“An aging United States reduces the economy’s growth – big time,” claimed Robert J. Samuelson in the opening line of his 2016 news story in the Washington Post. The story referred to an academic study of economic slowdown as we’ve seen it in recent years. Samuelson and the study traced this decline to our aging population. In fact, after presenting many details from the study, he concluded that, “If other economists confirm the study, we’d probably resolve the ferocious debate about what causes economic slowdown. The aging effect would dwarf other alleged causes…” It’s an interesting theory, but I argue with some of the conclusions he draws and offer another conclusion of my own.
By itself, the opening line immediately reminded me of a homegrown theory I’ve tossed around informally for some time. I tend to pull it out in conversation whenever I or someone else in my general age bracket expresses concern about whether or not our money will last as long as our lives will.
As a mathematical equation, my idea might look like this:
There may be a better way to express it mathematically, but here’s how I tell the story:
Using round numbers, I say, imagine that I started earning my own living at age 20. I was actually a little older than that, but it’s close enough, and saying I was 20 makes the equation easy to figure out. Then suppose that I decided to stop working for pay at the societally-accepted “retirement age” of 65. I didn’t, but again I’m not quibbling about details. The kicker comes when we add the final assumption, that I might live to be 90. The average life expectancy for a woman my age has been going up and is currently about 86.5 years – again, the number is close enough for the purpose of my storytelling.
The simple arithmetic of the story suggests a conclusion.
Someone living according to this equation would have an earning life of 45 years, that is, 65 minus 20. And that’s just half of a full 90-year lifetime. Hmmm . . . that seems to imply we’d have 45 years to generate 90 years of living expenses, two years’ worth for every year worked. The equation is all too simple, I know, since it doesn’t account for many things. All the same, applied to real life, the equation sets a crazy expectation.
“Oh, but wait!” you may say. “You haven’t accounted for the fact that your 45 earning years really only have to pay for your extra 25 years after retirement. That’s not quite so bad.” Ah, but I’d counter, consider that my first 20 years were hardly free. Somebodyhad to pay for them. In my case, it was my parents, and anyone who’s a parent knows they’re paying for at least two lives during the first 20 years of their child’s lives. But whether I’m a parent or not, I think my equation has to account for the cost of those years. So, I argue, the equation holds.
Obviously, a certain segment of the population with high earnings (especially if boosted by inherited wealth) can, indeed, pay for 90 years of life with just 45 years of work. For most of us, though, the economic life my equation points to is probably difficult if not impossible, and on the scale of an entire society, it’s hard to believe that the formula could possibly work at all.
My equation, though based on an individual life, has broad implications for an aging society overall. For me, it clarifies why an aging population that depends for its livelihood in our current economic system could be seen as a cause of economic slowdown. Clearly, a steep earnings decline follows retirement for many of us.
In his discussion of aging and economics, Samuelson discusses the study’s explanations for why an increasingly older population might have a dampening effect on economic productivity. For one, the decline is partly based on the proportionally smaller number of workers left to support production. But the study also reports that this accounts for only about a third of the decrease.
One theory for the rest, Samuelson proposes, is that older people may be more cautious with their spending, valuing stability and being more restrained, of being less experimental and optimistic in their views and actions. To this one I say, for myself at least, “Bah, humbug!” My desire to respond to the urgencies of today – climate crisis, justice and inequality, the precarious state of our civil society – has only increased at age 74, especially since I know my time is limited. I may act in different ways than I did in my 20s, but I’m no more cautious or restrained.
Besides, my homemade equation suggests that the “cautious spending” of older populations is not necessarily about our reduced sense of experimentation and adventure but rather about the reduced size of our bank accounts. My simple arithmetic speaks to larger questions about how our economy works, or more accurately, doesn’t work. For one thing, the only work that our current economy values is work exchanged for money.
What do you think older people are doing in their “retirements,” that is, if they’re lucky enough not to be scrabbling for money to pay the rent? Countless numbers of us are contributing in valuable ways to our communities, and more could. Look at the hair color of volunteers at food banks, in legal clinics, in libraries, and at other nonprofit and voluntary organizations. Who’s taking food to shut-ins? Who’s regularly writing their elected officials and participating in other ways in our democracy? And then there are the grandmothers and grandfathers! Yes, we love the time we spend with our grandchildren, but in many cases grandparents play an essential role in helping cover the cost of their grandkids’ first 20 years. It may be loving, but it’s still work.
Are we only able to put our effort to these things if we’ve been lucky enough to have held jobs for 45 years that pay double-time? We need to change the economic arithmetic. We need a different formula.
Note: The Washington Post article, published on August 21, 2016, can be found here.
Every now and then since at least 1985, I’ve given myself the gift of time away. I leave Seattle with a few books, lots of notes, a computer, and plans to rearrange my molecules for a while to focus on the difficult work of writing. These “time aways” also allow for walking, reading, thinking, staring into space, maybe visiting an old friend or meeting someone new or maybe not seeing anyone at all, surrounded by new scenery and a different context. I’ve rented cabins and hotel rooms, stayed in friends’ second homes, shared rentals with another writer friend, traded work for a little house, and a few times, even stayed in actual, official artists’ residencies. With mixed success, I’ve begun trying to recreate that experience without leaving home. I remember one time the strategy worked.
It was late summer 2015 – a perfect time-away day at home.
After spending the first hour of the day with necessary correspondence, I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.
I walked just a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a favorite neighborhood coffee shop. Along with my breakfast, I read through past notes for what had become a gnarly piece I was working on. I’d been invited to write a short essay for publication in Pacific Standardas one of a series of columns on the future of work. My first draft had been returned by the editor with comments that made me know I should just start over. After studying my notes and finishing my coffee, I headed out.
Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles down steep, winding streets and views of the Cascade mountains, I stopped for coffee at a tiny place where I struggled to find a new path through the ideas in my notes. I didn’t actually pull out my computer to begin a new draft, but with my notes and a pen and paper, I found at least a preliminary place to begin and went outside again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t tried before and then turned straight east toward the Washington Park Aboretum.
Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffee shop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to sit there until I had begun a revised version. By the time I walked out, clouds had covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with tall straight pines at the start and large holly trees toward the end. My wet walk through the woods ended at yet another bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made good progress in the writing, at least getting some good thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.
A little later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. My earlier straight-line walk to the Arboretum had been level; this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on just one of many blocks – and a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy the walk had given me continued, and I worked for another hour or so.
As the day ended, my writing was far from finished, but this new draft gave me the bones of a version that the editor ultimately accepted with only a few suggestions and small revisions. The piece, titled “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” considered the work of artists and other often unpaid workers. It began with a quote from economist Marilyn Waring: “I sit as artists have sat for centuries, laboring unpaid. Yet I am sure this is work. I am sure it is productive, and I hope it will be of value.”
It was during one meandering leg of my long walk after a stretch of determined struggle with the essay that Waring’s words occurred to me and helped shape the piece. The day also convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are valuable to the way I think and that I can sometimes find the discipline to create a satisfying time away at home.
“Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value” can be found here at Pacific Standard (originally posted 11/3/15) and a slightly revised version on my website here.
The quote from Marilyn Waring comes from the first paragraph of her 1989 book, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics.
“Come wade through history with me,” I wrote, hoping to entice students to apply for an internship with me. I’d been appointed to be Alum in Residence at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year and had decided that one way to put this opportunity to use would be to get help organizing and inventorying the many boxes of files and ephemera I’d accumulated over the years. During my residency, five remarkable students worked with me.
Of the many projects that produced the boxes filling my storage unit I chose one and carted nine of the sixteen banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the school. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us during the tumultuous challenges we faced during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, fierce congressional debates about arts funding, and the sometimes contentious rise of “multi-culturalism” (the term of the day).
The students tackled the job with enthusiasm. And they didn’t just inventory the material. As they went through it they also talked about what they found, both among themselves and with me. We considered what the contents meant, whether archives matter, and how what they learned connected with the world we know today. Their interest prompted them to create ancillary projects. Along with two exhibitions, an Instagram feed, and reflective essays, the students decided to produce a podcast series based on interviews with intriguing people they discovered in the files. David Mendoza was on their list.
David is a long-time advocate and activist on behalf of artists and was an important early member of Arts Wire. At about the same time that Arts Wire was gaining momentum, David was leading the charge against censorship as director of the new National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Three of my interns – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – contacted David and conducted the interview. The hour-long conversation – with David in Bali where he now lives and we in Jessica’s apartment near the university – threaded its way through many of his experiences. His creation, in the 1980s, of a button with a message particularly caught the students’ imagination.
DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! Iam the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “Youare the public, and youare the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.
What public funding for the arts did, what the National Endowment for the Arts did, what the New York State Arts Council and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. People who were known for their private philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.”
Everyone who wore that pin was part of the public. I’m telling you, it was amazing. I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle]. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle.
JESSICA: I just want to chime in… Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.
DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it. Just make it!
JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Just helping them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”
KAREN: It’s an affirmation of our own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, it’s only my opinion. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? Even on the scale of the country!
DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.
JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!
DAVID: Yes! I have one in my little treasure storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.
AFTERWORD: At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.
My downstairs neighbor Kim dropped by this morning. He wanted help figuring out how to prepare himself psychologically for a visit later that day with his sister who had recently gone into hospice care. He wondered what he could do for her. What should he say, what could he take, how could he be ready? His questions brought back a powerful memory of my own, which I shared with him.
