot ambassador of Hannibal, is all business. “I see [riding the economic downturn] not as a challenge but as a goal – it’s starting to click, [things locally are] going to be really good,” explained Alex, age 13, holding his own in a round-table interview with Mayor Roy Hark, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Terry Sampson, and City Planner Jeff LaGarce.
Taking a day out of his busy schedule as Hannibal’s official “Tom”, Alex took me for a tour of ‘America’s Hometown’ with the polished grace of a professional politician. Together, we visited everybody from the local, modern-day judge, to the minister, to of course, the city’s old-school mayor.
As we talked about the building blocks of America – of what made America great – I learned that Twain’s literature, along with a now bustling Main Street, is making all the difference, at least locally here in ‘America’s Hometown’. There is a buzz in the air along Main Street, as shopkeepers brave the financial crisis in hopes of a year that for many is landing solidly in the black.
The trick, as far as I could see, was a love and rallying cry from business owners and citizens alike to preserve the downtown district. “Preservation doesn’t cost – it pays,” exhorted local resident and former PBS television personality, Bob Yapp.
After traveling the world as a foremost expert on home restoration, with his own show on both PBS and NPR, Mr. Yapp decided to settle for good here in Hannibal, describing himself as one of “Hannibal’s expats” who “are coming to Hannibal [with a love of Hannibal’s] architecture.”
But it isn’t just Mr. Yapp’s generation of eclectic friends, ranging from potter Steve Ayers to the next-door Bed and Breakfast innkeepers of the Dubach Inn, that are excited about restoring America’s architectural past. Yapp is busy mentoring and teaching at-risk youth from the local high school, many of which enjoy their time “on site” so much they plan to take up the trade. “I actually want to do exactly what Bob is doing,” explained one Hannibal High School student, going on to exhort, “when you’re here you actually get to do stuff and work on stuff that you actually want to do.”
Which could describe the new Mark Twain Boyhood & Museum Executive Director Cindy Lovell’s take on Hannibal to a tee, self-describing her time in this town as “being intoxicated with the history [of Twain] ever since stepping foot into Hannibal.” Dr. Lovell’s eyes glance around her as she walks these streets – observing the very homes and hills and river and buildings that directly inspired Hannibal’s favorite son – Mark Twain – with an all-knowing smile that one can’t help but find contagious. “I think Hannibal’s history is so linked to the past,” continued Dr. Lovell, “in the preservation of the past, the lessons we learn from the past. And we have to be vigilant.”
From the city officials I was most fortunate to meet, to the next generation of high school artisans, I believe that Hannibal, and through her example, America’s hometowns around the country, will continue to experience a re-birth of sorts as revitalization begins to hold sway. “Across the nation, small communities are reinventing themselves,” continued Mr. Yapp. “And they’re having a renaissance in the sense that… things change.”
Continuing that walk, Dr. Lovell looked up, gesturing to the top of Main Street. “Tom always has his eye on the future,” explained Dr. Lovell. “That’s why when you look at the statue of Tom and Huck, lording over Main Street from the base of Cardiff Hill, you will see Tom stepping into the future.”
“Not only do we have a good past,” explained young Alex Addison, “but I think it would be better to have a good past and a great future than a great past and an okay future.” A future that judging from the next generation of Hannibal, is most certainly going to be bright.
SEPTEMBER 3, 2009
Around the organic farmer kitchen table
As America sits down around their kitchen tables to find the common denominator between health care, diet, and budget, the Jepsens and Koethers, organic producers and distributors of NE Iowa are doing same. But there’s is a different perspective, struggling to find a way to market what just might be the solution.
I sat down for dinner with Ryan and Kristine Jepsen, their mathematically-minded intern, Dirk Marple, and cattle rancher and daughter, Greg and Kayla Koether. The discussion that ensued between the lot, specifically between the producer and the distributor of a small, truly organic business, reflects their triumphs and challenges, as well as the real cost of cheap food. Theirs is an uphill quest – outmaneuvering the big corporations that can afford to sell for less. The answer – “ten thousand organic farming families” – and the pendulum might just swing.
SEPTEMBER 2, 2009
A Field Day with the Practical Farmers of Iowa
Imbedded in the older generations of farmers here in Iowa are certain skills that were practiced and understood and shared. This was before the introduction of the post WWII chemical companies that in time would become the seed companies. There was a bona fide love of the land, and with it, a celebration of rural community and of family. A future for the American family farmer that transcended the introduction of commercial agriculture corporations.
The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), based in Ames, have been in the business of getting the American family farmer back on this track for the past 25 years. When I looked for a non-profit in sustainable agriculture to highlight, I was immediately impressed by PFI because politically, they’ve got the balance right. The Practical Farmers of Iowa are endorsed by both the Farm Bureau (conservative) as well as Farm Aid (Willie Nelson, Neil Young, etc.).
“We have a hugely diverse audience,” explained Executive Director Teresa Opheim. “Conventional farmers down to bio-dynamic farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, corn and soy bean farmers – and what really brings them together is an eagerness to learn, to try new things on their farm, to improve their farming systems [and] an openness to share information with each other.”
Which is where “Field Days” come into play, such as the PFI Grazier’s Day Event held recently on the Koether family cattle ranch in McGregor, Iowa. Here farmers from across the state congregated to witness demonstrations on how to bring their operations chemical free, the importance of building soil, as well as the joys of old-school herd dog demonstrating.
I spoke with young, conventional dairy farmer Adam Martins, who was genuinely impressed with what he saw. When asked if he saw organic, holistic farm management as a viable option, Adam responded, “I really like this method – it’s a lot more practical – taking cows and putting them out [to pasture] – it’s better for the ground, it’s better for the cows.”
