The notion of sustainability, bandied about as the ultimate goal of international development programs, troubles me.

In its simplest definition, sustainability is the ability to exist constantly.  Few things in our world – from marriages to businesses to social projects – actually enjoy sustainability in that sense.  Some endeavors are just one-off or ‘band aids’ to avoid deeper engagement.

Sustainability is a concept widely used by western development organizations to mean ‘balanced’ efforts to meet basic human needs – but usually in a hurry. Large NGOs with government contracts enjoy ready access to capital. No so much for the small organizations doing equally worthy work.

Sustainability is always in flux, changing over time and place. It’s not a goal but a process.

The greater the level of poverty, the more challenging it is to improve the lives of those who experience it. The ‘unbanked,’ the un- or undereducated, the sick and traumatized face a struggle of indeterminate length to achieve an acceptable quality of living.  Being a woman,  and especially a women of color, means you have to navigate out of a deep trough of exclusion and internalized devaluation.

If we are to inculcate sustainability in initiatives that assist the poorest communities, then we have to reallocate resources to women. The two resources that matter most: knowledge and capital.

Where women are systemically excluded from education, we offer rigorous instruction. Where women know only subsistence economic activities, we share the knowledge, tools, and mentoring that growing a profitable business requires. Where women need to meet operating costs, we open accessible channels to capital, knowing their children’s welfare motivates their long-term vision.

Success as they define it takes as long as it takes; some achieve breakthroughs, others fail and must try again. Both outcomes have to inform the patience and quality of assistance.

It’s the group we must elevate, enabling them to build both social capital and access to capital – without draconian conditions.

We have an effective way to assist this mighty transition:  the Women’s Center. With this foundation, we can let go of that nagging sense of impermanence when we witness their resilience.

The Gold in the Hills

Spent a couple of days cruising around Placer, Amador and Calaveras counties, the Sierra foothills area known as “Gold Country” in California.

Placerville hosts a serious homeless encampment; first time I’ve seen a camp that bags its trash and sets it out for collection. Judging by the size of the trash-bag mound, it’s been a long time since anybody came to collect. 

All the big retailers seem to be doing brisk business. The historic downtown areas and just-outside-of-town strip malls show/hide empty storefronts.

We passed a closed-up store with a sign ”Carole’s Chocolate Lounge.”  The images conjured may propel the only entrepreneurial aspiration I need going forward.

Lotta Trump signage here. I wonder if the CA Republicans paid for all the flashy banners along the road. Not many people wear masks.

I had not watched any TV since the last real (2019) baseball season. The commercials seem obsessed with making home, clothes, cars and pets smell good.

My unwillingness to be interrupted constantly while viewing a show made for short night of TV.  So pleased to see a pregnant weather lady!

We hiked around to a few prospecting sites on the Silver Fork of the American River, the Mokelumne River, Woods Creek, and the Stanislaus River. All refreshingly cold and clear. Just a fleck of gold for the effort.

Route 49 – a two-lane blacktop connecting the towns of Placerville and Sonora – is as smooth as a dance floor.  However, the tiny towns strewn along it evidently have barely enough people to bother with a main street or even an official building in decent repair. A few have gone ‘agri-burb’ with Tractor Supply Depots and auto parts stores and Subway, McD’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Starbucks – all with drive through service.

The Railtown 1897 State Historical Park was a sweet find on a day when virtually no one else showed up.  Dozens of vintage rail cars and locomotives, most made ‘back East’ and shipped to California. It’s the oldest continually operating rail roundhouse in the States. Thousands of iron parts stacked about – relics of a time when transport was huge and heavy.

Resting tonight near Jackass Hill, where a depressed Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain took refuge with some unusual friends during his sojourn of escape in Calaveras County.    

Memorable places:

Pope’s Beach on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Copses of pine trees grow across the beach almost to the water’s edge.  Sandy bottom as far as I could see.

Route 50 into S. Lake Tahoe – the muscular rock faces take my breath away.

Knight’s Ferry, empty like a set from a post-apocalypse film;

The ice cream store Yummie Ha Ha in Angel’s Camp;

Route 108 between Sonora and Oakdale – rolling hills of black oaks pleasingly socially distanced amid tawny dry-grass meadows, a landscape that makes me feel unreasonable smitten. As if the land itself could be my lover.

The weeds and grasses have gone frowzy, effortlessly scattering their seeds in the breeze. A place not anything like Oakland, tawdry with trash and graffiti.

Aimless on the road, drifting through the day – what could be more golden?

Evolution in the Time of Contagion

I could not imagine a more ruthless way to reset the human condition – on every level – than a pandemic.   We’re in collective shock at the refashioning of our way of life. We’ve had to adapt to new protocols for touching, congregating, cleaning, debt payment, shopping, helping, isolation.

Nature has sent us all to our rooms (literally) to ruminate about what we have done – or not done –  for our world. All of us together have a unique opportunity to re-think EVERYTHING. To EVOLVE.relax_w

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) notes improvements in air quality in China and Italy, because so few vehicles are on the road and in the skies. The pattern may repeat in the wake of country lockdowns. But, the WMO emphasizes, these improvements do not get us off the hook for committed action on climate change.

The Secretary General of UN called for a global cease fire, a halt to nine major wars, seventeen minor wars, and nineteen “skirmishes” that afflict millions of people.  Could we help peace hold indefinitely, even when supply lines become stable again? Could the weapons economy be redirected into the health of our children and planning for future pandemics?

Will we learn to follow intelligent rules for civic behavior in crisis situations, knowing that each of us has a responsibility to all of us.

Can we think again and deeply about reining in our consumer ways, not gobbling up resources but spreading our wealth to those that suffer intractable poverty?

Will corporations extend their current crisis-inspired largesse to ongoing funding that solves pressing problems in their communities?