In the late ’90s a close friend of mine, Anne Gerber, was in the final decade of a long life. She was known for her unflagging support of artists and social causes. She called herself an “artnik” rather than an arts patron. She collected the work of risk-taking artists from across the country and world and was an avid supporter of local artists. She once said, “I like to watch for the art that’s discovering itself.” With her husband she worked to desegregate housing in Seattle and was a dedicated member of the ACLU. For me, she was proof that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. Remembering her, eco designer and artist Wendy Brawer wrote: “It was 1984. The phone rings, and the voice on the other end of the wire asks – what are you artists doing about the election? All it took was one nudge from Annie and we were off, running a creative campaign that brought our community into the political arena and sparked deep conversations on our rights and dreams as citizens.”
By the time she reached her early 90s, though, Anne’s eyesight was nearly gone and her mobility restricted. Living in a single room on the health-care wing of a continuing care retirement community, she was far from the friends she hadn’t outlived and didn’t get many visitors. The facility took care of her medical needs, but her social, cultural, and intellectual life suffered. She’d always been fiercely independent which kept her from reaching out when she wanted or needed something, and her failing eyesight kept her from reading and enjoying the art she loved. With very little social contact except for a group of five or six of us who visited whenever we could, her world got smaller. On my visits I began reading to her – sometimes choosing the latest art news and other timely articles about contemporary political events or people she knew. She liked feeling connected to worlds that mattered to her. I would watch her come back to life each time we were together.
After one of my visits, it occurred to me that she might enjoy hearing something from her own life. I remembered that, somewhere, I had an interview with her from the early 1980s. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art had wanted her oral history, and I’d agreed to do the interview. Anne and I had talked for at least an hour and a half on two different days. Afterward, I’d received a paper copy of the transcript, so I dug through my files to find it.
Before I visited again, I read through the stories she told – of her parents, her days as an art student, her marriage in Reno to Sydney Gerber, their sailboat summers in Canada’s inland passage where they became friends and supporters of renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carver Willie Seaweed, and many of her contemporary art world adventures, among which was a 1968 trip to New York with a charge from the Seattle Art Museum to find an exhibition that would be “new and fresh,” a search that led her to art critic and activist Lucy Lippard whom she signed up to be exhibition curator and who created for Seattle the first of what would be known as “Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows,” titled in our case 557,087.
The next time I saw Anne, I read aloud from the transcript for ten or fifteen minutes before I paused to look up. When I did, I noticed that she was sitting very still, listening intently, with a pensive, almost tearful look on her face. “I thought it was gone,” she said quietly. “But now it’s all back.” I read from that transcript many times on subsequent visits.
After sharing some of this with my neighbor Kim, I suggested that perhaps he could give his sister something that would trigger memories from her past. So much of our memory relies on recognition and has to be prompted to resurface, even when a memory defines us. Cues can be an object or a letter, a favorite song or the smell of a special meal. Or it might even be a question from a neighbor.
I bumped into Kim at the front door of our apartment building a few hours later. He was in a hurry but was carrying a big basket over his arm.
There is a dense layer of artistic activity all over the country that can be hard to see. At times it’s nearly invisible. With some exceptions, this creative activity lies close to the ground, found in many mostly small but dynamic nodes that are sometimes, but not reliably, linked together in informal, web-like ways. This story is about how a fairly isolated, regional chunk of this artistic layer began to make connections with other regions.
Many adjectives are used to describe the activity in this busy cultural arena: contemporary, experimental, noncommercial, artist-centered, independent, DIY, and grassroots. It’s also frequently referred to as responsive, diverse, focused on equity, and politically committed. Although it generally doesn’t get big flashy headlines, the workings of this domain are often well known by and intertwined closely with the communities where it lives. This creative layer shows up as storefront exhibition spaces, publications, residencies, digital platforms, project spaces, community centers, studios, and occasionally as high-profile institutions. It can be found in garage galleries and living rooms, tucked in buildings with unexpected neighbors, on paper in bookshelves and in piles at public events, in privately-run or governmentally-sponsored spaces, as well as in public places on an often temporary basis. Its inhabitants take many legal forms – as nonprofits, informal and unincorporated networks, collectives, associations, noncommercial for-profits, sometimes as artist support organizations, and, in ever-increasing numbers, as individual and independent organizers, often artists for whom this work is an extension of their art practice.
The key to all this activity is the central role taken by or given to artists, and, in fact, many endeavors that populate this realm are created by or run by artists. Often the organizational form itself is part of the work and includes efforts to bring together artists, art, various publics, communities, and organizations in ways that lead to all parts being integral to the whole. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the terms artist spaces, arts organizers, and artist-centered as stand-ins for the wide variety of forms this energy takes.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s when this arts layer wasn’t as thick as it is today, I helped create and run an early example of this activity in Seattle, an organization named and/or. Over its ten-year life and/or gained a national reputation that decades later, in 2015, led to my becoming a member of the founding board of Common Field, an organization that aims to connect and empower this nationwide, multi-various network, this “field.” Common Field’s largest program is an annual gathering of the network, the Common Field Convening. It welcomes artist spaces and arts organizers from anywhere in the country to attend. The most recent convening, held in Philadelphia this year, attracted over five hundred participants from 32 states.
In Seattle and Washington State today, the world of artist-centered activity is just as dense as it is anywhere else, but until now it has had few connections with its counterparts elsewhere. It has felt like a far-off corner of the country. My direct experience in this world is decades old, and Seattle artist Matthew Offenbacher has been my main guide to what’s happening in our region now. Matt says of himself, “I seek constructive, positive positions at often difficult intersections of individuals, communities, and institutions.” His work ranges from painting, writing, and object making to exhibition making and community organizing.
Matt and I wrote the following story collaboratively in response to an invitation to tell the Common Field network how we began the process of building relationships with others across the country. The piece was posted on Common Field’s website.
Did you wonder why there were so many people from Seattle and Washington State at the Convening in Philly?
In 2017, Courtney Fink, executive director of Common Field, visited Seattle for a community meet-up at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Fifty or so organizers came together in the gallery at the University of Washington’s art school to network, share ideas, and learn about Common Field. However, despite the good conversation and energy generated, the meeting didn’t result in many new members or Convening attendees. In fact, at the Convening in Los Angeles that fall there were just three of us. We three were very excited by our experience and thought: more people from Seattle must go!
Our theory was that travel and time costs were the limiting factor. Like many places, visual art in Seattle relies heavily on grassroots and DIY organizations, often run by artists. This creates a landscape that is culturally rich and dynamic, but also incoherent and perpetually underfunded. High costs of living make it difficult for artist organizers to find time to write grant proposals, raise money, and work on administrative tasks. Also, there’s a pernicious civic attitude that emphasizes entrepreneurial competition over collective effort and mutual support.
To try to get more people to the 2019 Convening we hatched a plan to raise money to award ad-hoc travel scholarships. We asked for help from a group of four to five “strategizers.” These were people from organizations that might be supporting partners of the scholarship and who had fundraising and community organizing experience. Our strategizers encouraged us to think big, suggesting we raise money for three years of scholarships, with 10-20 recipients each year, and expand the range from just Seattle to encompass the entire state. After some back-of-the-envelope figuring, we decided scholarships in the amount of $1,000 each would cover travel, lodging, and expenses.
We made a lot of spreadsheets! There were lists of potential individual and institutional donors and lists of every artist-centered project and independent artist organizer we knew of and ones we didn’t but who were suggested by other people. We wrote information sheets explaining the project to donors. One effective argument came from a survey by one of our partner organizations, Artist Trust. They found that among Washington State artists, one of the highest self-identified needs is making connections outside the area. From the other direction, we learned from Common Field that artist spaces across the country don’t know what’s going on in Seattle and Washington.
Perhaps of less interest to our donors but important to our own sense of the project was trying to expand what is valued in our communities. We think a strong art community is one that values a robust network of artist-centered initiatives. This has seldom been the case. Directing donor resources to these initiatives – often marginal, temporary, peculiar, and community-specific – is an issue of artistic excellence as well as one of racial, cultural, and social class equity. We ended up thinking about how we could use Common Field, beginning with a travel scholarship program, both as a way to connect our locality to a national network and also as a focal point for local organizing that explores our common interests and collective power.
We began pitching possible donors and realized that while the project seemed to us like an obvious win-win for everyone, it was less clearly so to some donors. We hadn’t been clear enough in describing the double-win of local arts organizers meeting national peers and artist spaces elsewhere learning of the vitality of our region’s artist-centered work. We revised our pitches and kept at it. In the end, a private donor gave us funds for five scholarships, our county arts agency (4Culture) put in for another five, another private donor supported two, and four other donors supported one each. We had enough for 16!
A three-person committee selected the recipients using our long list of organizations and organizers as the starting point. There was no application. Awardees first heard from us when we sent them a congratulations letter. In a field where crushing cycles of submission and rejection are the norm, receiving support in this way seemed to make people feel especially buoyantly “seen” and appreciated. At all points in our process, we tried to minimize time and aggravation for the awardees. There was minimal paperwork. We paid in advance. Some scholarships were awarded to individuals and some to groups, and we told the groups to use whatever process they liked to decide which individual(s) to send. There were no strings attached other than that they use the money to get themselves to Philly.
Two groups that were selected decided to split the money between two people in their group. So all in all, the scholarships supported 18 Washington State folks to go. The enthusiasm convinced even more folks to go: Charlie Rathbun (4Culture, King County’s arts agency), Rick Reyes (City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture), Shannon Halberstadt (CEO Artist Trust), Sarah Faulk (curator), Margie Livingston (Soil), Mariella Luz (artist and member of Artist Trust’s board), and Emily Zimmerman (Jacob Lawrence Gallery). And of course the two of us were there, too. No wonder it seemed like Washington folks were everywhere at the Convening!
