Over the past decade, the Earthstewards Network has established a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most innovative conflict resolution groups on the planet. Earthstewards were among the first to go into the Soviet Union as citizen diplomats, the first to arrange an unofficial U.S. visit for Soviet "computer kids," and the first to bring together veterans of the Vietnam and Afghan wars, among several other equally pioneering projects [see IC #15, #20 and #22].
Founder Danaan Parry – whose background includes stints as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, nuclear physicist, and clinical psychologist – had begun to turn his attention to the Middle East well before the situation reached its flashpoint in August 1990. I recently spoke with him and colleague Dwight Wilson – director of Earthstewards’ PeaceTrees program, and former executive director of the Seattle-based Ploughshares (an organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers) – about their current projects. I also asked them why they do what they do, and what it takes for them to "make it happen."
For more information on Earthstewards Network, write them at PO Box 10697, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Annual memberships are $25 ($35 outside the US) and include The Earthstewards Handbook.
Alan: How has the Earthstewards Network evolved over the years?
Danaan: When I started Earthstewards in 1980, it was simply a network. There weren’t any projects coming out of "command central" – it was just a network node for people who felt a resonance with what we call the Sevenfold Path of Peace, principles that for us embodied a more heart-centered, sustainable way of living on the planet. These had to do with right livelihood and the sacredness of all things – the idea that all life counted. It wasn’t really an ecological organization – it was a consciousness-raising organization.
But with our first trip to the Soviet Union in 1983, our efforts began to focus more on projects like citizen diplomacy and conflict resolution. I started giving a conflict resolution training called "Warriors of the Heart," because I was having a very hard time with the emergence of a "New Age" that didn’t seem willing to look at its own dragons and just wanted to be bearers of light. Through these trips and trainings, we began building a consitutency of people trained in conflict resolution and personal awareness, particularly focused on owning that dark side – integrating it and using it to empower the light side. That network has kept growing, and there are now thousands of Earthstewards.
Then in 1988, we did our first combination of citizen diplomacy, conflict resolution and ecological action – PeaceTrees India [see IC #22]. All of a sudden, the Earthstewards Network wasn’t just talking about environmental awareness; we were actually doing ecological restoration, and bringing together people from all over the world to plant trees. Since then we’ve done PeaceTrees programs in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and now we’re doing Urban PeaceTrees projects here in the United States.
Alan: When you say "urban," you also mean "inner city ghetto," don’t you?
Danaan: That’s right. The first of the three projects happened in Washington, DC, in May of 1990, in Anacostia. It’s stastistically our nation’s most violent ghetto – a crime-ridden, crack-filled area just twenty blocks from the Capitol building.
Alan: How do you make a project like that work?
Danaan: Our modus operandi in Urban PeaceTrees is to align ourselves with an inner-city group that knows the turf. In Washington our partner was Youth At Risk, a black inner-city consciousness-raising group that works with juvenile offenders and kids trying to get off drugs. They brought together the inner-city kids, and we provided the international team of teenagers who came to plant trees with them. An Earthsteward volunteer, Ted Lefkowitz, really deserves the lion’s share of the credit for making this happen.
We planted a lot of trees in Anacostia, but the real story was that 55 teenagers from all around the world and inner-city Washington lived together in a youth hostel for three weeks, right in the middle of that intense, pressure-cooker situation – and connected into each others’ hearts. The letters that came in afterwards attest to that.
This program is a way of empowering kids who have incredible leadership potential, but whose potential has, because of the society they grew up in, been directed into negative forms of acting out. In PeaceTrees, they’re using their natural leadership skills to make their own life work, and to make our neighborhoods, our planet, our lives better. A black kid in an inner-city ghetto who turns his life around increases the quality of life for somebody living in middle-class Bellevue, Washington. We really are connected. That isn’t just an idea for me anymore, because I’ve seen it.
Alan: And if a butterfly can start a hurricane, as chaos theory would have us believe, then who knows what impacting one young person can do!
