2011 Badger Bioneers
Below you will find profiles of each of our 2011 Badger Bioneers. These individuals are being recognized for their innovative, creative work in community development and resilience -- the heart of sustainability.
Parker Palmer - Author, Educator, Founder: Center for Courage & Renewal
A lady famously inquired of Ben Franklin on his exit from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
His response – “A republic, madame, if you can keep it” – remains strong medicine for those suffering malaise or depression when faced with the present-day intractable political discourse that is souring state legislatures and Capitol Hill in DC.
Depression is, in fact, what led Parker Palmer to begin his latest book – six years in the making – and it was the hole from which he had to climb to rekindle his own faith in the American political tradition.
“Writing is, for me, a way of re-engaging with the world,” says Palmer, in his distinctive, rich baritone. At 71, he is an energetic, precise conversationalist, and he has adopted the mien of someone who is used to stating his case plainly, and staking his territory on moral ground.
Published this September, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit is the ninth book in Palmer’s 40-plus year career as nationally-recognized author and educator. This book addresses the non-engagement of the American citizenry, which, in Palmer’s view, is at least partly responsible for the shrill, strident tone that dominates political chatter.
“We maintain the illusion that we can somehow hide out in private and still have a vibrant, engaged political society,” says Palmer. And the longer we remain dissociated from the political conversation, the more we allow pundits, talking heads, and ideologues to define the terms of engagement, to private political benefit.
This has meant more people living in fear of their neighbors and their neighbors’ politics.
“Fear is an unsustainable relationship,” says Palmer.
“And as long as we are animated by fear, we have a very unstable and unsustainable political situation.”
Given that the economic, environmental, and energy issues facing American society are greater than any in perhaps recent memory, this unsustainable situation is particularly worrisome. As its name suggests, Healing the Heart of Democracy is calibrated to call people back to the rights – and duties – for which they are responsible, and on which the ultimate outcome of the ongoing democratic experiment rides.
Palmer’s previous books have also dealt explicitly with the elements of sustainable relationships: relationships between people, but also the relationships that individuals have with their work.
“Over the last 40 years my focus has been on the sustainability of the institution of education,” Palmer reflects.
“Fifty percent of the people who go into public education with high energy and enthusiasm are gone after five years. A tremendous number are driven out because not enough people are interested in sustaining the human resource called the teacher.”
It was this crisis in the vocation of education that opened Palmer’s eyes to the ways in which individuals – of all professions – can become siloed, trapped, and sapped of their initial fire or motivation.
As founder of The Center for Courage and Renewal, Palmer sees his life’s work as helping people “rejoin soul and role.” In the case of the Center, this has meant providing workshops and reflective retreats to over 45,000 teachers, physicians, clergy, non-profit leaders, and other executives in fifty cities, nurturing their creativity and their passion, and returning them to a sense of their own potential.
In Palmer’s view, Healing the Heart of Democracy is an extension of his concern for vocation.
“We’ve been ignoring the infrastructure of democracy,” he says. Like the country’s wobbly bridges and leaking dams, the nation’s citizenry needs to be renewed and re-energized, and called back to a sense of purpose rooted in responsibility for one’s neighbors, and one’s community, city, and nation.
It is a vision of a true democracy, and it is true sustainability.
Greg David - Farmer; Founding Member, Sustain Jefferson; Jefferson County Supervisor
“There’s no such thing as waste,” says farmer Greg David. “It’s just a resource we haven’t quite figured out what to do with.”
Well, almost: David’s found something to do with it.
He beckons around to the side of his outdoor workshop, here in a clearing toward the rear of his lush, 20-acre stead. Baking in the humid summer air, there is a twenty-foot wooden crate filled with warm water, housing long plastic tubes containing… cow poop.
This “anaerobic digester” mimics the actions of intestines; it’s a 100-degree bathtub for creating methane gas that could be used for heating a greenhouse in the winter, or for warming water for farming tilapia.
Today is the digester’s first formal “load,” and David’s excitement is palpable. For perhaps the seventh or eighth time today, he enthusiastically claps his hands together and chirps, “Here’s an interesting thing!” He seems perpetually delighted to have any chance to show off the creations dotting his farm, both natural and man-made.
