I grew up in Ohio, the child of working class parents. My father worked on the railroad, an engineer who was gone days at a time. My mother was a dreamer who wrote stories, played the piano, and suffered bouts of depression. I followed in her footsteps. I married, raised my children, and tried to find the things that make for happiness. I loved learning and all through my married life I kept going back to school.
I finally got a degree when I was single and on my own in 1985, at the age of 55. My interests and study have always focused on social work, social change, feminism, and creative art of all kinds. I began working with people using dance as a vehicle of self-discovery and the expression of feeling on a non-verbal level.
Dance as therapy was discovered, or “invented” by dancers in the 1940s and is now a field of study taught by psychologists I stumbled on to it as a dancer, teaching dance as a normal mode of expression. My work with women led me to see that many women suffer from a depression that is caused by the social structure and the position that women are seen to have in it. There are many examples of oppression that women have accepted, women who stay in abusive situations, and the tendency of many women to leave important decisions on social, political, and individual levels to the other gender. I became a natural feminist somewhere along my journey through this life. And life gives you what you need next. The year before I graduated from Southwest Texas I read an article about a place called Stonehaven and my hands got hot! I called the phone number and ten years later, here l am.
Stonehaven is a lovely ranch located in the Texas Hill Country Smiles from San Marcos. In 1984 there was a group of people talking about what kind of retreat center Stonehaven should be. The most interesting ideas were from Ms. Vaughan, a feminist and peace activist. She wished to have a meeting of active women from all over the world to find ways to use feminine values to effect social change.
The International Women’s Peace conference look place in May of 1984 and a network of women and their work was formed that is still in place. Stonehaven has been a retreat center since then and has hosted hundreds of groups of a wide variety, many of them at little or no cost. The list of groups include: grassroots peace and social change organizations, women’s spirituality groups, women’s classes in media, environmental groups, local state and national coalitions against family violence and sexual assault, and my personal favorite which begins today, September 9, 1994, the second annual Formerly Battered Women’s Retreat.
The peaceful, healing, atmosphere of the ranch is the combination of the land, the lovely old stone buildings, and ten years of being operated by and for women. Men, who are members of groups working on social change, are welcome here and they also enjoy the nurturing environment. The main house can sleep 20 people in a family style manner, and a separate building has 5 more beds. Some camping is possible for larger groups.The facility is completely equipped, linens, dishes, etc., are all provided. Stonehaven has a pool and Jacuzzi, an organic garden and walking trails to enjoy.
Although I’ve had liberal tendencies since childhood, I didn’t become active in the social change movement until 1980. I had gone back to school to study art and had been drawn to do a photographic essay of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
I’ll never forget the day I drove down to Plymouth to photograph the plant. It looked eerie and completely unsafe to me and I was sure the water surging out of the plant and into the Atlantic was highly radioactive. I decided to get involved in the Nuclear Freeze Campaign and joined my neighborhood Freeze group. During the 1984 political campaign I worked as a staff person for Freeze Voter ’84. We worked hard and helped elect pro-freeze candidates, including Senator John Kerry.
In 1985, I went to Chiapas, Mexico to meet a noted environmental activist and photographer named Gertrude Duby Blom. I decided to write about her work and over the next four years I lived there intermittently and became immersed in the global environmental crisis – the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, deforestation of tropical rainforests, in particular, the deforestation of the rainforests of southern Mexico, pollution of oceans and rivers, species extinction, toxic waste, etc.
Living in a developing country was an important missing link for me in understanding the effects of U.S. policy on so-called third-world countries and in developing a more complete analysis of the systems of oppression which are responsible for global environmental destruction and raging poverty.
During that time Genevieve Vaughan had given me a grant to live for 14 months in Chiapas. She invited me to come to Stonehaven Ranch to meet with a group of women working on Mexican and Central American issues. Some of them were living and working in Latin America. Others lived in the U.S. and worked with refugees from Central America.
During thai wonderful week I found another missing link. I discovered the power women hold when they come together collectively to work for change. Until then I had worked more or less alone. I returned lo Chiapas determined to overcome my fear of groups and to find a way to work collectively with other women.
In July of 1989, I moved to Austin and Genevieve hired me temporarily as her assistant. Eventually, I was hired as a full tune staff person and after about a year I became the Environment and Social Justice Coordinator. During that time I worked on a number of environmental projects as well as special projects.
