S. and I met in his office, comfortably but narrowly fitted between books, files, souvenirs, photos of his family, and plants. Born 1947, Massachusetts.
When I went to college in the mid-60s, I was aware of alternative lifestyles and the hippie movement, but it wasn’t until I graduated in ‘68 that I ever really did anything out of the ordinary. I did spend a couple of summers working in social service areas -- I was aware of the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam war -- I went to a few demonstrations while I was in college. Several midnight trips to Washington D.C. on buses. It was when I got out of college and entered the Vista program that I began to see things in a different way. All the males were under a great deal of pressure because of the draft, and Vista seemed a good alternative at the time, to give myself time to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and also to be of use to someone else, and at the same to avoid being drafted into a war I knew I didn’t want to participate in. I knew the war was the wrong thing. I applied for conscientious objector status, which was denied to me. Regardless, I was always totally against the war. We had quite a lot of discussion about it on campus, several professors were adamantly opposed, and they really encouraged us to think about it.
In my experience, marijuana wasn’t really prevalent at the college I went to, as much as alcohol. Drinking age was 18, and liquor was available and prevalent.
I had a vague idea of becoming a social worker, and I also wanted to use the language I had studied - Spanish -- some clear ideas of using language somehow. My family had owned a retail merchandise store, and that was the farthest thing from my mind, because my dad had spent his live slaving at that store, and that was a model I didn’t want to follow. He spent no time with his family. our relationship was always strained because he was working and he demanded that his children, regardless of what else they had planned, come and help him at the store. It was something I wanted to steer clear of. My dad was a very fine person, but one of my greatest regrets today is that I didn’t really get to know him. He died when I was 22. All thru those years when I was growing up, he was a wonderful provider, loyal to my mom, perfect as a father in almost every way, except he was driven to work. He did not spend time with his kids, or show us the value of a father/child relationship from the perspective of just spending time with us. That left a big hole.
At the time I served in Vista, there was a tremendous political upheaval in Chicago. It was the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago. There were all sorts of ethnic groups there, Indians, Puerto Ricans, hillbillies from the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky who had come to Chicago to work after World War II and their children were my age and they would spend the week in the city and then take off for the mountains on the weekend and even they were politicized to some extent. There were poor people’s coalitions, welfare recipients coalitions, blacks, Puerto Ricans, every variety of human being active in some kind of organization, and that was the world that swallowed me up in ‘68, ‘70. The first year I worked in a mental health project in a very poor area of Chicago -- that’s where I met my wife. We were both Vista volunteers-- and in fact we had grown up 25 miles from each other, but met in Chicago -- very odd.
The mental health project where we worked there were a lot of chronically mentally ill who had been dislodged from the state mental hospitals and put into halfway houses, these old converted hotels, packed three to a room. The owners got a lot of money out of it. Our job was to re-integrate them into the community, provide them with activities, socialize them and do whatever we could to increase the chance that they wouldn’t be sent back to the state hospital. One woman had been on the wards of the state hospital for 40-50 years because she was crippled, and in those days, if you had someone who couldn’t walk, it was just as easy to put them in a sanitarium as to try to provide for them at home. and the surprising thing about her was that she was mentally clear, able to function and think, despite having been put in that hospital for all that time. She actually got her civil rights back and moved into her own apartment, and accessed social services that she needed. It was kind of fun to get to know her. I have an old Studs Terkel newspaper article that was written about her.
The 2nd year I worked in a much more political environment. There was a group called Uptown Coalition in that area of Chicago and they were trying to make improvement in the living conditions of the people there, and the project I worked on was a housing project. We were fighting urban removal by trying to determine who owned some of the huge apartment buildings there. The idea was that if we could get in touch with the owners and get them to consider selling to this coalition, then the coalition would encourage cooperative development in these buildings, give the tenants a sense of ownership. It was pretty much a failure. We did a lot of title research. There was a lot of conflict between the lower income people fighting for a little piece of the pie.
From there I went to California, looking for L. I spent a lot of time in Venice Beach. I didn’t work for awhile. I had never lived in California before, and the scene seemed like a permanent vacation. I ended up coming back to Boston to try to go to graduate school in social work, but I just couldn’t get myself to concentrate. I wanted to be of some help in society -- I didn’t want to forever be a beach bum, and I’d grown up in Boston and knew that the school of social work at Boston College was just a stone’s throw from the house I’d grown up in. But after a semester I left again. I was mildly interested in health reform and community health programs, had taken a few courses in California and had volunteered at a free health clinic, making myself useful.