We’ve held two follow-up get-togethers since then: a small one in a home so that artist-organizers who got scholarships and donors who helped them to go could meet each other; and a second larger public one, a sort of mini-convening, where arts organizers could meet each other and discuss ideas that inspired the people who went to Philly. This meeting was sponsored by the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultureand held at their new facility above the downtown train station.
A huge team of people rallied with us to make the scholarship program possible: the donors to the scholarship program (4Culture, Edie Adams, Sarah Cavanaugh, Marge Levy, the Glen S. and Alison W. Milliman Foundation, Judy Tobin, and Merrill Wright); Artist Trust’s board who made the scholarships an Artist Trust program which meant the donations were tax-deductible; our “strategizers,” and finally, the invaluable Carole Fuller, our fellow-organizer and champion of the project who, in the end, couldn’t go to Philly.
We are now beginning to figure out how to raise the next round of scholarship money for Common Field’s 2020 convening in Houston, and our database of artist spaces and arts organizers in Washington just keeps growing. It now stands at 220. We invite you to check out the full list here and meet Washington State artist spaces and arts organizers!
Shortly after we returned from Philadelphia, we received a thank you email from Christopher Paul Jordan, a Tacoma artist who received one of the travel scholarships.
This weekend was unforgettable. Thank you for galvanizing us to connect with our peers across the country. I am moving forward believing in a level of possibility for arts organizing that I never imagined; particularly inspired by the work happening in Dallas Texas and in Puerto Rico, but also reminded how many unique resources and possibilities are rooted in our region. Reminded that anything is possible. Truly appreciate your support in helping open an new chapter of vision and relation.
The note from Chris affirmed the value of strengthening the web-like nature of connections within the fertile layer of artist-centered activity. In our case, the travel between Washington State and Philadelphia resulted in a three-way exchange: getting to know our peers in other parts of the country, allowing artist-centered spaces and organizers elsewhere to get to know us, and getting to know each other and our own resources better. It’s kind of a win-win-win for all of us.
Apparently, you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there. — Edit DeAk
In mid-1974, before I knew many people in that city, I made a trip to New York. One of the few New Yorkers I knew beforehand thought I should I meet Edit DeAk and suggested I go to a party in her loft. My friend had been invited but couldn’t go and assured me it would be OK. So I went alone.
DeAk’s loft was on Wooster Street above the Paula Cooper Gallery, up several long flights of stairs. Although I arrived to find the loft crowded with people, I received what struck me as a surprisingly open and friendly welcome. Meeting DeAk in her loft that evening began a periodic bi-coastal friendship and introduced me to a vibrant New York art world I hadn’t known before. Among other things, I became a dedicated subscriber to Art-Rite, a journal DeAk had co-founded a year earlier as an alternative to established art magazines of the day. Though DeAk and I lost track of each other over the years, her 2017 obituary in the New York Times threw me back to those days and reignited my interest in her.
Edit DeAk was born in Budapest in 1948, fled Communist Hungary in 1968 in the trunk of a car, and went almost directly to Manhattan to leap into the art world. And leap she did. William Grimes, who wrote the NYT obituary, called her “the doyenne of a downtown New York art world that was a playground for many a nascent movement and ideology.”
One of the most satisfying finds in my search for stories about her was an engaging essay by David Frankel, “On Art-Rite Magazine,” published by 032c magazine in 2005. Frankel recalled that he met DeAk in 1981 when he was newly on the staff of Artforum. “Edit regularly danced by [to see then-editor Ingrid Sischy]. She would hurry through the office, laughing, vivid, bright-clothed, Hungarian, making herself briefly focal…” He added that while she was “intimidatingly glamorous,” he was “struck by her generosity and by an endearing modesty that runs through her general flamboyance.” No doubt this generosity is what I felt in that loft when I first met her.
DeAk founded Art-Rite with two fellow Columbia University students, Walter Robinson and Joshua Cohn. Its goal was to provide “coverage of the undercovered,” to focus on art at the margins: performance art, video art, conceptual art, and outsider art. The magazine was written, edited, designed, typeset, published, and distributed out of DeAk’s and Robinson’s downtown lofts between 1973 and 1978.
Frankel’s essay began with a 1974 quote from DeAk about the beginnings of Art-Rite:
We were riding on the absurdity of the situation—that we were three nobodies, had no money, had no fame, and didn’t know anybody in the art world. But it was perfect—we were totally free.
The magazine’s design, reported Frankel, was “stylish and plain at the same time.” It was printed on newsprint in the editors’ belief that the low-cost process would help deinstitutionalize and demystify the esoterica it contained. In its time, wrote Frankel, Art-Rite “must have been startling in its colloquial informality.”
“An important aspect of Art-Rite,” said DeAk in her interview with Frankel, “was a whole new tone and attitude. It was unheard of to have a sense of humor at the time, or not to be talking about ‘the problem’ of art – the problem of this, the problem of that.”
Discovering these stories helped me understand why I felt such a kinship with DeAk in a way I didn’t put into words at the time. It wasn’t her glamorous side, and I lived too far away to be part of the downtown New York art scene around her. As I read, I found phrases that helped explain the connection I’d felt – Frankel’s term “colloquial informality,” his description of Art-Rite as open and democratic, her own words describing the journal as “a restless but friendly, constantly evolving entity,” and especially her desire to “deinstitutionalize” the magazine.
Shortly before I met DeAk and about a year after the first issue of Art-Rite was published, I was one of a group of artists who started an artist space in Seattle. We named it and/or. Rather like Art-Rite, and/or “presented the underpresented” – artists whose work included video, installations, performance, new music, conceptual art, and art writing. We hosted artists, curators, composers, and writers from our region and beyond, DeAk among them. Knowing of and/or may have been part of the reason our mutual friend thought DeAk and I should meet.
As and/or developed, I regularly worried about the dangers and impact of becoming an “institution.” It felt sort of like a dirty word. In 1975, I wrote:
One of the greatest challenges is working with an ongoing form; the “trick” is not simply to make an organization that perpetuates itself, but to make one with life, challenges, risks, and new ideas… balanced between giving enough structure, stability/credibility to assure a continued existence, and giving enough openness, flexibility, free-ness to allow for real growth, surprise, significant work and change.
This worry once came up in a conversation with DeAk, perhaps during her visit to Seattle. We talked about our respective organizations, and her words stay with me still. Though she was barely managing to keep Art-Riteafloat, within just three years she was starting to hear people refer to Art-Riteas an institution. “Apparently you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there,” she said.
As it turned out Art-Rite didn’t survive long, if “survival” is understood in conventional terms. It folded after only five years. and/or lasted longer, but we closed its core operations after ten years.
Lately my thinking about the challenge of balancing risk and openness with continuity and stability has gotten more complicated. I know there’s a place for reliable, slow-moving, barely-changing institutions designed for the ages. There’s also a place for organizations that develop lighter-weight, flexible structures but with enough focus on management systems that they can last through many ups and downs, though maybe not forever. But there’s also a vital place for organized collections of people who stay together for a while, who direct all their energy and resources to taking a particular action or accomplishing a specific mission in response to immediate circumstances, and then just go away.
About twenty years after and/or closed, I was invited to talk about it in a discussion of birth and death. To prepare, I wrote these observations:
and/or was not built to last, profoundly not. Its energy went to doing, not to building a lasting structure. In the end, it divided, seeded, dissolved its center. It was allowed to become “myth,” to have a beginning and an end.
In my imagination, closing and/or would release the energy of its community and of the artists involved, allowing the energy to take new forms and pop up elsewhere.
According to the reports I read, Art-Rite went through a similar metamorphosis. After the magazine folded in 1978, DeAk’s spirit and energy did not slow down and, at least for a while, showed up in other places. As an art critic, she contributed to Artforum, Interview, ZG, and other art publications. Trey Speegle, in a WOW Report column announcing her death, noted that she continued to be “a downtown fixture in the 80s NYC art scene that loved and revered her.” Gallerist Massimo Audiello began his own remembrance by writing, “Downtown NYC is in TEARS!!! One of our most shining minds is gone.”
Even though her health sidelined her for the last two decades of her life, her impact and her spirit continued on in people who knew her. Speegle wrapped up his column with this:
She really was one of those vital sorts who introduced, connected, inspired, and informed. She was a creative conduit. I’m still kind of not believing she’s not going to post some poetic comment on Facebook and say, “Hey, I’m not there now, I’m here.”
I think again about DeAk’s words – “Apparently, you become an institution simply by surviving, by being there” – and I want to play with them. How about this: “Apparently, survival isn’t simply about being an institution, it’s about being there.”
What endures doesn’t have to be as tangible as brick and terracotta or metal and steel. Myths and memories of individual and collective activity may seem ephemeral, but they can have a tensile strength that lasts. Even long buried and apparently forgotten, they can pop up again to be rediscovered, to again inspire something new.
Penny University at Town Hall invites you to join the conversation!
Tackling the Climate Crisis
Thursday, August 22, 2019, 7:30pm
The Town Hall Forum
1119 8th Ave (west entrance)
Doors open at 6:30pm
The latest edition of Penny University asks all of us to imagine ourselves in positions of power to make radical political or economic decisions in response to the climate crisis.
