Winter Letter to Commonweal Friends

December 26, 2018

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this Fall Letter finds you well. You recently received the Commonweal News. This is the personal letter I write to you twice a year. I can’t touch on all Commonweal programs, but I want to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of what we are doing.

Paradise Lost

My friend Elizabeth Evans lost everything in the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise—the California town of 28,000 where 90% of homes burned. She lives in Concow, just north of Paradise. Her community was among the first to burn. She escaped in her RV with her four dogs and one cat. Elizabeth writes: “My son Ean lived in Paradise. He drove through worse flames than I, feeling the heat of the flames on both sides as he drove out in bumper-to-bumper traffic to Chico.”

Elizabeth has provided massage in the Cancer Help Program for more than 20 years. She works on a reservation giving massage to Native American diabetics. I have been under her skillful hands on her table at least one hundred times.

The Camp Fire was the worst in California history. We’ve lost paradise on the West Coast. The global eco-human tragedy has come home to us. It’s heart-breaking. We’ve built our lives, our communities, and our work here.

Smoke was everywhere. Stores sold out of N-95 particulate respirators. We bought HEPA air filters for home and Commonweal. At the airport I saw a woman with a portable respirator and her two daughters headed for clean air. People are reconsidering living in fire zones. Or whether to stay on the coast at all. But what about all those who have no choice?

We remain fortunate beyond imagining. Caravans of families flee the violence and poverty of Central America. Starving migrants walk out of Africa. The Global South is on the march to the Global North. The Global North builds walls to keep them out.

In the bubbles of affluence, markets will catch up. Restaurants and cafes, yoga studios and exercise clubs, food markets and stores, office buildings and hotels will advertise HEPA clean air. Masks will get better. Clean air has long had a price. A price many can’t afford. But deer can’t wear masks. Foxes can’t, nor coyotes, rabbits, or egrets. Only raccoons and owls wear masks. And theirs aren’t HEPA compliant.

My friend Wilma Subra is a chemist in Louisiana. Wilma has spent her life fighting toxic emissions in low-income communities next to chemical facilities. People call her Saint Wilma. My wife, Sharyle, works with firefighters on the front-lines of the California fires. Wilma and the firefighters move toward smoke and fire—they don’t run from it. Nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air. We’re experiencing the democratization of air pollution. Something has been taken from us. This is the new reality. Grief is natural, but it isn’t enough. For any of us.

Forty Years of Work on Environmental Health and Justice

Smoke from the wildfires is a staggering environmental health hazard for the West Coast. I asked our friend Ted Schettler, MD, for a summary of the health effects:

Wildfire smoke contains an array of noxious compounds and tiny particles that can complicate breathing and promote disease. Studies consistently show evidence of links between wildfire smoke exposure and flares of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Even children without asthma show a decline in lung function. Recent studies also show an increased risk of death from any cause; some show increased risk of death from heart disease specifically. There is also inconsistent evidence of increased risk of heart attacks, heart failure, arrhythmias, and stroke. Respiratory infections also increase, presumably because of reduced immune function in the lungs. Scientists are increasingly interested in learning more about what happens when smoke blankets communities sometimes for weeks at a time, since wildfire smoke waves, events lasting more than two days, are expected to sharply increase in coming years. Birth outcomes, mental health, and cancer have not been sufficiently studied but preliminary evidence shows an increased risk of having a low birth weight infant with wildfire smoke exposure during pregnancy.

Commonweal has worked on environmental health and justice for more than 40 years. Right now, Sharyle Patton, director of the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center, is engaged in a major biomonitoring study of firefighters on the front lines of the California fires. Sharyle’s work is an expression of the many ways Commonweal responds to the toxification of the biosphere and all life on earth.

Over the past 43 years, Commonweal started the campaign to ban drilling off the Northern California Coast. We co-founded Health Care Without Harm at Commonweal—the global movement to make health care a leading sector on climate change and toxics. We helped launch a half dozen other campaigns including the International POPS Elimination Network, Keep Antibiotics Working, the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, and more.

Our work on toxics continues through our nine environmental health and justice projects directed by leading contributors to the field. Their collective reach is extraordinary.