I went back to California and L and I ended up in San Francisco together - ‘73 or so. I did these little jobs driving a truck around San Francisco. I put an ad in the paper that said man needs work, survival at stake, do anything -- all sorts of crazy people called me to do odd jobs. I wasn’t that great with my hands, but I could do rough stuff, moving things, fixing little things. and that’s when our daughter was born. Then I got a little more serious about things, realized I had a child to support. We moved to southern California to be closer to L’s sisters who were living there, and I got a job at a community college, and started thinking more seriously about grad school and health educ. I was working as an aide. We left there because L’s brother had a kidney transplant back in Massachusetts.
Coming back to California from Massachusetts afterwards, we stopped in Russellville Arkansas. Some friends of ours, who we’d met as Vista volunteers in Chicago, had moved to a community on the Mulberry River. I was told a whole group of people from Chicago moved down to live the country life and start a school for city kids, removed from all the urban pressures. I don’t think the Mulberry Farm project lasted too long. The people scattered to different parts of Arkansas. Our friends ended up in Russellville We stayed because the job I had in California evaporated, the mental health center in Russellville had just opened with a huge Mental Health Institute grant, and they were pulling people off the street to work there. My friend said given your situation, why don’t you go over there and see if you can get a job for a little while, save up some money, and decide where you want to go. I was interested in mental health, and when I went to the center, a lot of good people were working there, and they had the best interests of the area population at heart, and I got a job.
I’ll always remember seeing Russellville for the first time - the day after Richard Nixon resigned -- August. the humidity was so intense and it was so hot, I thought you could easily fry an egg on the street, and the city looked like a set for a movie, for ‘Last Picture Show’ a sleepy little town. I mean, the town didn’t attract me, it was the people I was meeting. Little did I know that the Ozark National Forest was just north of Russellville, that these gorgeous areas – beautiful creeks and waterfalls, camping areas, trails – were up there, and virtually nobody used them. I was amazed. I guess back then, and maybe it’s still true, it gets real hot in July and August, and people stay inside. So there was this whole world you could have to yourself, and it was just beautiful. It was the scenery that really attracted me. Every second we got, we’d drive up to recreation areas and explore. And we met people who were living in the country, and started building friendships, which made it a lot more attractive to stay.
I realized that people were so stigmatized by coming into a mental center and being considered crazy or emotionally disturbed that what was really lacking was some kind of healthy environment where people could come without that stigma and be accepted, interact with other people, and so the idea of starting a free school there in Russellville helped as an alternative. People were coming for day appointments and not being integrated into the community, being treated for a disturbance but not offered an alternative to isolation. I had been driving back and forth between Russellville and Little Rock to meet people on the wards of the state hospital who would be released back into the Russellville area and my job was to introduce them into the health center and its services, be a bridge between people who had ended up in the state mental hospital with very severe problems.
The free school developed to encourage anyone who wanted to teach a course or lead a class to do so and encourage others to sign up for these classes under the umbrella of the mental health center. We formed a little board, and twice a year or so we’d have a catalog of courses and it was wonderful. Even some of the people we considered patients offered to teach classes in cake decorating -- no one knew who was a mental health patient. You might walk into a Chinese cooking class -- ten people in the kitchen learning to do this -- and you might have a bank president there and somebody who just got released from the state hospital -- and nobody knew. All of the status and stigma was gone. It was really neat.
This was at the beginning of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and they put money into it. Ultimately I got a salary to do just that, and while I was doing that, a guy came by who was a professor from Fayetteville, who taught adult education courses at UALR. We talked and he said, there is a whole academic, scholarly interest in adult education/community education that you fit into, and if you’re ever interested in taking a course to learn more about what other people are doing, or if you want to work toward a degree, I teach this course... and that’s when I started learning more about adult/community education. I started working toward a grad degree in adult education. Ultimately, we moved to Fayetteville so I could finish this degree, and my wife could position herself to be able to go to El Paso to study at a maternity center to be a midwife.
I was interested in how adults process information, how they learn, what they do with it. I saw myself as someone who could be a resource for other people, maybe give people ideas and help them develop them wherever they were. It wasn’t a precise vision. but intellectually, I was interested in adult learning. I wanted to get the degree out of the way and see where I went from there.
