"We’re The Solution"

Thoughts and stories
from people who are making things happen

One of the articles in Making It Happen (IC#28)
Originally published in Spring 1991 on page 16
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

In the course of putting this issue together, we kept discovering – often by accident – people who were making good things happen in a wide variety of contexts. We would tape-record their stories, or ask them to jot down something about what they were doing, and it soon became apparent that we could fill dozens of issues with such stories.

This sample of what simply showed up on our doorstep is further proof that any one of us can start something wonderful – and make a big impact.

MONIKA VEGA

On my way home from work one day, I saw someone with a leather jacket saying "World Record" in big letters. "What record?" I asked. That’s how I met Monika Vega, a young Brazilian who was then half-way to becoming the first woman to go around the world on a motorcycle.

Her bike was being repaired, so she had time to tell me stories of her remarkable trip, which had started from Italy in late Spring 1990 and taken her across Northern Africa; through Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait (just ahead of the invasion); on to India and Southeast Asia; across Australia and up to Japan; and finally to the west coast of North America. After crossing this continent, she’s heading South – through Central and South America – before ending her year-long journey in Europe, finishing back in Italy. Needless to say, a courageous and remarkable human being – but one who sees herself as no different from anyone else. I asked why she was making this voyage.
- Alan AtKisson

This trip around the world is a way for me to discover more about people and about social and environmental problems. I am using the trip as a global journey for fraternity and unity between all people and between all countries.

I approach normal people, and sometimes I knock at their doors. I talk with them in their gardens. I start with just talking about our planet – how we are all one, but our environment is in danger. And here in the US, for example, you are wasting so much. Usually people agree, all over.

And then they say, "Oh, I am just one, what can I do?" But we have to make people know that one by one – we are the whole world one by one!

Why do we need to consume so much? We don’t need it. We live with much more than we need. In India, usually each house just has one knife. Why? Because we don’t need ten. Why have seven washrooms? We only use one. We are not in an emergency situation yet. But the time is coming, and people are not prepared.

I just want to give myself to my family – humanity. My life doesn’t belong to me. I have something to do here to help the other members of my family.

Right now, I am enmeshed in this motorcycle trip. It’s a lot of work to accomplish this world record, because I don’t have anyone professional behind me. So I have to make sure that the motorcycle’s all right, I have to make sure that I have money, I have to introduce myself to the press.

But this idea I carry of fraternity, brotherhood, is happening all over, because the motorcycle’s been touched by so many different hands of so many different races, colors, religions. I have motorcycle parts from all over, and so many people have helped me with their houses, their spirits, their attention. It’s so beautiful. The motorcycle is the channel. We are leaving seeds all over.

TOM KERTES

The cradle of civilization was being smashed to smithereens by, among others, the military forces of my country. I was paying for this, and doing darned little about it. I was feeling pretty dismal. Waiting for a ride under a viaduct on a rainy evening, I noticed a nice-looking young man carrying signs that told me he had been demonstrating against this death and devastation. I thanked him, and told him it cheered me to see him.

As we chatted, I learned that he was a high school student in a military town, that he was using organizational skills developed over years of youth advocacy and lobbying for education reform to encourage other students to express opposition to the war – and that it was unexpectedly tough going. I was so impressed with the literature he had prepared and with the apparent scope of his efforts that I asked him to write something about his work to get people active and involved in change. He submitted this description of an event he conceived, organized and brought to fruition as we went to press. Tom is eighteen years old.
- Carla Cole

Imagine 1,200 high school students actively debating political issues, current events and the future of our world. Picture these students searching for solutions. They argue for a while, but soon realize that words are meaningless. What actions must take place to solve these problems? What are the consequences of these actions?

Once a solution has been identified, the students go beyond discussion groups and begin working to see that their ideas are carried out. Imagine the students examining American culture and the subcultures that make up our nation. They ask each other questions about history, demographics, and equal opportunities. They explore different options for improving difficulties between races. They answer questions that even today’s leadership can’t answer.

Picture the students as they experience the complexities of diplomacy, negotiation, and the art of compromise. They simulate an election in a Third World country, trying to meet objectives that best serve their segment of society. They elect leaders, iron out a strategy and work with the other segments of this made-up country.

You have just gotten a glimpse of Olympic High School’s "Week for the Future."

For the past several months, a group of students at Olympic High School has been working to help convince our peers that involvement can produce positive change. We have set out to illustrate that politics, government, and special interests can be very relevant to each of our lives. The resulting project is "Week for the Future," which is divided into the following themes: the power to change, the future of planet Earth, international relations, and changing demographics.