  • Karen Wang directs the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. Karen is focused on cultivating a learning community around environmental health based on the latest evidence-based science. She recently launched Because Health, which has provided environmental health education to a millennial audience of more than 20,000 individuals and growing. (www.healthandenvironment.org, www.becausehealth.org)
  • Jerry Heindel directs the Program on Endocrine Disruption Strategies (PEDS) at Commonweal. Jerry works to educate scientists, governments, scientific societies, and local communities about the hazards of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC). For more than 25 years, Jerry was the lead government scientist on EDCs at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. (www.commonweal.org/program/peds/)
  • Sarah Howard directs the Diabetes and Environment Program at Commonweal. The mother of two diabetic children, Sarah focuses on the role of environmental chemicals in diabetes and obesity. Her website reaches more than 50,000 people per year. (www.diabetesandenvironment.org)
  • Ted Schettler, MD, works with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) nationally and internationally. Ted’s Ecology of Health project at Commonweal uses an ecological framework of health to help understand the origins of many common diseases and disorders and to explore ways to prevent them in communities and populations. (www.sehn.org)
  • Maria Valenti directs the Health and Environment Literacy Project (HELP) at Commonweal. Her goal is to improve societal and health professional understanding of environmental influences on health across the lifespan. Her work with Ted Schettler and others created the e-book A Story of Health and a continuing education course, a government/nonprofit collaboration that has informed nearly 10,000 health professionals.
  • Steve Heilig is senior staff at San Francisco Medical Society and at Commonweal. Steve co-founded the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, leads conversations for The New School at Commonweal, and seeks strategic ways to inject awareness of environmental and public health threats into mainstream medical and public policy discussions.
  • Alexandra Dessler’s SafetyNEST Science is a one-stop, personalized health education platform that is designed to transform prenatal care. SafetyNEST Science seeks to equip health providers and pregnant women with a toolkit to reduce diseases linked to toxic chemical exposure. (www.mysafetynest.org)
  • Sharyle Patton, as mentioned above, works with the International Association of Fire Fighters and San Francisco Firefighters to protect their members from toxic pollutants. She leads the effort to biomonitor California firefighters on the front lines of wild fires.
  • My principle focus is the Global Challenge of all the vectors that threaten ever greater future shocks. This work is emerging now with a renewed programmatic focus as the Resilience Project. I describe the Resilience Project toward the end of this Letter.
  • Our Healing Programs Deepen and Communitas Joins Commonweal

    Our healing programs at Commonweal continue to deepen substantially.

    We launched our new Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (BCCT) website on October 1. BCCT is getting remarkable reviews. Donald Abrams, MD, Integrative Oncologist, UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and one of the leading integrative oncologists in the country, wrote:

    Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies [is] an incredibly rich resource for patients trying to navigate the maze of complementary therapies and how to integrate them with standard treatment options. BCCT is overflowing with invaluable information, easily accessible and visually stunning. The site jumps to the top of my list of recommended resources for people living with and beyond cancer and their caregivers. An amazing encyclopedic compendium of the current state of integrative cancer care!

    BCCT’s 64-page integrative breast cancer therapy summary is the most comprehensive available. Our prostate cancer summary is similarly comprehensive. We have more than 80 therapy summaries in our Search Therapies database. I am deeply grateful for my partnership with BCCT co-founder Lucy Waletzky, MD. Our staff includes chief researcher Laura Pole, RN, coordinator and researcher Nancy Hepp, and our new senior staff partner Ruth Hennig. Ruth worked closely with us on environmental health for years as the executive director of the John Merck Fund. We’re honored she has chosen to help us build BCCT. (www.bcct.ngo)

    Waz Thomas and I celebrated our 75th birthdays on our 203rd Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP) retreat. I try to be in the CCHP each year on my birthday. There is nowhere I would rather be. CCHP is at the heart of our healing work at Commonweal. Our Alumni Circles in the east, north, and south bay do our Healing Circles work in the Bay Area. Our beloved sandtray coordinator, Irene Gallwey, retired recently after 25 years of leading sandtray. Irene is an astonishingly gifted colleague of deep spiritual and intuitive gifts. She will continue her sandtray work in Ashland, Oregon. Irene will remain part of our CCHP community.

