Thursday, September 4, 2008

25 Years of My Life--Dissed by Palin

If there is one thing I have learned in my life it is that words matter. Words particularly matter when thousands--or millions--read them or hear them.

With that thought in mind, I realized this morning what touched me more than anything about the convention speech of Sarah Palin last night. It was this short sentence:

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities"
--Sarah Palin, VP acceptance speech September 3, 2008

First of all, for those of you that have yet to figure this out, I am a woman, now 55, who has spent most of my adult life as a community organizer both as a volunteer and for an international environmental group. I am considered a lay expert in land use among other things.

For those of you not experienced in this world, you may not realize that most of the social work on the ground done in communities by that community's members in the U.S. is done by women. I note this not to demean men in any way (we need more of you!) but just to set the stage for what follows and to have you keep that in mind along with Palin's quote as you read this.

For 25 years, I have worked on environmental and community issues in the little town where I live. There are perhaps 650 homes here, about 1800 people. We do not have a local government, thus rely on county government. The closest thing we do have to local governance is a recreation and parks board. There are three men on that board, and two women. In previous decades, it was almost always the reverse.

During these years, I have fought, and won, major community land use development battles. I have lost many, too. Monied interests seem to be attracted to our area believing we have little money and fewer smarts. But once they approach the county for advice on how to proceed with their project, many never come back. We have a reputation and we built that reputation with blood, sweat, tears and pro se litigation. If not for the source of the joke, I could have appreciated the "pit bull with lipstick" remark. Being a dog and cat rescuer, though, I would take a pit bull any day over "hockey mom" Palin.

When I was a little less than thirty years old, I was approached by a professional land use planner on a problem no one knew existed: A proposed 350-unit trailer park on a property here that remains (to this day) 320 acres of mostly wild land. 68 acres of that was set aside in 1971 for development of some kind through a "specific plan". With the exception of the 68 acres, the property is rugged as hell and incredibly gorgeous and untouched. Fossils from this property are found in paleontology displays in museums across the country.

The plan had received a "negative declaration" meaning, in short, that the county declared that there would be few if any impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and any impacts that were found, were "mitigated". Well that's that's what they wrote, anyway, but that was not the case.

I had zero experience in land use at this point not really even understanding basic terms like "zone change", and I had never read CEQA law and had absolutely no interest in land use. None. After an hour-long explanation from my friend on the situation, it was clear to me this was serious. I didn't have a single clue how or what to do. He handed me a stack of papers and said, "Read this." I did.

By 6pm that night, I had devoured the paperwork and was mad as hell. I called and said, okay what do I do? Well, he explained, you have to file an appeal to the negative declaration and pay the county $150.00. An appeal? Oy.

By the time I got off the phone, the clock was ticking. I had exactly 68 hours to do something I had never done before, learn both law and planning on the fly, and get my appeal in by 5pm. That night I never went to bed. I stayed up all night reading the negative declaration against the law which controlled it, scratching notes and questions as fast as they appeared to me. At 7am the next day, I headed for the county.

There, department by department, I asked to see every document they had on file for the project. I was literally running down the hallways requesting the information, running out the door to go to another department, then returning to read the documentation. As the day went by, and the county closed, I had about half my case.

That night, again not sleeping, I sat at an old clunker IBM typewriter that was missing the "a" key (I type 80wpm, so it was a task to type removing this vowel every time). My then-partner got up and said, "Are you still typing?" Ha! I knew I would be done soon, and this whole things would be out of my hair.

The next morning, about half done, I got on the phone to my friend and asked a lot of questions. Then back to the typewriter. Much of what I had written had to be edited, so I used a razor blade on my kitchen breadboard to cut the text out that needed revision, and I would tape it back together intending to copy my finished masterpiece before submitting it. I typed, and made phone calls to various people seeking information up until it was too late to call. Now I was truly on my own and I was tired and wondering why the hell I ever agreed to do this.

I stayed awake again all night. By morning, absolutely exhausted, I had a couple sections to amplify and more questions. It had to be done with my appeal to the negative declaration by 2:00pm so I could hand write in every single "a" throughout it, make the number of copies required, pay the fee from my own pocket, then submit everything by 5pm.

When I finally walked away from the county that day, a few minutes after five, exhausted to the point it was unsafe for me to drive, it dawned on me that my life had suddenly taken a completely different course. I actually felt good about this.

When my partner returned from work that day, he found me asleep in the car, my head resting on the driver's side window.

The next several steps of my appeal involved a lot of speaking, first in community meetings and later before this huge county's Planning Commission. I had to organize the community into a force to be reckoned with which required educating them on everything. I am great at thinking on my feet and having worked as a musician for many years, public speaking was no problem for me. I made flyers of all kinds and types (each on a different color of paper), reproduced them by the hundreds and hundreds, and hired kids to take them to every door in the community. But the county process and personalities were grueling to learn, and given this was my first serious foray into the world of the whacky, I was constantly shocked at how I was treated, and how the truth was twisted.

