Saturday, December 31, 2016

Stephen Carver carries on his family's legacy at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

Here is a cover story I wrote on Stephen Carver, the new executive director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. The story appears in  the January 2017 issue of Encore magazine.

The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre looks the same as it did almost 90 years ago and has the same purpose and quality of product too. And now it has a familiar name at the helm. Again. 

Stephen Carver took on the role of executive director last spring, following in the footsteps of his father, James C. Carver, who ran the theater for 38 years, and his grandparents Norman and Louise Carver, who were among the founders of the Civic Players.

Carver took over the job from Kristen Chesak, who is now the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. 

The 55-year-old Carver has trod this stage before. He grew up on the “back bench” of the historic theater and learned the “family business” from his father, until he decided to be an actor in his own right. 

After Carver earned a degree in fine arts and theater from Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, in 1983, he went to Hollywood. Among his many credits are appearances on television and in movies, including as a borg in seven episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation, as a policeman in Liar Liar with Jim Carrey, and roles in The Golden Girls, Diagnosis Murder and Ellen

Carver has also directed 30 plays, worked in radio and television production and co-founded with actor and comedian Steve Carell the Skyline Theatre Company in Chicago. Carver also served as the company’s artistic director. For the past 12 years, Carver led the Longmont Theatre Company, in Longmont, Colorado.
“It’s a life, not a career,” says Carver. “That’s show business.”

'A better choice'

So why would he choose community theater in a small southwestern Michigan town far away from the Hollywood limelight?

Quite frankly, Carver says, he found Hollywood to be an endless routine of auditioning for a role, playing it and moving on to the next gig. Community theater requires more of an ongoing commitment, he says. It involves five weeks of rehearsal and creative work before a show opens, three to four weeks of running the show and a continuous commitment to actors, volunteers, donors and patrons throughout the year, he says.

“For me, community theater was a better choice,” Carver says. “My contribution to the Civic is focused on creating a sense of community within our organization and its outreach to Kalamazoo.”

As the Civic’s executive director, Carver oversees 36 staff members and 1,085 volunteers, a total that is equivalent to 80 full-time employees. These volunteers include not only actors but ushers, ticket takers, costumers, painters and electrical workers as well as backstage crews that run sound or lights or manage props for each show.

The Civic also runs an Academy of Theatre Arts, which provides theater classes and workshops for all ages. Its Civic Youth Theatre trains youngsters from age 9 to high school seniors in all aspects of theater production.

What is most remarkable about the Civic, says Carver, is that actors, crew and professional staff all regard it as a home where they feel a real sense of belonging. 

“It’s a place where the community learns the craft of live theater, but it also provides them with an opportunity to build self-esteem and interpersonal skills,” says Carver.

The Civic certainly feels like home to Carver. He notes that things around the theater haven’t changed much since he was a boy. The marble floors are still there, as is the furniture, which will soon receive an upholstering update. The stage is still Broadway-style, with a complete fly system and numerous trapdoors. The murals in the green room are the same. So are the dressing rooms, but the lights are now LEDs.

 Retaining tradition

“The Civic has done a wonderful job keeping the look and feel of the original building,” says Carver. “As technology changes, the Civic has gone the extra mile to disguise the modernization. Even though we are a state-of-the art theater, it still feels like the auditorium of the early 1930s.”

In the theater’s basement is a kitchen stocked with china and silverware purchased from the Gilmore Brothers Department Store back when Carver’s grandparents managed the theater. The original stove is still there, but Carver plans to replace it so that home-cooked meals on real plates can be prepared for cast and crew during productions, just as they were long ago by volunteer cooks — and co-founder Howard Chenery himself.

“That just makes it special,” says Carver. “It’s part of treating everyone like family, which is a longtime tradition at the Civic.”
The theater was started in 1929, and its first home was the auditorium of the former Lincoln Junior High School (now Lincoln International Studies School). In 1929, Dr. W.E. Upjohn bought the house on the theater’s current site and helped build the Civic with Howard Chenery, who was the drama coach at Kalamazoo Central High School. 

Right from the start, the Civic involved a community effort. Among the theater’s founders, in addition to Upjohn, Chenery, and Norman and Louise Carver, were Dorothy U. Dalton; Arthur Kohl and Frances Hall Kohl, who were former members of the Wright Players Stock Company; and Dr. Allan Hoben, then-president of Kalamazoo College. Their contributions helped to set the stage for many years of high artistic quality and performance at the Civic, which made it a major cultural institution in Southwest Michigan, and it is still one of the premier community theaters in America, Stephen Carver says. 