Danaan: That’s right. But I don’t want to kid anybody about it, either – it isn’t all success and roses. You don’t just waltz these kids through three weeks of planting trees and living together and a couple of conflict resolution courses and – "voila!" – they turn into Johnny Appleseeds who dedicates his or her life to saving the planet. But a couple of them do – and that’s what counts!
Alan: What are some of the less rosy parts of the story?
Danaan: Well, for instance, in Washington there were incredible pulls on these kids – we couldn’t let them go out at night, because they’d get mugged or beaten or raped right outside their door. Crack dealers and prostitutes were wandering around outside of the hostel. It was a microcosm of the ghettoes these kids live in all the time.
So it was nothing new for them, but I made a promise to myself that when we got to Los Angeles for the next phase of the project, I would find them a great place to be in the evening, with some trees around it and a place to walk and enjoy themselves. Well, I found it – a Christian retreat center up in the mountains of Malibu.
It was terrible! I mean, these are wild kids who’ve had very little supervision their whole lives. They need guidance. They need structure. And we had a situation up in that wonderful mountain retreat that almost went nuclear because it was too loose. We had to tighten up, so then the discipline and trust problems between the staff and the kids in this supposedly idyllic environment created a whole new set of dilemmas.
So we’re learning all the time. In Brooklyn, the next phase that’s coming up, we’ve rented the dormitories at Pratt University, right in the middle of Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s not the intense pressure-cooker environment of the Washington DC ghetto, and it’s also not out in the woods. It’s kind of in the middle, and we will continue with the solid structure that we know works. Check back after July to see what happens there.
Alan: What actually got restored in the first two sites?
Danaan: In DC we had three sites, but the major site was Lady Bird Johnson Park. When Lady Bird Johnson dedicated it, it was in the middle of a white neighborhood – and now it’s the middle of a black neighborhood and the center for crack dealing in Anacostia.
The park was totally overgrown and destroyed – all the benches had been ripped out, all the fountains were broken, it was a mess! It took us one and a half days to clean up the heroin and cocaine needles in that park, using special adapter equipment from the Board of Health, before we could begin to clean up the trash – which was at least a foot high, literally, in parts of that park. We worked on that for two days.
When we finally found the ground, we began digging up the concrete. The jack hammer broke on the first day, so the kids just said "Get that thing out of here, we’re going to sledge this stuff to death!" These kids dug up and moved 40,000 pounds of concrete and asphalt – by hand! Then they brought in five truckloads of topsoil, and then they planted the trees and the shrubs.
In Los Angeles, we spent two and a half days working at Griffith Park on Mt. Hollywood. It had suffered a flash fire, which burned down a place called – no kidding – "Dante’s View." These kids were hanging off the hillside, trying to dig holes to take out the old trees and put in new ones. Then we worked right in inner-city LA and in the Pacoima District. We had to have the LA Police Department’s "Gang Intervention Officer" with us all the time with a .45 strapped to his hip – which makes for an interesting conflict resolution environment – because there were both Bloods and Crips planting trees as part of our group.
Alan: How do you dream up these projects?
Danaan: You could say that we’re "long-range reactive" – we look down the pike and say, "Well, maybe next we need to do this." We do it, and then out of that comes what’s next.
Alan: Can you dig a little bit more into that process? How do you know what comes next?
Dwight: For me, it’s a combination of forces. For instance, with PeaceTrees, I wanted to tackle something bigger. Now, you already have your hands full with 50 people in one of these projects, so doing it with 200 or 500 or 1,000 kids would mean a lot of people with their hands full. But when I look around and see the things going on in the world that trouble me so much, that makes me want to come up with more creative, innovative projects that make a still bigger impact.
When I hear that 400,000 young men and women have been shipped halfway across the globe to fight a war – and when I hear that 400,000 Soviet soldiers in what used to be East Germany are trying to escape because they have nothing to do – it makes me feel that what these people should be doing is learning how to care for each other and the Earth. It makes me think we need to do something bigger that says, "Here’s an alternative. Here’s what this could look like."
