The spirit of activist Lucy Burns blazes on through the Lucy Burns Institute

Lucy Burns will celebrate her birthday on July 28.  She’s turning 135, still taking a stand for women’s rights and doing what needs to be done to assure that the electorate is informed and engaged in the democratic process.

Lucy Burns, born July 28, 1879 in Brooklyn, was an unflappable suffragette, co-founder (with Alice Paul) of the National Women’s Party.  Well educated and financed by her wealthy father, Lucy first encountered activism – and Alice Paul – while a student in Britain.  She soon gave up her studies, went to work for the Women’s Social and Political Party, and dove deep into the cause of women in the UK.

Burns and Paul returned to the US where they worked for some time with the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  In time, Paul and Burns differed with the tactics of NAWSA and went on to establish what became the National Women’s Party

The story of Burns is one of activism, association with powerful women of the day (e.g. Dorothy Day) and a fade from center stage as she left Paul to take the lead and returned to take on family responsibilities until her quiet death in 1966.

Still, it was to the story of Lucy Burns that Leslie Graves returned in 2006 when she envisioned the potential of the Lucy Burns Institute, a powerful force that continues to grow and thrive from its home base in Madison, Wisconsin.  Graves’ inspiration came not from Burns’ fight for women’s rights but from her own outrage at the mindless procedures that blocked her Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Assured that her frustration was widely shared by countless FOIA requesters Graves took action. In December 2006 the Lucy Burns Institute was incorporated as a nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin.  The following year, the Lucy Burns Institute introduced WikiFOIA, a state government-focused resource designed “to harness local knowledge in an effort to empower citizens seeking information from government entities.”

For Graves, Burns was a role model:

In her work to advocate the cause of ‘votes for women” [Burns] organized. lobbied, wrote, edited, traveled, marched, spoke, rallied and picketed…..She knew that being able to participate in a democracy by voting was an essential way to express our human dignity.  For this goal, she was willing to fight and suffer.  In a small way, we like to think our work carries on the spirit of Lucy Burns.

In modern America, the barriers to full participation in our democracy aren’t as concrete as the ability to cast a vote.  What can prevent people from fully engaging in today’s political process is when it is difficult to find accurate, comprehensive information about election laws, politicians, candidates and elections.  LBI’s goal is to help solve that problem for all three branches of government, at all three levels of government.”

Today the Lucy Burns Institute is a thriving resource, still shaped on the vision of Lucy Burns, modernized by Leslie Graves, the LBI board and staff – and user feedback.  The principles of LBI are simple, straightforward and inviolable:

  • The truth is not partisan.
  • People seek truth and use it in positive, powerful, and unforeseen ways.
  • Informed voters are the foundation of democracy. Positive change starts with them.
  • Democratic self-governance is not the work of a day; it requires optimism, persistence, and the long view.
  • The online environment is an extraordinary opportunity to reach voters with comprehensive facts, information, and content.

Among recent projects that expand the outreach and information access of LBI:

  • Ballotpedia is an online wiki with information about elections, Congress, state executive officials, state legislatures, recall elections and ballot measures.
  • Judgepedia is another wiki about America’s courts and judges.
  • Policypedia is an online guide to public policy information including energy policy, education policy, public pension policy, state budgets and electoral reform

Lucy Burns, unstoppable activist, lives on in the spirit of the Institute that bears her name.   Equipped with 21st Century tools LBI expands the very definition of access to information by and about the government – all three branches, all three levels.

Those who share that vision and sense of purpose might celebrate the 135th birthday of the indefatigable Lucy Burns by spending quality time exploring the robust, state-of-the-art, unique resources of the Lucy Burns Institute that keeps her story alive and today’s voters informed.

