Keeping a grassroots group together when everyone feels out of place
by BK LOREN
I’M STANDING IN MY DRIVEWAY on a spit-freezing cold morning, waving my mittened hand to a friend who has declined to join me. “No one in this neighborhood’s going to listen to you,” she yells through the fog.
I shrug. “I’ll be back by dark.” And I step into the frothy jaws of the suburban winter. Within a few strides I’m standing by a mailbox I see everyday but have tried to ignore. It’s candy-apple purple with red flames swooshing back toward the house—the kind of design you see on hot rods. Parked on the lawn beside a stack of worn tires is a Chevy truck draped with bumper stickers: I AM THE NRA, RUSH IS RIGHT, and so on. My friend’s voice rings in my ears. Just then, I see some movement to my left.
“You think he looks good here?” a woman asks.
The man to whom she is speaking ponders the life-sized Rudolph at the head of Santa’s sleigh. He sets his baby Jesus down on top of Santa’s gift bag to help secure Rudolph’s ties.
“Excuse me,” I call out toward Santa. “Do you know about the plans to build a SuperTarget and HyperMart?”
They look at me through the haze.
“On the land behind our houses…the old apple orchards and ponds?”
“Asshole!” the guy says.
About now I’m thinking of hot cocoa, fireplaces, and moving to another city.
The man walks toward me. “I met that asshole. He’s tryin’ a sell us a bag a bullshit.”
“I…I have some letters, a petition against it.”
He drops Rudolph cold. I hold out my pen, jittery with thanks. “If you could both sign, and maybe jot a note in your own words, make it more individual.”
I hear the pen scratching, then he shoves the clipboard in my direction. “This is OUR town,” he’s written, underlining it about ten times.
His note hits the nail on the head. In order to Target our neighborhood, this developer must override the Comprehensive Land Use Plan—the single document created by city offcials and residents in concert. It states that this land should never be used for retail. I’m out here going door to door because I believe the collective voice of the citizens should not be silenced by a nonresident whose annual income trumps ours by a few million.
“What’re you gonna do with them papers?” the man asks.
“Deliver them to city council. Maybe organize a group.”
“You name the place and time, we’ll be there.” He shakes my hand. I wave goodbye through the maze of lights and plastic figurines and run back home.
“It’s great. You should come along,” I beg my friend.
My excitement gets to her and she joins me.
Next house. A stout man wearing perma-seamed slacks, white shirt, necktie. If it weren’t for his slippers, I’d think he was on his way to work. I smile. “Morning! You heard about the plans for the SuperTarget?”
“On the land where the ponds are.” I position the clipboard so it will slide easily into his hand.
“I don’t care,” he says. And he shuts the door.
My friend goes home to her hot cocoa. When I return that evening, though, she flips through the letters, surprised. “You got all these signed?”
I nod. “And this is the list of volunteers.”
UP TO THIS TIME, my only attempt at civic duty had been to attend a few “COG” (Community Organized Government) meetings. At my first COG, five people attended, three of them city employees. My fellow attendee was mainly concerned about how he could keep kids from setting his fence posts on fire.
At the next COG it was just the city volunteer coordinator and me. She had a projector and we watched a movie about the problem of Canada geese in the area. I learned some nifty tips about how to keep them from defecating willy-nilly on my lawn.
Recalling these vibrant evenings, I feared my list of volunteers might be so many empty promises. Against my better judgment, I rented a conference room, capacity 300, in a hotel. My workouts that week consisted of running from door to door, delivering fliers that announced the gathering.
I arrived that night just before it was time to start. It was not a bad showing: about twenty-five people, sitting at great distances from one another. I introduced myself and began. People trickled in as I spoke. They trickled and trickled. Thirty minutes later there was standing room only.
I was nervous and excited. “We need a volunteer for community actions leader, someone who can set up eye-catching booths, stuff like that,” I said.
A hand shot up. “Me and the missus could do that,” said Silas, the fellow with the holiday lawn display.
The momentum continued. I ticked down the list of task forces needed—legal research, fundraising, media relations, city relations, planning liaison, etc.—and soon we had ten task-force leaders and a dozen or so people on each team. At the end of the meeting, we brainstormed and planned for our first organizational meeting.
For several days afterward, I tried to figure out why so many people had shown up that evening. There was no precedent for it. Our neck of the woods is known locally as outletville. The indoor mall brims with ninety-nine-cent stores, wholesale clubs, and those new “security” stores that sell mace, brass knuckles, and a variety of small knives. People here are generally working toward moving out of the area, not coming together.