Having kids was one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me. As a parent and a father, I wanted to do it in a way that would help and my kids at the same time, maybe make up for the relationship I didn’t have with my dad. I loved being with kids. It turned me into a story teller. You’d sit there and try to entertain them with a story, and soon, you’re making up stories and other people say, hey, that’s a good story.
When it came to the point where we had both finished school and we had to decide where we were going, we decided Fayetteville was a nice place, a great little town. I got a job at the Economic Opportunity Agenda as a CETA worker -- helping low income people train for employment. A few months after I started work there, the woman who had hired me quit -- she had been the planner, wrote grants, did community organizing work, submitted reports. She said, you could do this. So I became the planner at EOA. I had no idea about what a community action agency was, where these things came from, even though they were part of the same poverty program that developed Vista. I learned about Headstart, job training programs, battered women’s shelter, children’s house, weatherization -- all these things that had sprung out of the EOA - farmers market - a lot of things had sprung up and become independent. EOA was a clearinghouse for ideas people had for economic development projects, community action, facing problems. Staff was supposed to work with local people to empower them. That was the original idea behind community action - a ‘60s idea - Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.
I was really interested in the principles of community organization, where a person in a position like mine could talk with different groups of people and say what is it that needs to be done, let me be of help in focusing on what the problem is and how we might bring resources to bear to solve it -- human and financial resources. I got involved in a project at Winslow to help people decide what their priorities were and how to get there. They had a cannery -- several other projects -- it was wonderful to go down there and talk to people and participate in meetings and get involved in the life of the community, addressing different problems. Did the same thing in Johnson.
Then in south Fayetteville, I got involved in bringing people together, doing surveys of the needs. We formed an organization, the SE Fayetteville Community Action Committee. The first few projects were small, putting the city to put a footbridge over this creek so kids didn’t have to dip down into the creek to get to school. The city built a sidewalk along south Washington to Jefferson Elementary school - we did housepainting projects for elderly people and then along came a doctor who was working at the health dept. She heard about our organization and she said they’re a lot of health needs that are not being met, a lot of people falling through the cracks, the health dept is very limited on what it can do -- the dr’s don’t want to see these people because they have no health insurance. So this doctor, who had come from West Virginia, said if we would provide the building, solicit volunteers, get equipment, I’ll be the doctor, if you want to work with me to develop a free health center. That was the beginning of what became the NWA Health and Dental Clinic, which is a very viable organization. It followed community organization principles: you go to people, you talk about what they see as being needs, ask them to come together and talk about it as a group, build a sense of community, and then whatever people want to do, whatever they identify as an issue or problem, you help them to work on it. and at the same time, the group becomes kind of a political force.
I moved up thru the ranks at EOA. I became the director in ‘85, and I was doing a little of everything. I did that for 5 yars, but I never really liked it. It took me away from the front line work that I was used to doing -- I didn’t like not having my own project. I needed something I could call my own. I wasn’t much of an authority figure, and I never felt that comfortable doing it. Early on, we had been asked to do a survey by our main funding source on the needs of people in Washington County. That’s when the idea of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund came through. People gave me very common sense responses to the survey -- what do you do about poverty? help people get education and help them train for jobs. I was educated about the needs of women and children by talking with people who were working directly with single parents -- vo-tech, welfare department, anyone who had contact with single mothers -- and the occasional single father.
I came back to the realization that there are people in society who are almost invisible, who you could see at the grocery store with food stamps, buying food, see walking alone the street with little kids, having no transportation, you could see them in the welfare department waiting to see a social worker, but you never really know what’s going on in their lives because you’re not part of that world. And that awareness of what women go thru when their husbands leave them and don’t give them child support, don’t come and pay any attention to the kids, especially women who don’t have an education, don’t have work experience to be able to fend for herself. In talking with other people, I realized there are all these local services out there -- my eyes suddenly opened and I saw all these women coming into EOA and asking for food, utility payments, rent, every immediate crisis -- I really wanted to know what could be done over the long haul to help women so that they wouldn’t have to beg, so they wouldn’t be in this very embarrassing situation and having to find money. They were powerless.