Lucy Burns Institute

301 South Bedford Street, Suite 6

Madison, WI 53703

info@lucyburns.org

info@lucyburns.org

 

 

Public Libraries & Open Government – Some post-conference reflections

Note:  Last May I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government, organized by the Center for Technology and Government, University of Albany, State University of New York and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  This post is the reflection that I wrote after that conference.  Though this is not a typical “Poking Around” post – in length, content or approach – I thought it might be of some interest to some readers:  M

Thoughts on The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government

Though I am not and never have been a public library administrator, the challenge of participating in this discussion of The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government excites and inspires me.  Because I lack the administrative bona fides my participation in the May conference was as an outsider who cares deeply about how we frame the issue and create effective approaches to the possibilities.

My professional background is as a librarian, working for the most part in multitype library collaboration.  I have also served as a member of the Minnesota State Board of Education, as founder and volunteer ED of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, on the ALA Legislation committee, and more.  At present I am the Outreach Coordinator with OpenTheGovernment.org, a DC-based coalition of civic society organizations, committed to transparency and accountability in government at all levels.   My thoughts are those of an outsider who cares about the untapped potential of public libraries in a changing environment, about open government and about the symbiotic relationship that calls out to be nurtured.  The question on the table is how to make that happen

In my decades of trying to link libraries and librarians with the fundamental principles of open government in a democracy I have observed and participated in the growing pains that shape ways we conduct government business in an environment transformed by information and communications technology.  Now, working inside the beltway, I have a visceral sense of the cataclysmic change that is reshaping the behemoth federal system and its relationships in the information tsunami.   Above all, I understand the challenge facing public librarians who, individually, institutionally and as a profession, must learn to swim in an information ocean that is teeming at high tide.

My reflections are based on experience and on a deep sense that public librarians must first clarify their perception of the “big picture” of open government, then shape policies and procedures that position public libraries as serious players – now, while the open government tide is cresting.

Briefly stated, we need to step back to position public libraries in a broader context – to avoid the inclination to rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic….. To wit, public libraries must seize the opportunity to make bold moves including, but not limited to, these:

  • Position libraries, library leaders and an expanding range of library staff higher up on the information chain. This requires a mental shift so that library staff, especially leaders, see themselves as links in a complex and fluid information environment in which virtually every institution is in flux and in which we’re all trying to figure out the policies and procedures of open government.  Public libraries need to engage as active players in the process itself.
  • Clearly articulate the value that public library workers of many stripes add to the open government mix.  Library leaders need to be more than dutiful administrators of their agencies; library boards, elected officials and other decision-makers must understand the potential of the institution.  Potential collaborators need to understand the range of services and, even more, the diverse pool of talent represented by the public library.
  • Engage in discussions of information policy OUTSIDE of the library setting – work with open government policy groups (e.g. state open government coalitions, national groups, including OpenTheGovernment.org) as well as with new enthusiasts such as Code for America and countless local manifestations of CfA-type groups.  Library leaders need to  have the patience to think creatively about how to harness the surge of energy and talent that hackers offer – to help direct all that effort to enhance open government.
  • Support open government as a concept at the federal, state and local levels. Virtually every special interest advocacy groups (e.g. environmental groups, food/ag groups, transportation advocates) has huge but unrecognized open government implications.  Advocacy groups need to understand open government first, THEN make the library connection, the “why” before the “how” of open government.
  • Act proactively and with passion – work with those organizations, individuals who set the public agenda, be anticipatory not reactive – not just with elected officials but the organizations, media, community leaders who set the pace and carry the message.
  • Get on boards and committees – LISTEN – don’t talk about the library – instead, identify the information “thread”, then show how the library can meet that need.  Build on and at the same time re-brand the traditional library role to meet contemporary needs and possibilities.
  • Better understand the complexities of government per se.  Librarians always focus on legislation, how to get more money to support libraries.  There have long been creative and successful efforts to link the role of libraries with adult learning, literacy, economic vitality.  There is a history and there are models of “insinuating” libraries in the broader contact.  Engaging public libraries in the all-inclusive concept of open government is more overwhelming, but it’s worth looking at the successes of history.
  • Pay closer attention to the executive branch of government – i.e. the role of regulation, how legislative mandates are actually implemented by executive agencies, what happens after a law is passed  - the devil in the details.
  • Connect with the media, an institution also in cosmic flux  – not just to promote the library but to understand the flow of information.  Serious journalists who are also re-positioning their institutions on the information chain can be effective partners in articulating the role of public libraries, convincing open government advocates of libraries’ potential and of guiding readers/viewers/listeners to resources available through and at the library.  Seasoned journalists are old hands of appreciating the importance of open government. They are also familiar with the rules and the tools, particularly FOIA.  The journalism world includes organizations of special journalists – health care, education, environment, agriculture, government, editorial writers, law and others that share with public libraries the job of informing the public.
  • Pay attention to the government documents depository networks.  I heard no mention during the conference of this existing system that operates somewhat sub rosa   The gargantuan system connects academic, special and public libraries with the information chain that has been in place for decades.  The system may not play the role or be the system it once was and what it could be, but it is a living network that should not be ignored.  Though the technology has changed the tools, the concept is solid – that public, academic and special libraries are a functioning and efficient distribution system for federal, state and local government information.
  • Learn from special libraries – corporate, law, health science, federal/state/local government librarians.  Though most do not serve the public directly, these professionals “think like librarians” and are adamant public library users and supporters.  They also share membership in library networks.  Special librarians are experts at anticipating and identifying their patrons’ needs and at collaborating with information partners across institutional lines.  If one of the strategies is to be mentorships and internships, consider collaborating not just with public but with special libraries, particularly state agency libraries that serve not only an agency but the general public.
  • Follow what’s happening in academic libraries, the training ground for public library users.  Suffice to say, the user cohort, faculty and students alike, has transformed expectations of services, access, the very role of the institution, the building, the staff, the resource base.
  • Likewise, heed the changes happening in schools – where learners and teachers alike have 21st century tools of access at their fingers but limited awareness of resources (public libraries or government information).  Work with educators, including school librarians and administrators, to raise the level of expectation as well as to forge information age skills in young learners.
  • Acknowledge and deal with the fact that very few people have an idea of how much government information is available, sometimes but not always accessible – or, for that matter, that the government is a major producer and disseminator of data, information tools, digital resources including huge archival resources increasingly accessible in digital format.  Work with open government advocates to educate the public about why it matters — why information by and about the government is the sine qua non of a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people – and the people have the responsibility and require the tools to fulfill that role.
  • Recognize that government information is organized and shared in ways other than traditional library materials.  Searchers, including public librarians, must understand the structure and processes of government as being other than the structure of knowledge that shapes traditional library classification systems.
  • Take into consideration the obvious fact that the differences among public libraries are huge – a small town library that is the primary source for residents is very unlike a major urban library that operates in an entirely different context.  One size does not fit all; while size determines strategy the  impact of the public library in the community served is parallel.  Find the common ground.
  • Validate the fact that government agencies that expand their outreach and openness by going through the public library will save money – that fact needs to be made clear to decision-makers, which means that libraries may have to provide metrics
  • Build on the fact that public libraries already provide extensive training on use of digital technology – access to free and open government information should be a focus of that training.  People can learn at the same time how to use government information about consumer issues, health care, neighborhood resources, environmental information, voter information (more than job info) as part of their ongoing training on the tools.  Information by and about the government is free – it’s also amazingly diverse and FUN.  Lots of great stuff for kids can be an entrée to the wealth of government information that is readily accessible.  People without means who are introduced to government information as part of their tech training

will incorporate use of free and open government information into their quiver of resources.

  • Find or plant library evangelists within appropriate networks.  At the local level this means nonprofits (environmentalists, parent advocacy groups, food safety, disabilities community) as well as neighborhood associations, faith community, immigrant groups, disabilities community, foundations, good government groups, and other forces of influence in the community.  Communicate through their channels- people go to information resources they trust….
  • The need for evangelists exists at the state and federal levels as well.  In the political arena, the principles and contours of open government are being shaped by a host of civil society organizations that influence the policies and procedures of federal government as well the implementation of practices that work their way through the information chain to end users at the local level.  Library evangelists working within the system are key to stressing the role of public libraries in assuring that information is accessible and useable for the end user.

