Tag Archives: community

Remember, Episode 8 – Elmer Dixon: All Power to the People

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party. I recently interviewed Elmer Dixon, one of the founding members of the Seattle Panthers, about the party’s work in the community and as a community — and about how his experience as a Black Panther continues to inform his life today. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and if you’re in Seattle, I hope you attend one (or more) of the many commemorative events happening this week.

All power to the people!

Remember, Episode 4 – Estela Ortega: Housing by the People, for the People

Happy holiday, everyone! As I’ve mentioned many times, Martin Luther King Day is my absolute favorite holiday, because it’s all about celebrating justice and equality and community. So today is the perfect day for me to share my interview with Estela Ortega, a woman who has spent her life fighting for justice and building community. Estela is the executive director of El Centro de la Raza (“the center for people of all races”), a revered institution that has been serving the Latinx community — and many others — in Seattle for over 45 years.


There are many things I could have talked to Estela about, but the focus of this interview was El Centro’s recent success building affordable housing — across the street from a light rail station — in a city that is rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of the rich. Without access to housing, there can be no community. And, in the absence of a government response our city’s housing crisis, we will need more organizations to learn from El Centro’s example and extend their service to the community by providing quality, affordable homes in every neighborhood.

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To learn more about El Centro’s founding, listen to Episode 2 of Remember, my interview with Larry Gossett.

Remember, Episode 2 – Larry Gossett: Progress is a Community Effort

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett is one of my great heroes. He is a true man of the people who has served his community in a number of capacities for over 50 years, and I was honored to interview him for Remember.*

The biggest challenge with this interview was that there was too much to talk about. So, this episode will be the first of a series with Councilmember Gossett. If you want to learn more about his incredible contributions to our community, read Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship, by Bob Santos and Gary Iwamoto.

CM Gossett at a community dinner for tiny house village residents, with a member of the hosting congregation

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* Remember is a podcast about building community. Host Carla Saulter (me!) talks to guests about ways we can build connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities to help us tackle our nation’s — and our world’s — most pressing problems.

I have a podcast!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to think (and write) a lot about community. I believe that connected, resilient, inclusive, interdependent communities are essential to our well-being as a species and are the best hope we have of solving the planet’s most pressing problems.

In the podcast, which I’m calling Remember (as in re-MEMBER: bring back together), I plan to explore ways we can strengthen the communities we are a part of and use our collective resources to create a world we want to live in.

This first episode is essentially just an introduction — in other words, me talking to myself — but future episodes will almost always include interviews with more interesting people.

I’ll be posting all future episodes here. I hope you’ll listen — and tell a friend!

God at the bus stop

When my kids were small — preschool and toddlerish — a sixtysomething man introduced himself to the three of us at a bus stop. His name was Emmanuel, a name I knew I’d remember  because of its beautiful meaning: God with us.

Emmauel told me that he looked out for our family. A few months earlier, he had met Bus Nerd — or, as he called him, “Detroit” — at the park, through a mutual friend who is widely admired in the community. Any friends of such a stellar human were OK in Emmanuel’s book. So, when he saw us around the neighborhood, he kept his eye out. Made sure we were OK.

Emmanuel and I talked for several minutes (periodically interrupted by the tugging and whining of my bored children) while we waited —  about books, and city history, and parenthood. But when the 14 finally arrived, he didn’t board with us. Instead, he waved goodbye and headed the opposite way down the street.

After that day, as often happens after I make a bus friend, I started seeing Emmanuel everywhere: at the library, the pharmacy, the community center, the park. Every time, he was happy to see me, like we were old friends. Every time, he was full of questions and observations and ideas, ready to continue our conversation where we had left it.

A couple of years into our street friendship, Emmanuel’s appearance started to change. He grew thinner. He lost teeth. His skin started to sag. One day, on my walk home from work, I came across an apparently homeless man holding a sign at an intersection. It wasn’t until I approached him with a small offering that I realized it was Emmanuel, thinner and more ragged than ever. He tried to preempt any questions by saying he was having a tough month and waiting on a delayed check. I went along with the pretense of lending him a few bucks until his check came through.

After that day, I continued to see Emmanuel around the neighborhood, but instead of holding court in front of the library, I would find him holding a sign on the side of the road. After that first time, it got easier for both of us. We returned to our friendly conversations.

On one of my chance encounters with Emmanuel, I was with the mutual friend who had introduced him to Bus Nerd. That friend told me he had known Emmanuel for almost 50 years, since his days as a student at the University of Washington. They had been part of the small group of student activists that had founded the university’s Black Student Union. Emmanuel’s passion and intelligence had helped inspire our friend to devote his life to public service.