In April of 1994 I became Co-director of Stonehaven Ranch where I nurture a garden, trees, flowers, horses and all the beautiful women (and some men, too) who come here.
I continue to be interested in environment and social justice issues, sustainable living, and healing, as well as writing poetry and prose. lam currently working on a book called Sacred Earth, Sacred Sky, – a group of essays I began while living in Chiapas about the earth crisis which is an obvious metaphor for our own post-industrial, post-modem healing crisis. I like to watch the stars and listen to crickets and owls sing their night songs.
Environmental Alliance Building: One of my first projects with the Foundation was organizing an environmental alliance. The Foundation had already begun to organize against a housing development on a tract of land next to Alma de Mujer called the Schubert it was clear that we needed to join with other organizations who shared our goals.
Alma is part of a larger area which is a sensitive ecological zone and habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler. A number of organizations, including Earth First, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and some neighborhood groups, were working to get the Warbler listed as an endangered species as a way to protect the bird and the habitat from further development.
The Foundation provided the leadership and suggested we organize together so we could work more closely and support each other. The Central Texas Environmental Alliance was the result. We met regularly and those Friday night meetings became an important platform for updating each other on up-coming events and coordinating actions.
After about a year some of us became dissatisfied with the group because everyone was white and we were focused only on white issues. We began to explore the possibility of beginning a new alliance which would link the issues we had been working on with those of people of color.
Again we held a series of planning meetings but events in Austin were happening fast and there was no time to plan another organization. A potent new group had formed called People Organized in Defense or Earth and Her Resources (PODER) to work for the environmental concerns of people of color and suddenly they were swamped with issues: a petroleum tank farm that was leaking and contaminating the surrounding area, making people sick; proposals to place hi-tech and high risk businesses in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods; and an electric power plant which was endangering the lives and health of community residents. Environmental racism was now on the front burner.
Some members of CTEA went to work immediately on these issues. Others have gradually joined in. The Foundation has continued to build alliances with PODER (which has been highly successful in eliminating the petroleum tank farm) and other people of color organizations in Austin and globally and we regularly collaborate on projects. Past collaborations in Austin include a public forum in East Austin to highlight toxic waste issues. A speaker from the former Soviet Union talked about nuclear concerns in Russia, an elder from the Western Shoshone Nation spoke about nuclear contamination and the Land rights struggles of the Western Shoshone Nation, speakers from PODER talked about the petroleum tank farm: and groups including PODER were on planning committee and were key speakers for the Foundation conference on breast cancer and nuclear radiation February of 1994.
Breast Cancer and Nuclear Radiation: Women’s Action for the Environment I was part of the Foundation Breast Cancer Conference Organizing Committee. with Genevieve, Erin Rogers, Maria Limon, Jody Dodd, Esther Martinez and Ruthe Winegarten. From the beginning we realized organizing around a proposed nuclear waste dump in Texas and the breast cancer epidemic would be of interest to many diverse groups so we invited local and state groups to participate in the planning process.
We included women’s groups like the Rape Crisis Center, Austin NOW and Texas NOW; groups working on health care issues like the Gray Panthers and Texas Citizen Action, those working on social justice and environmental issues like PODER, Clean Water Action and Greenpeace; those working on nuclear issues like Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Dallas Peace Center, the Red River Peace Network, the Nuclear Responsibility Network and the Border Coalition to Stop Radiation Dumping and others. Our informal coalition was very effective in planning a successful conference and in getting the word out. Over 250 people from Texas and around the country participated in the two day conference which featured radiation experts, health care providers, grassroots activists and community people. It was the first time activists, scientists and community people had come together to talk about the relationship between low-level radiation and breast cancer.
Speakers included Sylvia Herrera of PODER; Dr. Larry Egbert of Physicians for Social Responsibility; breast cancer survivor Alpha Thomas from Dallas Rainbow NOW; Beverly Rhine of the Women of Color Breast Cancer Survivor Support Project in California; authors and scientists Dr. Jay Gould; Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Dr. Ernest Sternglass and Vladimir Chernousenko, formerly of the Ukrainian Academy of Science in charge of the clean-up of Chernobyl.
Work-shop topics included Breast Cancer and Radiation: Effects of Deliberate Releases on the US Population; Breast Cancer, Environmental Toxins and Public Health; the Politics of Breast Cancer; Environmental Racism and Hazardous Waste; and Grassroots Organizing.
