A Safe Place in the City of Good Abode

MEMPHIS, TN

I had the pleasure to visit the “Youth Villages” Poplar Group Home of Memphis, TN, which is designated as a “safe place” for the abused, runaway, and homeless children of the area. Here the boys of the house are carving pumpkins and preparing their first pumpkin roasted seeds. Thanks to the outpouring of volunteers from the local area, via Volunteer Mid-South.

Runaway

In Her Shoes: Surviving Domestic Violence

CAIRO, ILLINOIS

Upon entering the Cairo Women’s Shelter, in Cairo, Southernmost Illinois, one is immediately greeted with the smile of a lifetime.

Meet Jeannine Woods, Executive Director of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, who along with her rather gregarious staff, have made it their life passion to bring a sense of normalcy to the many battered women and children who, on a daily basis, buzz their way into the shelter. From that smile comes the prospect of a bona fide safe haven where the woman or often mother can begin to consider the prospect of – quite possibly for the very first time in their lives – thinking about themselves. Which can lead to positive goals.

When asked about the importance of goals, Natasha, mother of seven and resident of the Cairo Women’s Shelter, explained, “I pray every day for strength to keep me to do this – to give me the power to keep going … to keep it in me that I am here and I’ve got to protect my kids and that when I leave here, that it’s still going to remain the same.”

Buzzing with activity, Jeannine and myself, looking for a place to conduct the interview, decided it best to step outside, seeing as how it was such a picture-perfect day. Which brought us in view of the projects of Cairo – a place that Jeanne explained was safer than one might think.

“See that mother, just down the road, that one with a baby on her hip and another holding her hand?” Looking just down the road from where we sat, I could see it, the silhouette of the trio moving positive in the other direction, along the lane between the government formed homes. “She’s not scared,” explained Jeannine. “She’s walking with confidence, and she’s walking with pride.”

In her shoes

Above and beyond the shelter, Jeannine wanted me to see and experience the brighter side of Cairo – a town which has been on the decline now for several decades – often stereotyped by the media in a rather negative light. In so doing, she asked me “not [to relate] the plight of Cairo, but the positive of Cairo.” Which, thanks to a number of community and political leaders quite busily making a difference, turned out to be an easy task.

“The people who choose to stay [in Cairo] represent [a] picture of hope for our community. They don’t represent the dwindling and dire circumstances… they stay because they have hope for their community… because there is a glimmer of hope here.”

A positive spin on hope, to be sure, which in turn plays directly back into the shelter’s mantra of inner strength – a strength which helps the women of the Cairo Women’s Shelter find the wherewithal to move themselves forward.

“When she takes her shoes and plants them in her new life,” explained Jeanne, “she’s [facing the prospect] of a new life … [of a] hope for her children.”

The Great Migration of Cairo, Illinois

CAIRO, ILLINOIS

The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.

CAIROaMy muse for this story was singer/songwriter Stace England, who dedicated an entire album to the living legacy of Cairo, titled Greetings from Cairo, Illinois. After shooting a rather haunting rendition of “The North Starts in Cairo, Illinois”, Mr. England explained, “When [blacks] were traveling by bus from the South they were separated by a curtain from the white riders … They could take that curtain down in Cairo, because the North started here. So you can imagine people who had lived with segregation their entire lives getting into the land of opportunity [which would have been] a very dramatic thing.”

Yet the land of opportunity, or as Mr. Twain put it, “the promised land,” was not exactly full of promise for all citizens.

My first day in town, Preston Ewing, the City Treasurer and unofficial town historian, explained that before I could attempt to capture a glimpse of Cairo’s future, I’d “most certainly need to understand the past.” Mr. Ewing understands the past of this city as few others do, having served as the president of the local NAACP in the late 1960’s, a time in which Cairo gained national attention as a flashpoint of activity during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

CAIROhCairo, Illinois is geographically important due to its location as the very first city of the North, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers along the Mason- Dixie Line, a place locals refer to as “the epicenter of the country.” As such, Cairo was referred to as “the promised land” by runaway slaves, headed north. “If you made it to Cairo and crossed the Ohio River, then you could consider yourself to be on somewhat free territory,” explained Bishop Paul Jones, who serves as Alexander County’s Circuit Clerk at the local Courthouse.