Norman Carver was hired to oversee the building. He later became the Civic’s first business manager. And so intent was Upjohn’s resolve that the “happy use of leisure time, to adult education, to cultural life, and to the widest civic use” be the mission of the Civic, that he secured the life of the building in perpetuity by creating an endowment. 

“The legacy of the theater is very, very important to me,” says Stephen Carver. “My generation is probably the last of those who knew the founders directly, and it’s important for us to tell the story of the Civic.”

Among those stories is that Upjohn’s ulterior motive behind founding the theater was that he wanted his daughter, Dorothy U. Dalton, to return home from New York City, where she was a stage actress.

“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” says Carver, “but it makes for a nice story and a legacy that has lasted almost 90 years.”
Carver relates another story about a Carver family Thanksgiving dinner, when Irving S. Gilmore, one of the theater’s generous benefactors, brought oysters. 

“What this story symbolizes is that the early founders were very connected to each other like a family,” says Carver. “They had holiday dinners together, socialized, took theater trips, and vacationed together. They also continued to serve the Civic throughout the rest of their lives.”

Why now?

However, many people may still ask the question: Why Stephen Carver and why now, after he’s been away for 35 years?

Former Civic Theatre board president Rob Kerschbaum provides the official answer: “Every part of Steve’s resumé spoke to the complex and unique demands of producing quality community theater. He combines management experience with fundraising and technical skills that will bring out the best in our staff and volunteers. But what made the decision so easy to hire him was his passion for the true spirit of community theater.”

Carver’s own response is more personal: “For me, the business of community theater is a family business,” says Carver. “It’s what we talked about since I was 6 years old. It was here that I appeared on stage and learned how to direct and act as well as to do staging, lighting, set design and recruit volunteer pools. This was my education.”

Growing up, Carver attended every Civic performance and then, on the ride home with his father, would engage in a critical analysis of the show by talking about what he liked and didn’t like. But the “back bencher” also mowed the theater’s lawn, buffed its marble floors, painted its windows, changed its marquee and did some of its maintenance work.

Carver’s father also taught him the importance of being personable at the theater, whether during a curtain speech at the beginning of a show or standing in the lobby talking to patrons as they arrived and left and during intermission. This is what it takes to run a successful community theater, he says, to literally be present to the community.

“We do a lot to make our house your theater home,” says Carver. 
“We want patrons to feel like they belong here. And if you’re a member, we work to make sure that you get a high-quality product on stage.”

Carver says the theater’s professional staff members greet patrons, donors, volunteers and visitors with enthusiasm, whether it is during office hours or before or after a performance. 

“They’ve bought into the theory, too, that the Civic is all about being together as a family, as a community,” says Carver. “And paid staff realize they are here for our many volunteers in order to provide a level of service to them so that they, too, can see the Civic as ‘home.’”

For Carver, returning to the Civic is a way to give back to a profession and a place that have given him so much.

“Theater was good for me personally,” he says. “I gained confidence, self-esteem and learned how to present myself, which came in handy when I had to pitch myself in Hollywood.

"What better way to spend my career than by paying forward all the education in the arts I received at the Civic?”

Saturday, December 17, 2016

John Glenn -- American Hero -- RIP


This was his official photo as an astronaut. He made his historic flight on February 20, 1962 on Friendship 7 -- three revolutions around the Earth.

He was a U.S. Marine fighter pilot during World War II where he went on 149 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also flew in Korea. He made it as a Mercury 7 astronaut, the first group to go to space. In 1974, he became a U.S. Senator from Ohio at the suggestion of President John F. Kennedy, and was elected to four terms. In 1998, at age 77, he flew on the Discovery Space Shuttle.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dear Mrs. Clinton...

I had looked forward to writing you a letter of congratulations after you moved into the White House as the first woman President of the United States. I had hoped to see you in person some day and shake your hand and be just as exhilarated as I was when I shook Geraldine Ferraro’s, our first woman vice presidential candidate. As far as I’m concerned, you’re right up there with Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the countless women who stepped out of their traditional roles as women in order to make a difference to our nation and our world.