“I can build pretty much anything I set my mind to,” says David, walking into the shade of the workshop. His small white ball-cap bobs up and down behind giant stacks of boxes and piles of scrap metal, in search of a spare part.
Having spent several decades in construction, he’s probably not being hyperbolic about his construction bona fides. However, on the rest of Prairie Dock Farm, here in northern Jefferson County, David lets nature do the planning.
He has adopted the guiding principles of permaculture, an ethic for approaching the nature as a set of large, interlocking systems, each part of which has intrinsic value beyond mere human utility.
“The usual way of developing agricultural technique is do-this, do-that,” says David, paraphrasing a tenet of one of the Japanese founders of the permaculture movement. “[This] way is about not-doing this, and not-doing that.”
And so the farm’s orchards of plum and hazelnut trees, its frizzy lime-green expanses of asparagus, its wheeled coops for hundreds of free-ranging chickens, and its labyrinthine berms of prairie plants have flourished mainly through not-technology and not-fertilization.
Though David uses draft horses to plow and tow, he also loves YouTube for instant access to like minds (and anaerobic digester tutorials). His iPhone ringer is a remarkably life-like birdcall. He is an autodidact with runaway curiosity, so while he abstains from technologies when interacting with the natural world, he is quick to point out the distinction between technology which liberates and inspires, and that which enslaves or impoverishes.
At this point it’s not too surprising when he comes bounding out of his workshop carrying a giant rusty cylinder. His arms are taut and tan.
“Here’s an interesting thing!”
He fits the cylinder on top of a large, similarly rusty v-shaped base, drops a metal coil in the center, attaches some hoses, and launches into a highly detailed explanation of the thermodynamic principles by which this “rocket stove” may be used to provide high-efficiency, low-emission heat for cooking and for homes.
He’s an excitable mad scientist, with a Sconnie accent. All around, prototypes of stoves and alternative energy generators in various shapes and configurations are sprouting everywhere through the tall grass.
David and his friends frequently gather here to discuss Like the hand-made, scrap metal stoves in his backyard, David is a composite of complementary philosophies, soldered together by a commitment to low-impact living. He’s a founding member of Sustain Jefferson; a local leader in the Swedish Natural Step sustainability framework; his farm plays host to annual Lakota sweat lodge ceremonies. He gets together with his friends And, of course, there is the Japanese permaculture ethic.
Which is maybe why the bumper sticker on his Honda Insight hybrid car, parked ten yards away from a horse-drawn jitney, reads: “That was Zen, this is Tao.”
Will Green - Founder, Mentoring Positives, Inc.
The hook is the key.
For the last seven years, this has been the motto of Will Green’s Mentoring Positives program. It means that the best way to change a person is by engaging the passions that already drive him or her.
One by one, Green and the small Mentoring Positives volunteer team has been “hooking” at-risk youth in the Darbo-Worthington, Allied Drive, and Southside Penn Park neighborhoods, mainly reaching them through basketball as a model for life.
Muscular and compact, with a shaved head and wearing a sleeveless baggy t-shirt and mesh shorts, Green exudes a kind of coiled-spring energy, like he’s ready to sprint up and down a basketball court for hours. Green, who was a standout player for UW-Eau Claire, knows first-hand the power of a game to inspire.
“I found my savior in basketball,“ Green says. “I was a shy kid, very unsure. The game made me a leader. You can learn so much – competency, anger management, discipline.”
What the game didn’t teach Green, his mother did. He had been working with youth and social workers for several years when his mother died of breast cancer in 2003. He says he felt like he needed to be doing more to pass on her values of family, empathy, and community to kids whose upbringings were less stable than his own, so he quite his job and started Mentoring Positives (and gave it his mom’s initials, M.P.) It is designed to give teens on low-income blocks a chance to work on marketable skills and social behaviors, and counsel and support their parents and families.
Mentoring Positives’ ten mentors currently work with 45 kids aging from 10-years-old to late teens. It has been hailed as “an unbelievable asset” by the Madison Police Department and praised by local parents and officials alike for providing a safe, supportive haven for young men.