World Women’s Congress for a Health Planet November, 1991
In November of 1991, thousands of women from all comers of the earth assembled in Miami, Florida to tell the truth about the effects of the global patriarchal economic growth model, the extreme over-development it has caused, and its effects on women, children, people of color and on Mother Earth. The result was a preparatory document which was taken to Rio de Janiero for the Earth Summit in July, 1992. The Congress was organized primarily by Women’s Environment and Development Organization or WEDO in New York City, with an interracial organizing committee of women from around the world.
The Foundation participated in several ways. I was the Environment and Social Justice Coordinator at the time, and organized a group of 20 women of color from various organizations throughout the U.S. to attend the conference. The Foundation raised outside funding to bring them to Miami. These women are exemplary leaders in the movement for social change. They came from a variety of organizations, including Native rights, environmental, women’s health, labor, and environmental justice. Each was an excellent representative for her organization and for the Foundation, as well. Because of their participation essential information was shared about the effects of the patriarchal development model on communities of color in the USA which would not otherwise have been available.
Trella Laughlin, producer of Let the People Speak, along with Ingrid Weigand of Austin, video-taped part of the proceedings and conducted and videoed interviews with some of the amazing women in attendance. Foundation staff member Sally Jacques and Frieda Werden, Director of WINGS, worked with Debra Latham of Radio for Peace International, and Maria Suarez and Katarina Anfossi of Radio F.I.R.E. to do audio recordings of workshops and plenaries and conducted some interviews as well. Radio F.I.R.E. has had many broadcasts of interviews since the Congress. Laughlin and Weigand developed a mini-series highlighting some of the testimony presented at the Congress which was later shown on cable access.
I organized and moderated a workshop on NAFTA. Panelists included women from Canada where there was already a free trade agreement, Mexico and the U.S.A. Recommendations from this excellent panel became part of the final document written in Miami and later presented at the Earth Summit.
The Congress was an amazing event – so many strong and powerful women telling the truth, demanding to be heard, demonstrating poignantly the effects overdevelopment has on people of color, women, children and the earth. It was a clear message that all development has a cost and the cost of overdevelopment is already too great for the earth and for the people of the earth to bear. It was a unified plea to world leaders and to all people to wake up and see the destruction that has already taken place as the result of our materialistic and militaristic way of life. It was a resounding Yes for life and a resounding “No” for any further destruction.
Anti-Racism Work – The White Allies Study Circle
In January of 1993, the Ku Klux Klan came to Austin for a rally at the State Capitol. Foundation staff members organized a multi-ethnic coalition of community groups to respond to the Klan’s visit. We called ourselves the Peoples’ Anti-Racism Coalition (PARC). We wanted to stand up and say the Klan is not welcome in Austin but we didn’t want to have a direct confrontation with them. PARC organized a march and rally to be held at the Capitol several hours before the Klan’s arrival The focus was to celebrate our diversity and to send a dear message to the KKK that they are not welcome in Austin. The rally was followed by a multi-cultural celebration during the time the Klan was meeting, featuring food, music, poetry, dance and solidarity talks by community leaders. Several hundred people participated in PARC’S events and we were able to convey our message to the Klan and to the people of Austin.
Following the KKK visit, PARC members continued to meet together to find ways to continue the work. What finally emerged was a White Allies Study Circle. The group, which I facilitate, is for whites who intend to work on their own racism and to learn to become effective allies to people of color.
Racism is a white problem in this country and as whites we need to take responsibility for ending it This means looking deep within to uncover the embedded forms of racism in ourselves and to see how we continue to participate in a racist system that is damaging people of color every hour of every day. As long as we agree to participate in the current economic system, we collaborate with racism because the existing economic system is designed to favor whites – even though it favors some whites more than others.
The group provides support to individuals working to understand racism, how it functions, how we continue to support it with our silence and our own lack of awareness of its daily effects on the lives of people of color. The group is open to all whites or white-identified people and is on-going.
The Temple in Cactus Springs, Nevada In 1993 Genevieve empowered a small group of women to build a temple near the nuclear test site in Cactus Springs, Nevada. In October, 1992, she had purchased this land (traditional Western Shoshone land taken by the federal government) and returned it to the guardianship of the Western Shoshone Nation during a beautiful ceremony as part of the 1992 Celebration of Indigenous People. The Temple, built with the open-hearted support of the Shoshone people was dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, goddess of fertility and child-bearing, and built to honor a promise Genevieve made many years ago while trying to conceive her first child.