I want to thank you for your work as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State where you were intelligent, well-prepared, understood the purpose of public service and possessed the courage to sustain the terrible and strange negativity that was spewed out against you. You never backed down or cowered from your opponents. I know of few women or men who could have done that—on the national stage no less!

I also want to thank you for being gracious in defeat and conceding this election in the true spirit of our democracy after such a contentious and disappointing battle, especially after winning the popular vote.

I believe you would have been a good president America could be proud of, and I’m truly sorry more people chose not to see that in you. The misogyny that occurred during the campaign is so typical of what happens to women who dare to lead.

Some—both men and women—just can’t take the thought of a woman leader. It unsettles them. They believe something is wrong and out-of-whack, so they cook up hysterical excuses to slap you down. Any woman who has tried to assert or advance herself knows this to be true. Any woman who has an ounce of ambition has experienced what it is like to be called out and trounced. And yet, you found the strength to overcome these obstacles and persevere.

I believe you are a woman with a depth of soul and purpose. These are especially admirable qualities to have in politics, which is easily the most exciting, albeit dirtiest game around. Unfortunately, sexism took hold of the nation just as racism, homophobia and ethnic and religious discrimination are rearing their ugly heads again all over our country now. This is very disturbing, but maybe some good will come out of it. Maybe Americans will be moved to unite and fight against these injustices. Maybe more women will pursue political, institutional and community leadership. Maybe, we will become a stronger nation because women and men decided to work together to address the real issues of our time, namely, environmental degradation, economic inequality, tolerance for differences, student debt, poverty, violence and war, issues that were somehow overlooked during this campaign.

I am sorry about the election. You deserved to win. You would have been a positive, open and progressive force on our nation and our world, but we blew it. My gosh, almost 50 percent of Americans didn’t even bother to vote!

I hope you find peace in these next few months and over the years. And I hope you are comforted by the fact that although you didn’t win the presidency, you are like Susan B. Anthony who didn’t see the vote for women but cleared a path for other capable women in the future.

God bless you, Mrs. Clinton, thanks for your service--and I still hope to shake your hand someday.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Light for Aleppo

Click here for WMMT news story announcing the CSJ prayer service for Aleppo

Click here for WMMT news story on the prayer service

The Sisters of St. Joseph held a special prayer service for the people of Aleppo, Syria, who are victims of the terrible war and destruction there. This service is part of a worldwide solidarity movement for peace to let the people, aid workers, charities and victims of war in Aleppo know that they are not forgotten.

6 p.m. 
front steps of Nazareth Center 
3427 Gull Road 

Luminaries made by the sisters lit up the front steps of the building as people join together in prayer.

For those who could not attend the service, the sisters asked that they light a candle for the people of Aleppo and place it in the front windows of their homes.

A Light for Aleppo movement began in Scotland. 

A Prayer for the People of Syria

Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,
the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope.

Hear the cries of the people of Syria, especially the children;
bring healing to those suffering from the violence,
and comfort to those mourning the dead.

Empower and encourage Syria's neighbors in their care and welcome for 

Convert the hearts of those who have taken u arms,
and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.

O God of hope and Father of mercy,
your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs.

Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation
with enemies.

Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria,
and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Day After the Trump Victory

 Donald Trump’s victory left a lot of us numb and speechless. His rise to the presidency was inconceivable and yet throughout the 18-month campaign, he defied all odds and made it to the top.

At first I couldn’t figure out what to do with this news, but I was certain I didn’t want to be angry for the next four years. That attitude, in fact, elected Trump and I didn’t want to feed it. Instead, I decided to handle this disaster in a spiritual way. So I spent the day in prayer and consultation with octogenarian nuns who have seen it all and later attended an inter-faith prayer service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo. Throughout the day I seemed to encounter people who helped me formulate a plan of action for dealing with this unforeseen and potentially destructive next four years. I pass it on to you as a sincere offering of hope and action.

·      Regard this time as a special time in our country that calls us to act with love, compassion, peace and joy to all the people we encounter instead of acting rashly out of hatred, violence or disgust.

·      Focus on the local community and make it a good place to live for everyone. Take care of others by empathetic listening.

·      Support and protect people who are from minority groups, different faiths, the LGBT community, pregnant women, women vulnerable to rape and sexual harassment, international visitors, immigrants, refugees, study abroad students and anyone who may be a target for bullying, ridicule or violence.