Librarians are inclined to think they have to explain and to do it all themselves – sometimes it’s better to demonstrate, to listen and to collaborate on the common purpose of open government.  Public libraries must acknowledge that they have an image issue – they must adamantly reinforce the positive, the library as a pillar institution in a democratic society, while downplaying the stereotype, low expectation or invisibility that we must admit persists in the public mind.  To ignore the persistent public perception is folly – to reinforce an anachronistic image is to ensure that public librarians will never be at the table to engage in shaping open government principles, policies or practices.

I hope that whatever strategies conference attendees propose to promote public libraries’ engagement reflect a broad vision of open government and a proactive role for public libraries that may place unwelcome demands on institutions and individuals resistant to cosmic change.  My hope is that my observations are helpful in meeting the challenge

 

2014 at Half-Life – Time to regroup for what comes next

Tempus is fugiting

Don’t look back, but we just passed the half-way point of 2014….And it was just a few days ago that the days started getting shorter, admittedly at a lazy summer rate.

Does it seem to you we just got going

Yesterday it was still snowing

Now we’re battening down for fall

We wonder if indeed that’s all

We have to show for half a year

We want to look into a mirror

To see just what it is we’ve done

Did we just work, or have some fun?

Did we make enemies or friends?

Did we ignore or tie loose ends?

Or did we slumber through the seasons

Dreaming of the rhymes and reasons

That time speeds by in months not days?

Have we been living in a haze

Of chores and jobs and paying bills

And all that little stuff that fills

The days and nights, the months and weeks

The highs and lows, the slumps and peaks?

 

The Fourth might be a day to pause

To think of what’s to come because

If we’re half way to next year now

It might be good to think of how

We ought to spend the time we savor

To do ourselves a little favor

Forget regrets, exhale, get set

Next year may be the best one yet!

Press on, shape up, we’re half way there

We haven’t got an hour to spare!

 

But think again, the weekend’s long

To waste a weekend must be wrong

Long weekends are the time to ponder

To set imaginations free to wander

To think of flags, parades and speeches

Lazy naps and sandy beaches.

 

Rejoice and thank the founders of this nation

That mid-year brings this brief vacation

To exit from the daily grind

To stop the clock, to just unwind

Spend time with neighbors, friends and fam

Confess we just don’t give a damn.

~~ ~ ~   Happy half-life 2014!   ~ ~ ~~

Bookcase for Every Child – An idea whose time has come????

What must be two decades ago now, midst a flurry of efforts to encourage and support early readers, Sherry Lampman observed that, while it’s great to give books to young readers, kids also need a safe place to store their treasures – they need bookcases.  Kids need to know that books are special, that books deserve special care, that a kid can actually own a book that is his or hers alone to treasure, that a book is to be read and read again.  Sherry’s intriguing idea has floated through my mind many times over the years….

Until just yesterday when I learned about the national “Bookcase for Every Child” project!    The project is thus described in the promotional materials:
“This project provides quality, personalized, oak bookcases, and a starter set of books, to pre-school children being reared in low-income families.”  The seed that Sherry had planted in my mind has taken root in Arkansas and environs.

Now copyrighted, the “Bookcase for Every Child” (http://www.bookcaseforeverychild.com) began nearly a decade ago in Conway, Arkansas.  There’s a comprehensive development plan that includes tips on who needs to be in the  “central committee” – the local librarian, a representative of the faith community, media reps, elected officials, a “literacy-minded banker” to serve as treasurer, and, of course, a “master craftsman to head up the bookcase builders.”

The erstwhile folks at Bookcase for Every Child are serious about all this – they also provide detailed information on just what resources the “master craftsman” and the building crew will need.  (http://www.bookcaseforeverychild.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=54&Itemid=72)

And they’ve made progress, particularly in the area around their starting point in Conway.  There’s a fun slide show that shows not only the finished bookcases, but the exuberant responses of builders and young readers alike.  (http://thecabin.net/slideshow/greenbrier/2014-05-27/bookcase-every-child)

I’ve had a fun time exploring the unique website sponsored by the project and the energetic project director, Jim Davidson (http://www.bookcaseforeverychild.com/index.php?option=com_contact&view=category&catid=12&Itemid=58)  Davidson’s energy and enthusiasm for the task rekindle that thought that Sherry had shared all those years ago.  Jim writes and believes and “bookcases save lives, bookcases with books save lives, reading saves lives, literacy saves lives….”   He is still working on the project from his home in Conway – Jim Davidson, 1 Bentley Drive, Conway AR 72034, 501-4507743.