One theme will be addressed each day of the week (excluding Monday). We will begin the week with a school-wide assembly, during which performers will act out a talk show set in 2025 and debate whom to blame in a worst case scenario of the future. The next day, students will address environmental issues in an open forum. After school, students will be encouraged to participate in a cleanup project of the school grounds.

An entire day will be devoted to "Ballots & Bullets," a Third World simulation. Instead of attending classes, the school will divide into six groups, each seeking control of the government. War and compromise are both options in this mock national struggle.

The organizers, performers and speakers for this week will all be students. I hope that by coordinating the week ourselves, we go beyond just encouraging students to become involved. We are demonstrating to our peers that students can, and do, make a difference.

MARY LOU KRAUSE

Mary Lou Krause is a schoolteacher who recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and Nepal, where she demonstrated and promoted the use of solar box cookers. For more information on these simple-yet-revolutionary devices, contact Solar Box Cookers Northwest at 7306 18th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98115.

A year ago I saw a little item in a newsletter for returned Peace Corps volunteers about cooking with the sun using a cardboard box with glass, aluminum foil, and newspapers. I had been to Pakistan three years before, and the northern parts are very, very dry. While there I’d thought, "What a wonderful place for solar energy! I wish I knew something about it." But I couldn’t imagine going back to school and learning all that.

But when I read about solar box cookers, I thought I could go to Pakistan and visit schools, demonstrating them. This whole plan came into my mind within an hour after reading this little newsletter item. I really wanted to go back to Pakistan, and this was a wonderful excuse.

So I started writing to places in Pakistan, and applying for funding. I also wrote to the Peace Corps in Nepal, and I got a long, thoughtful letter back about why solar cookers wouldn’t work there. That made me very determined to go visit Nepal after I’d finished in Pakistan.

There had been solar cookers around Pakistan before, and everybody who’d seen them wanted one – but they were commercial ones and very expensive. So, when people saw how cheap it was to make them out of these old cardboard cartons, they said "Oh, I can do that!" The cartons were a bit of a problem, however, because they were poor quality and not readily available.

Then when I got to Nepal I thought, "Here’s my chance to try to make one using local materials." I had used up all my materials and given away most of my tools in Pakistan – but I was able to make a cooker in Nepal out of two baskets. I made one for the Peace Corps office, and gave a demonstration. They were really interested. These were the same people who had written me so negatively about solar cookers, and they were now very demanding that I give a workshop!

The day I left Pakistan, the subsidized price of kerosene went up 50%, partly because of the problems in the Persian Gulf. That was a real hardship on people in the northern areas. Plus, women spend long hours gathering their own firewood, and cooking in unventilated spaces. I think solar box cookers have the potential to make a big difference in their lives.

TOM SPONHEIM

Tom Sponheim is founder of Solar Box Cookers Northwest.

At a sporting event in Los Angeles about ten years ago, I watched as 14,000 people all around the stadium waved their hands in unison. I said to myself, "Who starts that?"

When the waving died down, I darted my hand up and down – and within a second or two everyone in the entire place was darting their hands up and down. I was astounded. It died out again, so I put my hand up in the air and made a motion like washing a mirror. Pretty soon the whole stadium was washing a mirror.

That’s when it hit me: Who starts it is who starts it. It was especially easy to see in an environment like that – people were receptive, there was a positive feedback loop operating, and everything was amplified. I didn’t have any special power – I just happened to look at the situation in a different way.

That experience had a big effect on me, because I began to understand the difference between power and effect. In a situation like that, I didn’t have any power – but I could have a big effect because of the way the situation was set up.

So now I look for areas where a small amount of power has a large effect – by harnessing the power inherent in the situation. That’s why I became interested in solar box cookers. There’s all the power of that need out there, and if we can find a way to tap into that – by giving people an alternative to using fuelwood and breathing fumes – the effect of our action will be magnified.

BILL MASCIARELLI

Bill Masciarelli was the third mate on the oil tanker Exxon Valdez until just before – and for a period just after – the famous oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989. He now volunteers with the Sea Shepherds, a direct action environmental group known for sinking whaling ships and other marine predators. This is the story of how he made such a dramatic shift. For information on the Sea Shepherds, write to PO Box 7000-S, Redondo Beach, CA 90277.

The watch on which the spill happened should have been my watch – but I was saved, so to speak, through an extraordinary set of circumstances [involving a transfer prior to the accident].

I had been working for Exxon for seven years, and it was the fulfillment of one of my life dreams. I had worked for the Peace Corps, in international banking, and as a psychotherapist, never really finding something that was both service and that spoke to my essential being – which has something to do with water and ships and the sea. So when the opportunity arose for me to get seaman’s papers, I started working my way up through the ranks, chipping and painting and doing all of the manual labor jobs, to get to the point where I could take my licensing exams.