·      Cry if you must. Be sad if you are sad. But pick yourself up again and be with people. Don’t dwell on negative feelings. Instead, hold another’s pain, fear, anger and disappointment in your hand for a while so they can re-orient themselves to take the necessary time they need to find a level of comfort and solitude that will enable them to deal with their difficulties.

·      Pray for those who voted for Trump because they felt disenfranchised and angry. They were hurting but we failed to hear them. They felt alone, betrayed and scared about their future, but we failed to go to them. Sometimes, we even mocked them. Remember that they are our fellow Americans, and some of them are from our families. We need to be there with them and with each other much like we did after the 9/11 attacks.

·      Watch less TV news and avoid too much social media. Rely less on polls and pundits—both conservative and liberal. Read more serious magazines and newspapers and watch more thoughtful media that analyze the issues and provide the facts. Then, look at the people around you and see where they are, hear what they say. Look into your own heart and use your own eyes and ears to understand what is going on. Spend more time in solitude because it grounds you, calms you, helps you see more clearly and be more receptive to the needs of others. This is an experiment in “otherness” rather then “me-ness.”

A Trump victory was definitely not what I wanted, but now that it is here, let’s regard it an opportunity for us to change ourselves, especially in the absence of genuine leadership from government—which will now include "outsider" Trump. As Detroit philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs said: “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.” Let's move ourselves in that direction. A Trump victory is an opportunity for us to make our communities good, safe and vital places to live. It is an opportunity for creativity. It is an opportunity to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others if we can commit ourselves to love, gentleness, peace and joy.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Possibilities Before Us with a Hillary Clinton Win

Two days to go before the election. Nothing else has exploded in our faces—yet. There are cases of voter suppression, courtesy of the GOP, but no new information on Hillary’s e-mails or Trump’s sexual predation. The real fear looming over us is the aftermath of either a Trump win or the backlash of a Hillary presidency.

I think Hillary has played fair, although she’s never backed down from a fight. Donald is a bully, a name caller and an outright nasty, inappropriate person. My hope is that we don’t have to hear from him again, but I doubt that will happen. His thin skin will not allow him to lose graciously or quietly, and he’ll probably grumble that “the election was rigged” until the day he dies—just as he kept the birther argument alive for five years and wouldn’t quit. He is such a little man and the only thing keeping him afloat is his money and his hatred for people not like him. That he should appeal to so many people shows the downward slide in the conscience of our country and its values. What an embarrassment he would be as the leader of the most powerful country in the world!

I hope Hillary wins. The polls seem to be in her favor. Despite all the negativity toward her and the scandals surrounding her, I think she will make a great president. But that can only happen if she has some coattails in the Senate and comes close to winning 30 House seats. The FBI will be after her. Die-hard Trump supporters will be after her. Frankly, I don’t know how she finds the strength to go on. It’s not just about her ambition—and she has plenty of it. There is a biggness about her, a biggness of soul that runs through her veins and allows her to take the hits and keep on going. I couldn’t do that even at the county politics level and here she is taking it at the national level not to mention the international level with Putin’s alleged shenanigans. What strength and courage she has! That’s the kind of president I want. That’s the kind of leadership we need.

Hillary is certainly a role model for all women and girls. And, now, she is about to become president of the United States, our first woman president. She’s controversial, yes, but I think that’s mostly because she is a woman. Surprisingly, that fact didn’t really stick during the campaign. It was present through Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and his nasty comments about women, but it wasn’t directly addressed. It was as though he didn’t even acknowledge Hillary was a woman. Instead, he focused on Hillary’s e-mails, which were not clearly a crime at the time, and the Clinton Foundation, which has done a lot of good for a lot of people.

The poisonous environment we have endured over the past two years of this election cycle is likely to intensify after Hillary is elected and takes office. Misogyny will undoubtedly take on newer, more overt levels throughout the country and then it will be obvious that sexism was the central issue of this campaign. But maybe some good will come out of it. Maybe women will unite and fight sexist discrimination they still encounter and that Hillary will encounter. And if we do, maybe we will become stronger—together. Maybe we will create an undercurrent that quietly and surreptitiously changes the world, but no one notices for a while. Hillary’s presidency will not be about liberals and conservatives fighting it out to the death, but about men and women working together to shape a new world that is able to meet the real challenges ahead of us, namely, environmental degradation, tolerance for differences, student debt, poverty, war. This is the possibility before us if Hillary wins.