In order to attend all the hearings (and believe me, there were many) I quit my day job and got a graveyard shift job taking a huge cut in pay that was risky for me. We won our appeal at the Planning Commission!

I was walking on a cloud largely because I was completely uninformed about what lay further ahead. Instead of the project being "over", the county required the developer to do an environmental impact report (EIR) on the project. A what? Read more law.

Months later at the completion of the EIR, it was distributed for public comment and I had thirty days to tear it apart. My comments were so massive, I alphabetized them into sections with footnotes, maps, data, photos--you name it, it was all in there. I hired a few experts. More hearings. More organizing. More education. More meetings. Gads, what had I done!

We won at the planning commission, and they denied the project. Again, walking on air ever so temporarily, I was shocked to find that the developer appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors. Attorneys and experts were all over the place now patting me on the head saying what a nice little girl I was, but I was a wrong little girl nonetheless. Grr. I hate being patronized.

Now, I had to quit my graveyard shift job and find a swing shift job so I could attend the Board hearings. Sigh. More meetings. More hearings. More organizing. Argh! Would this never end? Plus, now I had the EIR, proponent materials and county staff reports to near memorize and comment on. My 3" of paper to understand had grown into 15" of paper to understand. I got a crate. The wonderful painting on the wall above my makeshift desk had been replaced with huge US Geological Survey maps, the coffee table books replaced with stacks of reference documents, the Highway Capacity Manual, documentation on endangered plant and animal species, copies of various state and federal laws, a dictionary and books on planning and CEQA law. Life was definitely changing.

I got a new used typewriter. Thankfully, it had an "a". My partner was supportive about it all, moving the stacks to find a place to perch feet or dinner plate. I talked to myself a lot and had strange dreams. I felt we needed to hire an attorney, so we planned and held a very successful fund raiser. We produced a fabulous 5 minute video (in the days of VHS) that brought people to tears--a photographer friend traded a photo shoot with a "Disney" voice to do the narration. It was stunning.

Then the hardest part: sitting in my County Supervisor's office (and eventually the four others) to lobby our side of the issue. Me? Lobby? Oh well, one more thing to do.

By the time of the final Board hearing, we got word (ahead of time) that our Supervisor was taking the project down to 30 units from the 350. I was excited beyond control. The proponents (in a packed house--community folks taking off work to come, and each wearing buttons we had made and distributed) got up at the first opportunity to say they were walking away from the project. It was over!

We all went out and had a huge party, then I went home and slept, packed the materials in storage boxes and thought my life would return to normal.

It never did.

25 years later, the property (after three projects we have subsequently killed, and a fourth currently in litigation after successful preliminary litigation) is still vacant. Deer still come, moutain lions and bobcats still roam, hawks still perch and fly seeking lunch in a snake or mouse. In the spring, it is a glory of yellow mustard in the disturbed (disked) 68 acre area. Non-native, but gorgeous. It is now being considered, finally, for permanent acquisition as untouchable open space. We will probably not know for a year whether that will happen, and it may depend on the outcome of the court case and whether or not the economy turns around and how soon. It ain't over 'til it's over, and things could go sideways. I remain vigilant.

In the meantime, I have worked on perhaps another 80 projects, given lectures on organizing, worked for and with other groups fighting land use projects, and been in the newspaper more times than I care to count. The photos trace my years at this.

A new generation is almost ready, now, to hand the baton over to--they have worked hard, but I am always here to help and guide. In the intervening years, I took a job with an international environmental group and worked in many US states and lectured in other countries on nuclear power and radioactive waste. I have organized many other kinds of projects in the community as well, including fighting against bad bills at the state level that would have seriously effected us, and clearing non-native vegetation in miles of creekbeds to lower flood risks and enhance native wildlife.

My life did change radically. Politicians fear me, some people like me, some people hate me. That's just the way it is.

Last night when Sarah Palin dissed Obama's community organizing work, she also dissed tens and tens of thousands of others just like me. People who gave years of their lives, and often lots of their own money, to do community work on projects from feeding the homeless, educating on HIV and working in clinics and needle exchanges, taking meals to elderly folks, cleaning up rivers and streams, working to stop hate, helping with homeless children homeless animals and anything else homeless. There are literally limitless numbers of people in limitless categories doing amazing work. Without them, the system would grind to a halt.

What a stab through the heart for those of us George Bush Sr. called the "Thousand Points of Light" working on streets, in schools, hospitals, clinics, churches and anywhere else two feet will fit.

Palin made us into 1000 points of absolute unimportance. What a shame.

But the real message she sent was that she doesn't understand who it is that does this work or what it takes.

Perhaps she'll understand how we vote.