    Healing Circles Global continues to deepen. Our anchor partners include: Janie Brown’s Callanish in Vancouver, British Columbia; Harmony Hill, founded by Gretchen Schodde, in Union, Washington; and Jennifer Bires’ Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Our living laboratories for deep intentional healing are Diana and Kelly Lindsay’s Healing Circles Langley on Whidbey Island north of Seattle and David Spaw’s Healing Circles Houston. We have a strong Healing Circles center in Jerusalem inspired by a CCHP alumna from Israel, and real promise of a Healing Circles project developing in New York City. Our Healing Circles Nurse Leadership program is training nurse leaders across the country. Their work of integrating healing circles into clinics, colleges, and communities has already begun with the goal of reducing burnout and increasing resilience among health care professionals. (www.healingcirclesglobal.org)

    We’re delighted that Brittany Blockman, MD’s Communitas has joined Commonweal. Brittany seeks to revolutionize health care for young people with chronic illness. She recently held her first retreat for these young people and their parents at Commonweal. Brittany is a pediatrician, filmmaker, and medical anthropologist. She won the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Anne Dyson Award for her child health advocacy work with Communitas. After studying anthropology at Princeton, Brittany received an MA in medical anthropology from Harvard. After medical school, Brittany trained with Jim Gordon at his Center for Mind Body Medicine and at Andrew Weil’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She is among the first clinical fellows in integrative medicine at University of California San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. (www.communitas-health.org)

    Anna O’Malley, MD’s Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine at Commonweal Garden is blossoming. A beloved family practice physician in West Marin, Anna likewise studied at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Anna has a passion for the healing power of nature. The Garden now offers a Four Seasons Permaculture for Kids program, seasonal Ground of Wellbeing workshops, Community Medicine Circles, and Regenerative Herbalism workshops. Anna brought on Sophie Wood Brinker and Jacob Scheidler to manage the Garden. They bring powerful fresh light to our community. Emeritus Garden Directors James Stark and Penny Livingston-Stark continue to teach with Anna in the Garden. Their Regenerative Design Institute has joined the Commonweal Northwest community on Whidbey Island. (www.naturainstitute.org, www.regenerativedesign.org)

    Angela Oh and Ying Ming Tu’s Gift of Compassion program focuses on under-served communities, integrating ancient practices with current conditions to help bring clarity and healing into the lives of both youth and adults. Based in Los Angeles, Gift of Compassion supports on-going practice through workshops, fellowships, mentoring, and gatherings that allow participants to take their meditation deeper. Each project includes art work by Ying Ming Tu (aka Tu2), in the form of photography, film, or portraiture. Tu2 is a gifted Taiwanese-American artist. Angela is a Zen Buddhist meditation teacher, attorney, a nationally recognized leader on social and racial justice issues, and a leader in the Korean-American community. She mediates disputes involving civil rights violations for California, and has served as a consent decree monitor for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a hearing officer in the Los Angeles Police Department officer discipline proceedings, and a consultant on issues of diversity and race. (www.gocompassion.org)

    Deb Cohan, MD’s Foundation for Embodied Medicine (FEM) brings the healing power of body awareness, conscious movement, and embodied presence to patients, caregivers, and medical providers. FEM taps into the wisdom of the body to help participants explore, express, and transform their inner landscape. Her work includes not only the physical, which dominates the current biomedical paradigm, but also psycho-emotional and spiritual growth. Deb is a University of California San Francisco obstetrician and gynecologist and medical director of HIVE, a multi-disciplinary center at San Francisco General Hospital that provides reproductive and sexual wellness services for women and couples living with HIV.

    Journey of the Universe—A Deepening Collaboration

    This spring, Commonweal will host a special gathering to celebrate Mary Evelyn Tucker’s long-awaited Thomas Berry biography and to help widen and deepen global awareness of the Journey of the Universe online community.

    Thomas Berry (1914-2009) believed humanity needed a “functional cosmology” that reflected our emergent scientific understanding of how the universe evolved and our place in its evolution. In 1978, Thomas initiated his Teilhard Studies with a seminal essay, “The New Story: Comments on the Origin, Identification and Transmission of Values.” Teilhard de Chardin was a primary inspiration for Thomas in developing his ideas for a universe story. Berry amplified his call for a new story in his great book, Dream of the Earth. He then co-wrote The Universe Story with evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme in 1992.

    Berry came to Commonweal twice in his later years. He left an indelible impression. His principal lineage holder is Mary Evelyn Tucker. I interviewed Mary Evelyn for a New School spiritual biography in 2017. Mary Evelyn is a senior lecturer and research scholar at Yale where she directs the Forum on Religion and Ecology with her husband, John Grim. Tucker and Grim worked closely with Berry for 30 years. Tucker edited several of Berry’s books including The Great Work (1999), Evening Thoughts (2006), and The Sacred Universe (2009).