God bless our country. We are approaching the chance of radically changing who we are and how we will influence the world—and we will all be participants in our democracy, not spectators of reality TV.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns

Elections today are won by “nudges of turnout” with two points here and six points there that decide close races, especially in our polarized political environment.

To get these nudges, political scientists and professional campaign operatives generate and analyze thousands of bits of voter data, which is available through public record and market research. As a result, a whole new area of political science research has emerged that combines computer technology with behavioral science in order to determine who voters are and how they can be persuaded to vote.

Sasha Issenberg, author of he Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, spoke to students and faculty recently at the annual William Weber Lecture in Government and Society on how this sophisticated, data-driven system works.

The three-time author and political journalist for Bloomberg and formerly Slate and Boston Globe became aware of this new kind of campaigning during the 2008 presidential election when he covered John McCain’s campaign in Michigan.

Data-driven campaigns actually began in the 1960s with punch card computers creating databases on voters. In the 1970s, data was organized into precincts and included names of voters, their gender, age, race/ethnicity and political party affiliation. In the 1990s, campaigns copied consumer marketers’ tactics in identifying and persuading voters.

“Campaigns never interact with people individually,” said Issenberg, “but they are able to see the electorate all at once.”

Political scientists had been explaining voter behavior as a rational activity of citizenship. They also focused on measuring the effectiveness of television, radio, direct mail and phone banks.

In 1998, two Yale political scientists, Alan Gerber and Don Green, began conducting experiments that measured and analyzed voter motivations. They found that people act in the social context of their peers and can be persuaded to do something if they are thanked rather than if they are asked.

“You will probably get letters in the mail this fall thanking you for voting in 2012 and alerting you to the election on November 8,” said Issenberg.

Trump has defied the type data-driven campaign and instead plays to the mass media and Twitter.

“Trump’s campaign is not targeted,” said Issenberg. “He’s using his personality and persuasion through the logic of network television where it gets people to pay attention and hopefully come back to watch.”

The William Weber Lecture in Government and Society was founded by Bill Weber, a 1939 graduate of Kalamazoo College who until his death in 2011, traveled from California back to K College to attend these lectures.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Leaving our "Extractivist" past behind is about survival

This article appeared in on October 26, 2016

The tension between what is politically possible under the world’s current political and economic systems and what is ecologically necessary exposes the need for change, said Naomi Klein, keynote speaker for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership's annual Without Borders conference held last weekend at Kalamazoo College. While the Paris climate change agreement looked like the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, it is not legally binding nor can it make enough of a difference to change the course ecological disaster.

“Fossil fuel frontiers have to be closed if we have any hope of a future,” said Klein. “Politicians have absolutely no plan to do this.”

Doing something about climate change has failed since 1988 when neoliberalism emerged to promote privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending to enhance the private sector in the economy. Such policies have created in people a profound sense of hopelessness about climate change, said Klein.

“We are told that selfishness and short-sightedness is part of human nature, which prevents us acting,” said Klein. “This is not true and it steers us away from an analysis of our [capitalist] system. In fact, the fight for survival is human nature.”

Many local, grassroots groups are taking on climate change as they see its connection to an unjust economic system that is failing for a vast majority of people all over the planet, she said.
Klein challenged the audience to work for “climate justice” by reversing the “extractivist” point of view of the Earth and promoting the “caretaking” of one another, an ethos indigenous people advocate.

“It’s not just ‘energy democracy’ but ‘energy justice’ that we need,” said Klein. “This leads to clean energy projects and jobs.”

She also emphasized that service work like nursing, child care, public interest media should be redefined as climate work that sets out to create a “caring and repairing economy.”

“We need to embed justice in every aspect of our lives,” said Klein. “The people are hungry for transformational change, and we have to go for it on all fronts.”

Photo: Naomi Klein (b. May 5, 1970), Canadian journalist, author and activist. Warsaw (Poland), November 19, 2008. Photo by Mariusz Kubik. Via Wikimedia Commons. 


Friday, August 12, 2016

Transformative Travel -- from Encore Magazine

Photographer:  Melissa Zeithammel

Travel can change you, and writing about your travels can help you to see the world with new eyes and new possibilities. It was a belief in this transformative power of travel that led Sonya Bernard-Hollins to form a club allowing girls from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor to travel and write about their travels.