Bishop Jones is the first African American to hold the title of Alexander County Circuit Clerk, while Mayor Judson Childs is the first African American to hold the title of Mayor in the City of Cairo. An achievement for the African American community, on a local level, considering the town has been around for the past 150 years.

In the past, there have been two, rather well publicized communities in the town of Cairo – white and black. And yet, as Reverend Ronnie Woods, affectionately known by the town as “Coach”, (a title in reference to his twenty plus years as Cairo High School football coach) is quick to point out, these once separate communities are now coming together.

CAIRObTake a look around, as Mayor Childs would say, “with your eyes and your ears” and one will find that folks here have moved past their racial differences. In only a few short days in town, I was able to witness this firsthand, from the positive energy of the teachers of the Jr. and Sr. High School, to a “20/20 Vision” program embraced by local entrepreneurs and city officials alike, to a number of patrons at the town’s local hangout, the Nu Diner, who confided that Cairo is, symbolically hand in hand, simply moving forward.

Music & Lyrics used with permission by Stace England. Copyright Pearlie Mae Music 2005. All Rights Reserved.

Moving positive with Habitat St. Louis


ST. LOUIS, MO

Alfton Denise Jackson, a single mother of two young boys, was in tears when the news came through that she had qualified for a new home. “I received a letter from my case worker,” reported Ms. Jackson, “stating it was a program to build your own home and if I was interested in the program, to come to the site.”

H8The “site” is one of the largest Habitat for Humanity projects in Habitat St. Louis’ history, encompassing twenty-four new homes for this year, adding up to ninety-one total for the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood alone.

The Jeff-Vander-Lou district of Mid Town St. Louis is historic – first and foremost due to the fact it was the first place in St. Louis where African Americans were allowed to own property. Explains Habitat for Humanity St. Louis Director of Resources, Courtney Simms, “A lot of African American businesses were down in the corridor … a couple of blocks over, so to be able to come into this neighborhood and build homes… is quite significant.”

H9cAlexander, age 12, and Ledra, age 7, the two young sons of home-builder Alfton Denise Jackson, are excited about the family’s new prospects. Their reasons are first for safety, and second because they will now each have their own bedrooms. “We used to live next to a man who would beat on his wife,” explained Alexander. “But now we’re moving to a safer place.”

When asked if the present neighborhood where Ms. Jackson, Alexander, and Ledra now reside is safe, Alfton was quick to reply, “No … We [currently] stay in some nice apartments in an area [St. Louis] is trying to build up around here but we’re right next to some of the projects … it’s somewhat scary but [although] we [have] learned to cope with it … it’s not a place I would want to raise my kids because it’s kind of dangerous.”

H6Asked if he was at times scared of his present location in life, Alexander reported, “Yes. There was a shooting,” going on to explain there are gunshots nearby that ring out at night.

The Jackson family are gregarious and affable. They smile frequently, and it’s not only for the camera. There is a love and a bond that one can readily detect. Alfton is quick to tell me of her sons’ recent school honors, of “all E’s” and awards, and of a hushed thankfulness that her sons are so fond of their school – a school they will not have to change when they move into their new home in Jeff-Vander-Lou come late November. Catch phrases like “peaceful” and “pride” and even “college” are part of her young boys’ vocabulary. As is an excitement for a future they are proud to step into.

H2Looking around the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, it is exciting to see a community quite literally on the rise, rolling up their shirtsleeves in an effort to reclaim a past pride, a past history that folks around here point to with symbolic reverence. There are the odd dilapidated structures of days gone by, before the factory jobs moved out of town. There are a large number of vacant lots, and amidst the vacancies there is a whole new community that is quickly taking shape, rising up from the dust.