It’s true I’m out of place here—probably the only person who voted Nader/LaDuke—but everyone else is out of place, too. There’s scarcely a common thread between us, except this: we’re buffered from endless strip malls and a twenty-four-plex theater by the 108-acre tract of land that is now at risk. Deer, herons, bald eagles, ibis, and fox live here. The property hooks up circuitously with miles of open country, a narrow paradise gasping beneath the wide Colorado sky, snaking all the way up to the Rocky Mountains. Aside from its beauty, this land offers the only occasion I’ve ever had to talk to my neighbors. People walk their dogs there. They fish in the ponds. Silas stables his horse at the old pony farm that will be condemned if this project is allowed to go through.
In any other situation, the leaders who came that night—a gay couple, a former Black Panther who is now a conservative Republican, two college kids, a Hmong couple, a right-wing Libertarian, a born-again Christian, and a handful of liberal-leaning Democrats—would never have gathered under one roof. If diversity’s what it’s all about, then our neighborhood is all that and a bag of chips. But without a shared sense of purpose, diversity spells conflict and isolation, not opportunity. I figure that tract of land is what brought us together. None of us is about to give that up.
THE GROUP AGREES TO MEET after the holidays. In the interim we’re all supposed to do a little research. My job is to sign us up for a city council meeting. That’s easy. One phone call, it’s done. I e-mail the group and ask them to prepare. My e-mail, however, crosses with an incoming note from the city clerk. “I’m sorry. We have to delete you from the agenda.” Furthermore, she says, “No one from your group will be allowed, under any circumstances, to address your elected officials concerning this matter.”
This lights a fire under our melting pot. “It’s unconstitutional,” says Silas.
“Gag order,” says John, the former Black Panther. But after several meetings with the city attorney, we feel powerless. The city is within the law. In Colorado, if there’s a public land dispute between two “groups” (in this case, the developer’s corporation and our grassroots group), the case becomes a trial and the city councilors become judges. If a judge hears “testimony” a priori, that testimony (i.e., the voice of our group) will be thrown out. Furthermore, if we wish to hold public meetings, we must, by law, invite the developer. Otherwise we’ll have an “ex parte” meeting, which—you guessed it—turns us mute at the public hearing.
I take this as my first occasion to contact the press. “Sure, that’s the law, but most city councils don’t opt to employ it,” says the reporter. Off the bat, our city is playing hard ball.
OUR FIRST OFFICIAL MEETING AS AN ORGANIZATION takes place at my house, and we learn some other sobering facts. “The average amount of retail in most cities is twenty-five square feet per person,” says Donna. “You know what it is here? Fifty-three square feet per person. Lucky us. We have an extra two-car garage"s worth of shopping opportunities for every man, woman, and child.”
Silas’s findings add more. He flips through paperwork, then reads aloud, “Better’n seventeen percent a’ them stores stand empty. Look at this chart. We been on a steady decline in retail success since 1998.”
“How can the city think we need more new stores?” asks Celia.
Sadly, we all know the answer. Cities east of the Mississippi have a much better chance at fending off excess commercial development than we do because, in general, eastern cities gain their greatest revenue from property taxes. In the West, it’s retail taxes that hum the number. City offcials are bound to respond more favorably to commercial developers who actually bring in revenue than to citizens who drop very little cash into city coffers.
We also learn that keeping a grassroots group together takes a lot of work. It’s pretty easy to sign a piece of paper saying we all oppose the development. But it’s another matter for people who have never had reason to talk to one another to sit together in one room and focus on a common goal. A typical meeting goes like this: Cherry has recently resigned from her job because her colleagues were “too abrupt” with her. One of them, she says, actually said to her, “Shut up!”
“I mean, I don’t have to take that, do I?”
Everyone shakes their heads, no.
“I’m divorced. I have two kids.”
“You did the right thing.”
I place my hand on Cherry’s hand and smile. “Okay. Do you think we should tape the fliers to the doors, or just tuck them?”
“Because, that woman, my co-worker, she had it out for me. I’m good at what I do. I’m a good worker. Aren’t I?”
She pauses. I begin to speak.
“And I’m bringing up two boys. I’m divorced. Bringing them up alone.”
Oh, no, I missed again. The others are tremendously patient. “Yes,” the whole group says, in harmony.
“Because, you know, he doesn’t give them tough love and I do, and they don’t like it much, but it’s better, don’t you think it’s better?”
“Oh, yes. Tough love,” someone replies.
Cherry pauses again. I know I have to speak, speak now, say something, anything, except “Shut up!” which is oh-so-perched on my taste buds, but I swallow it and say, “Do you think we should use tape?”
Cherry looks lost. She takes a deep breath as if to talk again, and John jumps right in. “Tape, yes, good. Tape!”
One issue down. How many to go?
The meetings go on like this, month after month. While discovering our strengths, we learn everyone’s foibles. We find that Celia is detail-oriented and—good for her—she can take notes and do research. But occasionally, she asks things like, “Where will we put the letters?”
“The letters to council. Should they go right or left of the fliers on the table?”