The Merze Tate Explorers club — the Merze Tate Travel Writers Club until last year — was inspired by an 80-year-old photo of Merze Tate, says Bernard-Hollins.

Bernard-Hollins had been a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette when she first learned of Tate in 2003 while researching African-American firsts of Western Michigan University. Tate, a professor, scholar and expert on U.S. diplomacy, was the first black woman to receive a bachelor's degree from Western State Teachers College — now WMU — in 1927. During her career, Tate explored the world, learned five languages and worked as a writer and photographer for the U.S. State Department.

Bernard-Hollins found a “gold mine” of information about Tate in WMU's archives, including a photo “which never left me,” she says. The photo was of a travel club for students that Tate created in 1928 when she was a history teacher at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. The club’s intent was to teach students more about U.S. history by traveling to places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Niagara Falls.

“This was during the Depression years of 1928, and Indianapolis was the heart of the Ku Klux Klan,” says Bernard-Hollins. “Many of the parents of the children in the club were servants and chauffeurs, a future they expected for their own children. While the parents wanted more for their children, Tate's efforts of taking African-American students on educational excursions met with critical questions from the media. However, Tate's vision was to expose young people to the world so that they could go beyond the expectations of their time.”

Inspired by Tate and thinking “a travel club for girls would be fun,” Bernard-Hollins created the Merze Tate Travel Writers Club in 2008. The club’s purpose was to provide girls with an opportunity to travel, discover women who had made an impact on their communities and write about their experiences.

Bernard-Hollins received a $2,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to create the program.

The Merze Tate Travel Writers Club began with 12 girls, who had to apply, be interviewed and demonstrate their writing skills. Members met two Saturdays each month during the school year, and their first trips included visits to Detroit to see the Motown Museum, Wayne State University and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and to Tuskegee, Alabama, to see the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum. There, they met original Tuskegee airmen and a woman who stuffed parachutes for the airmen.

In the second year of the club, more than 50 girls participated. In its third year, club members created a documentary on Tate’s life, The World Through the Lens of Merze Tate. It debuted at the Grand Rapids Public Museum during Black History Month in 2012.

“We always have the girls' mothers for chaperones on the trips, and many of them had never been to the places we were going,” says Bernard-Hollins. “As we went through the years and families saw how excited the girls were, more and more volunteers came forth, including the girls' fathers and aunts.”

Bernard-Hollins also emphasizes career and leadership development to the girls. Members meet local professional women from various occupations to help them think about future careers. One of these women was Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, the former president of Kalamazoo College.

“Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran was seated in the boardroom when the girls arrived, but none of them had a clue as to who she was,” says Bernard-Hollins. “When she was introduced as the president, they all perked up. That showed me that exposing them to influential people can make a huge difference for them.”

Eight of the original 12 club members went to college, says Bernard-Hollins. One of those young women, Tori Zackery, 19, is a sophomore at Michigan State University studying photojournalism. In 2015, Zackery received a $2,000 study-abroad scholarship to visit Berlin, Munich and Paris, and she credits the travel club as her inspiration.

“I didn't realize at the time how valuable it would become to be able to look beyond the surface of a place I've lived my entire life and report on its history and secrets,” says Zackery. “Those skills separate tourists from travelers,
 and they became extremely useful during my time in Europe.”

In 2013, Bernard-Hollins established a week-long residential Travel Writers Academy on the campus of Kalamazoo College. It allows girls in grades 4-12 to experience college life and interact with women from various career fields and with world travel experiences. The academy participants then write about their experiences and publish them in the organization’s annual Girls Can! magazine, which is unveiled during Art Hop in September.

In 2015, the organization became a nonprofit and changed its name to Merze Tate Explorers. In addition to girls from Kalamazoo, it now has members from Ann Arbor, Albion, Battle Creek, Richland and Portage.

Merze Tate traveled around the world twice, and now the Merze Tate Explorers club helps facilitate international travel opportunities for its members as well. In 2015, Claire Khabeiry and Natasha Mahonie, who were both 15 at the time and members since 2009, went to France for 30 days. The Greg Jennings Foundation covered half of their travel expenses, while The Faces of America program provided additional funding. Fundraisers and the girls’ families paid the rest.

Bernard-Hollins admits she didn't have a complete plan when she decided to start the Merze Tate Explorers but says there has been a consistent philosophy behind its success.

“We eliminate all excuses not to dream big.”