Driving up and down the streets, Courtney Simms smiles broadly as she explains which new homes were built in which year, which vacant lots are owned by Habitat, as well as an impressively large row of homes, set out on multiple city streets, which are currently under construction. She takes a genuine pride in her work, showing and explaining the LEED Certified achievements of the new Habitat homes, of where a holistic approach to plotting and planning is merging cost saving features with the natural environment. “When you consider that … where these houses [now sit] were vacant lots and now they’re thriving families that will be raising their children … [we are together] rebuilding the community.”

H7And yet while folks are hopeful, the fact is that the recent history of Jeff-Vander-Lou is not exactly rosy, as seen most readily in the multiple stop signs strapped with stuffed teddy bears, of stuffed dolls of various shapes and sizes, pinpointing the intersections where children from the neighborhood have at some point in time lost their lives.

Which is where the desire for hope and for change have caught fire, where the sense of community, at least locally, is making a sincere power play. Where “ninety-one thriving families” are most certainly coming together, hammers in hand via Habitat for Humanity, made up of volunteers from CEO’s to Senior Vice Presidents to the average, typical “Joe” – together here unified, quite busily making a stand.

H9b2006 Habitat homebuyer Wendy McPherson, who is now volunteering as a “mentor” to Alfton Denise Jackson, amongst others, explained the phenomenon of what is happening here best by bringing the word ‘community’ down to its brass tax. Explains Wendy, “It says a lot about ‘community’ because it teaches your neighbors to come together as one and not just be next door – but to get involved … It helps others to become more aware of their surroundings and to draw together as a community and work together. It makes a difference when you know your neighbors and you look out for your neighbors and everyone comes together.”

The Renaissance of America’s Hometown

HANNIBAL, MISSOURI

Like unto Samuel Clemen’s legendary protagonist, Tom Sawyer, Alex Addison, the present-day, barefoot ambassador of Hannibal, is all business. “I see [riding the economic downturn] not as a challenge but as a goal – it’s starting to click, [things locally are] going to be really good,” explained Alex, age 13, holding his own in a round-table interview with Mayor Roy Hark, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Terry Sampson, and City Planner Jeff LaGarce.

Taking a day out of his busy schedule as Hannibal’s official “Tom”, Alex took me for a tour of ‘America’s Hometown’ with the polished grace of a professional politician.  Together, we visited everybody from the local, modern-day judge, to the minister, to of course, the city’s old-school mayor.

As we talked about the building blocks of America – of what made America great – I learned that Twain’s literature, along with a now bustling Main Street, is making all the difference, at least locally here in ‘America’s Hometown’.  There is a buzz in the air along Main Street, as shopkeepers brave the financial crisis in hopes of a year that for many is landing solidly in the black.

The trick, as far as I could see, was a love and rallying cry from business owners and citizens alike to preserve the downtown district.  “Preservation doesn’t cost – it pays,” exhorted local resident and former PBS television personality, Bob Yapp.

After traveling the world as a foremost expert on home restoration, with his own show on both PBS and NPR, Mr. Yapp decided to settle for good here in Hannibal, describing himself as one of “Hannibal’s expats” who “are coming to Hannibal [with a love of Hannibal’s] architecture.”

But it isn’t just Mr. Yapp’s generation of eclectic friends, ranging from potter Steve Ayers to the next-door Bed and Breakfast innkeepers of the Dubach Inn,  that are excited about restoring America’s architectural past.  Yapp is busy mentoring and teaching at-risk youth from the local high school, many of which enjoy their time “on site” so much they plan to take up the trade.  “I actually want to do exactly what Bob is doing,” explained one Hannibal High School student, going on to exhort, “when you’re here you actually get to do stuff and work on stuff that you actually want to do.”

