Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moving Planet OK

September 24, 2011 - Cyclists, skaters and walkers gathered at the new Womb art space in preparation for a people-powered caravan to Oklahoma City Hall on September 24, the international day of action called Moving Planet. Students, families and health and environmental advocates from all across the metro area checked in and lined up, ready for the journey to support the goal of becoming a top-10 state in health and sustainability.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma City, you see, rank at the very bottom of all national lists of health and sustainability, classing us as one of the most unhealthy and most unsustainable places in America - with more and earlier deaths, more hospitalizations, more health expenditures, and in several respects, a lower quality of life. We wanted to call attention to the key links between health and sustainability and the positive efforts of our community partners to improve our rankings.

Despite the serious goal, the atmosphere was festive. How could it not be, in a neon-colored building with an art installation by artist BigFoot and pink and green balloons floating around the space? Excitement built as more and more students, families, and teams arrived at the Womb and then set out on bike, on foot, and on skates for City Hall.

As participants arrived at the Municipal building, they had the opportunity to sign a "leaf" with their hopes for health and sustainability and place it on our sign, which then became a photo magnet for our community partner teams and the whole group.

When the caravan arrived back at the Womb, they were treated to sandwiches, local watermelon and apples from the Urban Agrarian, and local beer from COOP, along with live music, a seed giveaway, and art activities. Unique fused glass ornaments were available for sale as a fundraiser and as a way to create art by placing them on the "Bike Dance" metal sculpture. Participants also had the opportunity to learn about our community partners - non-profits and businesses working in our city and state to promote local healthy food, energy efficiency, fitness and health, and environmental protection.

The event was topped by remarks from Dr. Ed Shadid, Oklahoma City councilman and physician, who discussed the connections between our health crisis and sustainability. His remarks introduced the auction of the "Bike Dance" metal sculpture by local artist Bill Byrd, to benefit Closer to Earth, a non-profit group that empowers youth through urban organic gardening.

An event of this size and complexity takes some effort and resources to implement. Sierra Club, Transition OKC, Sustainable OKC, and the University of Central Oklahoma worked with community partners to create buzz and support for the effort, and designed the action-art-festival to accomplish many goals at once: connecting the health and sustainability communities, participating in's international day of action, promoting the need for a top-10 state, and providing a fun way for citizens to exercise their democratic right to expression - all while raising money for a cause.

Moving Planet OK also offered a model for more sustainable events. We used local food, local beer, local artists and artisans and promoted their involvement. To minimize waste, we employed re-usable cups and recycled and composted. We offered vegetarian options (a rarity in Oklahoma City). Our T-shirts used organic cotton, our printed materials used recycled paper, and our artists used scrap and found pieces for our art auction.

The energy of the participants and dedication of the volunteers made all the planning and preparation - and chaos and heartache - worth it. Organizers from four different organizations met weekly over an 8-week period and almost daily through the final two weeks as we pulled together Facebook, website and media, community partners and sponsors, metal sculpture and glass art, signage and educational displays, activities, location, food and beer.

We encountered numerous complications along the way, resulting in many interesting conversations, compromises, and the need to move on to plans B, C, and D. Beer, that most important of celebratory ingredients, proved to be incredibly tough to get approved. Fortunately, after sixteen phone calls and four personal visits, tenacious organizer Whitney P. finally wrestled the ABLE commission into granting a permit.

Thank goodness for teammates like Whitney, who keep going through the weird, twisting tunnel until we finally reach the light. Many thanks to Vicki, Whitney, Marcy, Susie, Debbie, Amy, Randy, Lindsey, Tricia, Doug, Bud, and Tim, who hung in there with me until the fun-filled end. Cheers!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Closer to Earth

Long-time environmental advocates often become overwhelmed with the scope of community transformation needed to carry our society through the energy and environmental challenges we face. Overwhelmed and underfunded, we can sometimes become bitter, burnt-out, or even turn away from our calling to build community, sustainability and resiliency.

Not Allen Parleir, founder and coordinator of Oklahoma City's Closer to Earth, a non-profit youth group that empowers teenagers through urban organic gardening.

Allen reports that in his thirty-plus years of working with youth, he has never been as enthusiastic and positive as he is now. As with most grass-roots projects, Closer to Earth does a lot with a little - accomplishing many goals all at once - teaching respect for the earth and for all the inhabitants of our planet, sharing skills of composting and gardening, promoting healthy choices and actions to stop climate change, and facilitating zero-waste practices by composting food from events like the annual Slow Food Picnic and the Peace Fest.

Closer to Earth, founded in 2007 as a partnership between several local organizations, focuses on developing leadership skills in the twelve interns and about 350 students per year who participate in community service and volunteer events. Teenagers learn to transform their lives by mentoring other youth and by taking responsibility through active decision-making. In turn, they transform the places they care about.

In a model Allen calls "growth through responsibility," teenagers are immediately tasked with teaching skills to other students, public speaking, and making all the key decisions needed to run a non-profit, including schedules, wages, and hiring decisions. Students are empowered to communicate effectively and to work through differences peacefully in the community garden sanctuary where they experience a sense of safety, respect, and belonging.

Although the model is crucial, Allen says that there is "just something about getting their hands in the dirt" that connects the students with the larger world and helps them feel a part of a community. Growing food also allows them to experience the empowerment that comes with providing fresh food for their families, giving the food they produce to food pantries and selling vegetables to local restaurants and stores.

With a critical grant running out at the end of 2011, Closer to Earth needs funding to pay the youth interns and a part-time coordinator, and to purchase a van for transporting students to the garden sites. However, you'll only hear this if you ask, as Allen firmly believes in practicing "attraction" rather than promotion. Although he freely shares information with anyone who inquires, Allen believes that if the group focuses on the work they are accomplishing, the universe will provide what is needed. In fact, his faith in the community has been borne out several times, most recently last week when an unexpected benefactor drove across the country to drop off a free 2009 pick-up truck for their composting operation.

Allen Parleir's faith is yielding fruit once more. Participants in the Moving Planet Oklahoma action-art-festival on September 24 will be creating and auctioning an art piece to benefit Closer to Earth. The auction will top a morning of fun, festivities, and education located at Wayne Coyne and Company's new Womb art space in Oklahoma City. The event is designed to promote and publicize the goal of becoming a top-10 state in health and sustainability - ranked highly in clean air and water, clean energy and energy conservation, walkable and bikeable communities, and local food.

Moving Planet OK is free and registration is encouraged. You can also invite your friends through the event Facebook page. Show up, bring friends, and have fun promoting health and sustainability and raising funds for a great cause.