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Other End of the Pipeline

This article was published in Resilience on May 31, 2016

For over 500 years native peoples in the Americas have fought for their homes against people from far away lands. Now, in Alberta, Canada, they are fighting for their homes against a gooey, black substance that sits underground: the oil sands.

The Athabasca oil sands are large deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil, located in northeastern Alberta near the 1971-81 boomtown of Fort McMurray. They consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid rock-like form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals and water—what some people consider to be “the bottom of the barrel.”

The Athabasca deposit, the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world, covers an area about 54,000 square miles (about the size of the state of Florida), which is characterized by boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs). The International Energy Agency estimates economically recoverable reserves to be 178 billion barrels or 10 percent of the 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen in-place. These reserves are the third largest reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela.

Oil produced from bitumen sands is often referred to as “unconventional oil” or “crude bitumen,” to distinguish it from liquid hydrocarbons produced from traditional oil wells, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Crude bitumen is a thick, sticky form of crude oil, so heavy that it will not flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons such as light crude oil or natural-gas condensate. At room temperature, it is much like cold molasses.

The indigenous people of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation live in this region, which is the size of Switzerland, and 65 miles northeast of Edmonton, Alberta. Because of the Canadian Treaty of 1876, they have enjoyed legal rights to hunt, fish and trap in their territory, as their ancestors had done for generations. The pristine forests have provided the native people with their homes, food and medicines. However, the oil sands industries in Alberta are displacing the people through deforestation and pollution of the air, land and water.

Crystal Lameman
Crystal Lameman, 34, who serves as the Beaver Creek Cree Nation's coordinator of intergovernmental affairs and industry relations as well as manager of communications, spoke recently to an audience of over 400 people at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids. Her visit was sponsored by the Wege Foundation  of Grand Rapids.

“The Canadian government has failed in its duty to consult us,” said Lameman. “It has leased out land to every major oil company. There is an urgent need for the government to recognize the land rights of indigenous people who developed their own laws and practices thousands of years ago.”

On May 14, 2008, the Beaver Lake Cree released their Kétuskéno Declaration asserting their role as caretakers of their traditional territories and started a legal action to: a) enforce recognition of their Constitutionally protected rights to hunt, trap and fish, and b) protect the ecological integrity of their territories.

Canada's 1982 Constitution also provides for First Nation's Rights, said Lameman, which the nation is using as grounds for a legal challenge against the Canadian government.

“They made their law. The companies come to our land without our consent. We have treaty rights. We can't be economic hostages in a game of roulette where someone always loses. For us, it's our next seven generations who lose.”

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation is suffering from significant changes on its land like major migrations of wildlife, which in turn affect the nation's food supply, said Lameman. Many animals are contaminated. Caribou are dying or diseased and less than 300 are still alive. Dear meat is green. Traces of arsenic in moose are 450 times higher than normal. Fish and waterfowl are high in mercury and often found with tumors. The people who eat this game are getting cancer and dying. Others just get sick, like Lameman's son who has nosebleeds and her niece who has asthma attacks. The young feel hopeless about the future. One year, there were five suicides in Lameman's band of 1200.

“The old people remember when they could drink pure water from the rivers and lakes, but now that water is disappearing or it's polluted from these extreme resource extractions,” she said. “As a woman raised by my aunties, uncles, grandma and old people, I learned to be responsible to the water because it was considered a gift, and we had the responsibility to protect it. We carry life in water. It connects all of us. I also have the understanding that Mother Earth is our grocery store as it provides all the things we need to survive.”

In addition to the oil wells, which take up one hectare (2.47 acres) of habitat loss, are the processing plants or SAGDs (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage), which is an enhanced oil recovery technology for producing this heavy crude oil and bitumen. It is an advanced form of steam stimulation in which a pair of horizontal wells is drilled into the oil reservoir, one a few meters above the other. High pressure steam is continuously injected into the upper wellbore to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, thus causing the heated oil to drain into the lower wellbore where it is pumped out. The SAGD plants occupy 400,000 hectares or nearly one million acres of deforested land.

“SAGD leaves a larger environmental footprint than open-pit mining because it also requires technical support roads and infrastructure,” said Lameman. “It is impossible for wildlife to live in this kind of environment.”

Deforestation has occurred throughout these lands and that includes making additional space for natural gas extraction, including fracking. Taking natural gas requires the use of dangerous chemicals and heat injection passing through a series of pipes.