These insights into a man I knew only superficially reinforced so many truths. That our circumstances and choices and predispositions and the systems we are subjected to all work together to create our life path. That when we’re young and passionate and full of potential, we are not able to predict — or sometimes even imagine — the paths our lives ultimately end up taking. That our soulless, unforgiving, profit-driven culture routinely breaks people. And that, even now, in this future he did not imagine for himself, Emmanuel is still inspiring people.

Emmanuel. God with us.

What will happen if I don’t?

Last Friday, on a Portland light rail train, a white supremacist verbally abused and threatened two nonwhite teenage girls (one of whom was wearing a hijab) and then stabbed three men who tried to intervene, killing two of them.

Since I first learned about this horrific incident, I haven’t been able to think of much else.

For me, public transportation is a space to feel and be a part of my community. And a crowded train in broad daylight is one of the safest places I can imagine. I am not naïve. I know that sharing space with others isn’t always easy or pleasant and that transit reflects all of who we are, including our ugliness. What happened in Portland last week was a reminder that the ugliness can surface at any time, even in broad daylight on a crowded train.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I endured near constant harassment by grown men — on transit trips and otherwise. And, like every person of color in this country, I have experienced my share of name-calling and other forms of direct, in-your-face racism. I know that feeling of vulnerability, the stress of staying vigilant and alert for the entirety of every outing, so I can easily imagine the fear, rage, and humiliation those young women felt when an unhinged stranger loomed over them spewing hate.

I can also imagine what it felt like to be on the train when the incident happened. I understand the desire to turn away from conflict or confrontation, especially if you are personally vulnerable. Rachel Macy, a passenger on that devastating ride, described her initial fear in an interview with The Oregonian.

“I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. It felt really tense,” said the 45-year-old Southeast Portland resident of Native American descent. “I’m a woman of color. I didn’t want him to notice me.”

She found her courage a short time later, when she rushed to the aid of one of the victims and comforted him in his last moments of life.

Of course, the perceived threat was not the same for the men who did step in. Most likely, they did not imagine that the encounter would end their lives. But certainly, it would have been easier to look away, to turn up their headphones, to wait for someone else to help.

Those men did not turn away. And their decision to act with compassion and decency did end their lives.

What happened to these brave people should not be a cautionary tale; it should be a call to action. We cannot turn away from the evil that is happening around us — in our schools or workplaces or in the adjacent aisle on the train. We must stand and face it. We must defend the dignity of our fellow humans. Standing up might risk our lives, but it will save our souls.

Thank you, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

“The question is not, ‘if stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘if I do not stop to help [the man] what will happen to him?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Small moments

Last Thursday, I met with a woman named Rachel about a bus-themed event she is planning. Not surprisingly, Rachel and I bonded over our love for buses. We talked about the connections that happen on transit, how they influence us, instruct us, and ground us in our communities. Rachel called these interactions “small moments,” which — leaving aside the association with elementary school writing curriculum* — is exactly the right way to describe them.

Most of my meaningful bus encounters aren’t stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They don’t result in epiphanies or lasting friendships but instead in a slight opening of my heart, a brief glimpse into another life, a kindness shared or received, a small surprise.

There was the time last Friday, when the kids and I were waiting at the Madrona Park 2 stop while the bus was laying over, and the driver, who could surely have used a few moments to himself to eat, use the phone, or just be blessedly alone, opened the bus doors and invited us inside 10 minutes before he was scheduled to leave. Because it was cold.

There were the four teenagers in the back of a Friday evening 106, talking smack and cursing up a storm, then — remembering my kids —  turning to me and saying, “Oops! Excuse our language.”

There was the time in mid-November, at the height of my post-election rage and panic, when I spotted this graffiti message in front of my seat on the 3.

There were the Thanksgiving rides to and from my brother’s house (three buses each way), populated with passengers (including us) carrying dishes to share and foil-covered plates of leftovers.

There was the time Chicklet and I boarded the 48 on the way to church, and the driver announced to everyone within earshot, “Look — twins!”

There was woman next to me on the 27 having a desperate phone conversation with DSHS, trying to figure out who to talk to and how to get credit for the services she was receiving, so that she could be reunited with her children.

There was the time we played musical chairs on a crowded 4 — an elderly man getting up for a woman with a walker, and then another person offering a seat to that man, and so on, until six people had made room for someone who needed a seat more than they did.