Which could describe the new Mark Twain Boyhood & Museum Executive Director Cindy Lovell’s take on Hannibal to a tee, self-describing her time in this town as “being intoxicated with the history [of Twain] ever since stepping foot into Hannibal.”  Dr. Lovell’s eyes glance around her as she walks these streets – observing the very homes and hills and river and buildings that directly inspired Hannibal’s favorite son – Mark Twain – with an all-knowing smile that one can’t help but find contagious.  “I think Hannibal’s history is so linked to the past,” continued Dr. Lovell, “in the preservation of the past, the lessons we learn from the past.  And we have to be vigilant.”

From the city officials I was most fortunate to meet, to the next generation of high school artisans, I believe that Hannibal, and through her example, America’s hometowns around the country, will continue to experience a re-birth of sorts as revitalization begins to hold sway.  “Across the nation, small communities are reinventing themselves,” continued Mr. Yapp. “And they’re having a renaissance in the sense that… things change.”

Continuing that walk, Dr. Lovell looked up, gesturing to the top of Main Street.  “Tom always has his eye on the future,” explained Dr. Lovell.  “That’s why when you look at the statue of Tom and Huck, lording over Main Street from the base of Cardiff Hill, you will see Tom stepping into the future.”

“Not only do we have a good past,” explained young Alex Addison, “but I think it would be better to have a good past and a great future than a great past and an okay future.”  A future that judging from the next generation of Hannibal, is most certainly going to be bright.

Tom

A Field Day with the Practical Farmers of Iowa

McGREGOR, IOWA

Imbedded in the older generations of farmers here in Iowa are certain skills that were practiced and understood and shared.  This was before the introduction of the post WWII chemical companies that in time would become the seed companies.  There was a bona fide love of the land, and with it, a celebration of rural community and of family.  A future for the American family farmer that transcended the introduction of commercial agriculture corporations.

The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), based in Ames, have been in the business of getting the American family farmer back on this track for the past 25 years.  When I looked for a non-profit in sustainable agriculture to highlight, I was immediately impressed by PFI because politically, they’ve got the balance right.  The Practical Farmers of Iowa are endorsed by both the Farm Bureau (conservative) as well as Farm Aid (Willie Nelson, Neil Young, etc.).

farmers ii

“We have a hugely diverse audience,” explained Executive Director Teresa Opheim.  “Conventional farmers down to bio-dynamic farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, corn and soy bean farmers – and what really brings them together is an eagerness to learn, to try new things on their farm, to improve their farming systems [and] an openness to share information with each other.”

Which is where “Field Days” come into play, such as the PFI Grazier’s Day Event held recently on the Koether family cattle ranch in McGregor, Iowa.  Here farmers from across the state congregated to witness demonstrations on how to bring their operations chemical free, the importance of building soil, as well as the joys of old-school herd dog demonstrating.

I spoke with young, conventional dairy farmer Adam Martins, who was genuinely impressed with what he saw.  When asked if he saw organic, holistic farm management as a viable option, Adam responded, “I really like this method – it’s a lot more practical – taking cows and putting them out [to pasture] – it’s better for the ground, it’s better for the cows.”

One of the differences between conventional and sustainable (grass fed) animal agriculture,  can be measured in the longevity of the maternal animal’s life span, which observers note can be three times longer utilizing a sustainable production system.

While few people would argue the merits or the methods of organic farming for both the animals and people involved, the real question comes down to the brass tax – profitability – or as local farmer Craig Tritten noted during a question and answer session out on the ranch, “You’ve got to do something besides building soil – you’ve got to stay alive, too.”

The man with the microphone, six-generation cattle rancher Greg Koether, who took his family ranch organic back in 1982, responded, “Hopefully, at the end of the day, at the end of the season, you put just as many pounds on those cattle, even though you’ve used them as a tool for a few days, the ground’s better for it, and the cattle are as good or better than they would have been … grazed on that short grass we used to think was proper.”