Then Lameman showed the audience a map of the network of pipes with little black dots indicating places where there were spills. The map was nearly covered with black dots.

“In Michigan [whose gasoline comes from the oil sands] it is believed that this oil should pass through thicker pipes,” said Lameman. “In Alberta, we have a new kind of pipe that allows the oil to flow through, however, eventually these pipes will leak.”

Nevertheless, so far it does not appear that the protection of either the environment or the Beaver Lake Cree Nation's treaty rights will get in the way of economics.

The oil sands are a lucrative investment in energy production. They provide about 170 billion barrels of oil, or about 13 percent of total global oil reserves, according to Alberta’s Oil Sands, a government website. Nearly 2 million barrels of crude were produced every day in 2011, and the energy sector (oil and gas mining) accounted for over 22 percent of Alberta's GDP in 2012. As of July 2013, there were 114 active oil sands projects in Alberta. Of these, six were producing mining projects (three more are under application); the remaining projects used various in-situ recovery methods.

The benefits of the oil sands to Albertans is unmistakable. In 2012, approximately 121,500 people were employed. Royalties from the oil sands were $3.56 billion in 2012-13, which helps fund many public services. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI), Alberta can expect $350 billion in royalties and $122 billion in provincial and municipal tax revenue over the next 25 years.

The oil sands also affect the jobs of 112,500 people across Canada outside the province of Alberta, which is expected to grow to more than 500,000 jobs over the next 25 years in six broad sectors: professional services, oilfield services, manufacturing, wholesale trade, financial services and transportation.

Alberta's economy has vastly improved with exports of goods rising about 50 percent from 2002 to 2012 to $95 billion, which includes almost $68 billion in energy exports. Alberta businesses also have the lowest tax regime in Canada where they do not pay general sales taxes, capital taxes or payroll taxes. The general corporate tax rate is 10 percent, and the small business tax rate is three percent. Alberta also has the lowest gasoline tax among the provinces.

About 10 percent of the oil sands workforce is comprised of indigenous peoples. In 2011, the value of contracts between oil sands companies and indigenous companies was over $1 billion.

However, as lucrative an economic venture the oil sands are for Canada, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is left out and suffering social, environmental and spiritual damage. As a result, in 2008, the Nation launched Treaty Rights litigation against the Canadian government, claiming that the 19,000+ fossil fuel projects in their territory violate their treaty rights and threaten to destroy their way of life by polluting and fragmenting the land and water that have sustained them for centuries.

“This is about the air that we breathe and the water that we drink,” said Lameman. “No matter your race, color or creed, this challenge is about you. The government fought hard to have our case thrown out of court because the legal precedents weigh heavily against them. Now, with a judgment that this will go to trial, the government hopes we'll be defeated either by the cost of the litigation or by the time it takes to gather the necessary resources to get this case in front of the judge before the health of our land is irreversible.”

Lameman also referred to Article 32 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was meant to determine and develop strategies for the use of native people's lands. It was adopted on Thursday, September 13, 2007, by a majority of 144 states in favor and 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States).

As a General Assembly Declaration, it is not a legally binding instrument under international law, cites a UN press release, but it does “represent the dynamic development of international legal norms, and it reflects the commitment of the UN's member states to move in certain directions.” The UN describes UNDRIP as setting “an important standard for the treatment of indigenous peoples that will undoubtedly be a significant tool toward eliminating human rights violations against the planet's 370 million indigenous peoples and assisting them in combatting discrimination and marginalization.”

UNDRIP codifies “indigenous historical grievances, contemporary challenges and socio-economic, political and cultural aspirations,” and it is a “culmination of generations-long efforts by indigenous organizations to get international attention, to secure recognition for their aspirations, and to generate support for their political agendas.” Ken Coates, Canada research chair and faculty member at the University of Saskatchewan, argues that UNDRIP resonates powerfully with indigenous peoples, while national governments have not yet fully understood its impact.

Lameman's talk was sponsored by the Wege Foundation. Founded in 1967 by Peter M. Wege, son of Peter Martin Wege, who started what is now Steelcase, Inc. The Wege Foundation focuses on funding good works that enhance the lives of the people and preserves the health of the environment in West Michigan. The Wege Foundation's Five Pillars, or areas of interest include: education, environment, arts and culture, health care and human services.