There was the man at the 14 stop showing his birth certificate to random strangers to prove he was born in 98122 – a zip code where he can no longer afford to live.

There was the Saturday when Bus Nerd and I took Busling on separate 8 rides and later figured out we’d had the same driver, because we each returned with a snack bag of chips he’d given to Busling upon boarding.

There was the woman on the 120 who reminded me of a younger version of myself: brownish, with a bus bag, reading a big book. After I snuck a peek at the title, we spent the next few minutes bonding — over books in general and Zadie Smith in particular — until we reached her stop.

There was the time we took my three-year old nephew to the Children’s Museum, and Chicklet left one of her beloved Harry Potter books on the 8. Thanks (obviously) to wizard magic, we rode the same bus on the way home, and Chicklet found her book right where she’d left it.

There was the Link ride back in June, where I saw a woman in a hijab with a Pride t-shirt and a man with a sign that said “LGBTQ solidarity with Muslims.”

There was the time I waited at Mount Baker Transit Center with two senior adults and their 12 preschool-aged charges, who chattered cheerfully — wearing matching backpacks and grins — as they waited for the 8 in a perfectly straight line.

There was the time my kids successfully chased down a 50 for the second morning in a row, and the driver told them they would grow up to be track stars.

There are so many more, every day — every ride. Most are quickly forgotten. They are part of the background of my life, perhaps in the same way as a driver’s daily maneuvers. But unlike drivers, I am reminded every time I travel of the humanity that surrounds me.

And it is beautiful.

***

* Chicklet and Busling have both written their fair share of “small moments” stories in their school careers. So far, none have been about the bus. ; )

Building the beloved community

Several of the writers I most admire say that they write to make sense of the world, to explore topics that trouble them or make them curious. Through their wisdom, I have begun to understand that writing isn’t about having answers; it’s about looking for them. Hallelujah (!), because 1) I have no answers – ever, and 2) asking questions is my specialty. (Guess I forgot one skill back when I was making a list.) Folks, if you could get paid for wondering stuff, I’d have a lucrative career on my hands.

I digress.

One topic I spend a lot of time considering is community. Resilient, interdependent, connected communities are critically important to our mental and physical well being. They are necessary for educating children, caring for elders, protecting our natural environment, and building movements. And yet, very few people I know can claim themselves a part of one.

On a superficial level, I am steeped in community. I am married to a man I adore and am mama to two amazing children. I live in the city where I was born and raised (a physical place I love deeply), and I still have family – including two nieces and a nephew (!!!) – and longtime friends here. I like and spend time with my neighbors. My kids attend the local public school, which is a half mile from our home, and both my spouse and I are actively involved there. Our church is a mile away. We vote and volunteer. And, because we are bus riders, we regularly share space with the people we share the world with.

All of this sounds good on paper, but in reality, it’s a disjointed mess. My in-laws live thousands of miles away. My mother is deceased. My father is out of town for several months every year. My two siblings who still live in the area are long freeway rides away. All of my closest girlfriends live either across town or across the country and are so busy with work and family that even phone conversations are a rarity. And while our church is close to home, only a handful of our fellow members still live in the neighborhood. Even our pastor lives in Kent.

What this means is that the people I have deep, long-term, soulful connections with are not the people I see every day. I am fortunate that my neighbors, the people I do see every day, are fantastic. We are slowly building bonds, but they are not (yet) the people who know my secrets or who I would call on to hold my family up through a crisis. I am making an effort to spend more time with them, but making time to see people is not the same as making a life with people. And to be honest, I’m not even sure how to do that.

The details of my specific situation aren’t particularly important, except for the fact that they aren’t particularly unique. Many of my friends and acquaintances are in the same boat: living their daily lives far from those they hold dearest, and lacking the time or ability to connect in meaningful ways with people in their immediate vicinity.

So how did we get here? What has brought us to this place of such profound disconnection? What does community even look like, and why are so many of us missing it?

We experience community in many different ways, including, these days, through the world-shrinking miracle of the internet. But what strikes me as most critical — and also most lacking — is a robust, connected, compassionate network in one’s immediate physical location. Instead of merely access points to the other places we go every day, our neighborhoods should be unique, diverse, dynamic, home bases, where we care for one another and the physical space we occupy, and truly build our lives.

OK, yeah. It sounds a little “woo woo” – and a lot naïve. I realize, perhaps better than anyone, that the idea of community is often a lot rosier than the reality. Dealing with people is hard. Dealing with conflicting ideas and interests is hard. But we have buried our humanity so deeply under the layers of nonsense our culture prioritizes, we have made it a lot harder than it needs to be.