Imagine that some great shock has galvanized the world at last, and made it clear that we must address climate change as an absolute emergency—every moment counts. The UN General Assembly and the Security Council have voted unanimously to convene a Climate Crisis Response Team. You’re on it. You have deep pockets and a blank slate, but very little time. How do you allocate money, attention, time, policy, and legislation? What are your top priorities? How do you trade off between mitigating damage that’s already been done, preventing new damage, and reversing the causes of damage to make it possible for the climate to improve?
Discuss, listen, and learn from one another as we envision a better world!
Edward Wolcher, Town Hall’s curator of lectures, and I created the Penny U conversation series to flip the script on a standard Town Hall event. Instead of presenting the ideas of an expert, Penny U prompts you to become a participant and explore big ideas through community conversation and popular education. This edition of these conversations has also been framed by John Boylan, Tom Corddry, Theresa Earenfight, Carolyn Law, and Warren Wilkins.
The cafe and bar will be open, cafe tables will allow talk in small groups so everyone can be heard, pens and paper will let each table capture highlights, and we’ll wrap up back together in one big conversation.
If you register (red button above), you’ll receive a “Know before you go” message containing additional information, including lists of known solutions. You can also register by going to Town Hall’s website here.
Penny U’s name is borrowed from 18th century London coffeehouses called “penny universities.” For the price of a penny, people got coffee, pamphlets, the latest news and gossip, and lively conversations on politics and science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion. The low cost led to a mingling of people from all walks of life. Anyone of any social class could frequent the coffeehouses, which became associated with equality and civil society. Penny universities became safe havens for political discussion, exchange of ideas, and civil debate. More about Penny U at Town Hall here.
Many thanks to Anita H. Lehman for the picture of ravens in active conversation. You can learn more about her here.
I find notes to myself everywhere – jotted on scraps of paper, tucked in folders and books, scribbled in the pages of other documents, inside printed-out email messages – reminders of incidents or ideas, quick insights or future dreams. Proliferating for decades, they are extensions of my memory, or at least a source for recovering pieces of it. Each note captures something I’ve found intriguing, worth attention in the moment and sometimes worth pursuing further. I’ve imagined that each note leaves a dent in my memory. Recovering it deepens the dent, gives me a chance to consider its contents again.
Each small dent is different from the next. Recently it occurred to me that all these dents may be making a pattern, like the elaborate designs on old silver pitchers or the patterns in pressed tin ceilings or the random dings in a much-loved sauce pan. But until now I hadn’t consciously tried to decipher the design.
A month or so ago, my energy for writing got sluggish. It was hard to start anything, even though my list of ideas was long. I decided to get out of town to see if a change in surroundings would help. I also decided that in this short chunk of time, I would avoid trying to begin anything new and big. Instead, I gathered up some of the notes I’ve kept on scraps, those “dents” in my memory, polished them a bit, and considered how they might fit together.
A collection of these short pieces follows here.
Drawing on snow
February 2019 was Seattle’s snowiest month in 50 years – more than 20 inches fell during the month. One morning, sitting in my bright second-floor corner apartment after the month’s first big storm, I got a good view of neighborhood comings and goings and of the weather and sidewalk conditions at the intersection below. I admired the snow, layered up smoothly on the tops of bushes along the sidewalk. Though it came roaring back later that week, on this day the snow had begun to melt. The sun was out, the street was wet, and the sidewalks were slushy and icy.
As I watched, wondering how long the snow would last, an older woman with a cane, in a pink coat, walked toward my building. As she approached the corner, she turned toward one of the flat snow-topped bushes, lifted her cane, and wrote or drew something in the snow on top. She admired it briefly and walked on.
The bush faced away from my window, just out of sight. I was sorry I couldn’t see what she had written. Eventually, my curiosity got me on my feet. I put shoes on, grabbed a coat, and went out to see what the neighborhood walker had drawn.
When I saw it, I thought, of course! What would anyone of any age draw with just a few strokes? Her cane-drawn heart lasted three days until the next big storm came through.
Instant community and a lime
One evening after a busy and fragmented day, I enjoyed a light but just-right meal at a neighborhood bar and bistro owned by a friend. While I sat by the front window eating, a colorfully dressed, 25-year-old woman walked out the door past me. Standing with a cigarette, she initiated, in a way that seemed effortless, a street-side conversation with a gray-bearded man sitting on a motorcycle he’d just parked. They were soon joined by a young black man pulling behind him a loosely-full garbage bag. With laughs and small gestures, all three seemed to be having a good time and eventually headed off in separate directions. From where I was, only a few feet away but on the other side of the glass, they were like players in a silent movie. What an amazing instant community, I thought.
Apparently, the young woman felt I’d been a friendly, if mute, part of their conversation, and, before returning to the bar, came over to tell me about herself, which is how I know her age. A little later, as she left the cafe, she came back and gave me a lime.
A lime? I learned afterward that she’d bought it from the bartender. Surprised, I thanked her. It’s the only time I’ve been given a lime. Her gift, and the easy openness she carried with her, were soothing – a magical antidote to an otherwise hectic day.
What I love so often falls in between
In 2005 a space in Seattle’s new City Hall was given my name. The Anne Focke Gallery consists of the lower-level elevator lobby and a stepped-back space that becomes a corridor to the community meeting rooms. At least half-a-dozen rooms in City Hall were dedicated to specific people that day. Unlike many “naming rights” these days, naming these rooms had nothing to do with financial support, and I was one of just two who were still alive. I felt honored. I was also on the program to say a few words at the dedication ceremony. As often happens, I carefully planned my remarks, but when my turn came and I faced the crowd, my mind went blank. I spoke extemporaneously, forgetting most of what I’d prepared. This is my chance to share some of what I’d written in advance.
May 14, 2005
Many thanks to the City for giving this space my name. I’m truly honored.
The space seems just right.
It’s an odd little space
not exactly a room
not exactly a corridor
not exactly square.
It’s a space that falls between other spaces.
It suits me. The art and work I love so often falls in between.
An etched wall plaque suggests permanence. But this space is the passageway to community rooms. It’s also an intersection as people come and go from the elevator. This room will always be full of energy as the art on the walls, the people passing through, and the communities they care about change. Their inevitable shifts and turns will fill this space with possibility.
My hope for this space is that it can also stand for:
Paying attention to what doesn’t seem to fit.
Making room for something new.
Putting trust in artists – their imagination, their ideas, their work.
Giving young people real responsibility.
Celebrating our contemporaries, people who are alive in the world.
So many of you in the room contribute to making our city what it is. Much of what the City remembers me for I had the opportunity to do when I was in my 20s. Perhaps every five years or so the space should be renamed for someone else who made a difference when they were young.
Finally, I hope this gallery can stand for the qualities of luck, serendipity, and openness to the unexpected. So much of what I value requires what Jane Jacobs called “drift,” a kind of work defined not by “practical utility,” but by play, curiosity, and aesthetic investigation – work that often falls in between.
2019 coda: Increasingly we live in a black and white, either/or, in or out world. Can we discover the value and beauty of grays, the possibility of and’s, the creativity and energy in between?
Knowing a little about a lot of things
I’m not a specialist.
Self-analyst that I am, I’ve known for years that I’m no specialist. Recently I ran across a crinkled, brown paper napkin where, perhaps five years ago, I’d scribbled a list of observations about this character trait. I’d probably forgotten to bring notepaper along to the coffee shop where I’d been sitting when the need came to jot the list down. After reflecting on the words for a moment, I probably just absent-mindedly tucked the napkin into whatever I’d brought along to read, and it took a while to resurface. The deciphered handwriting says that I…
Know a little about a lot of things.
Know a lot about how to live and move through the world knowing a little about a lot of things.
Know how to do a lot while knowing a little about a lot of things.
Know a lot about how to do a lot while knowing a little about a lot of things.
“Knowing a little about a lot of things” is not something that shines on a professional resume or in a job interview. But it seems a fine, even useful way to live, love, and work. And I’ve managed to get a lot done even without a specialty.
An experience as a pre-teen gave me an image I continue to value. When I was about twelve, a difficult day at school had left me feeling rejected and desperately insecure. It might have been the day I was called a “leech” by girlfriends and banished from the lunch table. When I got home, I went out behind our house and took my anger and frustration out by knocking rocks into the valley with my baseball bat.
As the high emotion gradually seeped away, I wondered how I could go on, how I could get past the bad feeling I had. I got help from my love of geometric forms – a love probably fostered by my physicist father – and imagined two choices. I could think of myself as an upside-down pyramid with everything balanced on one point, meaning that if I were knocked off that point (as I’d felt that day), the whole structure would come tumbling down. Or, I could think of myself as a complicated polyhedron with many points, meaning that if the point I balanced on was disturbed, the structure would turn only slightly to another point and I would only fall a little. I couldn’t be completely knocked down.
The mental picture of having many facets and many points of balance remains a valuable piece of my self-image. It affects my approach to emotional challenges and it gives me a boost when I feel insecure about my lack of a “specialty.” All those facets and points on the polyhedron in my mind help me remember the value of knowing many little things, rather than just one big thing. Getting work done this way means thinking and moving horizontally rather than vertically, learning and making connections broadly rather than specializing deeply, being able to move easily from one thing to the next.
Too much society?
Excerpt from an email response to David Mahler, December 5, 2009.
Yes, indeed, thanks. I am finding many ways to get walking into my life. I try to walk two to three miles a day, though it varies. I’ve had a personal tradition for the past four or five years of circumambulating Lake Union on Thanksgiving Day before the big meal. My aim is to stay as close to the water as possible. It’s a continuing treat. The weather definitely plays a role, and the terrain and landscape change a lot on the way around. Surprising phenomena and characters always show up. One year I passed the same couple twice and we realized we were each doing the same thing. We said, “See you next year!” though we haven’t.
