Fresno: I took a detour this week between meetings in Washington, DC, and San Francisco to stop in Fresno, California in the midpoint of the state, and get a lift 45 minutes out of town into the foothills to look at an operation called Sun Mountain (http://www.sunmt.org/). I first met George Ballis a couple of decades ago when he was running something called National Land for People Institute or something with a name close to that, which did important research and advocacy about agribusiness in California and the way it was grabbing water rights illegally to consolidate larger farms. He and his operations were always big supporters and resources for farm worker organizing, and he was well know as important to that struggle.
Now he was more commonly known as “Elfie” and with his wife, Maia, had established Sun Mountain as their major 501(c )3 project over the last 20 years or so. They were activists, artists (some of his photos are the iconic images of Cesar Chavez that we all know), environmentalists, and back-to-the-land folks all wrapped up into 40 acres here and through on going trips and work all over the Fresno area.
I was with Donna Bransford, director of ACORN International, who I had impressed into service as both a ride and a reality check / sounding board on whether or not there was some way we could find some mutual interests that worked for all of our ACORN related operations, Elfie, Maia, and Sun Mountain. The place has a pretty setting. You drive through the winding, rounded winter browned foothills that are part of the larger gateway to the Sierras and Yosemite National Park less than 60 miles from their doorstep. The property is about 2500 feet in elevation with National Forest Service land abutting on two sides. You look up at rock formations towering over the property and down the sight line to strong, tall trees and high grass.
The place is an environmental showplace of smart, low cost efficiency. Solar panels provide most of the energy output with a PG&E backup. The sun also heats the place nicely with some backup from several potbellied, wood fired stoves. You walk into the kitchen to the smells of fruit of various descriptions drying after harvest from the trees planted on the property over a 20 year period. Tall ceilings of redwood panels everywhere from inside to outside make one surprised to find rough sheetrock in the “basement” on the ground floor. There’s a hot tub and great deck at a higher elevation looking down on the main house. There are hopes for a straw baled house to be built in the front “yard” not far from the main house.
But now after a life in the movement for social change and an income stream largely consisting of social security payments and what they can eke out of their non-profit, they are at the age where they are facing the dilemma of all small farmers and small business people: who can take over and extend the vision as their energies finally dissipate? Sun Mountain owns the land and the whole thing is land trusted to prevent future development of the property, to ensure conversation, and to maintain its mission for educational, environmental, and social change purposes. But, maintaining the vision takes hard, hard work, good money and clear resources, and, importantly, people willing to make the commitment and see to it. No one in the area around Fresno has been able to figure out a way to make it work and carry the weight, which is why in the strange way things happen, that they had put out the word, and eventually a friend came to me and asked me to take a look, and so I did.
I’m a sucker for these kinds of situations. People who have spent a lifetime in our work need to believe that the torch will be taken up and the light kept alive and shining. In my simple code it is the equivalent in the organizing tradition of a marine’s unwillingness to leave a wounded comrade on the field of battle. Same! Same! People do not get rich or famous in this work, but their lives have meaning and the meaning is all wrapped up in the work and the memory and memorial of what was done. If the work dies, then they die hard, too, and there’s an injustice there that is hard to swallow in a simple matter of dollars and cents. We do it for them. Someone else does it for us. The chain has to go unbroken.