Betsy Taylor is executive director of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md.
Sunday, 16 Jan 2000
TAKOMA PARK, Md.
This morning felt like winter. It was wonderful to have a rush of frigid air in my face for a change after such a balmy December. Hoping for snow!
After some silent meditation, I browsed through the newspaper and was interested to see a piece on sport utility vehicles. Kara Kockelman at the University of Texas at Austin just released a study on the impact of SUVs, trucks, and minivans on traffic congestion. Turns out that these vehicles aren’t only contributing to climate change but increased vehicle size is also adding to gridlock. On the positive front, the New York Times also featured President Clinton’s recent historic decision to designate three new national monuments. He has now set aside more federal land — outside of Alaska — as monuments than any other president. My great-grandchildren thank him.
I attended an Adelphi Quaker meeting this morning. It was a pleasantly silent gathering. One woman spoke about the difficulty of believing that there is anything of ultimate meaning in the universe. How do you commit yourself absolutely to the possibility of a current of goodness, of a higher power, of the Light, however you define it? This was the question she posed. How do you do this in the midst of doubt and darkness? Ultimately, she spoke of surrendering to mystery, to faith, to the visual image of resting in God’s hands.
I spent over an hour on the piano today — a joy! One of my litmus tests regarding my own personal balance is whether I’m still learning new music. I’m working on two new jazz numbers now. It’s unusual for me to grab so much time on the keyboard.
My husband, Denny, joined me for an hour bike ride in Rock Creek Park — one of the most beautiful urban parks in the country.
This afternoon we honored Martin Luther King’s memory by attending a Living Wages rally at the local high school. It was uplifting to see such a diverse group of people pressing hard for an increase in the minimum wage in Montgomery County, Md. It was also one of the first times in recent memory when I joined with business leaders, labor leaders, ministers, teachers, students, and local citizens to sing songs of change together. My kids enjoyed it.
In the nooks and crannies of the day, I did what many do on Sundays: laundry, bills, coaching my children on their long-term homework, and walking to the co-op for groceries.
Monday, 17 Jan 2000
TAKOMA PARK, Md.
Despite the federal holiday, I spent a few hours at the office, fighting back against the tide of mail, faxes, email, and voice mail. Ugh. The inflow of information is beyond my capacity to respond. Seems the sage was right who claims we live in an age of much information and little wisdom.
I am always uplifted by a few surprise messages. This morning I was excited to receive an email from a marketing and media expert who owns a media firm in San Francisco. He offered to provide free help to the Center — something I’ll definitely pursue.
Recently, we’ve had a wave of people wanting to volunteer, serve as ambassadors, promote our materials, and get involved at the community level. Retired business people, teachers, parents, people of faith, students — quite a spectrum of people who seem to want to be part of a new American dream. Some come out of concern for our environmental future. Some come from a growing concern about quality of life and the sense that our “more is better” definition of the dream has many hidden costs. Some are outraged by the injustice of excess and hyperconsumerism juxtaposed against widespread poverty in many regions of the world. For all these reasons and more, people are questioning excessive commercialism and materialism. Just got the figures — we had half a million hits on our website in December.
Spent the rest of Monday puttering with my kids, going to a bookstore, and joining a group for madrigal singing — a first for me! Picked up a modest little book, The Essence of Wisdom, by Stephen Mitchell. I resonated with an entry from Rainer Maria Rilke: “I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Tuesday, 18 Jan 2000
TAKOMA PARK, Md.
I awoke at 5:30 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. train to New York City. Back to work! Off to raise money to keep the Center moving. I still find this dance of fundraising interesting to observe, almost as a third party, even as I’m in the midst of it. I’ve been either raising money or giving money away for most of my adult life! First for 10 years in the nonprofit sector as a supplicant, then for eight years running foundations and advising wealthy families, and now, once again, as the less powerful party at the table.
In my next life, I’ll join with a choir of others to offer a critique of this world — of those funders who have no humility or empathy or real grasp of the risks so many people take. I’ll also point to the minority who really get it — who know how to give dollars (and personal support) with deep sensitivity, kindness, intellectual rigor, and strategic hungering.