So to answer your question, an idea will come – in this case, the idea of modeling a global environmental youth service, with hundreds of kids from all over the world planting trees together in Costa Rica – and after some talking with other people about it, there just comes a jumping-off point.
Alan: A leap of faith.
Danaan: Right. And one of the criteria that we’ve established for taking these leaps of faith has to do with the concept of cracking open doors that aren’t open. We decided early on that we wanted to stay fairly small and quick-reacting. We want to be precedent-setting, and we want to do the project as well as we possibly can, with the idea that somebody else is going to do it better the next hundred or thousand times.
So we’re always looking for projects that haven’t been done before – and we’re usually being told that they can’t be done. That piques our curiosity and challenges us. It’s a grand dare!
But since we’re creating precedents, we only intend to do the project a few times. Because not only are we opening a door, we’re laying down some pavement and a welcome mat, so that somebody else can follow us. That means we give away the store – we don’t hold our contacts back or hoard the friendships we’ve struggled for two years to make. We give them away, so that other people who have bigger organizations and bigger budgets can do it better the next hundred times. That frees us to do something else that hasn’t been done before.
Alan: So not only does what you do show that these things are possible – your example also legitimizes the action.
Danaan: Yes – it essentially gives people permission to act the way they would like to act in the first place, especially with something like this heart-to-heart diplomacy. It sounds fuzzy, and it’s unchartable on any graph, but somehow it gets into people’s gene structure and becomes the thing to do.
Dwight: And there’s no way to quantify the impact of the heart-connections. That makes for very tough grant-writing – "A thousand people had their hearts touched in this project." But for instance, I received one letter from a young person who’d participated in our Nicaragua project, and it was four or five pages about how it had completely changed her life. You can’t underestimate the value of that.
Danaan: So while there may not be any hard data on the impact of this work, we’ve got a lot of heart-data – things like Soviets coming here and us going there over several years now – that paint the picture of a peaceful and supportive relationship with one another.
Dwight: Even as recently as two years ago, for example, the idea of Soviet-American citizen exchanges was very new to people. I had to pause when I said the word "Soviet" to let it sink in. But now, there’s almost a "ho-hum" quality about it. Everybody’s doing it! So you can’t pin a lot of your hopes on immediate results, because if you go into this thinking that you’re going to see hard and fast changes right away, you’re in for great disappointment.
Danaan: We’re facing that situation today with our work in the Middle East. We’re pulling a lot of our resources out of the Soviet Union now, because that precedent’s been set. Of course, there’ll always be problems – but the door has been opened there, while the door in the Middle East is slammed shut.
Alan: How did you get involved in the Middle East? What makes you decide to take such a leap, and what happens after you make the decision?
Danaan: A year and a half ago I decided to go to Israel and the West Bank, and to immerse myself in the Palestinian/Israeli situation. I wanted to understand what was going on, instead of having to accept what was being fed to me through the press. It was a totally intuitive decision – it was as though I was told to go there, and I said "Yes!"
Of course, after that intuitive "Yes," my intellect kicks in and wonders, "How am I going to do this? Where’s the money going to come from? How am I going to maximize my effectiveness there, by getting as many good contacts both in the government and in the grassroots movements as possible? To what extent do I want to network with the peace community, and to what extent do I want to come in fresh?"
Dwight: The process works about the same for me. Something intuitive in me says, "Do this!" – such as two years ago in Costa Rica, when I was flying out to the coast in a tiny six-seater, and it went right over one of the most devastated parts of the country. Those hills seemed literally to be saying, "Come and plant trees! We need trees!" When I get a signal like that, I listen to it. And then, as Danaan said, it’s a matter of strategizing and making the right contacts – a lot of which is intuitive, too. But you need the balance.
I also need a lot of heart-connection and passion along the way. And sometimes I need reminders, such as the letter I mentioned earlier, because the work itself can get extremely dry and very detailed.