In the United States, we have a history that disconnects us, on many levels. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on a history lesson, but I will point out that building a nation through settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, oppression, and exploitation of the natural environment tends have a negative impact on community.

The people who colonized this part of the world – perhaps because they didn’t originate in or understand the places they settled – lacked reverence for them. Again and again, settlers arrived in a place, assessed its “value” by the natural resources that could be dug up, cut down, caught, or killed. Human beings were also devalued – exploited, oppressed, or exterminated – in service of the goal of material wealth. “Race” became the justification for this devaluation – and it continues to inform our connection to place and to each other.

The system of separation, of using race to create winners and losers, of privileged people seeking the next “frontier” to exploit for profit, persists. In our extractive, profit-focused economy, places are interchangeable. Companies move on when resources are exhausted, or when another location promises cheaper labor, lower taxes, or fewer regulations. The wealthy grow wealthier by actively undermining community, while the victims of this exploitative way of life are either displaced, forced to leave their homes in search of work, or incarcerated.

Even if we are fortunate enough to find a means of survival and a permanent place to settle, the structure of our society prevents us from being in community. Most of us have to work long and hard – sometimes at more than one job – just to get by. (Don’t get me started on the cost of living in this town.) Those of us who are privileged enough to earn decent wages often work at jobs that require long hours and round-the-clock availability. All that time spent working leaves us precious little time for people.

Our built environment also fosters isolation. For many decades, communities have been built to prioritize cars — with multiple lanes, no sidewalks, and few public gathering spaces. Travel happens in an isolated bubble between parking structures and involves no contact with human beings. Neighborhoods become less important, because we can drive anywhere we want to go. Coveted homes in these car-centric communities are built to be self-contained. Their big yards, rec rooms, and entertainment centers preclude any need to interact with others for leisure.

All of this (plus the complete absence of a social safety net and sane family leave policies) creates a society in which we are disconnected from the fact of our interdependence. We see the world in terms of ourselves, our partners and children — and possibly our extended families. But even most families have a sense of impermanence. Our kids grow up, move away – often, far away – in search of opportunity or independence and start their own families. There is no shared memory, no inter-generational support system, no continuity of connection.

No wonder we feel so alone.

I don’t know how to build the beautiful communities I envision. (Shoot, I don’t even know how to keep my own children from arguing.) But what I do know is that we cannot build anything until we start digging ourselves out from under all the layers of racism, individualism, and materialism and rediscover our humanity.

We must be willing to acknowledge, understand, and atone for our nation’s history. This means that the truth must be told, from a variety of perspectives, in formal and informal settings, at every opportunity.

We must radically restructure our economic priorities. We might not be able to overhaul our entire economic system, but we can act in small and large ways to prioritize human lives and relationships over productivity and profit. Obviously, we can vote and advocate for appropriate policies. But we can also lean on each other when we face economic pressure by sharing our skills and resources. We can offer – and ask for – help when it is needed.

We must foster a sense of place. In the United States in 2016, it is rare for people to settle in the same physical location for multiple generations. Mobility is part of who we are. But, we can work to build resilient communities while we live in them. We can do this by learning the natural and human history of the places we live and trying to understand how that history informs what is happening in the present. We can do this by meeting our neighbors – and finding ways to interact with them beyond the obligatory greeting at the mailbox. We can do this by giving of ourselves — planting trees, picking up trash, coaching a team — and taking advantage of local resources. And we can do this by getting outside as often as possible. Walking anywhere, even if it is just around the block, provides an opportunity to see our neighborhoods from a different perspective and to rejuvenate our spirits with a little fresh air and exercise.

So much is wrong with the way we live today. Our problems are structural, but they are also spiritual. They are destroying our natural environment, but they are also threatening our emotional well being by keeping us self-centered, lonely, and sedentary. The only way to respond is by making choices that directly counteract the forces that separate us.

I am encouraged by the perspective of one of my sheroes, Grace Lee Boggs, who taught us that change isn’t a top-down process. Instead, she said, it happens “from many small actions occurring simultaneously.” Here’s to using our lives — and our daily, small, actions — to improve the systems we’re a part of.

grace boggs

Hope

Green Seattle Partnership sign

The first time I planted trees with my family*, it was pouring down rain. I had signed us up to participate in Green Seattle Day — despite the fact that getting up early on a November Saturday and digging in the mud was not my (or as far as I knew, anyone in my family’s) idea of a good time — because I wanted to plant a seed (if you’ll pardon the pun) in my children. I wanted to show them a concrete way to contribute to their community, educate them about the native plants of the region they call home, and encourage them to get their hands in the dirt.