When I joined Exxon, I thought I’d found a place to live comfortably for the rest of my life. I was working two months on and two months off, and during the time home I found things to nurture the service side of my existence – by spending time in Nicaragua as a translator, or by promoting the use of solar box cookers.

It was hard to rationalize carrying oil across the ocean. I kept thinking, well, somewhere in the bowels of this ship is 10 gallons of crude oil that will be turned into 7 gallons of gasoline for an ambulance that’s going to save someone’s life. But I knew that what I was really doing was being part of the pipeline for the unconscious pouring of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, and for the madness of our materialistic lives.

So the job got less and less satisfying and justifiable, even as my salary and status grew with the company. By the time the Valdez came along, I wanted to leave Exxon. But I was earning $50,000 working six months, and I had absolute freedom the other six months of the year. I found it difficult to break away.

Then the oil spill happened.

The day after the Valdez went aground, I was put back on the ship as third mate to help salvage her. I spent nine days sitting on that reef, helping pump the oil off, refloating the ship and taking her away. I spent a lot of time looking at the direct results of the accident. Two months after I got home, I watched my counterpart – the third mate who had actually been on the bridge that night – testify before the National Transportation Safety Board on television. And the next morning I woke up in an emotional break, savagely depressed. I was in my doctor’s office in two hours, and in therapy the next day.

It took me six months to work that through my system. But to me, it was a gift. It showed me that I couldn’t be there anymore. I began studying other industrial accidents, and I began to see that there were parallels between the Exxon Valdez accident and nuclear accidents that we’ve had in the past and might again have in the future. It was people gone wrong, technology gone wrong, government regulation gone wrong.

During all this time I kept thinking, "How can I reintegrate maritime activity into my life?" Then, at a rainforest conference about four months ago, sitting two rows in front of me was a guy wearing a jacket that said Sea Shepherd Crew. So I took him by the arm and said, "May I have your phone number? We have to talk."

Now I’m collecting surplus electronic equipment from corporations here in Seattle for the Sea Shepherds’ new ship, a 91-foot Coast Guard cutter. I’m going to help bring the original Sea Shepherd around from San Diego to West Palm Beach. I’m very involved, and I’m very satisfied with my involvement.

LEAF MYCZACK

Leaf and Cielo Myczack are long-time activists who thought they were "burned out" – but the Tennessee River had other plans. Together they founded the Broadened Horizons Clean Water Project, which monitors – and works to protect – the badly polluted river. Write them at PO Box 128, Saltillo, TN 38370.

Cielo and I had been involved in the social justice and environmental movements for twenty years, and we’d just burned out. We felt we had done what we could, and we were off to find a personal life for ourselves. Our idea was to build a boat, divest ourselves of all our land possessions, and sail off – turn our backs on the United States and its problems.

We set up shop on the banks of the Tennessee River in west Tennessee. It took us three years to build the boat out of flood-felled logs – years of drought and very hot temperatures. We would swim in the river to cool off. But there were many hot days that we couldn’t get into the river, because it was so nasty from pollution. Sometimes for days at a time there would be thousands of dead mussel bodies, just bobbing along like big pieces of snot. Thirty-six of the 72 species of mussels in the Tennessee River are gone now.

We completed the boat in May of 1989. We were aghast at what was happening to the river, so before heading for the Gulf of Mexico, we decided to make a trip up to the headwaters of the river and back again. We would stop at every community and try to rally support, organize clean-ups, and see if we couldn’t get people involved in saving the river.

Within a day and a half we saw oil slicks, as well as a big "trash slick" – a mass of styrofoam, tires, wood scraps and so on that forms behind the dams. The river was incredibly filthy, all the way to the top.

We made a lot of friends along the way, got involved with some other environmental groups, and began to feel committed. At this point, the river has kind of adopted us. We want to give the river a voice, and we also want to give the other creatures that live in or near the river a voice.

Now we take our 30-foot sailboat, named the Broadened Horizons, on a round-trip voyage each year of the whole 650 miles of the Tennessee River, as well as 200 miles of the Cumberland River. We do advocacy and educational work, and we put out a bimonthly newsletter which networks the whole river valley. We also do direct action.

How did we cure our burn-out? We just felt there wasn’t anything else we could do. There is no place to hide from the problem. We realized it would be worse than burn-out to say "Well, we gave up and it happened." We would always wonder, "Could we have done something? Could we have given it that last push, and been effective?" That’s what keeps us going.

People have to provide their own hope. Nobody’s going to come along and make everything all better. It’s us. We’re the problem, we’re the solution.