The program doesn’t have the reach – or the funding – of large, established mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, but Green says that he’s trying to hook the kids who have behavioral or mental issues that those programs don’t individually address. Yes, he plays basketball with teens, but Green’s mentees talk about life, help each other address family issues, and work through school suspensions.
A small program, focusing on each kid, leads to surprising discoveries. Recently, Green floated the idea to his kids of working in the Darbo Salvation Army community garden.
“The response was totally, ‘Hell no, I ain’t going out in a garden,’” chuckles Green. “But then we helped them start thinking about the ways the garden could be a project they’d get excited about.”
The result is “Off the Block Salsa,” a potential money-maker, and a product grown – with a label designed and a business plan executed – by some of the MP mentees.
Some of these mentees have gone off to college, many have not. Some last with the program for six years; some last for six days. But Green is committed to making sure that each kid referred into his program gets the attention they can’t seem to get elsewhere.
“One of the kids, the hardest nut to crack this summer, he’s sixteen. He takes a cab half way across town to be here,” says Green, who sometimes seems genuinely surprised at his program’s successes.
“Now he’s beating us here in the mornings.”
Kim Neuschel & Jessica Leclair - Nurses, Public Health Madison & Dane County
The Meadowood neighborhood sits astride Raymond Road, on Madison’s southwest side. During the latter half of the 2000s, the area was pulled deeper into poverty and crime by an increasingly strong undertow. In less than a decade, the percentage of low-income students jumped from 14 to 57 percent at Orchard Ridge Elementary, the neighborhood’s primary school. Crime rates were climbing steadily, including an alarming increase in gunplay and shootings.
If the neighborhood were a person whose health was flagging in such a fashion, it would have been sent straight to the emergency room to see a doctor.
Instead, this community was sent a pair of public health nurses.
That’s because Kim Neuschel and Jessica Leclair recognize that where you live determines how you live. They are working in southwest Madison to improve neighborhoods while improving health.
And vice versa.
“People don’t think, ‘Oh, my park is nice and I feel safe to go play,” Neuschel explains, “and understand that that’s public health.” With rosy high cheekbones and a glinting smile, she looks like an energetic, young Meryl Streep.
She continues, “People don’t think, ‘Oh, the city comes and picks up my garbage from my street corner,’ – that’s public health.”
Traditional models of public health have largely emphasized smoking cessation and exercise. Neuschel and Leclair have pieced together a new approach to public health, a holistic view of community well-being that addresses “health equity” based on the social conditions of the places where people live and work.
Neuschel and Leclair’s work focuses on social justice, civic engagement, and sustainability. The overall goal is building social capital – place-based characteristics like beautiful neighborhoods, neighborly relations, cross-generational interaction, employment opportunities – to alleviate the stressors that are leading causes of death in urban communities today: heart disease and violence.
So when violent crime and spiked in Meadowood, Neuschel and Leclair sat down with residents and had dinner. The simple act of gathering together has yielded major results -- though Neuschel asserts that that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“It doesn’t cost anything to hold a meeting,” she says.
One of the most visible results of these community sessions are edible community gardens which have sprung up in front yards along Russett Road. The gardens, planted each April for the last three years by neighborhood volunteers, are filled with vegetables and native flowers, harvested to compensate for the lack of quality local grocery stores.
“There’s a myth that people won’t care for things in low-income neighborhoods,”says Neuschel.
“We decided to blow that myth out of the water.”
In 2008, the city and county health departments merged and, in the process, paired up Neuschel and Leclair. Neuschel had already been in the Meadowood community for a few years, doing more “traditional” community nursing, like tending to newborns and doing referrals to clinics. Jessica Leclair, Neuschel’s equally bubbly and bright partner, came to nursing seeking ways to help people live more sustainable, healthy lifestyles. But she realized the barriers to health were highest for those with the fewest resources.
“If people can’t take care of themselves, how can they care for the planet?” Leclair asks.
Neuschel and Leclair are working in southwest Madison at the forefront of a burgeoning movement around the country that seeks to ameliorate social barriers to health. Gardens aren’t the only solution, either.