On the appointed morning, it was raining — not Seattle drizzle or intermittent showers, but the kind of heavy, steady rain that makes you regret all your plans (and question your decision to live without a car). But we had made a commitment, so we pulled on our boots and hooded jackets and headed out to plant trees anyway.

And, we had a blast!

We were fortunate that our planting site was the tiny wooded area adjacent to the kids’ school – a mere half mile from our home. One of the stewards of those woods also happens to be a preschool teacher and the parent of a child in Chicklet’s grade.** She gave thorough instructions and let all of the kids participate fully in the planting process. Chicklet and Busling loved it. They shoveled mulch, dug holes, loosened roots, and gently patted soil around the transplants. They also named all five trees – and many other smaller plants — we made homes for that day. Our favorite was the first tree we planted, a tiny garry oak sapling that Chicklet named Acorn Butter.

Here is sweet Acorn Butter, on her first day in the woods. (As usual, I apologize for the quality of my photos.)

Just planted

It just so happened the stewards of our little woods had won a large grant, and there were hundreds of plants to get in the ground — far more than could be planted in one day. So, after Green Seattle Day, they hosted several additional “planting parties” throughout the fall, winter,*** and early spring. Chicklet and Busling insisted on going to every single one. Over the course of several months, we planted ferns, Oregon grapes, false lilies of the valley, bleeding hearts, dogwoods, red flowering currants, spruce, garry oaks, and many more saplings whose identities weren’t immediately obvious.

Since our first planting adventure, the kids have walked through the woods every day after school, checking “their” plants, talking to them, and looking for signs of growth. They reveled in the heavy winter rain, knowing it was keeping the soil wet for their babies’ new roots. And, they counted the days until springtime, when everything would open and flower and grow. For months, Acorn Butter looked just like she had on the day she was planted: a bare stick. Still, Chicklet checked on her faithfully, stroking her tiny branches and giving her encouragement and — I kid you not — kisses. Finally, in late March, we started to see buds.

Buds

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, there were leaf starts.

Some leaves

The leaves got bigger.

Leaf starts

And here she is on Tuesday. (!!!)

With buds

In many ways, it has been a long winter for our family — and for our world. But thank God for spring, for fresh new buds, and saplings straining toward the sun.

In my dreams, Chicklet and Busling will walk into these woods with their grandchildren one day, pointing to strong oaks and tall spruce, telling the tale of how they planted them, with their tree lovin’ mama, many years ago.

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* Not counting the three we planted in our own (tiny) yard: a vine maple, and apple, and a fir (in memory of my mother)
** She is also an all-around amazing person who inspires me with her generosity and commitment to community.
*** Yes, you can plant in Seattle in the winter. Historically, it rarely freezes, and there is plenty of rain; lately, it’s been even warmer than normal.

When I grow up…

I have a lot of sheroes. Some of them are world renowned, or breathtakingly talented, or otherwise leading big, public lives. Many are ordinary people who conduct themselves with dignity and integrity. And a few are just ridiculously good at riding the bus. Today, I add another person — one who has integrity in spades and a PhD in busology — to my list of ordinary sheroes. Fellow bus chicks, I present Ms. Janis Scott, “the Bus Lady.”

It just so happens that I attended the same university as Miss Janis. After I finished school, I stayed in Houston to teach, so I am familiar with the particular challenges of riding the Houston Metro. Of course, I lived there before the city had light rail, and long before the agency’s recent restructure, so I don’t have a very good understanding of what it’s like to ride these days. I do know that, in a city that is 627 miles square, with precious few sidewalks, it would take a miracle-working transit system to make busing convenient. But I digress.

Like Miss Janis, I love cultural events, and, theoretically, I take the bus to partake of them. (I say theoretically because I have kids, and I don’t get out much these days.) But there’s more. I, too, have served on innumerable transit-related advisory committees. (Too bad the committees in Seattle don’t offer free rides as a perk.) And finally, almost exactly seven years ago, I, too, had the honor of being featured in a Streetsfilm.

Maybe this means that my destiny is to follow in the footsteps of the Bus Lady. In my vision of my own future, I will be living much like Miss Janis does: doing my life on the bus, sharing my expertise with others, and helping to elevate the needs of riders.

“Common sense and mother wit.” Yes, indeed.

“Mix, mix, mix!”