    The Journey of the Universe online community includes the film, the book, a conversation series, and three online courses. The film has shown on more than three quarters of U.S. PBS stations and on every continent. The goal is to share the true universe story and to foster a flourishing Earth Community.

    Synergistically, Kerry Brady’s Ecology of Awakening wilderness retreats are also deeply connected to her work with Brian Swimme. Kerry and Brian co-created Nature and Eros, a celebrated course which they have co-taught for 16 years at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

    We’re delighted that Devin O’Dea, who is working closely with Mary Evelyn Tucker on the Journey of the Universe website and online community, is now part of the Commonweal community. The world needs the kind of universal “functional cosmology” that Thomas Berry dreamed.

    Commonweal Executive Director Oren Slozberg met Devin on one of Kerry’s wilderness retreats. Devin says Oren “has, by some sense of kind intuition, been an exceptional catalyst and mentor in the forming of this collaboration.” Oren excels at recognizing and mentoring those who will contribute to our work.

    The Fall Gatherings and the Power of Hope Summer Camps

    Commonweal friends Rick Ingrasci and Peggy Taylor started the Summer Gatherings at Hollyhock Conference Center on Cortez Island in British Columbia more than 25 years ago. They then created the Winter Gathering at the Whidbey Institute. Peggy brought her background in improv theatre to the Gatherings. Rick’s motto is, “If you want social change, throw a better party.” When I first joined the Summer Gatherings many years ago, I knew I wanted to bring the Gatherings to Commonweal.

    We held our fifth Fall Gathering November 8-11. For five years, Oren worked with Rick and Peggy and Victoria Santos to embed this astonishing celebratory experiential learning process in Commonweal’s DNA. This year, with Rick and Peggy both absent for the first time, Oren and Victoria led a beautiful Gathering on the subject of the Global Challenge—how we live and work in a world facing ever greater future shocks. This year, the Fall Gathering became truly our own.

    The Power of Hope Summer Camp at Commonweal, also guided by Oren, was another gift from Peggy Taylor and the late Charlie Murphy. Under the name Partners for Youth Empowerment, they made the POH camps a worldwide experience. In fact, Rick and Peggy call their Gatherings “POH for adults.” We held our fifth POH camp this summer. POH changes the lives of both campers and young staff members. Oren has assembled a powerful staff team, led by Samara Atkins, one of the POH lead facilitators. For a beautiful short film on POH, go to www.ccc-commonweal.org/power-of-hope.

    Visual Thinking Strategies

    Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which Oren directed before he joined Commonweal, became a Commonweal project three years ago. Now co-directed by Yoon Kang O’Higgins and Amber Faur, VTS has reached more than one million children and adults worldwide. VTS was selected by the Obama administration for its Turnaround Arts Initiative, and VTS is taught in some of the most deeply challenged school districts in the United States as well as in Europe.

    Justice as a Key Theme in Our Work

    Justice is a key theme in our work in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. You can see our justice work especially in our environmental health and justice projects, the work of VTS with disadvantaged children, in the Power of Hope Summer Camp, in Angela Oh and Tu2’s Gift of Compassion work in Los Angeles, in our Fall Gatherings, and in David Steinhart’s Juvenile Justice Program. David has been changing the lives of young people for more than 20 years at Commonweal, reducing the youth prison population of the state by 90% and making California a leader again in juvenile justice reform.

    The Resilience Project—A New Beginning for an Old Search

    The West Coast is on fire. Drought grips much of the country. Mega-storms ravage the east and southern coasts. These are just a few signs of the urgent need to build community resilience to respond to our new reality.

    The Resilience Project is not a new Commonweal project. We’ve simply given our 43-year-old quest a new name. Our resilience work began with our founding vision of a center for healing ourselves and the earth. It took root early in the Commonweal Research Institute and the Commonweal Garden. The Commonweal Sustainable Futures Project emerged around the Earth Summit. I wrote about it 20 years ago in “The Age of Extinctions and the Emerging Environmental Health Movement.” I wrote about it most recently in as essay called “Courage in Dark Times,” reprinted from my blog by the Health and Environmental Funders Network. (www.hefn.org/connect/blog/courage_in_dark_times)

    The Global Challenge is the intersectionality of all the major stress vectors on humanity and the biosphere. The FAN Initiative website lists 12 such challenges. We could readily add a dozen more. Climate change, poverty, toxification of all life, water shortages, ocean acidification, and much more. The greatest threat is not any single vector but the intersectionality of all of them. Many act as force multipliers for others.