Today I met with two of the good guys, so it was a pleasant experience. Hopeful about securing grants from both sources. Always useful to be forced to summarize the Center’s mission, objectives, and expected outcomes. Tough, given our daunting mission and 25-year time horizon.
I spent both three-hour train rides doing work — reviewing a new report, “Why Consumption Matters,” that we plan to publish in May. For once, the cell phones didn’t completely dominate the Metroliner! Reminded anew of how vital it is to redirect consumption patterns. The report summarizes some of the key findings on consumption and its impact on the environment. Collapsing forests — connected to our wood and paper consumption. Climate change — connected to our per capita energy consumption. Water shortages — connected to our meat-based diets and agricultural practices. Congestion and ground-level sprawl — connected to our appetites for large houses and large vehicles. One in eight plants is now threatened, largely due to habitat destruction that is partially connected to our consumption patterns.
Snow greeted me in Takoma Park — a joy to see some white stuff. First of the year. My husband says it’s time for bed, so the diary is a goner for today.
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2000
TAKOMA PARK, Md.
Up at 6 a.m. after my late return from New York last night. As usual, the first half hour of the day was for reflection, quiet time, coffee. Once I got my 9- and 11-year-olds off to school, I opted to work from home for the morning — a rare indulgence in claiming my own space. Sometimes, when I walk into the office, I feel I’m in the middle of a magnetic field and everything is coming at me.
The Center is currently finalizing our year 2000 operational plan. I spent the morning working on this plan, staff restructuring, and big picture thinking. Unlike many environmental groups, the Center has found an extremely powerful link with the public based on issues related to core values, quality of life, and a general churning about e
xcessive materialism. This has allowed us to generate enormous interest from people who are not frontline environmentalists yet who share environmental concerns. For example, a recent article in Family Circle generated 1,000 letters a day to the Center for over a month! In the past 18 months, we’ve been in the media over 1,200 times, often speaking to very mainstream audiences. We started a “Step by Step” online action network three months ago that already has nearly 7,000 subscribers, and about 20 new people are joining every day. I spent the morning assimilating lots of information about our message, core constituencies, and key programs, working to narrow our focus for the coming year.
The afternoon was intense but great. With a growing staff, paid interns, and consultants (now 16 people), the office is hopping. We spent Wednesday afternoon preparing to launch a nationwide news service on consumption, quality of life, and the environment for grassroots groups, community newspapers, and a network of independent environmental newsletters. We have a list of about 10,000 newsletters and hope to reach a large audience to connect people more deeply with our message. David Suzuki, noted scientist and geneticist from Canada, wrote our opening free piece. Any environmental group in the world can subscribe for free by contacting the Center at 1-877-68-DREAM or by sending email to email@example.com. We’re hoping to reach hundreds of thousands of people on a very limited budget. Launch is tomorrow, so we’re getting final details pinned down.
Lots of other projects cooking including a new outreach program led by our new director of faith-based programs, Laura Dunham, a Presbyterian minister from Santa Fe. Worked on the contours of that program. Had a staff meeting to debrief from our recent staff retreat and clarify next steps for refining our strategic plan and staff structure.
I find it very difficult at times to pace the work … to think strategically, raise money, support and guide staff, talk with the press, decide which speaking engagements to accept and conferences to attend, develop and build our board and advisory board, maintain excellent budgeting and financial systems, encourage staff development and constant learning, get appropriate technological support, stay humble, have fun, laugh at mistakes, listen for guidance, stay on message, ride the wave. At my best moments, I feel it’s a joy and honor to do this work. At my worst, I feel I could crash. Our recent staff retreat focused on these issues — pacing the work, delegating, working in teams, not growing too slowly or too quickly, learning to say no, doing less but doing it very very well. That was the focus of my morning work and our afternoon staff meeting.
A good day.
Thursday, 20 Jan 2000
TAKOMA PARK, Md.