This year I took a shortcut and ran into a wild-looking fellow on a little road that ran along a run-down complex of wooden buildings where I suspect he lived. As he chased pigeons away from the building, he muttered to me, “Too much society!” I smiled and scooted away, hoping I also wasn’t too much society. After I passed by, he shouted in my direction, “Hey!” I turned around and saw him give me a big thumbs-up, “Thanksgiving!”
Us and them
Once upon a time, we lived with convenient polarities – us and them, women and men, black and white, young and old, the in-group and the out-group. We now know better. We have so many ways to define gender, so many shades of human color, so many ways to be our many ages.
In truth, I move through the world inside many different groups, and outside many others, inside many varieties of “us” and outside many different “thems.” Sometimes us shifts and becomes them, or them transforms into us, or the boundaries become porous and I am neither or both at the same time.
In fact, my world is all mixed up and always shifting.
How is it that we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by sharp divisions? We need our many small communities, but do they have to be at war with each other? How do we stop the warring without losing the community that we get from “us?”
Quiet in Port Townsend
In the Port Townsend home of friends during a self-made writing and thinking retreat.
Sitting alone trying to write, I’m distracted by the silence . . . though, in fact, it really isn’t “silent.” When I hold still, I hear the inside of my head, and then the sound of the keyboard when I start writing. Whatever noise there is, I make myself.
It’s startling. I can’t stop listening. The refrigerator is off, no car is crunching down the gravel street. It’s 9:30 pm. The birds are silent.
Ah, now I hear the hum of a small plane, far off, fading quickly. The soft hum-buzz in my brain keeps going. I wonder if someone with better hearing would hear more. But there . . . the refrigerator seems to be slowly gearing up, just one small step up in volume at first. A couple of tiny creaks from the house, probably cooling down from the day. And now the fan of the heating system kicks in. (It wasn’t the refrigerator after all.) The temperature has dropped low enough to trip the thermostat. The sound of the fan rises, first slowly . . . now with more oomph.
“Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it.”
When I was a kid, it seemed like my dad had to go out of town for work every other week. I remember trooping off with my mom and four younger brothers to the San Diego airport to see him off. We’d all stand with our noses to the chain link fence, facing the wind from the propellers as Dad’s plane took off.
Other than knowing that he worked as a physicist who studied sound traveling under water and through the earth, I knew very little about the work that took him away so often. As kids we knew that Dad worked for the military in Washington D.C during the second world war, and we knew that throughout his career with the military he remained a civilian and a scientist. We also learned that he studied explosions (sometimes up close) and that he had something to do with “top secret” projects, including one, we found out later, to test an underwater nuclear explosion in the early 1950s. It’s curious to me now that, back then, I just accepted the secrecy surrounding his work and didn’t feel compelled to learn any more details about it.
Instead, what I remember most about my dad the scientist was the time he spent with us answering our questions and describing how things worked – what the seismograph in the corner of the dining room did, how a polaroid camera worked, how molecules and atoms were like worlds within worlds, and what forces held them all together. He was our own “Mr. Wizard” at the dinner table.1 He loved the process of science – coming up with a theory, testing it, finding it doesn’t work, trying another, maybe another and another, and in time finding the one that’s true. And he got special joy in seeing that click of discovery in our faces when we understood whatever he was explaining at that moment.
Another thing we knew about our dad was that he’d met Albert Einstein. The proof we had was a photograph that I’ve carried in mind since I first saw it. My brother Karl, the one of us who took after Dad and became a physicist, recently tracked down and annotated a copy of the photo for me. Taken in 1931 at Caltech where Dad got his doctorate and where Einstein was an occasional visiting professor, the picture shows a large group of faculty and grad students surrounding Einstein, the unmistakable focus of attention in the center of the front row. Also unmistakable to us was our dad in the third row right behind Einstein.
In 1959, the year I started high school, Dad accepted a position as chair of the Physics department of the then-new Harvey Mudd College. He told me he could no longer work under conditions where top military brass had the final word over technical work, regardless of their scientific knowledge. He stayed with the college until he retired in 1971 and remained active as emeritus professor until he died in 1986.
Recently, another brother, Ted, gave me a transcript of a long interview with Dad. Ted and his wife Vicki are the unofficial historians for our family. Part of a larger project titled, “Harvey Mudd College Oral History Project on the Atomic Age,” the interview was conducted in 1975 by Harvey Mudd and the Claremont Graduate School.2
At the first opportunity, I read all 167 pages of the interview. Not only did I learn more about Dad’s once “top secret” past – hinted at on the first page with a notice, “This manuscript is authorized as ‘open’” – I discovered there was more to the story of Dad and Einstein than just the gathering at Caltech.
Two-thirds of the way into the manuscript, the interviewer asked, “Al, you said you had an additional anecdote to tell about Einstein and the explosion work you had done earlier.” Dad described a time he and a colleague were sent to visit Einstein in his office at Princeton. They spent the better part of the day with him, Dad said. “We met him in the morning, had lunch with him, spent two or three hours in the afternoon, then went back to Washington.”
The interviewer asked, “How was he to converse with?”
Oh, very pleasant. Very easy, no problems. He was a remarkable person. Very retiring. To meet him on the street or talk with him, you wouldn’t have thought of him as someone with the mental power of an Einstein. He was gregarious and very much concerned with social problems, religious problems. He was really a very deeply religious person…sincerely in communication with his creator.
The interviewer then asked, “Why were you sent to meet with Einstein?”
The people at the David Taylor Model Basin [site of much of Dad’s explosion research] brought to my attention the fact that the Bureau of Ships had asked Dr. Einstein to develop a theory of ship damage resulting from non-contact underwater explosions. One of the basic principles that he used to develop his theory was the assumption that steel, under the sudden impact of a shock wave, would break in brittle fracture. Just the way glass breaks.
Now I had some data that indicated this was not strictly true. So the Bureau of Ships asked Dr. Hartmann and me to go out to Princeton and interview Dr. Einstein and give him the information we had.
So we made the trip on the 2nd of August, 1943. This was a very hot day and Einstein greeted us very pleasantly in his office, but he looked awfully hot. If you are familiar with Dr. Einstein’s pictures, there is a halo of white hair around his head, and on this particular day there was no halo. The hair was sticky with sweat and curling around his ears and around the back of his neck. He looked like a very hot and uncomfortable person.
He proceeded to tell us about his theory, and he had worked it out on a blackboard which was right behind his desk. Then, after showing it to us, he asked what the information was that we had. We had brought along some photographs of a bomb in the process of detonation. These were photographs taken at very high speed with a movie camera, and the first two or three frames showed the bomb case expanding like a rubber balloon. Now this is anything but brittle fracture.
Dr. Einstein took one look at that set of photographs and turned around and rubbed off his theory. [Laughter] He said, “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now let’s see what we can do.” And in the process of the next five minutes, he worked out a completely new theory developing it right there on the blackboard, using the deformation of steel at first, followed by brittle fracture, which does occur.
I thought that this was one of the best examples that I have ever heard of the ability of a man, who is truly great, to say, “My theory is no good, I’ve got to start over again,” when someone brings up a fact that is contrary to the theory. Somehow, sure, Einstein is always accepted as a great man because he developed this theory and that. But to think of his ability to just scratch it, wipe the slate clean, and start over again is something that you rarely have an opportunity to see.
My brother Karl added a footnote to this story. Apparently, when Dad went to Princeton that day, he took a copy of Einstein’s textbook. After showing that Einstein’s theory was wrong, Dad asked him to sign the book, as if to honor true greatness, “See, your theory is wrong. Can I have your autograph?” The textbook is on Karl’s bookshelf.
It’s not just scientists who need the ability to say, “Oops, I’d better scratch out that idea and try again.” Can we non-scientists cultivate a similar capacity? Are we willing to shift our views given new circumstances and insights that cast doubt on our theories? The proof of error in our social, economic, and political ideas is seldom as clear-cut as a photograph demonstrating that steel can expand like a balloon. Though more difficult, the ability to acknowledge our errors or misconceptions and make adjustments in our social and political ideas is just as crucial as is the ability to change our scientific theories.
I constantly have to fight a stubborn streak in myself that wants to be right, even when I should probably question it. And that stubbornness is not the way I like to see myself. I want to be open to hearing different, even contradictory information and being flexible enough to revise my ideas and my action. Perhaps I need to cultivate my dad’s sense of delight at the click of discovery – even if the discovery is that I’m wrong – and remember Einstein’s words: “Well, I guess that one was all wrong, wasn’t it. Now, let’s see what we can do.”
“Now let’s see what we can do.”
Watch Mr. Wizard was a TV program for children demonstrating the science behind ordinary things (1951–1965).
The oral history interview was recorded on three different days. This excerpt begins on page 112 of the manuscript, at the beginning of the third day, March 14, 1975. The interviewers were Enid H. Douglass, director Oral History Program, Claremont Graduate School, and John B. Rae, Professor of history, emeritus, Harvey Mudd College of Engineering.
“HISTORY IN THE MAKING. The City of Eureka is the first in the ENTIRE UNITED STATES to return sacred land to an Indigenous People without provocation of the judiciary system. THIS IS PROGRESS.”