One of the differences between conventional and sustainable (grass fed) animal agriculture, can be measured in the longevity of the maternal animal’s life span, which observers note can be three times longer utilizing a sustainable production system.
While few people would argue the merits or the methods of organic farming for both the animals and people involved, the real question comes down to the brass tax – profitability – or as local farmer Craig Tritten noted during a question and answer session out on the ranch, “You’ve got to do something besides building soil – you’ve got to stay alive, too.”
The man with the microphone, six-generation cattle rancher Greg Koether, who took his family ranch organic back in 1982, responded, “Hopefully, at the end of the day, at the end of the season, you put just as many pounds on those cattle, even though you’ve used them as a tool for a few days, the ground’s better for it, and the cattle are as good or better than they would have been … grazed on that short grass we used to think was proper.”
When you talk about demand, the pendulum is finally starting to swing in favor of organic farmers, as seen most readily in the market price of milk which has dropped in the past year from $23 to $9 per hundred pounds, for conventional milk, versus $30 to $28 for organic milk, respectively. A trend that has brought some relief to PFI member and local organic dairy farmer Dan Beards. When asked how he saw the future of the American family farm, Dan explained, “Well in our particular case, I think it looks great.”
“Because you’re thinking long-term and you’re using a set of guidelines to make decisions,” expounded Greg Koether. “And those guidelines are essential – especially in today’s [economic] climate … In this ultimate pursuit of a goal that you’ve set out – that’s what holistic resource management is all about.”
Asked what the ultimate goal of his family run ranch is, Greg smiled before answering in one, quick sentence. “That’s easy; to work as closely as possible with mother nature, in order to create a sustainable and profitable food production system, while providing a quality lifestyle for future generations.”
AUGUST 31, 2009
A community that feeds itself
PRAIRIE du CHIEN, WISC
Sustainable agriculture meets sustainable communities in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Albeit, for a town that bills itself as “forward thinking” it was interesting to witness first hand a winning strategy that effectively brings them back to their roots.
Pam Ritchie, Executive Director of the Opportunity Center and the former chair of Prairie du Chien’s Main Street Revitalization Project refers to her work as “community cultivation.” As she explains, “There are a lot of stories [from] many, many years ago about what Prairie du Chien looked like on a Friday night and it was lined with farmers in overalls and families on the streets – talking, gathering together, doing their shopping for the week – spending their money locally and supporting these businesses which in turn supported them.”
One of these farming families would have been the ancestors of six-generation sustainable cattle rancher Greg Koether, who resides on his family’s 600-acre ranch just over the bridge in McGregor, Iowa.
Besides raising and marketing his cattle locally through Grass Fed Beef, he takes time out of his schedule to introduce the importance of quality, sustainable food practices to the bright young learners at Prairie du Chien’s B.A. Kennedy Elementary School.
And he’s most certainly not alone. When the school did not yet have a “Farm to School” initiative in place, local parents and self-described “concerned citizens” Kathleen Hein and Marty Green developed a spin-off all their own which they called “Food for Thought,” complete with the motto: “Our Food – Our Community.” The big idea, “To educate the kids about where food comes from, grow a children’s community garden on school grounds, help local farmers by getting their products into the school lunch system, [and in so doing to] connect the community.”
Walking the streets of Prairie du Chien it is easy to feel a genuine excitement in the air from farms to schools to downtown businesses. As Pam Ritchie explains, “There was a group of citizens that really got serious – they got to the point where they were ready to apply for a Wisconsin Main Street status and with that they were able to hire an executive director and create a membership of both downtown businesses and community members.”
Which has made all the difference – the bold, rather simple idea that when you talk about revitalizing downtown business, it’s not only business owners that are interested in creating change. Residents of the town can and do participate in effectively giving their downtown district a facelift – in so doing, creating what Kathleen Heim described as “a snow-ball effect” of bona fide town-wide enthusiasm.
Jake Stephens, originally from Florida, is considered a “new resident”, only having lived in this town for ten years. In an area where most families go back five or six generations it can be a daunting task to blend – to fit in. And yet as a direct result of Prairie du Chien’s revitalization he has decided to participate – to share his ideas and his talents – in essence to share with the town the time of his life. When asked to offer a definition of the term “sustainable community” from his perspective, Jake explained, “A sustainable community [is] a community that … feeds itself, if you will, that keeps its energy churning and building here rather than going elsewhere.”
“The word ‘community’ is really starting to mean that here,” continued Jake. “Its great … it makes me wonder what I was doing for the past ten years and why I didn’t get involved because just a few people can make a difference. That’s what it all means.”
AUGUST 31, 2009
A policy of clean water
Traveling along the Mississippi River on an extended canoe expedition, one becomes mindful of the importance of clean water. According to the Department of Natural Resources, you’ve got point and non-point pollution. It’s the non-point that the DNR is concerned about, generally attributed to agriculture – farmers with heavy soil loss.
I spoke with fifth-generation Farmersburg, Iowa farmer Jason Klinge about the importance of clean water and what his farm is doing about it – which turns out to be quite a bit. Jason and his son Jordan turned their farm organic and in so doing are raising their cattle chemical-free on grass as opposed to grain.
“What I’m trying to do is mimic what the buffalo did when they grazed,” explained Jason, moving his cattle from paddock to paddock, letting them eat the natural grass while trampling a combination of their own manure and excess grass directly into the soil – a strategy which many observers say is responsible for the quality of Iowa’s once legendary wild-prairie soil.