Perhaps God made snow to force us to slow down. I was scheduled to fly to Michigan this morning for a four-day strategic retreat that the Center was sponsoring with support from the Fetzer Institute near Kalamazoo. I awoke to the first serious snow storm of the year — and to cancelled flights, threats of further wind storms, and talk of more snow on Sunday. So, we canceled the meeting.
Our original group included some terrific folks, including Bill McKibben, Juliet Schor, Randy Hayes, Vernice Miller, Torri Estrada, Dick Roy, Alan AtKisson, and another eight superb people. We were going to spend three half-days together exploring how to galvanize several constituencies to do more to shift and reduce consumption in the United States. In particular, we were hoping to examine the interplay of individual change, institutional change, policy reform, and change in production practices by companies. How many highly dedicated individuals does it take to move systems? Which policies and corporate practices are ripe targets for change? What role can youth, people of faith, and consumers play in this struggle? These and many other questions were on our agenda. But instead, it snowed and I spent the first few hours of the day making sure everyone was notified of our change in plans.
I had planned to talk to a reporter during a layover in Detroit. Instead, I spent nearly 45 minutes on the phone with an Orange County Register reporter who is doing a piece on material culture and whether there are countervailing forces to the luxury fever and consumerism that is celebrated in the dominant media. A good interview with a reporter who seemed to grasp the big picture — the hidden environmental, human, and social costs of excess consumption.
Worked briefly on our monthly release of “InBalance” — a two-page summary of key reports, conferences, news, and emerging strategies regarding consumption, the environment, and quality of life. This will be sent to our network of 600 groups and experts early next week. Reviewed the content of our next issue of Enough, our quarterly newsletter. Great piece on silence and its disappearance from our lives. Silence is so essential to deep reflection, to recognition of where we fit into the larger universe, to the hearing of the wind and crickets. Yet airplanes, cars, beepers, cell phones, faxes, appliances, electronic music, electric toys, and more make it nearly impossible to find it. Without silence, can we find our path into the future? Another good piece focused on the ethic of energy consumption, tying this to Earth Day 2000’s focus on energy and the urgent need for Americans to take the lead on a global scale. After all, we do consume 40 percent of the world’s gasoline, with a mere 5 percent of the world’s population!
Enough work. The Center’s mantra is “more fun, less stuff,” yet in reality, our staff works tirelessly to maintain our many programs. I convinced more than half the staff to drop everything and celebrate the snow. We had a huge snowball fight with about 10 adults and 10 children and then went on to go sledding at the local middle school. About 200 people were out enjoying the snow and perfect blue sky. I learned more about my development director, Monique Miller, who obviously loves to take risks. She went soaring off terraced jumps and skidded into bushes, always with loud laughter. Sean Sheehan, noted New Englander and director of Internet services for the Center, had snow shoes in tow and was ready to try extreme sports. Two people crashed into trees and poles, but we ended the day with no broken bones.
Just as we left the slopes at sundown, the full moon appeared over the white meadow! I was stunned by its sudden emergence and somehow reassured that nature is far more resilient than we imagine. For all the damage we inflict, often unknowingly, the Earth still seems so grand, even in an urban setting. The day ended with 30 mile-per-hour gusting winds and a full lunar eclipse. My husband and I wrapped the kids in blankets and went out to watch the shadow crossing the moon, and we knew once again that life is good.
This is my final diary entry. I wonder who reads these things? I invite you to visit the Center for a New American Dream’s website and consider signing up for our monthly electronic action network, Step by Step, which includes a monthly source of inspiration such as a prayer, poem, or film recommendation. Most of all, I encourage you to be part of the new dream. Join the Center. You can do it online or by calling toll-free at 1-877-68-DREAM. “When we are dreaming alone, it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality.”
May Earth Day be an awesome outpouring of love for the planet and its people. And may every day be a time for reflection on how each of us can do our small part to make things safer, healthier, and more beautiful for kids yet unborn. Cyberspace love to all.