Will communities of faith shelter and serve the homeless where governments have not – until everyone has a home?

Can we empty prisons with a better solutions?

The pandemic is the most dramatic  ‘pause’ we have ever confronted. Will we use the time to make hard-learned lessons stick? Will we inject new energy into tattered dreams of a peaceful prosperous future for everyone?

Many of us now have the time to re-imagine our world as a place inhabited with grace, intelligence, and compassion.

That ought to become a new definition of heroism.


Trouble Ahead – My New Book


Amazing, the response I’m getting to my new book Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Mission with Desperate People.

One colleague said he picked it up and never stopped reading. I do like to tell a good story.

This book was one of the most demanding writing projects I’ve done. I’m proud of all I’ve accomplished in my many missions in Africa, with the tools I could marshal at the time. Of Particular note is the wonderful vibrancy of Baraka Women’s Center, the first Center WCI created in Nairobi, Kenya, and worth every trip it required.

Read my book! 25% of sales support the important work of Women’s Centers International. And please review on my book site.  Every good word helps!

Hella West Oakland

Every morning when if bike or drive to work – about a two-mile distance – I’m struck by the shift of energy between my neighborhood and where I work.

My neighborhood is mostly apartments, with single-family houses here and there. I’m noticing  a weird uptick in crime in the area, everything from police-involved homicides to smash-and-grab among the vehicles that line every street. The task of finding a parking space within a one-block radius of home diminishes exponentially as afternoon becomes night. At various times, often at the end of the month, sidewalks sprout all the unwanted sofas, chairs and futons of my neighbors. Occasionally, some moron tags the furniture, rendering it useless because the tag is not even remotely artistic.

On my street, are a halfway house for formerly incarcerated and a home for mentally handicapped adults. Lots of dogs walk their owners in the morning. We do duck-duck-goose for parking every month on the second and fourth Mondays and Tuesdays  when street cleaning is done one surfaces in a dramatic state of decay. Between potholes and railroad spurs, it’s gotten dangerous to ride a bike (not even counting the unpredictability of motorists).

Things randomly go bang and boom in the night. In the wee hours,I hear trains howling in the distance. A family of blonde raccoons lives on the garage roof in a mini-jungle of ivy. My neighbors sometimes argue loudly, one verbally abuses her mother, the couple across the driveway takes showers together (leaving the frosted chest-high window open), and sometime a very creepy missing person case or suicide occurs. I do not feel threatened. I’m observant during my movements outside, and have rehearsed my response to various human calamities. An interesting use of mental energy.

I ride down Vernon St to its dead-end at 27th St, the corner home of the Whole Foods evil empire. Site of a security guard’s recent bloody assault on a young black man. Never heard the whole story… altercation…escalation…bloody-photo ‘journalism’ but I hope the dude has the presence of mind and sufficient grounds to sue the bloody bastards.

Middle-school kids from a private school lay siege to the 7-11 at Harrison (across the street from Whole Foods). Buying junk food, talking trash.

On past the Broadway Auto Row Dealerships, where the street sign has been altered to read ‘Bro Way.’ Past the Humanist Church that’s felt the wrath of neighbors – hence the City – for hosting loud events that don’t end till 11 or so.

At San Pablo, I begin viewing of the ass-end of Oakland. A check-cashing store with an old Cadillac always parked in the lot; a miserable little Asian meat market, its public phone reduced to depositary for garbage. A few blocks south, drug dealers and prostitutes own this street. Four blocks north is the scariest corner of W Oakland: St Andrew’s Plaza, one of Oakland’s smallest parks, and much-debated home of a group of drug-addled or traumatized homeless persons. DoNut Shop on the corner. St. Mary’s Center for the elderly (among other services) across the street. Not much else.

27th St vanishes at Market. The City settled with calling it 26th St. A grocery on the corner run by Middle-Easterners or Pakistanis features a big hand-painted sign for “Fried Chicken.” The kids from McClymonds High School hang here after school, packed together smoking weed, loudly calling each other ‘nigger’ or ‘bitch.’ Eating junk food, throwing the wrappers in the street.

From here on, random piles of garbage appear like a plague of pustules. The small neglected MyClymonds Mini-Park, consumes a corner lot across from a complex of Section 8 housing. The climbing equipment is faded and worn, the grass always a bit ragged.

Down another block,  a new private school for ages 4-8. Clean and neat as you please, but of hideous architecture, like an unholy mating of shipping container and airport terminal. Golden-Gate-Bridge red with bright yellow trim. Fortunately, the happy noise of children playing escapes the metal gates.

WCI’s office and Oakland Women’s Center is a block-and-a-half away. Katy-corner across the street is a mental health clinic. Occasional site of raving and arguments. People off their meds.

Furry Beetle
Beetle on the block by the office

Directly across the street to the south is the Coast Sausage Company, a massive derelict two-story building that’s been abandoned for years. Seems the City decided to sue the owner. He came and removed truckloads of construction debris, garbage, household effluvia – and several squatting homeless people. Every Monday, I’m eager to see who’s winning – the taggers or the owner. Dozens of coats of paint have been applied during their ongoing match: red brick paint vs. tacky graffiti. This week, several new trash heaps restore the site to its former ingloriousness.

The women calling and coming to the Oakland Women’s Center present an incredible array of problems, histories and personal foibles. Takes me a while to make sense of it all. Never dull.

Meanwhile, the Baraka Center saga would be the stuff of telenovelas if it were not so drenched in the mean-spiritedness of one person. He released another tirade today with the subject line “Grow Up Racist Pig.” I skim but turn away from his vitriol. One of the great mysteries of relationships draws from the dark side of humans – when, not if, it will emerge – and will it destroy all that the good side has wrought?

Some insights about race and poverty. Posting here soon.