Pilar James posted this news on her Facebook page on December 4, 2018. Pilar, a 2017 graduate of Fortuna Union High School, is a member of the Wiyot Tribe and participates in traditional Wiyot dances. On that Tuesday evening, the City Council of Eureka, an old industrial town in Northern California not known for having a liberal past, voted unanimously to begin the transfer of more that 200 acres to the Wiyot Tribe in the Humboldt Bay region in California. Not only is this decision not the result of legal action, the tribe is not being asked to buy the land. It is a transfer. It is the return of sacred land.
Speaking to a packed council chamber that night, Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez expressed gratitude to the city for transferring the land, which includes almost all of Indian Island. The island is Wiyot sacred land and was home to two ancient Wiyot villages. For centuries, the Wiyot have considered one of these, Tuluwat, to be the center of the world. It was the site of their annual World Renewal Ceremony, and also, 150 years ago, the site of a horrendous massacre of Wiyot people. Hernandez was asked whether the tribe would develop the land. “We wouldn’t put anything there,” he said. “Why would we disturb the land? It’s been disturbed enough. Our ancestors need to be put to rest. It’s time to heal.” 1
“I’m moved and excited to be a piece of this,” said Eureka City Councilmember Kim Bergel. “I’m grateful that we are at a place in our city and in our world where we can move forward in such a positive direction, such a healing direction in such a divisive time.” 2
Indeed. The news from Eureka offers an inspiring counter to much of what gets covered in the media today. The decision and its significance spread through local media – the Eureka Times-Standard, Lost Coast Outpost, Redwood Times, North Coast Journal, Humboldt State’s KHSU radio, and local television news – but it wasn’t even a blip in the crush of what a friend recently described to me as “the multitude of tributaries framing the unjustness/ugliness/stupidity/etc. of human beings and nations.”
To my mind, the story of the Eureka land transfer is every bit as big as many others that capture our attention. Journalists and researchers should be flying in for interviews to figure out how this happened, and how it happened without rancor, lawsuits, or big pockets of money. If they did fly in, they’d find that the action is part of a long trajectory. The stage was set for this decision by events of even greater consequence that came earlier. The December 2018 decision by the Eureka City Council is the latest chapter in a much longer story of hope that I’ve been following for at least a decade. And its roots reach even further back.
Fed and flanked by rivers – the Mad, Elk, and Eel rivers and the Freshwater and Jacoby creeks – the Humboldt Bay is the second largest protected bay in California. Its complex system of rivers, marshes, and grasses creates a fertile estuary that is home for hundreds of plant, animal, fish, and bird species. The area is also the traditional homeland of many Native American tribes. The coastal mountain range as well as its frequent rain, fog, and mist contribute to the area’s relative isolation. The two largest towns are located on the edge of the bay, the historically conservative Eureka to the south and the more liberal Arcata six miles to the north.
In 2010, my friend Peter Pennekamp, then head of the Humboldt Area Foundation, invited me to work with him on a paper about what he referred to as “living, breathing, on-the-street democracy” as he had begun to see it in this region.3 Behind Peter’s gentle face with its graying goatee and ready grin is a man fiercely committed to equity. He’d come to the foundation in the early 1990s from NPR and before that the National Endowment for the Arts to see if he could learn what beliefs and practices build equality and reinforce democracy at a community level. Scrupulous in not taking credit when he felt credit belonged elsewhere, his aim in the work was to distribute power not acquire it. He wanted to connect lofty aims with real people in a specific place.
The paper Peter and I worked on was written to tell stories of communities in this region who took a strong role in determining their futures and to distill from their stories principles that established conditions for what he and others came to call “community democracy.” One of these principles was the “dynamics of difference.” When we wrote about it, the principle seemed solid, and it stuck firmly in my mind. A year or so ago, though, as I tried to describe it to others, I realized that, in fact, I didn’t know how it worked. The idea it embodied, that working with our differences could bring about positive outcomes and build community democracy, seemed significant, but how the principle actually worked baffled me. Its new language offered the promise of new practices. We desperately need both right now, language that names our differences and practices that help us move beyond the snarls that tangle us up today.
When I talked with Peter recently about “dynamics of difference,” he spoke first of Amos Tripp, a Karuk ceremonial leader and one of the major forces behind the renaissance of Native culture in the region. Amos dedicated himself to working with others to restore Karuk culture and was known for bringing back the Brush Dance, a major cultural accomplishment and contribution not only to the Karuk people but to other tribes in the area.4
Being struck by polio as a child, Peter told me, meant that Amos, whose father was a timber faller, was unable to work in the woods. He subsequently went to college and became an attorney. An obituary published on his death in 2014 in the Lost Coast Outpost referred to him as “a true Indian attorney” who honored both traditional and legal values.2 Tripp, the obituary said, was proud of the legal work he did on behalf of Indian people and was known for accepting payment in many forms – fish, crocheted hats, and deer meat and hides.
A year or so before he died, Amos participated in a workshop on community democracy near the Klamath River that I helped facilitate. He spoke of the inspiration he and others gained from the African American-led Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Little might have happened for the tribes in the region and on the river, Amos told us, if the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t given them the confidence that, “we could do it.”
In the late 60s, after years of inadequate health services and the removal of federal assistance, American Indians, as Native people in Humboldt and Del Norte counties identify themselves, came together to build their own health center. United Indian Health Services was incorporated in 1970 with Amos as its first director. Due in large part to Amos’s careful negotiation of an agreement among nine tribes in the region, UIHS was recognized as a tribal organization in 1984.5 The nine tribes continue to be part of the organization. UIHS is “an enormous intertribal success,” Peter said, “and Amos was a holder of that flame.”
The tribes began by building their own health center in the woods near Trinidad, north of Arcata. At first jury-rigged, built on several sites at different times, and put together to meet changing needs, UIHS services were known to no one outside the tribes themselves. Hiding away was nothing new to the tribes. “We survived by isolation,” Amos told Mim Dixon and Pamela Iron, authors of a report sponsored by the National Indian Women’s Health Resource Center.5“In a span of 50 years, 90 percent of the indigenous population of California disappeared,” Amos continued. “The 10 percent who survived did so by running away when someone knocked on the door.” They hid so they would not be murdered, or taken to boarding school, or exposed to deadly diseases. But, he said, “The isolation that allowed people to survive also kept the culture from being passed along.”
The tribes spent almost two decades in the woods, focusing on internal work – relearning and practicing their culture and health traditions, and studying the ways of the white community and the benefits and bureaucracies of American medicine. “We were isolated there,” said Maria Tripp, chair of the UIHS board. “This was our incubation period. In this place that was not so visible, we learned to govern ourselves.”6 They also learned to live their traditional belief that “good health goes beyond that of the individual. It must include the health of the entire community, including its culture, language, art, and traditions.”
Eventually, the tribes reached a point, Peter was told, when they knew enough about how to renew their own culture and improve their own health that they were no longer willing to be considered second-class. The UIHS board, comprised mostly of the women – mothers, daughters, and granddaughters – who started the organization, decided to “come out of the woods.” They felt experienced and strong enough to “move downtown and do so with confidence.” They began to look for a new clinic site.
In 1995, their search led them to a 40-acre dairy farm just south of the Mad River, and the owner was willing to sell. With open space, swale wetlands, and a desirable location at an important intersection of transportation routes, the property allowed the tribes to think about something more than just a building. A “village” of buildings could integrate Native and Western medicine and also be part of a restored natural wetland, prairie, and forest.
Dale Ann Frye Sherman (Yurok) put it this way: “The concept for the Health Village came from the idea that the people of this area, their cultures and their communities and their family life all revolve around rivers… and from the concept that the environment is important, that people aren’t well unless their environment is well also.” UIHS sought advice from environmental scientists who felt confident that the site could include trails, wetlands, a prairie with native grasses and perennials, orchards, and gardens. “Health of the Environment = Health of the People” became a slogan for the project.7
Although the land had been farmed and ranched by white settlers since the 1870s, it was once part of a coastal prairie where the Mad River meandered and where the Wiyot people, one of the nine UIHS tribes, made their homes. As recently as 1850, four Wiyot villages were located along a large bend in the river.8 The UIHS named the consolidated health center Potawot, the Wiyot name for the Mad River.
The first step for the UIHS was obtaining permits from the City of Arcata. This proved more difficult than buying the property. The tribes faced strong opposition. At the first public permit hearings, the lawn in front of Arcata’s city hall was filled with signs reading, “Save the Ag Land, Stop UIHS.” In our report Peter wrote:
As plans for the project proceeded, prejudice crawled out of the woodwork. City permit hearings in 1997 provided a focus for an outpouring of objections from neighbors about the tom-toms they assumed would keep them awake at night and about the casino they believed the project was a ruse for. Most startlingly, they objected to the loss of the land’s “traditional” use for dairy cattle grazing.
In the paper that Peter and I wrote, this is the story he used to illustrate the “dynamics of difference.” Among other things, he says we must first be clear about what the differences are – in this case, differences in notions of what constitutes good health and how to foster it, differences in how agreements are made through Indian traditional values or using the U.S. legal system, different understandings of “traditional use.” The 1997 Potawot hearings brought the “dynamics” of this principle into high focus.
The Wiyot had lived in the Humboldt Bay region for thousands of years.9 The official website of the Wiyot Tribe reports that they lived in permanent villages along the waterways, which also served as travel and trade routes. The annual fish runs of coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead, and coho salmon on the Eel and Mad Rivers enabled them to smoke enough fish for the winter months. Seasonal camps were made on tribal lands and prairies, and the mountains provided berries, acorns, pine nuts, wild game, and basketry materials. Wiyot people actively managed the land, burning for open grasslands, cultivating edible bulbs, and following strict hunting and fishing protocols.
