Monday, May 14, 2007

Making the Community Garden grow

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, May 12th:

Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman recently told me that his town is always looking for programs that combine a grassroots economy, community building and environmental stewardship.

The new Carrboro community garden, which will be at Martin Luther King Jr. Park for at least the next few years, certainly fits the bill. This project is a natural for a town that is already home to a cooperative grocery, a community radio station and a housing cooperative.

I recently chatted with Sammy Slade, April McGreger and Jay Hamm of the Carrboro Community Garden Coalition about their plans for this new town initiative.

Hamm told me that they plan to plant basic Southern vegetables, things like squash, tomatoes, okra, beans, peppers, melons and sweet potatoes. They're committed to making sure that nothing they grow goes to waste and will distribute their yield in a variety of ways, including distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to needy people in the community.

The importance of locally grown food is becoming increasingly important in this era of heightened environmental awareness. The shorter the distance food travels, the less carbon dioxide is generated in its transport. It's also fresher, cheaper and healthier. Slade thinks the garden will play a great role in "building community and combating global warming."

Collaborative gardening is certainly an activity that requires teamwork. Right now there are about 20 folks involved in Carrboro's community garden effort and it's increasing rapidly through word of mouth. McGreger said that many of the folks involved in this project had known each other before but have become much closer as they've worked together on the garden, and that the community-building aspect of it is as exciting as the growth of the food itself.

The group is planning to do a lot of its work on Saturday mornings but as of yet has no regular schedule. If you're interested in getting involved you can e-mail to be added to their electronic discussion group.

Hamm said that their vision is that the garden project will let people see that community gardens can be "abundant, beautiful and doable," and inspire similar smaller projects throughout the rest of the town, state and world. For instance, he'd like to see Carrboro move from this initial townwide garden to having small ones in each neighborhood all over the community, allowing folks to work in even smaller and locally oriented groups to produce food.

McGreger said another nice aspect of the process in getting the garden started has been the opportunity "to learn how to participate in direct democracy."

Many people involved had never worked with town staff and elected officials before, and they've found it to be a positive experience. All three spoke glowingly of the folks they've worked with in the Parks & Recreation Department as well as Public Works. Slade also made sure to say that while the entire Board of Aldermen has been supportive of their efforts, "Dan Coleman has been our main liaison from the town and the person who has kept us informed and worked to move the project forward."

Coleman told me that he first learned to garden in a community garden space shared by a dozen families, some experienced gardeners and some, like himself, newbies. Still very much a novice, he hopes that he can learn more by helping out at CCGC and expose his 6-year-old son to the benefits of community gardening.

This project just makes sense. They're using public space that otherwise might not be put to any formal use before construction of the park begins in a few years. It's going to produce fresh food for local residents who might not otherwise have access to it while providing other folks with fruits and vegetables that might in the absence of the garden have come on a truck from somewhere out of state.

Since local residents are raising their hands to do the work themselves, there's not anything coming out of the town budget to pay for it other than staff time -- a good thing in a year of tight budget times.

The benefits the community garden produces will indeed be far more than the investment Carrboro is putting in to make the program work.

As Jay Hamm said in summing it up, the project is literally "growing community." Kudos to both the folks in the Carrboro Community Garden Coalition for bringing this forward and to the elected officials and staff for the town of Carrboro for working together to make it happen. It's a great example of government functioning well, and one that can serve as an ideal model for other local communities.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Want to seek office? Here's some advice

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, May 5th:

Last weekend I had the pleasure of serving on a panel organized by the Community Action Network about running for local office. CAN is concerned, as am I, about the declining number of people putting themselves out to serve the public and its event was a wonderful step in the right direction.

All of the panelists had interesting anecdotes and tips to share about their experiences running for office.

For instance, former Carrboro Alderman Allen Spalt was mortified during his first campaign to open up the newspaper and find that he had been listed as a Republican! An accomplished liberal activist over many years, he used this example to show the importance of swiftly correcting any inaccurate information put out about you in public.

Charlie Lancaster, who has served as a campaign treasurer for Kevin Foy and Laurin Easthom, made some good points about the financial aspect of running a campaign. One key tip he related was that even though you are only required to list the occupation and employer of a donor if they give more than $100, there's the possibility that if they give you $50 in September, they might give another $50 in October. So it's always good to get that information ahead of time!

Former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Nick Didow talked about how much more there is to being an elected official than necessarily meets the eye. It's not just going to meetings. He said that folks frequently came up to him in the grocery story to give him a piece of their mind. He wasn't complaining, though; he said as intense as it got at times, the experience was always very rewarding.

Ruby Sinreich, Chapel Hill planning board chair and editor of, talked about the use of technology in the campaign. She noted that we have gotten to the point where no serious candidate for office would go without a Web site, but that doesn't mean candidates need to break the bank either. For instance they could start up a blog to serve as a campaign Web site for free. That's what Mark Kleinschmidt did during his successful re-election campaign.