The best description I’ve ever heard of social change work goes like this: "Ninety-five percent of this work is begging, pleading, borrowing, crying, pulling your hair out …" – the list goes on and on – "… but the other five percent is an avalanche of miracles."
Alan: What’s going to happen in Costa Rica in August?
Dwight: In one sense, I don’t have any idea! What we hope will happen is that a lot of young adults will come together for a month from around the world to plant a lot of trees, make a lot of friendships, and give the world a model of what a global environmental youth service could look like. I think some day that’s all that young people in our armies should do: true service work, lifting a shovel instead of a rifle.
So, two hundred people will be living in army-style conditions – sleeping in tents, getting up at dawn, eating simply. We may walk as much as five miles every day to get to the work sites, it’s going to be a hundred degrees probably, and it may rain a lot of the time. Most of the kids will have to try to learn another language to communicate with each other. The batteries in their Walkmen will run out, so they’re going to have to find new ways to entertain themselves and get to know each other. And some of the kids from this country are going to learn, for the first time in their lives, what anti-U.S. sentiment is all about.
I don’t believe you can find too many more challenging situations in the army. I think it’s going to be fascinating – and if it works, we’re going to come back to the Northwest and try something of the same scale here in 1992.
We’ve putting together a workbook and insstructional video now, so people can organize their own smaller-scale PeaceTrees programs. So maybe there will be thousands of people doing this in a few years.
Alan: Danaan, what’s ahead for you now in the Middle East?
Danaan: I came back from that trip in January 1990 totally convinced that we needed to begin a West-Middle East citizen diplomacy program, and I immediately set up another trip that happened in November 1990. Twenty Earthstewards who had training in conflict resolution went first to Jerusalem, and from there to the West Bank. We lived in the Dehaisha and Ida refugee camps – big Palestinian refugee camps where the landless people live, those who were pushed off their land first in 1948 and then again, many of them, in 1967 in the Six Day War.
The military occupation and oppression is horrific there, there’s just no doubt about it. I sat up night after night listening to and debating the various sides of these issues – who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s land is this anyway, who was here first, who’s holy book says they have a right to be here that supercedes somebody else’s holy book – I mean, the issues are incredibly complicated. The historical resentments that have been created over thousands of years make this a crazy, impossible situation.
Historical perspective is one thing. But watching an Israeli soldier with, as far as I can see, absolutely no provocation fire a tear gas grenade into a school yard – or watching an Israeli soldier assault a young Palestinian boy who just had the misfortune of walking down the wrong street at the wrong time – is another. Whatever the history that brought us to this moment, you know that what’s happening at this moment is wrong!
And the United States is somehow supporting it, because that tear gas grenade that just went over the wall has "Made in USA" stamped on it. So the twenty Earthstewards who went on that trip came back dedicated to getting the word out about our experience in that part of the world, including some of the complexities we are not presented with here in the United States.
That dedication is deep inside of me. I’m going to put a lot of the energy of my life into doing that, just as I put a lot of my life energy into the resolution of the Soviet-American conflict in the early 1980s.
It’s interesting that the Persian Gulf War happened independent of my feeling the need to create a citizen diplomacy program. Now the need is staring us in the face.
Alan: Considering what was happening in the world the year before, it seems like a major setback.
Danaan: I feel sadness about recent events switching priorities in the West. Earth Day is now just this cute thing that happened pre-Saddam Hussein. First there’s Time magazine with the planet on the cover, then things shift and it’s back to the old political mind-set. Trees are out, military’s in.
Well, an alternative to military service has a full circle to come around – back to trees again. Let our young people wave flags, but let it be a lot of different flags waving together. Let our warriors heal the planet. Let them wave the flag for it, and let our egos fill with pride for it. Let’s get a little more psychologically sophisticated – it doesn’t work to say, "The military is bad, the system is bad, the industrial complex is bad." No, the military’s good – let’s get them to plant trees. The industrial complex is good – let’s get them to feed these people while they’re planting trees, with in-kind donations. Let’s use everything we’ve got to create win-win solutions.