Jason showed me one of five sinkholes on his property which is believed to go directly into the local water supply. He also showed me a 1948 copy of The Yearbook of Agriculture which underscored multiple studies by the Department of Agriculture in 1930 that concluded “From clean-tilled crops … the average soil loss over a period ranging from 6 to 11 years amounted to 42.10 tons an acre annually,” going on to explain, “In contrast, from the same kind of land on the same stations, the corresponding losses from grassed fields were only 0.08 of a ton of soil an acre.”
“We all depend on the farmer to care for [the] soil,” explained Teresa Opheim, Executive Director of Ames-based Practical Farmers of Iowa. “From a policy perspective,” continued Teresa, “what … needs to happen is that we reward farmers for the stewardship benefits that they provide.”
One of a handful of local farmers that helped write The Conservation Stewardship Program to accomplish just this is Greg Koether, a cattle rancher from McGregor, Iowa, who talked about the importance of clean water and how this fits into the Green Payment Program (aka Conservation Stewardship Program), a program that both he and Jason Klinge now benefit from.
“That’s one of the results we’re trying to achieve in conservation,” explained Greg. “Clean water – clean water that never leaves our farms, clean water that runs off in a heavy rain event that has been purified, or clean water that we’re drinking – water that is seeping through our soils – being filtered, chemical free, and improving our drinking water.”
AUGUST 28, 2009
Rethinking the American family farm
I found it interesting that the boyhood farm of Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution” and “god” of conventional farming as we know it,
now inhabits an organic, sustainable-farming strategy. The Natvigs and
Borlaugs have been neighbors for as far back as they can remember, and as a result, they just happen to be related. I spoke with Godfrey Natvig, age 89, former Howard County Soil & Water Commissioner and life-long farmer; Mike Natvig, age 44, quite busy on an organic, sustainable revolution of his own; as well as Mary Damm, a soil scientist from Indiana University. The answers given — both from the soil, as well as from a six generation farming family — might surprise you.
AUGUST 24, 2009
Dan Eldon, Abdi Roble inspire young Somali journalists
When Ruqiya Warsame and Muhuba Ade talk journalism here at
Minnesota International Middle School they do so with a glint of passion in
their eyes. The duo of friends, both age 13, who were a part of a seven-student summer school journalism program, come from a world swirling with political and humanitarian refugees, of continual negative press, as well as a legacy of civil war which has been raging their entire lives.
“When I started researching things,” explained Muhuba, “I felt something that I’ve never felt before – I knew people were struggling … [and] it made me research more to know more.”
In 1991, twenty-one year old photographer Dan Eldon set out to chronicle the famine raging in the girls’ home country of Somalia – a famine brought on by a devastating civil war begun the previous year – a famine that the world did not at that time know about.
“[Dan] had a beer with Aidan,” a Reuters photojournalist in the region, explained author Jennifer New who wrote the biography on Dan titled The Art of Life. “Aidan told him a little of what was happening in Somalia and invited him to come along on his next trip north.”
“They heard rumors of a famine creeping across southern Somalia, [and] they wanted to visit the region themselves and see if there was any truth to the stories,” explained Kathy Eldon, Dan’s mother. “[He] was in Kenya for the summer, before returning to UCLA that autumn to continue his studies, [and] was utterly stunned by what he saw – hundreds of dead and dying women, children, and old people; thousands displaced in a desperate search for food. Although barely able to view the horrors unfolding before him, he shot them with his camera and they were among the first to be seen by a global audience. Moved by the response to his images, Dan returned again and again to Somalia, recording the aid that flowed into the country- and its decline into chaos. He never returned to UCLA.”
Photojournalists like Dan Eldon and others like him who gave up their lives to tell the story are important not only because they led directly to relief at the time, but also due to the fact that they stand as an important inspiration for aspiring young journalists like Ruqiya and Muhuba – a new generation who only know about the past through their parents and the documented news articles that have stood the test of time.
“I learned that when you’re a journalist, you get to save people’s lives,” explained Ruqiya. “Not physically, but emotionally – because there’s people
in the shadows that people don’t know about … and [it’s important] to help them.”
The lives of Somalia’s refugees are by and large lives lived in the shadows – the diaspora of a people who cannot at this time return to their native land due to civil war. Somali-born photographer Abdi Roble is likewise an inspiration to the girls due to his documentation of the Somali diaspora and active humanitarian work – a work which has taken the girls’ school administrator, Abdirashid Warsame, a friend of Mr. Roble, back to Africa in a combined effort to see how they could help.
Ruqiya and Muhuba represent the next generation of American-educated Somali-American journalists. Although still young, they’ve already interviewed the President of Puntuland, Somalia, who paid their class a visit this past summer. “We weren’t even expecting him,” said Muhuba. “It was a surprise for us.”
President Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud‘s question to the girls and their class was if they had plans to come back to Somalia. The girls told me that they smiled broadly when asked this question, answering together, in unison: “Yes, we do want to go back to Somalia … We want to make a difference.”
Photographs by Dan Eldon used with permission by the Eldon family. Copyright Reuters/AP. All Rights Reserved.
AUGUST 21, 2009
Islands in the stream
A number of habitat islands are taking shape in the Upper Mississippi River just below Brownsville, Minnesota near the Minnesota-Iowa boarder – islands in the stream now being reclaimed for wildlife that were once prevalent before the Corps’ locks and dams were introduced back in the 1930s. The project is an effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with Fish and Wildlife, and Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to “restore lost and diminished fish and wildlife habitat in the pool by restoring islands.”
According to Jesse Weymiller, a local tow-boat sub-contractor tasked with moving rock via barge to help construct the approximate 22 islands in the project, the work is moving along well – now in phase three of three phases.