When you talk about demand, the pendulum is finally starting to swing in favor of organic farmers, as seen most readily in the market price of milk which has dropped in the past year from $23 to $9 per hundred pounds, for conventional milk, versus $30 to $28 for organic milk, respectively.  A trend that has brought some relief to PFI member and local organic dairy farmer Dan Beards.  When asked how he saw the future of the American family farm, Dan explained, “Well in our particular case, I think it looks great.”

“Because you’re thinking long-term and you’re using a set of guidelines to make decisions,” expounded Greg Koether. “And those guidelines are essential – especially in today’s [economic] climate … In this ultimate pursuit of a goal that you’ve set out – that’s what holistic resource management is all about.”

Asked what the ultimate goal of his family run ranch is, Greg smiled before answering in one, quick sentence.  “That’s easy; to work as closely as possible with mother nature, in order to create a sustainable and profitable food production system, while providing a quality lifestyle for future generations.”

A Community that Feeds Itself

PRAIRIE du CHIEN, WISC 

Sustainable agriculture meets sustainable communities in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Albeit, for a town that bills itself as “forward thinking” it was interesting to witness first hand a winning strategy that effectively brings them back to their roots.

AGcommunityCPam Ritchie, Executive Director of the Opportunity Center and the former chair of Prairie du Chien’s Main Street Revitalization Project refers to her work as “community cultivation.” As she explains, “There are a lot of stories [from] many, many years ago about what Prairie du Chien looked like on a Friday night and it was lined with farmers in overalls and families on the streets – talking, gathering together, doing their shopping for the week – spending their money locally and supporting these businesses which in turn supported them.”

One of these farming families would have been the ancestors of six-generation sustainable cattle rancher Greg Koether, who resides on his family’s 600-acre ranch just over the bridge in McGregor, Iowa.
Besides raising and marketing his cattle locally through Grass Fed Beef, he takes time out of his schedule to introduce the importance of quality, AGcommunityBsustainable food practices to the bright young learners at Prairie du Chien’s B.A. Kennedy Elementary School.

And he’s most certainly not alone. When the school did not yet have a “Farm to School” initiative in place, local parents and self-described “concerned citizens” Kathleen Hein and Marty Green developed a spin-off  all their own which they called “Food for Thought,” complete with the motto: “Our Food – Our Community.” The big idea, “To educate the kids about where food comes from, grow a children’s community garden on school grounds, help local farmers by getting their products into the school lunch system, [and in so doing to] connect the community.”

Walking the streets of Prairie du Chien it is easy to feel a genuine excitement in the air from farms to schools to downtown businesses. As Pam Ritchie explains, “There was a group of citizens that really got serious – they got to the point where they were ready to apply for a Wisconsin Main Street status AGcommunityEand with that they were able to hire an executive director and create a membership of both downtown businesses and community members.”

Which has made all the difference – the bold, rather simple idea that when you talk about revitalizing downtown business, it’s not only business owners that are interested in creating change. Residents of the town can and do participate in effectively giving their downtown district a facelift – in so doing, creating what Kathleen Heim described as “a snow-ball effect” of bona fide town-wide enthusiasm.

Jake Stephens, originally from Florida, is considered a “new resident”, only having lived in this town for ten years. In an area where most families go back five or six generations it can be a daunting task to blend – to fit in. And yet as a direct result of Prairie du Chien’s revitalization he has decided to participate – to share his ideas and his talents – in essence to share with the town the time of his life. When asked to offer a definition of the term “sustainable community” from his perspective, Jake explained, “A AGcommunityAsustainable community [is] a community that … feeds itself, if you will, that keeps its energy churning and building here rather than going elsewhere.”

“The word ‘community’ is really starting to mean that here,” continued Jake. “Its great … it makes me wonder what I was doing for the past ten years and why I didn’t get involved because just a few people can make a difference. That’s what it all means.”