When Genevieve asked me to facilitate the building of the Temple, I was immediately attracted to the idea and gave her a resounding “Yes!” I love sacred architecture and have ‘built’ small stone shrines for years. Knowing about my interest in straw-bale construction, she suggested we build it with straw. I didn’t have any actual experience but had read everything I could find about building with straw and was convinced it was possible.
From the beginning it was important to us that there be women’s leadership and that the Temple be built primarily by women. In Nevada that first October of 1992 we met a courageous group of women and one man who had participated in the Walk Across America for Mother Earth as part of the 1992 celebration of Indigenous People. At the time they were part of an affinity group called Kraeniga Celery; later they renamed themselves CHAOS. They enthusiastically agreed to help us build the Temple.
Genevieve wanted the Temple to look like the Taj Mahal as much as possible. Together we poured through books until we found a design resembling a simplified Taj Mahal. A local architect, Yan Adler, drew up the first designs. In no time, Jody Dodd, a Foundation staff person who worked on the project with me, and I set off for Las Vegas to finalize the paperwork for the transfer of land at Cactus Springs to the Western Shoshone and to obtain building permits. The project was on its way!
In October, members of Kraeniga Celery and I met near Tucson, Arizona to participate in a straw-bale workshop. This was to be our only training in building with straw before we began the Temple.
Over the next several months I worked with an architect from Taos, New Mexico, named Whitney Nieman who had experience with straw-bale construction. She refined the design and made working drawings for the construction crew, providing invaluable help and support along the way.
In March of 1993, we returned to Cactus Springs, pitched our tents and set up camp. We lived close to the temple site during the entire building process. This bonding with place was important in preparing and strengthening us for the difficult work ahead.
We built the Temple in stages beginning, of course, with the foundation. None of us had much building experience so we brought a master carpenter named Yolanda (Yolie) Reyes from Austin to lead us through construction of the foundation, framing and roofing. The foundation took two difficult weeks as we had not anticipated the difficulties of building a foundation in sand. We were proud people when it was completed.
We returned for a month in May of 1993 to frame the structure, and to build and stucco the straw-bale walls. Once again Yolie guided us through the process. She was a patient teacher and her sense of humor helped us through more than one difficult moment. As the days passed, we learned the basics of hammering, sawing, framing and became good at on-the-spot problem solving.
Straw was chosen as the primary building material for the walls to demonstrate the use of ecological and earth-friendly materials and low-cost technologies. First, since straw is a by-product of grain production and is annually renewable, it is a good substitute for lumber. This obviously saves trees. Second, straw has excellent insulative value which can save up to 50% of the cost of heating and cooling. This saves electricity, prevents the need for costly new power plants, and prevents the escape of significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We were determined to provide a model of building that had the lowest possible impact on the earth and with the use of straw we were successful.
The most exciting time for me was raising the straw-bale walls. At last we could see the form rise up before us – solid and real. No longer a dream, it had form and content that was in the tangible as well as the unseen realms.
The straw walls were pinned together, covered in metal lath and stucco netting and then stuccoed. We completed two coats of stucco in May and the final coat, a soft desert beige, was applied in October of 1993 after a beautiful gathering of about 100 people to dedicate the Temple and to celebrate together. The final stage will be the addition of a copper dome.
The Temple is small and intimate – 300 square feet with four wide and open archways facing the cardinal directions, it is made of the four sacred elements and remains open to them. The wind, water and sand blow through. A small bowl embedded in the center of the floor contains sacred water. The fire element is alive with the sun’s rays, the sparkle of stars, the flash of lightening and the burning of incense. The floor is made with big slabs of sandstone sunk into a bed of small, smooth river stones. Marsha Gómez’s sculptures – Madre del Mundo and Sekhmet -sit on opposite walls, patiently and reverently blessing the temple, the land and the people who come to visit. Raven sits on the roof, guardian and messenger, carrying prayers and blessings far and wide. As builders, we look at the Temple in amazement. We know how hard we sweated and worked and how much we grew in the process, yet the Temple stands there like it has always been there. Born of its own desire to heal the earth.
Almost daily people pass by leaving sacred objects, totems of change. A shell, a figurine, a prayer, a stone, some flowers. They light candles and burn incense. They come looking for some peace and sanity in the landscapes so brutally attacked by nuclear explosions and air force bombings. And they find it within these simple straw walls surrounded by Sekhmet’s home – the infinite desert.