Kleinschmidt was also on the panel, and he emphasized the importance of working well with the media. He said forging strong relationships with folks in the press and keeping them in the loop about things going on with the campaign makes it much easier for a candidate to get the message out.

I focused most strongly on the mechanics of running a successful campaign. Here are four tips I would encourage any candidate for public office to keep in mind:

* Be organized. Have specific people overseeing specific parts of your campaign, and know well in advance what you're going to do and when you're going to do it. Planning ahead will help keep everyone's sanity intact and ensure that you don't make any critical mistakes, especially by forgetting to do something until after it's too late.

* Get a good group of volunteers and show your appreciation for them. There's no way to run a campaign by yourself. You need folks to put up signs, work at the polls, write letters to the editor and do lots of other stuff. These people could be spending time with their families, going to the movies or doing about a million other things but they're taking time out because they care about you and what your election would do for the community. Make sure to let them know how much you appreciate it as often as you can. It will make for a happier and more productive campaign team.

* Use your friends. Before you pay a graphic designer to make your brochure or give someone a bunch of money to do your Web site, think about who you know that might be able to do it well for free. Odds are they'll be more attentive to you than someone who's more worried about getting a pay check anyway.

* Maintain your perspective. If someone writes something unpleasant about you on a blog or you don't get an endorsement you had hoped to receive, don't let it get you away from your campaign plan. One thing itself will almost never break a campaign, but letting it distract you from everything else you need to be doing could.

This fall there are four seats open on the Chapel Hill Town Council, four on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, three on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and three on the Hillsborough Town Board.

Democracy thrives when voters have a number of strong candidates to choose from.

Check the TV listings for the replay schedule of the Community Action Network's election workshop on the People's Channel -- it's worth a watch whether you're considering a run yourself or even if you're just interested in knowing what goes into a campaign.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Folks gotta be more open minded

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 28th:

Last week a number of neighbors of Freedom House, an addiction and mental illness treatment center in northern Chapel Hill, came out to speak against a proposed expansion of the facility.
Most of their concerns centered on safety. One neighbor, Cingai Chen, summed up the rhetoric pretty well by saying, "We are very worried about some day those patients will create a safety concern for our community."

The operative words in that statement are "some day." The reality is that Freedom House has been in our community for more than three decades and there have never been problems. It's a well-run place with tremendous success stories and has never created anything resembling a crime problem. There's no reason to believe expanding the facility would change that.

A similar thing happened in the early 1990s when the AIDS House opened up in Carrboro. There was a good deal of rhetoric about what "element" would be brought into the community and the negative impacts it could have. Now, nearly 20 years later, it's provided a great service for some of our residents and it's never brought a lick of trouble.

In both of these cases and others that have cropped up through the years, people are speaking out and acting mostly based not on factual information or what has happened but because of their fear of the unknown.

It's a basic human impulse, but it's also one worth staying away from as much as possible. Instead of making knee-jerk assumptions, folks should put more time and effort into learning about their neighbors and how to best coexist with them. It would make for a more harmonious community.

I think this is pertinent in particular to two issues that we will continue to face in the next couple of years.

One is panhandling downtown. I read a lot of angry letters to the editor about folks asking for money, and if it's keeping residents and visitors from feeling safe there then it's certainly an issue worth finding solutions for. But punitive measures are not the way to go.

The pragmatic reasons are that for the most part folks aren't doing anything illegal, and an ordinance passed four years ago intended to crack down on aggressive panhandling hasn't seemed to do anything to cut down on the complaints anyway.

Maybe even more importantly, morally it just is not right to punish people who are poor for doing what they can to sustain their lives. Instead of complaining about the panhandlers, it would be better for people to write letters to the editor suggesting feasible things we can do as a community to make it so that there is no need for folks to do it.

The way to eliminate the issue of panhandling is to work toward eliminating the issue of poverty. That's a much more productive exercise for a community than coming down on its most vulnerable residents.

The other issue forthcoming where I think it will be important for people to move beyond their fear of the unknown is the location of the new IFC men's shelter. This is an issue that has been around for years, but has not reached any sort of conclusion because every time a new site is discussed neighbors organize and blow the idea out of the water.

It's going to have to go somewhere, and I bet it won't be nearly as bad a neighbor as folks expect it to be. They may be leery because people often show up in the police beat with the IFC shelter listed as their home address. Interestingly though, a study done from April-July 2004 found that less than 10 percent of the folks who listed it as their address were actually staying there when they were arrested.

The perception of homeless people going around and committing crimes is completely overblown. I hope that wherever the shelter ends up being sited, folks in the area will go there and volunteer and get to know the residents instead of coming to public meetings and making negative generalizations. Again, taking the time to get to know that which is unknown will ease our fears and make us a better community.

Issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health tend to be difficult ones to talk about and deal with. But we have to be informed about them and step outside our comfort zones to get a greater understanding of the role they play in our community.

Shoving them aside or trying to leave them for some other neighborhood or group of people to deal with does not help us move forward. Conquering our fears of the unknown is essential to create the kind of society we want to live in.

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