Sunday, November 14, 2010

Important happenings around my friend, Lily Mae Jones, and her CYCLE program for young people of the Iron Triangle ... .

Lily, whom I've referred to in past writings as "Gatekeeper of the Iron Triangle," has successfully launched the most recent version of another violence prevention strategy that was overwhelmingly accepted by the young people on Friday.

Lily and her granddaughter, Lena, have been joined by Iyalode Kinney, known affectionately as "Earth Mother." (See for more information.)  She is a former member of the Peace Corps, and has traveled worldwide --  including the Dark Continent -- from Egypt and Ethiopia to South Africa -- to study native healing regimens and farming methods for growing medicinal plants and herbs.  She travels to Africa to selected countries every two years, and has invited a delegation of young people to come along to participate in this year's research.  Together, Lily Mae and Iyalode will guide the young through the creation of a community garden in which they will plant and harvest such products for sale at farmer's markets throughout the area.  The cultural riches; the sharing of stories; the wisdom of these warm and engaging women of obvious strength and power is immeasurable.  "Earth Mother" radiates power and confidence to kids who probably have little access to either.

A benevolent property owner has granted planting privileges to Lily and her youngsters on about an acre of ground (for $10/year) that surrounds one of the no longer inhabited historic buildings (circa 1900) located just across the street from her home.  It is within a watchful eye from her living-room window,  and, there is access to the site for her motorized wheelchair.  (I'm not sure we'd find anyone in the Iron Triangle who would describe Lily Mae as disabled.)

On Friday when Ranger Matt Holmes and I arrived for an unplanned visit --there were about 50 young people (18-24) from a city-sponsored job-training program called YouthBuild supervised by their Conservation Corps-trained big-voiced streetwise leader, Antwon.   Wielding shovels, rakes, hoes, and brooms, they expertly cleaned up the site in record time in preparation for the building of raised wooden planter beds that will come next.

We're at the mercy of our combined faith in where the lumber,  paint, tools, and countless other items needed for such an enterprise will come from, but we'll put out a call and trust that it will be heard by those who can enable this effort by matching resources with the inspiration, young muscles, and enthusiasm Lily Mae has created in this most recent incarnation of CYCLE; a nonprofit she and Lena created and have maintained over many years --in both good times and bad -- as one of the few consistently dependable programs for the troubled and under-served youth of the Iron Triangle.  

On Saturday I returned to find (despite the disappointment of not having the city-provided vans that brought them to the site yesterday) a number of young people busily pruning the several remaining reverted-to-wild apple trees -- and carting away branches from which to propagate cuttings -- baskets filled with tree-ripened fruit to distribute to those living nearby who had not dared to climb the fences as they watched fruit drop wastefully year-after-year to rot on the ground.  Now there will be pies, applesauce, and cider for all!
My friend, Lily Mae Jones, and moi

How ironic that the city-owned vans were in service to take a group of the city's "at risk" teens to San Quentin prison for a "Scared Straight" experience with incarcerated men whose lives had veered irreparably in the wrong direction long ago.  I also suspect that -- in her usual way -- Lily had neglected to put in a request in time for the city to grant use of a vehicle.  But then neither she nor I are always adequate to the task at hand; nor do we need to be.  Perfection can be boring; but less than perfection and compliance with protocols sometimes taxes systems and creates disappointments unnecessarily.

I have no idea where this project fits into the civic engagement aspects of my role as a park ranger, but I tend to go with the flow and figure it all out later.  Being able to fall into the rhythm of the environment has always served me well, and this simply feels too good to resist.  Such opportunities are rarely recognized before the fact, and rarely do they appear in the conference rooms where the brainstorming takes place; where agendas are drawn with colored markers on giant flip-charts; and where program plans are laboriously and wordily arrived at.  I've always suspected that going where life leads and leaving tracks for others to follow is the proper role of leadership, anyway.   It's up to others to draw the maps; it's up to us to blaze the trail. This may be where 70 year-old wheelchair-bound Lily Mae Jones and I are in sync.  Maybe we've just lived long enough to have achieved the confidence to claim the right to take the helm and plow full steam ahead, and "flip-charts be damned!" 
Sandwiched between other experiences was this class of graduate students from the California College of the Arts ... we met at the Rosie Memorial ... .

Over time the Memorial has become a feature of the curricula of the school.  It started out small but has now grown so that this is the second class we've hosted over the past two weeks, with other visits over the past two years.

On our bus tours of the scattered sites, I usually save the Memorial for the final experience.  It is so moving, and so easily made relevant to today's young people through the time-line which tells the story of the home front -- from the outbreak of war in 1941 until peace came in 1945.  The thoughtful preparation done in the design phase by historian and project manager, Donna Graves, artists Cheryl Barton and Susan Schwartzenberg, dramatically brings vibrancy to an era that was all but forgotten until recent years.  It skips nothing, and provides the foundation for our national park interpreters to give voice to the history that forever changed the nation as my generation lived it -- and for all time.

It sometimes feels as if we (African Americans) have been invited -- albeit late -- into a national dialogue that will be seen one day as having solidified the social changes made during those earlier painful struggles for human rights and human dignity. 

Now I'm beginning to feel the need to find those other voices out there that are on the same or a similar path in order to not feel quite so alone on this new edge that may be finally leading toward eventual reconciliation.  These stories require many voices in order to deal with the complexity they present.

There are freshened dissonant voices rising that seem determined to renew the alienation and separation, and, through our National Park Service, we've empowered our response to it through keeping alive the nation's history through the urban park concept with the creation of sites like the Rosie the Riveter Memorial; the Montgomery to Memphis Trail; the De Anza Trail; the marking of the Underground Railroad, etc.  These sites, when added to the scenic wild places already set aside, enhance powerfully the American story, though most were only developed since 1981.  The City of Richmond now takes its place among those recently-developed urban park sites -- and -- if it works out as I suspect and hope it will, this community may become the first unit of the Greater Bay Area cities in what will eventually evolve into a National Heritage District that will include the numerous sites that are spread throughout the area's 9 Bay Area counties that meet at the bay's shoreline -- and that will support the interpretation of the WWII Home Front stories for a new generation of Americans.

I so agree that the National Park Service is "America's best idea."