Lucy Diekmann, then a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledged the role the tribes played in shaping the land. “Early settlers often commented on the abundant game animals and the ‘natural’ prairies and meadows to be found on the hillsides, which they found suitable for farming.”10 Her 2011 dissertation, “Ecological Restoration for Community Benefit” drew on the experiences of two communities in northwest California, one of which was the American Indian community that formed UIHS.
The first big wave of white settlers came to Humboldt Bay during the California Gold Rush. After the discovery of gold on the Trinity River in 1849, a group of miners, headed for the gold fields, found Humboldt Bay west of the river and established a permanent supply center where Arcata sits now. From 1850 to 1865 the territory of the Wiyot became home to the largest concentration of white Americans in California north of San Francisco. By the spring of 1850, reported an essay by the Historic Sites Society of Arcata, “ships from San Francisco loaded with opportunity-seeking men converged on this large, natural harbor and the small one at Trinidad, bringing European civilization to California’s last frontier.”11
Before the arrival of Europeans, the region had supported a Wiyot population of about 2,000. The Gold Rush proved devastating to them and to other Indian people in the area. Relationships between the Indians and the outsiders became hostile, marked by raids and vigilante justice. The “Indian troubles” culminated in a series of brutal massacres of Indian people in February 1860, the worst of which took place at Tuluwat on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay. The Wiyot tribal website tells what happened:
The Wiyot people had gathered at the traditional site for the annual World Renewal Ceremony, which lasted seven to ten days. At night, the men would replenish supplies, leaving the elders, women, and children sleeping and resting. Under cover of darkness, local men armed with hatchets and knives rowed to the island and brutally murdered nearly all the sleeping Wiyot. Estimates of the dead ranged from 80 to 250 in that night’s series of orchestrated massacres.12
Bret Harte, then assistant editor of the Northern Californianbased in Arcata, wrote a scathing editorial condemning the slayings. After publishing it, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee. In the end, and despite evidence, no charges were filed against the perpetrators. The tribe was decimated, rounded up, and moved to reservations in other parts of the region. After 1860, their population declined to about 200 through disease, slavery, constant relocation, and loss of access to traditional resources. By 1910, their numbers had declined to about 100. But they did not disappear and often tried to return.
Farming by the new inhabitants increased throughout the Gold Rush days, and diking the Arcata Bottom around 1892 set the stage for a commercial dairy industry. Commercial logging got its start, and the college now called Humboldt State University opened in 1913. Timber mills, after declining during the Depression and World War II, became active again after the war in response to the demand for housing. Veterans began moving to the area to work in re-opened mills and in home construction, and to attend the college.13
In our conversations, when Peter described Arcata and its citizens, he used phrases like, “a generally progressive city politically” and “protective of its small-town character.” People joked, he said, that it was “Berkeley North” or “Eugene South” or they called it the “Socialist Republic of Arcata.” He also referred to it as “the liberal college town of Arcata.” Among other contributions to the town, Humboldt State University has a strong, long-standing environmental studies program. In fact, Arcata’s reputation as a progressive place may come partly from its history of local environmental activism: it fought to keep a federal freeway from bisecting the town, stopped an adjoining redwood forest from being clear-cut, started an early recycling program, and took 30-40 acres of industrial brownfields that nobody wanted and turned them into the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary that, at the same time, served as a cost-effective alternative for wastewater treatment.14
Nonetheless, Peter explained, in those days “it remained OK to make racist jokes about Indians even though that would have been completely unacceptable for people of other races.” White society’s increasingly liberal attitudes toward other racial groups did not extend to Indians.
It didn’t help, according to Diekmann, that when the Potawot Village was proposed, “there were no other visible signs of the Indian community in the North Coast’s urbanized area.” Paula “Pimm” Allen (Karuk-Yurok) told her that, at the time, American Indians were seven percent of the population of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. As Allen explained, “This is huge. In most places across the nation, it’s less than one percent. Even with that, other than casinos, there was no Indian presence here, not in any of the major cities or even anywhere. There might be a tribal library hidden somewhere, but there was nothing that said, ‘This is the Indian space.’”
No doubt the “survival by isolation” that Amos spoke of had also played a role in the Indians’ invisibility. Surprisingly, this invisibility was probably reinforced by the town’s history of environmentalism. As Peter noted:
The area was a hotbed for young environmentalists who were driven by images of nature as a pristine landscape, images created by people like photographer Ansel Adams and author John Muir, images of a pure landscape empty of people. For the most part, they had a profound lack of knowledge of the land, and their norms did not include the Native people who had inhabited the land for centuries. They had yet to learn there were people in the picture.
As the population of Arcata grew, the area’s farmland came under pressure. Prior to the 1980s, the conversion of farmland to other uses had been steadily increasing. A General Plan, adopted by the Humboldt County board of supervisors in 1984, provided facts: nearly 100,000 acres of farmland had been converted to residential and commercial subdivisions over the previous several decades. The County’s plan sought to slow down this loss.15
The 40-acre dairy farm that the UIHS hoped to purchase for their new facility was zoned “agriculture exclusive.” For the Potawot project to proceed, the property would need to be rezoned for “planned development.” UIHS had proposed that half the site be zoned for planned development – the health center – and that the other 20 acres be protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement, held by the City, to protect its natural value.
A group of Arcata citizens, dedicated to saving the city’s agricultural lands, had recently organized successfully to prevent a housing development in the Arcata Bottoms, just three miles west of the dairy farm. They were ready to fight again.
In spring 1996 the plan for the Potawot Health Village was presented to the Arcata City Planning Commission and the City Council. At the time, Jerry Simone, who Peter described as “a 5-foot-2-inch fiery Italian,” was the executive director of UIHS. When all hell broke loose in the permit hearings, Simone later reported to Diekmann that one young Arcata citizen jammed a finger into his chest saying, “We’re going to stop you!”
Peter, who‘d been present, told me that at one of the many hearings, Simone in his anger tried to jump up and tell the council exactly what he thought. “But Amos and other Indians quietly but explicitly pushed him down saying, ‘You have to let it go. It doesn’t work to just jump in their faces.’ The Indians had seen it all before. They were totally used to the bigotry of well-intentioned arguments. They had 150 years of experience.” In fact, this was part of the internal work they’d been doing for decades. “They were ready. They knew what they’d face.”
The hearings stretched over 13 months, generating rancor and controversy, provoking news stories and letters to the editor. Some advocates for UIHS sought to show how race relationships over the previous 150 years had changed the landscape in ways that had come to seem normal. Other supporters focused their arguments on the multiple benefits of having a health village integrated with a restoration area. Planning for the conservation easement intensified during the hearings and became an important element in debates about agricultural preservation.
As a central strategy, UIHS launched a major communications and community involvement campaign. An elegant report, A Place of Our Own, published for the dedication of the Potawot Health Village, described the effort.16
Internal strategy meetings were held nearly every Monday morning. The tribes created a brochure featuring the health village concept and information about UIHS. UIHS representatives started giving presentations to City Council members, service clubs, and groups affiliated with Mad River Hospital and the nearby elementary school. The goal was to help local people understand the organization and the dream for the health village. Between December 1996 and July 1997 there were ten separate Planning Commission and City Council meetings. UIHS made certain that its supporters always filled the meeting chambers, each wearing a sticker proclaiming support for the health village. “One glance around the room made it clear that the public was supporting UIHS by about a 95% majority.”
As Pimm Allen said:
When the day came, we filled Arcata City Hall with Indians. I don’t know if that had ever happened before. We had to tell them that sometimes there is an exception to the zoning rules. It wasn’t like there hadn’t been a price paid for that ag land. This is an indigenous community coming back to reclaim the land.
Through patience, organizing, and constantly showing up, the tribes got their story out. Peter elaborated, “Not having had the preparation that the tribes did, the white community had to respond quickly. But, as they heard the story from a Native perspective, they gradually came to understand what the land and its history meant to the Indian people. They began to realize how bigoted their initial responses were. And they were ashamed.”
By the end of the hearings, both Arcata’s City Council and its planning commission unanimously approved the Potawot Health Village and the associated zoning.
Through the long process of meetings and hearings, Laura Kadlecik, the Potawot project manager, reported, “A large percentage of the local community came to know, trust, and appreciate UIHS and their proposed project.”17 The tribes had come out of their isolation. They were no longer invisible.
For such a long time I think we lived our lives separate from the larger community in many ways. And I think this Potawot represents turning the corner – because it shows that we can successfully work with the larger community in these efforts…So, it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. – Amos Tripp, Karuk leader18
At this point in the Potawot story, what I’d learned about the term “dynamics of difference” from Peter earlier began to become clear again. The best outcomes arise, he wrote in our paper, when we don’t ignore or eliminate our differences but when we work with them. This often means sitting uncomfortably with people who hold very different beliefs. “Tension,” he went on, “between individuals and groups with different experiences, cultures, beliefs, or backgrounds can either be the foe of democracy, keeping hostility high and blocking the path to common ground, or it can be transformed into a powerful source of creativity and innovation and a motivator for action and community improvement.”
To work productively across our divides, Peter told me, we can’t start with the assumption that everything will be rosy if we just sit down and listen to each other, any more than we can start by shoring up our defenses and preparing for battle. We have to identify and clarify our differences, embrace the conflict inherent in the differences, accept the discomfort they cause, and allow productive growth to emerge from there.