If you have a bunch of kids and you don’t have money or family that can help and the father is not around, what do you do? You can battle the system, but I’m not sure you make enough progress just taking on the whole system that puts people in those situations. You have a lot more success with the individual, building her ability and skills to deal with the world at large, and then, incrementally, in different institutions within the system. One thing we had to immediately deal with when we started the scholarship fund was the food stamp program. Soon as you gave a scholarship to someone and that money was reported to the food stamp authorities, in that month that they got a check for $300 or whatever, they’d yank the food stamps. And why on earth would someone apply for a scholarship if she knew she was going to lose a very important part of her ability to feed her family. So we marched down to Little Rock and talked to this guy in charge of the food stamp program. Look, this makes no sense at all, to penalize someone for wanting to better herself, and discourage her from doing what she needs to do. He said, you’re right, it makes no sense at all. He figured out a way to get around that Catch-22. It was merely a matter of taking a problem and figuring out who you can talk to in a sensible way. I don’t know if it’s chutzpah on my part, or just a sense that we’re all reasonable, rational people, now let’s talk about these problems that we’ve created -- now let’s do something about it.
We did the single parent scholarship fund project for several years before I decided this was something I wanted to work on full time. I went to Bernise Jones, our matron saint, and said if she would be willing to put some money up to cover a salary and travel expenses and few other incidentals for a year, I would be willing to throw myself into an effort to develop a statewide network of single parent scholarship funds, what we had done very successfully in Washington and Benton counties, to see if the rest of the state would work with us. And she did.
So since May ‘90, we’ve been working statewide. It’s hard to take something created here, where we’re very fortunate to have such a community that values education, is concerned and caring about its people, and has the affluence to put resources where they can do a lot of good. You go across the state to some of the Delta areas, or southwest Arkansas, and you don’t find anywhere near the same attitude toward people, education, or optimism. Their economy is completely different.
There’s the whole racial thing in other parts of the state. When I’ve been in the delta, I’ve realized that underlying everything is this issue. People may not talk about it, but it’s there. When you try to bring people together, blacks and whites, they’re not used to working together. So it either becomes an all white thing, or an all black thing. In one county, people north of the river wouldn’t work with people south of the river -- an inheritance from before the Civil War! It’s incredible. In some places, it’s seen as another handout. They assign a lot of blame. But it’s been interesting, going around the state and meeting people who view things in different ways.
But there have been those who view things in similar ways, and in those counties we’ve been very successful. We started this program thinking that if each county starts a scholarship fund like we have, and they have leadership that is taking responsibility for it and ownership of it, then that’s what we should be building -- their ownership, their empowerment, their acceptance of this project as their own. So we offer matching grants to them, and they have to qualify by raising their part. When they do that, they get a lot of people involved in the scholarship program. Maybe some of these will be self-sustaining someday. We’d like to be just a support system.
There is a lot of interest in welfare reform among all these groups. But you have to understand that not all these groups sprang out of nothing. It might be part of an organization that does a lot of other things at the same time. For those people who work within the system -- the clients -- they are being encouraged and forced into low paying jobs -- they don’t have the education -- that’s what they qualify for. Whether they can move up within those employment situations, I don’t know. A lot of people have been scared off welfare entirely. The rules keep changing, discouragements are there rather than encouragement, like to go to school -- and for our students, many of them think, why do I need welfare -- they’re telling me to get off welfare -- I’ll just go get a job, I won’t have to bother with all their regulations. And for those who have been in school, dependent on welfare to get them through school, if they give up school, and go into these jobs, they may be in that situation all their lives.
I got involved in this TEA coalition, the welfare reform local constituencies the state is saying, come up with new ideas and there’ll still be money - Transitional Employment Assistance -- a new acronym for AFDC, with the emphasis on work. I participated in an effort to write, design a new program, which they’re calling the diploma project, asking for state funding, as opposed to federal and state funding, so that the person who qualifies for TEA won’t have to go to work. She can stay in school, get all her benefits -- monthly stipend, food stamps, medicaid, child care assistance, etc. -- as long as she is career focused, making progress in her education, maintaining a certain grade point average -- and she won’t have to go do those 25 hours of work. According to welfare regulations now, there’s a rule that you have to work at least 25 hours a week to keep this stipend - federal -- and Washington County adds another 5 hours a week -- all built in to get rid of people on the dole. And women with kids is the largest single group of poor people in this country.