Community meetings have become regular and depended-upon forums for designing creative solutions to neighborhood concerns. A new Meadowood Neighborhood Center has reinforced a sense of place for residents; the recently-formed Southwest Neighborhood Organizing Committee is bringing together city and community representatives to dialogue about the resources needed to improve the block.
And a resident counted over thirty butterflies in one front-yard garden.
She had never seen a butterfly.
Stephanie Ricketts, on behalf of Willy Street Co-op
Stephanie Ricketts knows the opposite of sustainability:
The ultimate consumptive automaton. He and his lady go through their days doing nothing but mindlessly chomping chomping chomping.
Still, it’s hard to not want to emulate the guy when you walk into Willy Street Co-op, where Ricketts works.
As an outlet for every sort of local, natural, organic delicacy, the Co-op is hard to beat. Its seven short aisles stock a smorgasbord of western and eastern flavors, creating the visual and olfactory sensations of walking through a bazaar (everything minus the snake-charmer). The full service deli stocks staples, as well as left-field fare – thai firecracker rice, emerald sesame kale, Aztec quinoa salad.
But here you can feel good about munching your way up and down, because you’re voting with your dollar, helping to invest in local economies and traditional handcrafting.
And Ricketts is there to make sure that everything behind the scenes is just as sustainable and earth-friendly as the stuff on the shelves.
Stephanie is the co-op’s “executive assistant”, though that’s a title she has been encouraged to respect loosely. Working with the coop’s board and General Manager, Anya Firszt, Stephanie says she has been encouraged to pursue her interests.
Which, unsurprisingly, have a lot to do with food.
“My mom’s side of the family is Lebanese, so we’ve always had a cultural connection to food, definitely,” Stephanie says, over a day-glo colored beet salad at the Goodman Community Center café.
While pursuing social justice coursework at University of Wisconsin, Stephanie was the food coordinator for a 26-person housing cooperative. She spent most of 2010 on an Americorps fellowship with the REAP Food Group, helping Wisconsin schools increase access to local food for their students.
From there it seemed like a small hop to working with other socially-conscious food lovers at a co-op devoted to the subject – Willy Street.
In addition to being Madison’s premier one-stop shop for the quelling of locavoracious appetites, Willy Street has long been at the forefront of sustainable building and energy.
The Willy East location has sported solar paneling on its roof since 2005. It has been fitted with low-flow water systems, heat reclamation intakes, efficient refrigeration units, and motion-detecting lights. The exterior boasts a beautiful rain garden facing Jenifer St, and a “brown” yard composter.
Both Willy East & West retrofitted preexisting buildings, and even have electric car charging ports available for those who make their grocery runs gas-free.
“We’ve checked off a lot of our boxes,” Ricketts says, in regards to the store’s efforts at going green. “We’ve done a lot of things you would expect out of a natural foods co-op.”
Which means, of course, that it’s time to get creative.
Ricketts knows that being the Willy Street neighborhood’s locus for groceries means that the coop can have a profound influence on peoples’ purchasing habits and understanding of “organic” and “natural” foods. But it can also serve as an inspiration to those who are looking for deeper ways to engage in sustainable, community-oriented lifestyles.
Whether promoting charitable giving via the hugely impactful Community CHIP program, educating its owners on local food production, or initiatives like the recently-launched “Eat Local Challenge”, the Co-op helps thousands of individuals come together to support common cause.
“For me it’s about finding little points of action, which will hopefully support other points of action,” Ricketts says.
She says her vision beyond Willy Street is to be part architect, part interior designer, and part farmer. The idea is to make living landscapes a part of everyone’s daily life, in-and-out of the coop.
“Why can’t we have an office full of growing things, beehives on the roof?” Ricketts laughs. “Office chickens? Why not, if you can?”
Beyond the obvious “green” impacts, Ricketts says, creating living workspaces slows things down and gives new perspective on life as a process, rather than a product.
“Nature provides us with all these little things to consider, “ says Ricketts, “and maybe it can help you not see yourself as your own little Pacman.”