I’m quick to respond. “Either.”
“Or maybe behind?”
“No,” Donna says. “Not behind. They’ll be harder to reach.”
“They’ll have to reach over the fliers?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Donna.
Celia relaxes visibly.
Rita, on the other hand, comes to meeting after meeting and barely breathes a sentence. She’s our accountant, does a great job, and keeps her conversations to the financial report. But soon, she finds her forum. Within a few weeks, we’re all getting weekly e-mail updates on her health, her husband’s health, the health of the dog, who is incontinent, but has medication to control the problem. Her notes trigger an electronic deluge of notes about divorce and tough love and dinner recipes.
I try to keep the group on track, but I feel awkward—even intimidated. I don’t fit. I don’t have a day job or a motorized vehicle, and I am by nature introverted. Each week I give a little pep talk: “We just have to hang in there, folks. We’ll win this thing. We will.” As I speak, I’m wondering what I’ve done with the letters I collected last week—did I deliver them, or are they waterlogged in the pocket of my raincoat—and the petitions? I can’t recall, and, oh my, is there anyone out there who’s good at keeping things organized?
From my lips to God’s ears.
“Look, I don’t mind being the big fat bitch of the group…” This was Marie’s self-introduction at our third meeting. “If it gets the job done, so be it.” Marie owns a successful ad agency and, ironically, was instrumental in developing one of the most controversial commercial sites along Colorado’s Front Range. “Sound hypocritical?” she asked. “Well, that project was consistent with the Land Use Plan. I’m not against development. I’m against silencing citizens’ voices.”
A few weeks later, Norma joined. Norma had, of all things, a flip chart and the facilitation skills to use it. After a few weeks with Norma and chart, tough love and recipes were distant echoes.
The following meeting, Hogan arrived with a box of sample t-shirts and news that a local company had cut us a deal for a custom design. At the same time we learned that Wild Oats and REI had agreed to let us set up booths in their stores. Indeed, we were becoming a real community force—even without breathing a word to city council.
After a few press interviews a reporter said, off record, “You know, the developer hates you guys. I mean, he actually said hate.” I smiled. Hate’s a strong word, and it gave us strength. We celebrated every attack as a coup. The press we received incited others to contact us. Soon we had a venture capitalist and pro bono attorney working with us. Our constituency grew. Our recognition snowballed.
Still, it was no open-and-shut case. While the elected offcials who would determine the “case” were not supposed to have ex parte conversations with the developer, there was no way to monitor that. When John’s Motown band played at the local Rotary Club, for instance, he watched the developer and several city councilors twist and turn on the dance floor together. Meanwhile, we sat at our monthly meetings eating finger sandwiches and imagining how slick the developer’s presentation would be at the hearing and how feeble ours might seem in comparison.
That’s when the obvious became clear: if we were really going to make a difference, we had to quit fighting against something, and begin fighting for something. If you build it, they will come. And if it’s a strip mall you build, well, they’ll come to that. But if it’s a place that incites pride and involvement in your community, they’ll also come to that. We envisioned a nature and cultural center, maybe a historical orchard—something to encourage people to stay here, rather than using it as a stepping-stone to elsewhere.
Donna had organized a good bit of fundraising—local garage sales that contributed profits; a bird walk on the land for a small donation; some straightforward requests for contributions. Marie and I had created a paid-subscription newsletter. Through these efforts, we’d garnered some revenue. “So, let’s hire an architect,” I said.
Shortly after the newspaper reported our plans, we received a phone call from the landowner’s attorney. He said the landowner had been following our work in the news and was interested in meeting with us.
The call threw us into fear. We’d been told by opponents that we were stepping on landowner’s rights, that if his profits were diminished by our efforts, he could sue us. Our attorney assured us this was not possible and offered to accompany us to the meeting. “Too aggressive,” Norma said. “We’ll bring you in later if there’s a need.”
THE DAY OF THE MEETING ARRIVES. Marie drives. We pull onto the dirt road and travel through walnut groves and cottonwoods, past grazing horses and stables. A man with gray hair down to his waist greets us at the fence, introduces himself as Oliver. He’s smoking a filterless Camel. “Reason I brought you here today,” he says, and just then a small plane flies overhead, propeller slapping the air. Oliver looks up. “Christ, I had my fill a’ helicopters in ‘Nam, right. Can’t stand that sound, right.”
He ducks into the house, and we follow. The place is empty. No furniture, curtains, lamps, rugs—nothing. Greasy pizza boxes are scattered like lily pads that we must step over on the way to Oliver’s room: a cubicle with a sleeping bag and computer. Along the top of the monitor are a dozen or so stickers of endangered wildlife. Peregrine, otter, whale. Along the bottom are stickers of atomic bombs in various stages of detonation.