Jesse represents three generations of river-men who presently man their set of two tow boats and multiple barges – a local family run business who represent over 100 years of experience working the river between them.
“I started working when I was 15 – first working summers,” explained Jesse, now age 29. “I guess my future was pretty well set out before me.”
Jesse’s uncle, Tim Weymiller, who has worked dredging, towing, and construction on the river with his father from the age of 12 likes the idea of local workers included in the project. According to Tim, most jobs go to out of state contractors and sub-contractors, up from Mississippi and Louisiana, with locals making up about 20% of the current workforce. “But that’s really okay – because we also travel. We go where the work is. It just so happens we’re now working local.”
The islands are comprised of a layer of sand which is dredged from up stream in the river, a layer of rock, followed by the planting of native grasses and rows of willow trees to help buffer the island while attracting a number of waterfowl, turtles and fish.
I spoke with local resident and fisherman Jody Sonsalla who talked about the cost involved – stating it was a very good thing. “A number of years ago, the Mayor of Brownsville – Tim Sears – stood up and told the different people at the [town] meeting – ‘You know, $100,000 worth of rock in 1980 would have saved us $15m today’ – and it’s true – and you know, it’s one of those things that if we wait till tomorrow its just going to cost us more.”
While I canoed through the three-mile construction zone taking shape in the middle of the river, it was pleasing to see a return of the waterfowl that were once so prevalent in these parts. I noticed bald eagles, pelican, seagulls, as well as a great egret who stood watching the cranes, tugs, tow boats, and barges, busily re-creating a once-lost habitat.
AUGUST 14, 2009
The Somali-American Journey
The Muslim-American girls of Minneapolis are engaged in a triumphant journey of education, art, and community service, paving the way for what is to become the next generation of local doctors, lawyers, and political leaders.
Helping to lead this charge is educator, leader, and community organizer Farheen Hakeem, mentoring a number of girls through her involvement in the Girl Scout movement as well as a new Muslim-based initiative dubbed the “Me” program.
Ms. Hakeem and her loyal band of Girl Scouts are no strangers to the media – they have been featured on the front page of the New York Times (11/28/07), as well as in the 2008 College Emmy Award-Winning documentary “Bismillah”, produced and directed by Jolene Pinder and Sarah Zaman (destined for the Film-Festival Circuit and PBS in early 2010). I spoke with Ms. Pinder regarding this story and asked, upon viewing the film for myself, about her take on the effect Ms. Hakeem is having on the girls she has come to serve. “Farheen is empowering a new generation of girls,” gushed Ms. Pender. “She’s an amazing role model … shap[ing] how the girls see their role in the community – the power and voice they can have.”
And it’s true. The girls I met from the film are enthusiastic about life, about the power of their voice, as well as a future that Hodo Ibrahim, age 14, described as “beautiful and bright.” Such optimism helps foster creativity, courage, and success.
I was able to shadow two additional girls from “Bismillah”, Mary Metchnnek, age 15, and Ayan Deria, age 16, as they traversed their Cedar-Riverside community of downtown Minneapolis – dubbed by locals as Little Mogadishu.
Starting from the Brian Coyle Center of the University of Minnesota where Somali children of all ages worked on computers, talked music, and played basketball, we moved through the inner-city landmark of Cedar-Riverside Plazas, a low-income housing set of buildings – all colorful beyond belief – which have been reclaimed from a once drug/gang infested stronghold. “You used to not be able to enter that area,” explained Ms. Hakeem, who ran for City of Minneapolis Mayor back in 2005 under the Green Party banner. “But now you can walk around freely, even at 10pm at night. When the Somali refugees began to arrive, they naturally moved into the least expensive section of town – Cedar-Riverside.”
As I entered the neighborhood to meet Ms. Hakeem and the girls, my taxi driver, Hassan Mohamed, age 25, explained how this is so. “We [as Somalis] get along in America … when we came to America we are very helpful to each other and other people too … Back in Somalia it’s all about tribes and every tribe wants to be the president. But here [in Minneapolis] we put the tribes to the side – to come together.”
Part of learning about pride in your community comes from actively pitching in to help it out. As we moved along the streets and under the bridges, Ayan and Mary introduced me to their latest community project – a mural of Minneapolis they are working on in conjunction with “Articulture”. Here, Executive Director Elizabeth Greenbaum explained that when it comes to at-risk kids mixed with art, “art is a wonderful equalizer, especially for students who don’t succeed in other subject matters. When you think about it and take it a step further, we’re talking about the basic understanding and the basic concepts to write – and that leads into reading and that leads into learning – so [the] arts are very much orientated to learning on all levels.”
When asked what the mural of Minneapolis she was busy working on meant to her personally, Ayan smiled broadly before exhorting, “I guess I’m proud of it because we worked on it for months and I feel really great looking at it.”
Adjacent to Articulture is Jim’s Barber Shop, who between himself and his father, have manned the shop for the past fifty years. I asked Jim what he thought about the mural, now bordering one side of the building his shop inhabits. Without thinking, he simply said, “I think it’s a great idea. I’m very impressed with the groups of people who go there.” When asked how the old-school, predominately German and Swedish community is adapting to the large influx of Somali refugees, Jim thought before explaining, “While most people are okay with it, overall I think a lot of the seniors aren’t adapting.” Although he was quick to point out that after all, these same old timers had once been immigrants as well.