When Peter wrote that the “dynamics of difference” could be a transforming force for democracy, it’s important to know that the context for him was community democracy – “grassroots engagement where people uncover, activate, and energize their community’s own assets, take responsibility for their formal and informal decision-making processes, and further their ability to work constructively with conflict and difference.” This is not simply a democracy limited to casting a ballot. It cannot, I believe, be illustrated, as democracy often is, simply by a voting box or an image of raised hands. To be effective, it must also be active and engaged.
As inspiring and hard-won as the Potawot decision was, even this isn’t the whole story. It doesn’t tell of all the ways the differences began to be identified, preparing the ground for the decision beforehand, and it doesn’t tell of all the ways that the differences continued to play out and the reverberations continued to echo in subsequent years.
Many small steps toward understanding were taken over a long period of time while UIHS was still in the woods and before the Potawot hearings. By the time the conflict over the use of the dairy farm land heated up, Indian and white “bridge builders” had already been quietly opening doors and lowering barriers. In a footnote to her dissertation, Lucy Diekmann writes that earlier work done by local American Indians to revitalize their culture gave them a foundation for their activism. She quotes a community member (Yurok-Pit River-Maidu):
I know in other communities the racism and fear are deeply entrenched, whereas here we’ve been fortunate that there have been a couple of generations now of Indian culture bearers, linguists, academics, traditional singers and dancers who have continually shared about their perspective and shared their perspective in many different venues.So [in the Potawot hearings] the fear and racism that was exhibited by a few was overwhelmed by the acceptance and encouragement of many more non-Native people for the project to be here.
Long before the Potawot hearings, these culture bearers were not only strengthening their culture internally, they were sharing their perspective with allies in non-Indian, white communities. One of their first allies was Libby Maynard, co-founder in 1979 and still director of Ink People, a community-based arts organization. Peter said, “She created a place where Indians from multiple tribal cultures could come together under their own leadership and, at their discretion and when it made sense to them, to collaborate with white people.” The Ink People and their engagement with American Indians continues today. This past November (2018), the Ink People hosted From the Source, a recurring exhibition of both traditional and contemporary art that began in 1990 as a collaborative project between the Ink People and UIHS.
When he started at the Humboldt Area Foundation in 1993, Peter observed that the foundation didn’t fund Native people, reasoning that the tribes got lots of support from the federal government. When the foundation board and staff learned how much this misrepresented the truth of Indian lives, he said, “They could see their own prejudice and were embarrassed. We began to bring American Indians into the foundation, and it became a place where intelligent white people and intelligent Indians could work together.”
These smaller, direct and in-person connections illustrate another principle in the community democracy lexicon, “time and convergence.” Different cultures and segments of a community, Peter says, have different clocks. “Widespread, sustainable cultural change happens only when different timeframes come close to alignment and, at critical junctures, converge.” The low-key, fairly quiet efforts of the Indian culture bearers, the Ink People, the Humboldt Area Foundation, and others played an important role in bringing the cultural “clocks” of white and American Indian communities closer in line with each other and helped foster trust between them.
When the hearings were over, the UIHS had to design a large facility and raise capital funds. Attention turned to the massive fundraising task ahead. UIHS had a long history of successful program funding but had never undertaken a major capital campaign. The report produced for the center’s dedication noted a critical aspect of the endeavor:
A fundraising task force was created to guide the effort with help from a local community foundation. The thing that was important in the funding process was achieving our local support. We couldn’t have gone to outside sources of funding without local support, and so [the UIHS] Board and the community provided that initial support.10
In our own paper, Peter wrote, “The Humboldt Area Foundation provided enthusiastic encouragement from the earliest concept phase, support for planning, and space to meet. We were able to partner with then-president of the Ford Foundation, Susan Berresford, who had ties to the area, to help UIHS attract private funders who needed reassurance about what they perceived to be ‘lack of a track record.’” Fundraising efforts were successful and the first major contribution was received in 1998. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held before construction began in 2000. Construction was completed nearly on schedule, and a blessing was held in August 2001, just before the UIHS board held its first meeting at the new facility. By spring 2002, UIHS had settled into its new home.
The health clinic is built to resemble the redwood plank houses of a local Indian village. It is arranged around a circular connecting hallway and a central outdoor Wellness Garden, with all doors oriented to a spring in the center that flows out into the restored wetlands that surround it. The clinic is now a thoroughly modern, full-spectrum health service agency with medical, dental, pharmacy, vision, and behavioral health services. It also incorporates traditional values and customs into daily activities, prominently displays its collection of Native art and basketry, and is now partly powered by solar energy.
Ku’wah-dah-wilth, the name UIHS gave to the restoration area, means “comes back to life” in the Wiyot language and describes the revitalization of the site’s natural resources and the effect this is meant to have on the local Indian community. The restored land has a basket and textile demonstration garden, tree snags that create bird habitat, trails for passers-by to explore, and a community garden that supplies fresh produce for the weekly farmer’s market. The restoration exemplifies the tribes’ cultural philosophy that the health of a community and its environment are integral to the health of an individual.
In addition to the subsequent development of the health village site, knowledge of and trust between Native and white communities in the region has continued to increase. “What was not apparent immediately after the Arcata City Council’s Potawot decision,” Peter wrote in our paper, “was the degree to which the tension and conflict faced there and the public discourse it created would be a springboard for other developments.”
Many events helped increase communication and trust between white and Indian communities. In 2001 the Wiyot Tribe opened new channels of communication by inviting the Humboldt County community to join with them to heal the county for past wrongs. A consortium of local churches responded by hosting a three-day “apology and reconciliation conference.” Over 15 Native American churches and tribes, and 15 Christian churches attended, a total of more than 700 people. The main focus of the conference was to apologize to the Wiyot tribe for the atrocities of the 1860 massacre and the ongoing oppression of the Wiyot tribe.11
Over time, relationships between individual Indian and white people also had opportunities to grow. In about 2003, for instance, Wiyot Tribal Chair Cheryl Seidner and then-mayor of Eureka Peter LaVallee attended leadership trainings together, hosted by the Humboldt Area Foundation. Through these trainings, Seidner and LaVallee had had a chance to develop an understanding of each other’s point of view.11 They could build on this understanding in developing a relationship between the tribe and the council.
Along with other connections and community actions, the growing relationship between the tribe and the council led, in 2004, to the transfer of 40 acres on Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe by the City of Eureka. Though smaller than the transfer 14 years later, this decision was symbolically and emotionally powerful. To take nothing away from the historic significance of the land transfer in 2018, Eureka became the first city to do this in 2004.
Together the land transfers of 2004 and 2018 mean that the whole of Indian Island, minus a few private residences, is now held by the Wiyot Tribe. Seidner, currently cultural liaison for the Wiyot Tribe, spoke to the Eureka City Council at its December 4, 2018 meeting.
I’ve known about the massacre of 1860 since I was about five or six years old. My parents were very informative, telling us what happened, and also telling us that what happened in 1860, happened in 1860. Those you live with today, they told me, were not responsible… In about 1966-67 we started talking about the island more seriously, and in 1968 we started talking about having the island returned to the Wiyot people.
As she finished speaking, she requested time to sing a song. Two Wiyot tribal members, including the tribal chair, joined her at the dais to sing. By the end of their singing, everyone in the room was standing to show respect. They sang the tribal song, “Coming Home.”
To achieve real progress toward solutions to community problems, Peter told me recently, we have to change our relationships with each other. For the Potawot Health Village, changing the relationships relied on American Indian people having done the internal work that prepared them for the encounter with white society and that gave them the ability to share their history and culture. Their internal work helped them learn to work with their anger, anger they had carried forward through 150 years of near annihilation, racism, and fear.
Changing the relationships also required white policymakers to get up to speed on the difficult history of the region where they lived. They had to understand what it meant to Native people. Residents who were passionate about the environment had to learn to see Native people in the landscapes they cared about. In fundamental ways, white people had to change the way they’d come to understand their identity, history, and place in the land over the last 150 years.
It’s also important to add that the work of building relationships in the Humboldt Bay area remains unfinished. Old tensions remain and new differences and conflicts arise. This work has no easy end.
The big story, the one with the most significant potential consequences, is one of changed relationships. Sadly, I can see why the Eureka City Council’s decision didn’t make for splashy, front-page news. After all, the real change happened incrementally over a span of 50 years in a fairly isolated region. What happened in December 2018 is not a grab-your-attention story of scandal or conflict. Fundamentally, it’s a story about healing. It gives me hope and a sense of possibility.
“Occurrences like these in Arcata and Eureka,” Peter has said, “which often began with confrontation and ended in reconciliation, have led to increased and lasting coordination and communication between tribal, municipal, and county governments as well as between public and private organizations and individuals.” As he also likes to say, change comes at the “speed of trust,” and the development of trust is not linear. It can sometimes develop easily, but more often it comes slowly. It’s about moving forward despite and because of all the ways we differ. We have to work with, not against, the dynamics of our differences.
To write this piece I needed lots of help. I’m especially grateful to Bonnie Swift, my wise and imaginative editor, and to Peter Pennekamp, my primary Humboldt area source and truth checker. I’m also grateful to have worked for two years (2012-2014) with Peter and many others in the development of the Community Democracy Workshop, a valuable way that this work keeps going. Finally, for the time to write this essay, I’m extremely thankful for support from the Jini Dellaccio Project, a sponsored project of Artist Trust.
United Indian Health Services, Potawot Health Village: A Place of Our Own. Documentation, Evaluation and Dissemination, funded by the California Endowment, 2002.
Lucy Ontario Diekmann, Ecological Restoration for Community Benefit: People and Landscapes in Northern California, 1984-2010, doctoral dissertation in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, 2011.