“So, anyway,” Oliver continues, but then stops abruptly. Across the street from the property sits a miniature golf course. In it, there’s a volcano that spews real fire when someone scores. As we speak, a kid lands a hole-in-one, the volcano roars, and Oliver takes cover. He doesn’t dive to the ground or anything, but a stormy look brims in his eyes and he hunches over. “To put that thing there—it’s an insult to the men who fought for this country. Sounds like mortar fire, right. Nights I wake up sweating, right.”
Oliver hops from one subject to the next without shifting gears or turning on the blinker, from Vietnam to childhood in a puff of smoke. “Yeah, me and my best buddy Henry, we built that thing way back when.”
I follow his line of sight, and my eyes light on a tree house nestled in a tangle of branches.
“Still there,” he says.
He stares for a while, then exhales. “You know, homeless people could set up camp on this land, right.” No blinker, new topic. “Got nothin’ against ‘em. Got homeless buddies, right. But if they come here and start cookin’ Top Ramen on Coleman stoves, well, it’s a fire hazard.” He drops his cigarette onto the plywood floor and crushes it out with his boot. “Yeh, I’m the past of this land. You guys’re the future.” The volcano blows again. Oliver’s eyes glaze.
ON THE DRIVE HOME, I’m convinced that Oliver was siding with us.
“Oh, right,” says Marie. “He’s going to nix the retail deal and donate his land.” I consider it. He’s got the long hair, the Woodstock gaze. Marie and Norma laugh and laugh. They help me see that Oliver is just one more quirky character in our cast of players. I have a bit of a Woodstock gaze myself, I guess.
For the next few weeks, our group is a mess. We’re nervous about whatever it was Oliver wanted from us, and there’s a new topic on the table. The city has plans to house a sex offenders’ rehab center nearby. Folks are up in arms.
“We need to move on. Let them build the damn Target.”
“You want to quit now?”
“This sex offenders thing’s more important.”
“Look, nobody wants a sex offenders’ rehab in their backyard, but they have to be built somewhere,” says Billy, one half of the gay couple.
“Well, to those of us who have families…” says John.
“You suggesting I don’t have a family?”
“Oh, don’t hit me with your liberal bullshit. You guys are immoral.”
“Immoral? You’re the closed-minded bigot, but we’re immoral?”
I would love to say that just then, the phone rang and the director of open space acquisitions said, “Hey, Oliver’s donating a portion of land and we’re hoping to buy the rest, with your help.” But that would be implausible.
Except, it’s what happened. Okay, she didn’t call during that meeting, but the rest is true. Just when we’d sunk to name-calling, the city was ready to work with us on our terms.
A week later we trudge over to Celia’s. There are apologies, but most people agree it’s time to quit. We’ve won the biggest battle.
Then Rita, who rarely speaks, says, “I can’t believe we’ve come this far just to turn our power over to the city.” She says it softly, and for a moment, it stuns us all silent.
“Well,” says Marie, eventually, “I’ll put out another newsletter.”
“I’ll contact the architect,” says Celia.
An energy slowly fills the room. I can’t help but smile.
BEFORE I STEPPED OUT OF MY HOUSE that cold morning three years ago, I might have told you “community” was some kind of Up With People fantasy—like-minded folks sharing a Norman Rockwell moment. Now I think community has little to do with like minds. It has to do with very differently minded people finding a way to get along because we all live in, are connected to, and share a sense of place.
When I hear the coyotes howl at night, all the people in this room hear the same thing. Maybe one of us is making dinner, the other one just rising to go to the graveyard shift. At the same time in our different lives, we stop; we listen. We feel the migrations of birds that pass through here, see the coming of summer on the wings of swallows, and ready ourselves for winter when the herons depart and the bald eagles return. In these moments, a sense of community crashes through our suburban walls.
If I tried to say what made our mongrel group a success, I couldn’t pinpoint any one thing. It was as if we were working together to create one sculpture so big that, as we were working, we couldn’t see it for what it was. One person chiseled here, another chiseled there until, one day, we stepped back and saw something beginning to take form: our own community. There was no unveiling, no ceremony. But each tap of the sculptor’s mallet—the support of a business, the help of an attorney, some economic research—helped shape our little corner of the world into something we intended.
Working together like this, we won our fight against unnecessary development. Now we have to work toward forming the community center we want in its place. In the process, we’ll learn even more about one another, and maybe dislike each other more, which means our fondness will also grow.
It’s November, and as we leave our meeting, Silas starts soliciting help to set up his next Christmas display.
“That’s some hideous shit, man,” says John.
“You were the one who reported us for light pollution?”
“I always liked those wiseacres who showed up with myrrh at a baby shower,” says Marie.
“Well that’s just disrespectful,” says Silas.
“So what time you want us to be there?” asks John.
Silas ponders. “About ten o’clock?”
Yeah, we’ll be there.