Part of a journey is looking back, as with Somali immigrant and political refugee Safia Wardere who, along with her husband, took part in the physical journey to America back in 1993. While for the next generation of Somali-Americans, like unto Safia’s daughter, Shachi Hussin, age 13, the journey is two-fold: one foot here and now meets the next step firmly planted in an American-based future – a future that is indeed both beautiful and bright.
AUGUST 6, 2009
Tech meets wild in Charles Lindbergh’s Little Falls
LITTLE FALLS, Minnesota
When the old timers of Little Falls get together at their favorite local haunt, the West Side Café, they remember aviator icon Charles Lindbergh with laughs, stories, and a gleam of pride in their eye.
Charles Lindbergh was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York to Le Bourget Field in Paris in a single wicker seat, single engine monoplane titled the Spirit of St. Louis. The instantaneous world-wide fame that followed was unprecedented. Upon touchdown onto Le Bourget Field the Spirit of St. Louis as well as Lindbergh himself were virtually torn apart by a mob of over-enthusiastic fans while upon his return to America on June 13, 1927 “Lindbergh Day” was celebrated in New York City “as city offices, schools, and stock markets closed for the day [as] over 4 million spectators lined the streets to cheer the aviator.”
But as the fact of the world’s first Atlantic monoplane crossing becomes legend and the legend of Lindbergh becomes myth – it’s not the man himself the stories revolve around so much as the message he was able to convey. “I think Lindbergh inspired a lot of young men to do things they didn’t think they could do or would be able to do,” stated Little Falls resident Marie Langdeau, some eighty years young. Asked if she had seen examples of that in her lifetime, Marie was quick to reply – “Oh yes, I have.”
Before the man there was a boy – a boy who would spend a good deal of his youth here along the banks of the Mississippi River, swimming, fishing and flying around with his arms outstretched like an airplane, simulating the plane he saw one day from the rafters of his Little Falls home. “He’d sneak out at night and sleep on the porch – he loved the stars,” explained Lee Ann Douchette, a local writer and former radio newsroom presenter. “When he saw his first plane go overhead he just went nuts.”
As the aviator who got the job done and later as an environmentalist who strove for a balance between technology and wildness, it is interesting to see the living legacy left behind in Lindbergh’s boyhood hometown.
One example of a successful local business inspired by Lindbergh is Joe Berg of DJ Products, an innovative local manufacturer specializing “in [robotics and] moving around anything on wheels.” Joe showed me his latest product – dubbed the Aircraft Caddy – having “develop[ed] it based on Lindberg’s name and with official use of the Spirit of St. Louis airplane logo. Joe is striving to keep local jobs local. “It’s so important … our town relies on every job we have … whatever we can do to try to keep jobs helps our community.”
On the other side of town, Ty Gangelhoff, Park Manager of Charles Lindbergh State Park (from original land deeded over by the Lindbergh’s in 1931), brought out his record books to show that to date this year alone, over four thousand campers have come to enjoy the park’s five hundred and seventy acres, inhabiting protected “bald eagles and the three major biomes of the area – the prairie biome, the hardwood biome and the pines biome.”
For the education take I went over to Charles Lindbergh Elementary School where Principle Jill Griffith-McRaith explained, “His work here [on the environment] helps our students remember and continue their work with conservation and keeping the world a better place,” going on to say, “part of his legacy is through the Lindbergh Foundation which provides scholarships [and] grants to teachers who continue that environmental work.”
And from the environment to hope, Little Falls Mayor Catherine VanRisseghem summed up the effects of Lindbergh’s living legacy as such: “[Back then] at that point, times were really tough – people without jobs, without hope – and Charles Lindbergh was that spark of hope for them … and I believe that the same goes for now a-days – times are tough, people are losing jobs and their lives are being impacted greatly, but there still is hope … that dream, that ability to dream and to accomplish those dreams is still within us as people here locally and .. that true spirit is still there in the Spirit of America.”
JULY 31, 2009
The All-American community tavern
The difference between a tavern and a bar is, according to Wikipedia, that at a tavern you are a “guest” while at a bar you are a member of the public. But a quality tavern is more than that – what makes a tavern is more than hanging up a shingle with the letters “TAVERN” in wild-west rustic face font.
Turning the page in American history, the historic taverns were where the Continental Congress met, where the US Marines were first formed, and where General Washington would launch his victorious assault on the British by crossing the Delaware.
A quality tavern is a gathering place, a quality tavern is full of curious characters, a quality tavern is a place where one can stumble upon a great American story.
I’d like to share such a story in the form of Florio’s Grill & Tavern of Cohasset, Minnesota.
It had been a day of 14 hours paddling including fighting waves coming up-river and a lightening storm. It had been wetland for the vast majority of the day and as such nowhere to get out. The sun had set and I was dead tired and by the time I arrived at Cohasset I was ready to lay down some money for a hotel. There was no campsite on the map for many, many miles.
The good people of Cohasset had together spent $3,000, I’d later learn, to build a boat landing for travelers just like myself where I tied up my canoe and grabbed my wallet. It was about 10PM and after crossing the railroad tracks I saw a log tavern radiating light with a couple cars parked outside. Ashamed of my boots (they were wet) I opened the door and thought about asking after a hotel from where I stood. The waitress beckoned me forward and as I came into the tavern the owner, Ron Floria, came over to listen.
I explained that I was looking for a hotel and when they said the nearest one was five miles away, I shook my head and thought I was finished. There was a silence. “Do you have a tent?” asked Ron. “Yes, yes I do. I could pitch it on somebody’s lawn if anybody lives around here.” “How about just outside?” I looked outside and saw trees and old-school wooden benches and a lot of grass. “Great, just great!”