Rethinking the American Family Farm

CRESCO, IOWA

I found it interesting that the boyhood farm of Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution” and “god” of conventional farming as we know it,
now inhabits an organic, sustainable-farming strategy. The Natvigs and
Borlaugs have been neighbors for as far back as they can remember, and as a result, they just happen to be related. I spoke with Godfrey Natvig, age 89, former Howard County Soil & Water Commissioner and life-long farmer; Mike Natvig, age 44, quite busy on an organic, sustainable revolution of his own; as well as Mary Damm, a soil scientist from Indiana University. The answers given — both from the soil, as well as from a six generation farming family — might surprise you.

Rethinking

CNN International news segment from this past weekend

S9aFlash River Safari was featured on CNN International’s weekly citizen journalism show “iReport for CNN” this past weekend. To view the segment CLICK HERE and fast forward to minute 3:00 just following the Vote in Afghanistan story.  This four-minute segment features the brave young Somali-Americans of Minneapolis with a special focus on how their journey is evolving in America.

Dan Eldon, Abdi Roble inspire young Somali journalists

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota

When Ruqiya Warsame and Muhuba Ade talk journalism here at
Minnesota International Middle School they do so with a glint of passion in
their eyes. The duo of friends, both age 13, who were a part of a seven-student summer school journalism program, come from a world swirling with political and humanitarian refugees, of continual negative press, as well as a legacy of civil war which has been raging their entire lives.

“When I started researching things,” explained Muhuba, “I felt something that I’ve never felt before – I knew people were struggling … [and] it made me research more to know more.”

inspire.jpg

In 1991, twenty-one year old photographer Dan Eldon set out to chronicle the famine raging in the girls’ home country of Somalia – a famine brought on by a devastating civil war begun the previous year – a famine that the world did not at that time know about.

“[Dan] had a beer with Aidan,” a Reuters photojournalist in the region, explained author Jennifer New who wrote the biography on Dan titled The Art of Life. “Aidan told him a little of what was happening in Somalia and invited him to come along on his next trip north.”

ELDONa“They heard rumors of a famine creeping across southern Somalia, [and] they wanted to visit the region themselves and see if there was any truth to the stories,” explained Kathy Eldon, Dan’s mother. “[He] was in Kenya for the summer, before returning to UCLA that autumn to continue his studies, [and] was utterly stunned by what he saw – hundreds of dead and dying women, children, and old people; thousands displaced in a desperate search for food.  Although barely able to view the horrors unfolding before him, he shot them with his camera and they were among the first to be seen by a global audience. Moved by the response to his images, Dan returned again and again to Somalia, recording the aid that flowed into the country- and its decline into chaos. He never returned to UCLA.”

Photojournalists like Dan Eldon and others like him who gave up their lives to tell the story are important not only because they led directly to relief at the time, but also due to the fact that they stand as an important inspiration for aspiring young journalists like Ruqiya and Muhuba – a new generation who only know about the past through their parents and the documented news articles that have stood the test of time.

ELDONc“I learned that when you’re a journalist, you get to save people’s lives,” explained Ruqiya. “Not physically, but emotionally – because there’s people
in the shadows that people don’t know about … and [it’s important] to help them.”

The lives of Somalia’s refugees are by and large lives lived in the shadows – the diaspora of a people who cannot at this time return to their native land due to civil war. Somali-born photographer Abdi Roble is likewise an inspiration to the girls due to his documentation of the Somali diaspora and active humanitarian work – a work which has taken the girls’ school administrator, Abdirashid Warsame, a friend of Mr. Roble, back to Africa in a combined effort to see how they could help.

Ruqiya and Muhuba represent the next generation of American-educated Somali-American journalists. Although still young, they’ve already interviewed the President of Puntuland, Somalia, who paid their class a visit this past summer. “We weren’t even expecting him,” said Muhuba. “It was a surprise for us.”

ELDONgPresident Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud‘s question to the girls and their class was if they had plans to come back to Somalia. The girls told me that they smiled broadly when asked this question, answering together, in unison: “Yes, we do want to go back to Somalia … We want to make a difference.”

Photographs by Dan Eldon used with permission by the Eldon family.  Copyright Reuters/AP.  All Rights Reserved.