Dwight: The environment might not be on the front pages quite so much, but it’s not going to go away any time soon. It’s going to remain an absolutely central issue for our time. I can’t see it being shunted off to a corner, or relegated to "fad" status.
Alan: That would be like saying that interest in a hurricane approaching your city is just a fad.
Danaan: The environment will definitely get our attention!
Alan: I’ve heard people object to the notion that we can "steward" the Earth. What does stewarding the Earth mean for you?
Danaan: Well, if you asked all the Earth-stewards this same question, you’d get a vast array of answers. So these are just our answers.
Dwight: For me, trying to be a conscious steward of the Earth has to do with how I use resources. A relatively small number of us in the upper and middle-classes of North America and northern Europe are creating a hell of a lot of environmental damage. In part, it’s because we are disconnected from our natural life-support systems. One of the big turn-ons of this work for me is taking people from that category and showing them what it means to live more simply – just by taking them to parts of the world where people are living much more in harmony with their surroundings and using far fewer resources.
Danaan: I believe the Gaia Hypothesis – the idea that the Earth is a living, self-regulating system – to be correct. And it also feels right to me that humans are in some way the nervous system of the planet – we are a part of the whole in the same way that my nervous system is part of Danaan Parry. We have evolved into a specialized, broad-based function. But it’s part of my job description to protect the whole, which is more than just the nervous system.
Humans are devastating change-makers. We wreak havoc on this planet just by being here. But we also have the ability to heal, to discern, and to make choices which can help this planet evolve to its next level. Nothing is static; everything is in change. And I believe that part of why we’re here is to cause positive change – not to just keep things exactly the way they were, but to help things evolve consciously.
So this Earthsteward is not a preserver as much as he is striving to be a conscious evolver. I don’t pretend to really know what that means. I don’t ever pretend to know what I’m talking about when I get into this subject, and if I did, I would be incredibly arrogant. And that arrogance, I think, would contribute to the degradation of the planet rather than its evolution.
The tools that I use for conscious evolution are the intuition and the intellect – but the intuition guides the intellect. When those things get switched, then I start being one of the destroyers instead of one of the empowerers.
While it may sound trite, I am following my heart, and my intellect is in the service of my heart. That’s what makes me an Earthsteward.
I want to tell you about a painting of mine. It is a representation of human chromosomes drifting free of their dissolving shell within the fertile ovum. Soon they will join chromosomes from the other parent to form a ring around the mitotic spindle. That will start the creation of a new human being.
The painting is entitled "We Are the Living Future." Without a frame, it changes with the environment like life itself. The concept is that we – all the creatures of the earth living at this moment – are the only source of all future life. We have more in common with living worms and plankton, with trees and elephants, than we have with all of the life of the past.
In a more limited, human sense, we are the living future because we now have more impact on the biosphere than any other species. We have reached a pinnacle of power where our smallest gesture – turning on a light or starting the ignition – influences the living world in which future generations must make their home.
One of the fundamentals of earth stewardship must be a far greater consciousness of the continuity of nature that makes life possible on earth. Our mobility, our will and our culture all conspire to encourage the illusion of independence. Yet, we have only to be trapped for a short time without nature’s gifts of air, water and food to become keenly aware of our absolute dependence on other forms of life.
We know these things, but most of the time this knowledge is isolated in the compartment of biology. It has little influence on the day-to-day decisions of politics, business or family life.
To achieve a humane, sustainable way of life, we must move such awareness from the periphery of our consciousness to the very center of our culture and the decision-making process. The making of this culture is the greatest creative challenge facing humanity today. It will require the transformation of our thinking, of our arts and education, of our understanding of reality. For we must come to know that, indeed, we are the living future.
– Peter Cohen
Peter Cohen is an artist living in Stroudsburg, PA.