Ron did everything he could to make me feel at home. He offered to bring his truck around so he could shine her lights on my little operation – so I could see what I was doing with the tent. He let me bring my wet stuff inside to dry out overnight. He shook my hand and welcomed me to Cohasset – and he meant it.
I would spend the following two days camped outside Florio’s Grill & Tavern during which time I was able to write, edit and upload the Andy Wells interview(s) as well as a personal interview with CNN international – a story that would be eclipsed by the solar eclipse later that week in Asia.
I noted that Florio’s was booming – that the open-planned wooden log structure was filled with a very positive vibe, full of volunteer fire-fighters, with youth baseball teams, with business professionals, with city officials, with the wise old men of the town.
Susan Harper, the City Administrator, came over to shake my hand when she heard that I was camped just outside, what turned out to be across the street from City Hall. “This is the community hub – the only restaurant in the town,” explained Susan. She told me how much the entire town loved the place – that when there was a flood at the church as a result of the April thaw Ron had come over with hot food for all the firefighters – for everyone. “Just that simple act – it meant a great deal.” She was so excited and touched that I had chosen their town to pitch my tent, well before she would learn that I was doing a little reporting. Asking about Susan’s reaction to me a bit later other locals explained that she had meant what she said because she was forward-looking. She could see the day when many people would come from the river to spend money and take in the sights of Cohasset.
Ron Floria represents three generations attached to Florio’s Grill & Tavern. A retired cheffer from the railroads, Ron took early retirement and put his money into Florio’s – which he runs with his son, Larry. Larry’s son, Dominic (age eight) is a frequent guest, along with other family and friends. The tavern is a family business and it is successful – on multiple levels. They run it and watch it carefully and the quality of the operation shows.
When you order buffalo wings they come larger and tastier than I’ve ever seen and/or tasted in my life. They’ve cut the cost of the menu and offer specials every night – specials which actually fill the place up. When you order the blackened salmon it is both fresh and reasonable. And when you look up from your table, a gargantuan moose smiles down at you from its mount on the wall. “My cousin got that one,” explained Ron. “Up at the Boundary Waters. They get bigger than that a bit farther north but this is a good sized one.”
Ron would tell me stories of his time on the railroad, of how you can never judge a book by its cover. He’d relate business tips and success stories of how he’s made it during these tough times. In short, Ron became my friend and when it came time to at long last depart, the Minnesota Nice principle of saying goodbye multiple times rang true.
Ron Floria and his family represent a great All-American story. Their tavern is the real deal. They are working hard to pursue their dreams and in so doing to offer a valuable service in which folks, from near and far, are quick to shake hands, to speak of the good times and the bad – but most importantly, quick to smile.
JULY 29, 2009
Small Mississippi River town rallies against cancer
Here in the town of Aitkin, up in Minnesota’s Wild North, folks don’t mess around when it comes to cancer. “We decided we would promote awareness,” explains Elaine Hill, co-chair for the county’s Relay for Life Committee. And they’re doing it. In the week leading up to the town’s big event, Aitkin is draped in purple (the designated color of the American Cancer Society), decorating their shops to celebrate survivorship, drinking purple smoothies, and raising money on a business and personal basis.
Relay for Life is in association with the American Cancer Society and is billed as their signature [nationwide] fundraising event to be held locally this coming Friday. The money collected “goes to research and to different services that are available,” explained Elaine, “including free wigs, a feel better program” for women and men, and in many cases, when needed, “a free hospital bed”.
But the story of fighting cancer in Aitkin runs deeper than affiliation with Relay for Life. In a town of 1,984, when somebody gets cancer, it’s personal, because everybody knows everybody. In a single day in town I found myself surrounded by stories of survival meets images of hope.
I spoke with multiple cancer survivors, many of whom had benefited by town fundraising events in which the good people of Aitkin stepped forward to help each other out. Silent auctions, live auctions, family and friends not waiting to be asked for help. But more than monetary support, this town truly lends moral support, as one young man explained, “even if it’s just in one person’s life – it’s still a difference in their life and it’s very important to them.”
At the age of 36, one town cancer survivor, Kathie Smith, a mom of two young children, explained that it was Austin Price, a young boy who was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 1/2, who “paved the way for my kids to handle me being diagnosed with cancer.” “I graduated from high school together with [Austin’s mom] and Austin was in day care with my children. He taught my kids that just because you have cancer [it] doesn’t mean it’s fatal.” Somewhat of a living legend here in Aitkin, Austin, now age 6, has survived a year following eight months of hospitalization and treatment down at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. “He’s made it,” beamed Kathie, fighting back tears.
When asked for advice for others who might be fighting for their very lives around the world, Austin, moving between examining the camera and sitting on his mother’s lap, rubbed his head before answering: “Be strong” – to be followed by the simple, hard fought admonition – “be brave.”
JULY 22, 2009
Small business success: The Andy Wells story
Andy Wells III of Wells Technology was honored recently by President Obama himself for his success in business as Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year, and moreover, for his willingness to share this success and knowledge with his community – the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe.
“It was a surprise to get the award from the Minnesota Small Business Administration but also a bigger surprise to be invited to Washington D.C.,” explained Mr. Wells. Upon arrival to the White House with small business award winners from different states, Andy was seated in front as a ‘special guest’ – a guest whom President Obama would address in his speech on the “courage and determination and daring” of great leaders, stating: “It’s what led Andy Wells, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwa Tribe to invest $1300 back in 1989 to found Wels Technology, manufacturing industrial tools and fasteners, and creating jobs near reservations in Minnesota, where he lives.”