    For the past two years I’ve engaged in an intensive study of contemporary resilience-related literature and projects. As president of the Jenifer Altman Foundation, I also began to develop a funder affinity group called OMEGA: Resources for Resilience and held discussions with colleagues across the United States and European Union and beyond. The premise of OMEGA is that foundations and their grantees focus on every important silo issue under the sun but almost no foundation and few NGOs focus on the Global Challenge. Yet the Global Challenge is the greatest threat of all.

    Work on the Global Challenge must take place at every level—personal, family, local, bioregional, state, national, and international. I’m drawn to questions of community resilience. I hope we can work from community resilience down to the family and individual level and up to bioregional, state, national, and international levels.

    The FAN Initiative, a remarkable resource, describes the Global Challenge at a planetary level. The Post Carbon Institute superbly explores community resilience. The Millennial Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere out of Stanford is another excellent global resource. The Transition Towns movement out of the United Kingdom is active in many countries including the United States. The Dark Mountain Project in the United Kingdom brings the arts into the psychic reality of this moment. The Stockholm Resource Center is the best government-supported global resource. There are others, but this is a primer. If you read only one book in the field, choose Thomas Homer-Dixon’s indispensable The Upside of Down.

    The goals of the Resilience Project are:

  • To invite wider attention to the Global Challenge.
  • To gather resources for thought and action.
  • To convene conversations and workshops that help move us toward resilience.
  • To welcome curated views from across the national and international spectrum.
  • The Resilience Project is not here to tell you how to think about—or what to do about—the Global Challenge. We’re here to provide a respectful and thoughtfully curated space to explore different views and approaches.

    The Global Challenge is unavoidable. Future shocks grow more severe with each passing year. Clearly we’d love to see global solutions to climate change, poverty, toxic chemicals, warfare, and all the rest. We should continue to strive toward them. Community resilience requires a principle focus at the community level. This is where real change is possible.

    I hold a biblical image of community resilience. I imagine people around the world coming to recognize they will need to build community vessels—arks if you will—to survive the coming deluge. We all need the same ten things: air, water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, learning, safety, communications, and community. If the elaborate global systems begin to break down, old skills will need to be relearned at the community level to provide these human essentials.

    The gift will be to make this re-skilling a joyful and meaningful process wherever possible, so that communities develop their arks less from fear than from a positive sense of purpose in constructing a new and yet ancient way of living together. We’re just starting again—a search that has been our search since we imagined Commonweal as a community committed to healing ourselves and healing the earth. Join us.

    Conclusion

    I’ve tried to give you a sense of what Commonweal is like as we reach the turning of our 43rd year. Commonweal is as alive, vibrant, and powerful as ever.

    We are, above all, a community of people who have come together to do the work of service.

    It is precisely because Commonweal doesn’t depend on one person, and isn’t focused on a single mission, that our community can reinvent our work as needs and opportunities arise.

    It is precisely because we do not require a single way of thinking or believing—but welcome all those who value kindness, consciousness, and dedication—that our community is strong.

    Much of our most powerful work is done by volunteers—program directors and others who make their livings in other ways, but do their soul work through Commonweal.

    Our community extends across the country and around the world to people who have been touched by our work. And that includes you.

    We Need Your Help and Support

    Commonweal differs from many nonprofits in the extraordinary role that individual donations play in our work each year. Your support provides the glue that holds Commonweal together. We literally could not do it without you.

    You can donate to individual Commonweal programs. You can provide general support for Commonweal. You can give a single donation or make a wonderful gift of a recurring monthly donation.

    Donations can be made through the Commonweal website, www.commonweal.org, or through our individual program websites. Check donations can be mailed to Commonweal, PO Box 316, Bolinas, California 94942.

    It makes a tremendous difference when you include us in your estate planning, or ask for memorial donations to come to Commonweal. And we welcome creative donations of land, houses, cars, boats, or other things of value. Just call or write me or Oren Slozberg or Arlene Allsman to explore your ideas with us.

    As I turn 75, what is in my heart is an infinite gratitude for the work that the past 43 years has given us. I am grateful for the beloved community of Commonweal staff, board members, and friends that make Commonweal what it is.

    Keep us in your thoughts and prayers for the time ahead.

    Courage, joy, and gratefulness,
    Michael Lerner
    President

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