I don’t know if there is anything anyone can do about the trend in society where families are not staying together -- for a variety of reasons. I cannot personally understand -- because of how I grew up in a very close knit family with a father who was very responsible, and I feel like I have been a responsible parent/father myself, and with a very deep love and affection for my children. And when I hear about men who just abandon their families, they don’t visit their children, they don’t do anything financially, emotionally, to care for the children that they have played a role in bringing to life, it’s just beyond me. I don’t understand how they could do that. I think if you grew up without the love of a parent or enough love or attention, as a male, and you’re not made to feel that people love you and you can love back, then it would be a lot easier when you become a parent to completely disregard your children and your wife. Otherwise, you would feel that emotion, that responsibility, toward the people that are closest to you.
We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries over the years, dozens of people, who have said ‘gee, I’ve heard about your program, how can I get something started in Kansas, Missouri, California, wherever -- but I’ve never heard one word from those people after we’ve told them how we got started and what it takes to open a program like this. I think just the intensity of fund raising and organizing and committee work and everything it takes to do this successfully puts people off. It’s like, where’s the big grant? I would think that people in other states would be able to do this kind of thing, if they just gave it a little thought. If there is something like this somewhere else, I never heard about it.
Every so often we’ll get some kind of communication from Hillary Clinton’s office. She was our founding board president in our state program when she was in Little Rock, until ‘92. She was very helpful. Every so often, she’ll send us a note and say would you please send info to so and so, or what do you think about doing something on a national level. We haven’t even got all the counties in Arkansas to do this thing. Out of 75 counties, we’ve only got 48. It’s too grandiose to think of going off to who knows where to tell other people to do it when we haven’t completed the job here. And it comes down to time. Time is a very precious commodity, and the more you’re off doing something with people out of state, traveling, on the phone, writing letters, or whatever, the less you’re doing in your own area.
I see programs like Habitat for Humanity springing up, and I have lots of respect for people in that program, and things like it. I think of the old barn raising concept when I think of the houses they build, or scholarships being given, because everybody has a role in it. Then, after someone gets educated, or you’ve helped someone build a house, you can see the results, and feel a sense -- I participated. I get a lot of reward for doing this sort of thing. I think we have accomplished something here.
Every time I get something like this graduation announcement, I think all right, she did it. she got there. And every time I’m out somewhere and run into someone we’ve helped who is working in a hospital or a bank or teaching, -- we have a professor at the university, by the way -- one of our scholarship recipients in the mid-80s -- 9th grade dropout, GED -- went and got her doctorate in sociology and is teaching at the university. You meet people like this and see them in their environment, and think -- it’s worth it. It works.
I think that the social movements that occurred in the ‘50s and ‘60s -- civil rights movements, the war – had a lot to do with the social consciousness that the ‘60s generation seems to hold. But I also think a lot of us who grew up in prosperity realized that there’s more to life than just making money and accumulating possessions and living in the suburbs and driving big cars and spending the weekend at the country club. I think we saw our parents as extremely hardworking but upwardly mobile people who accumulated things in order to assure themselves that they were ok -- and we didn’t need to do that because it was all before us. In a sense, it’s an intellectual rejection of materialism. We had it. And therefore we had the luxury of rejecting it. If you don’t have it, you want it all that much more. But if you’ve been educated in a liberal arts way and you’ve had the advantages of parents working very hard to join the middle class, giving you what you needed, then you can look at your own life and say, well, what can I do to make this life meaningful? If you’re lucky enough to marry somebody, to live with someone who shares those values, you can do it together -- make a life for yourselves together that provides the basic needs but also allows you to give it back. And if there are people at the lower end of the economic ladder who need people like us who have things to offer, then you’ve got opportunity to be of service.
The wealth of my upbringing had translated into a good education, a brain, an ethic, to be able to do this. We live in such an affluent, resource-filled society, that you can find a niche for yourself somewhere -- it’s not like India, where there’s a tiny, extremely affluent group, and a huge underclass. If you wake up in the morning and you’re happy, happy to see the sun rise, happy to see your wife or husband lying next to you, happy to be doing what the day promises for you, then I guess you’re in a good place, you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. I feel extremely fortunate to have found a place like Fayetteville where so many wonderful people of such a diverse nature -- people from everywhere else seem to have collected here. I’ve heard someone describe it as a national chakra, a national energy center.