On a reservation where the penitentiary equals the size of the local high school it can be a difficult thing, as a young person in the community, to move oneself forward – to actually visualize the word ‘hope’. Andy Wells hires the people that all other business owners pass up – the young, formerly misguided ex convicts, the alcoholics – people who have made poor decisions in the past but who show determination to make something better out of their lives. Wells’ philosophy: “You’ve got to help people… that’s the root of success.” He offers a program that not only teaches the machining trade but also betters and strengthens the character, teaching honesty, self respect, as well as what it means to truly have pride.
And he’s successful doing it. Last year, Wells Technology’s proceeds equaled 54 million dollars, profits which Mr. Wells turns around to better the community.
Upon arrival at Wells Technology, which doubles as Wells Academy, it struck me as an interesting concept to put a classroom front and center in the headquarters of a main business office. “Every day is an open house,” explained Mr. Wells. “Every day we’ve got a busload of reservation kids or church groups or even car enthusiast clubs coming around. When the busses pull up you can see who the tough kids are – the ones who smoke a cigarette outside before coming in and hang their head in the classroom. But when we start to show them how our products help shoot flares out of military helicopters and other interesting things, they perk up – they start to ask questions – they start to understand why it is important to learn about math and science.”
Mr. Wells is a pillar of not only small business in Minnesota but also the pride of the local community as well. And yet all of this success hasn’t changed Mr. Wells, hasn’t made him at all prideful. When I asked the Mayor of Bemidji, Richard Lehmann, to describe Andy, he simply explained, “Andy is one of the humblest, kindest men I have ever known. Incredibly intelligent. A real pleasure to meet and to learn from.”
“There is book learning and there is other wisdom,” explained Mr. Wells, referring to the system of ‘elders’ within the Native American community. “The [positive] influences began in my life early – it was neighbors, my parents, my grandparents … A neighbor friend, named Charlie Barrett, who really had no formal education but was a very humble neighbor noticed me running ahead of the adult groups quite often and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you open the door for people when you’re up there.’ At the time I thought he meant the physical door but now when I look back, maybe he meant more. Maybe he was a wise fellow like many of the wise people I’ve met, and he could see that perhaps one day I would be able to open doors of opportunity for people – and now that’s one of my main missions in life – to continue doing things that help other people because so many have helped me.”
JULY 19, 2009
Passing on the dance of the Ojibwe
BALL CLUB, Minnesota
When the children dance at the Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Days pow wow money is thrown at their feet in a symbolic gesture of respect. The money is then collected and given to the elders, who watch on with great smiles from the elders’ booth.
Veterans, the youth, women, and elders are all honored at this traditional pow wow, now celebrating its 47th year, in multiple ways. Many of which are sacred and cannot be recorded by camera or sound. For example there are the songs of the drums. Each drum possesses within it a song which is special – a song within that only that drum can play.
Then there are the power rings which form a circle around the pow wow ring, used to hoist individual flags for family members who have passed on in active combat overseas. These flags must be raised by a veteran, and preferably a veteran who is a member of the family. I spoke with Don Schaaf, a veteran that saw combat in Beirut. Don was there to raise a flag for his father, Al Schaaf, who had fallen as a paratrooper in Korea. “It’s basically how [we] grieve and how [we] deal,” he explained.
What makes this particular pow wow special is that it features approximately 300 dancers and concentrates on the old and the young. My take for a story was to attempt to document how the knowledge of the dance is passed down from the old to the young, from generation to generation.
When I went to the source – a senior elder of this Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe – he instructed me in the best possible method. Instead of answering my series of prepared questions, he encouraged me to watch and to listen and to feel – to learn about the pow wow by witnessing it firsthand, for myself. Good advice from a professional educator. John Mitchell, the elder, is 87 years old and just won the National Education Indian Elder Award. He told me that dancing cannot be taught – that it must be watched and appreciated. That there’s a love about it that must come from within – a love that can be passed from generation to generation.
And funny enough, when I spoke with Andrew Wakonabo, a winning boy crowned “Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Brave” from last year, he said the same thing, explaining, “I pretty much learned myself – watching other people dance.” The winning dancers are crowned “brave” and “princess” and their title is more complicated than simply wearing a crown and a banner. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Councilman Joe Gotchie explained that once they win, for the entire year they must “demonstrate responsibilities [so] that other youth look up to them.”
There are all sorts of dances at the pow wow and members must be dressed in full regalia to be permitted to participate in competition. Here we witnessed grass, traditional, jingle dress (healing dress) and fancy shell dancers. There are also dances for everyone in the audience, dances for the entire community and all visitors to participate in.
When I met with the councilman the night before the pow wow he told me of an aunt of his who back in his rebellious youth was a real hard case. She’d get all the boys riled up and excited about the pow wow. “You know the pow wow’s coming,” she’d exhort, “yelling and cussing and telling us we had to sort ourselves out and get ourselves in line.” Joe broke down while he told me the story – he said that it was for her that he would dance – that to this day he’s going to all of this work year in and year out (now running the show) just to make this aunt proud. Even though the aunt has been gone now for several years, he can still hear her.
There’s a bond between the old and the young within the Native American community that other cultures can learn from. The Ojibwe historically used complex pictures on sacred birch bark scrolls to communicate their knowledge.
Today, I learned that for the Ojibwe, dance communicates love. I saw a lot of smiles and felt a feeling that as one older member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe explained “is impossible to put into words”. A language all its own which is positive and knows no age.
JULY 16, 2009
It was approximately 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 14th when the town siren went off in Blackduck, Minnesota. Everyone is familiar with the siren here because they do a practice test every day at precisely 12 noon. The siren went for a good long time. It was eerie to hear it drone on and on through the rain and the wind just outside and it made me apprehensive. I imagined a fire in the downtown district or hopefully a cat up a tree. Thinking I might witness some sort of rescue I grabbed my cameras and ran for my niece’s car.
I had been off the river for one day, hold up in my niece’s house, 25 miles north of Bemidji (the first town on the Mississippi River), drying out my clothes and goods and preparing for a series of interviews here in the general area. A fire engine and a rush of police cars were headed straight through the town and as they passed some local residents watched from the sidewalks. Others were already in their vehicles and as I approached the stop sign at the nearby highway there were a good three to four other cars and trucks between myself and the emergency vehicles. We all followed. Everyone was going the same way. What I didn’t know at the time was that the town siren hadn’t rung for an emergency like this in some time, nor that these residents were not following the fire truck to watch and gawk or to take pictures. They were going to help.
Not long after I saw a Sheriff four wheel drive racing behind. I pulled over and as I did I saw he was towing a speedboat. Immediately I knew. The emergency was on the lake. Blackduck Lake is a straight shot from the town, about a mile off the highway.
I found a dirt road away from all other vehicles and I got out to take a look. There were reeds and muck between myself and the lake where I parked but it was the closest to the lake that I could find without being in the way. A fireman on foot approached me and I asked him what had happened and if I could help. “Boating accident – two bodies still in the water – I’m going to search the shore here in the reeds. They could have tried to swim.” We both tried to wade out in the reeds but it was a bit too mucky. He went one way and then I looked on top of my niece’s car and saw my canoe. And just inside, my paddles. For some reason I had forgot to take them out when I unpacked everything else from the car late the night before.
A local resident came and helped me launch from a private dock. There were lots of bigger boats out in the water but as far as I knew, no canoes that could cut through the reeds and cattails. I was then told the owner of the house from where I launched had just launched her kayak. I followed suit.
The water was choppy but out in the cattails you could keep your course. I looked and I looked and went further and further around the shore. I searched for two or so hours. In the end when the wind picked up and the waves began to rise I was on my way back when I saw the blue boat almost completely submerged, surrounded by Beltrami Sheriff rescue boats. There had been a foreboding in the air but it wasn’t until this moment that the gravity of the situation hit me. The two people who were lost were not going to be rescued. The deputy sheriffs around the capsized pleasure boat were marking off orange buoys for the divers to come in and search. The search would be called off for the night not too long after that as the weather would again take a turn for the worse as the wind picked up something fierce.
I didn’t report on this story and I didn’t end up taking any pictures. I only recount what I experienced now because I was touched that a town like this one could band together to try and help. The other, rather selfish reason is because the whole experience has left me a bit melancholy and reflective and I wanted to try to get it off of my chest. Tonight is the second night that I can’t sleep.
I don’t mean to say that I was a great person for launching my canoe. The point is there were many, many boats out there, all searching, all trying to help. It was a community that was coming together – it was a community in action that you can just tell comes together in different ways to help each other out, each and every day. Small town America has a completely different feel from the big city where I grew up. People take the time to greet people. When you try to cross the street, people stop their car and let you go first.
I’ll never forget the look on the searchers’ faces out on the lake as you’d pass by them. You’d take a moment to look at each other and you’d just nod. Others without boats were in the reeds in their wetsuits. I read in the paper today that other locals were preparing food and coffee for the searchers. Others still were there to comfort the mother of one of the missing young men who had come to the lake and was calling his name late into that night.
Life is fragile and every life is special. Two young men, Justin Daryl Anderson and Cody James Kruegerboth, both aged 21, had been rescued by locals directly following the accident. While the bodies of Adam Joseph Bobick, 26, of Little Falls, Minn., and Shawn Allen Ramsdell, 33, also of Little Falls, were recovered the following day. Although this story is not the sort of “positive American story” I intended when I set out on my Flash River Safari, I see now that it is an important one to understand and to share.
JULY 14, 2009
Homesteaders protect the wild and scenic Upper Mississippi
WANAGAN LANDING, Minnesota
I stopped off at Wanagan Landing, a good six hour paddle from the source of the Mississippi River, where I met a gentleman who represents six generations of homesteaders – by the name of Donald Keith Butler. Mr. Butler expressed his love of the land and of the need to protect it for future generations to enjoy. He said that he had been taught by his grandfather to respect the land and that he was passing these values on to his children and to his grandchildren. Mr. Butler explained that “there were originally ten important homesteading families who really set the stage for the last century.” A number of these present-day homesteading families have banded together to jointly preserve the land as “a wild and scenic refuge for the soul.”
Mr. Butler represents positive voluntary action in action. People who are familiar with the land – who know it and who love it. Mr. Butler showed me a point on a dirt path not far from the Mississippi River where I conducted this interview. He told me of how he remembered his grandfather back in the 1930’s being wheeled away in the family Chevy when he got sick, pinpointing the exact spot where the grandfather had rolled out of the truck. “We picked him up and put him back in and then went over the bridge and to the hospital – where he died some twenty days later.” For Mr. Butler, this land is personal. People naturally get a love for the land. And when they do, they want to take care of it.
JULY 9, 2009
Flash River Safari has gone overland…
Welcome to the new North Dakota economy
MINOT, North Dakota
North Dakota is the #1 economy in the country fueled in part by a booming IT/Tech industry. Driving across the state (with my canoe) en route to the Mississippi River, I pulled into the city of Minot to put a face on this new economy – in the form of a successful software engineer named Kevin Mitchell and his co-worker Brenda Kast. Here, I learned that the success of education, farming, oil, as well as the governor’s platform, at least in this state, successfully revolves around information technology.