I’m wondering now if Minnesota, land of 10,000 amateur craftsmen and grandpas, might offer a fertile growing environment for this special idea.  It can’t hurt to transplant the seed….

 

Access Press at 25! A quarter century of serving and reflecting Minnesota’s disabilities community

Access Press is celebrating its 25th Anniversary!  Congratulations are in order – and thanks!   So also is this post which I hope is redundant for many regular readers of this monthly treasure trove of information about the disabilities community. 

The mission of Access Press is “to promote the social inclusion and legal rights of people with disabilities by providing a forum for news, features, opinion and conversation to benefit people who are often invisible and marginalized in mainstream society.”   In truth,  Access Press is really the indispensable window on the world to what’s happening in the disabilities community, a community so robust that it can be difficult to understand if one does not feel a member.  With Access Press, we can all keep up, understand and participate.

Happily, after a quarter century, many Minnesotans have honed the habit of picking up the monthly Access Press – or, better yet, making sure there’s a drop site of the indispensable publication in every possible public space!  In fact, there are approximately 300 sites around the state where, on the 10th of each month, bundles of Access Press are dropped off for free and easy access.  In addition to the printed publication, the paper is produced in audiotape format using a special radio channel for people with visual impairments.   Keeping apace with technology, the articles from each edition are also posted on the Access Press website (http://www.accesspress.org)– or, if you just can’t wait for the 10th of the month, keep up with the print edition by following Access Press on Facebook and Twitter!

For those who have some catching up to do, the 25th anniversary is a good time to look back.  In the May 2014 issue Managing Editor Jane McClure offers a history note that tells the story of the newspaper, tracing the origins of the newspaper from the launch of Access Press on the brink of the vote on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  (http://www.accesspress.org/2014/05/history-note-a-look-back-through-the-pages-of-access-press/)  In fact, every month Access Press carries a History Note, reminding readers of the laws, the issues, and the leaders who have made a difference in the struggle of Minnesotans and Americans at large to create an inclusive community.

The June 2014 issue offers a great review of the legislative accomplishments of the most recent legislative session – issues that include a range from safe schools (bullying) to autism to expanded funding and more,  There’s also a synopsis of what’s coming up on Radio Talking Books and other audio options,  notes on accessible events, even advance notice of the Americans with Disabilities 24th Anniversary Celebration, Friday July 25 at DHS.

Though this is but a snippet of Access Press, it ‘s easy to see why the paper is a must read.   Check out the website for the latest edition of the newspaper and much more, including the story behind The Real Story, a documentary film exploring media coverage of the disability issues in Minnesota.  Produced by Access Press and narrated by Kevin Kling, the documentary explores the biases in media coverage of disability issues in Minnesota and nationally and examines the role of grassroots and mainstream media outlets in reporting on stories important to all people with disabilities. 
 (http://www.accesspress.org/the-real-story/press/)

Tim Benjamin has been Editor-in-chief of Access Press since 2001, assuming the position on the death of Charlie Smith, founder, publisher and long-time editor.  (http://www.accesspress.org/2001/05/welcome-new-access-press-editor-tim-benjamin/)    Tim’s monthly column always offers a thoughtful summary of what’s happening and a reminder for readers to get up and do what needs to be done – to keep up with the news and resources, to learn and understand those who “are often invisible and marginalized in mainstream society”, to share the wealth of information found on the pages of Access Press with friends, family, and colleagues, to take action (e.g. in support of Disability Viewpoints on community cable), and to be certain that Access Press is on the distribution list for events and resources of interest to people with disabilities, their families and organizations who serve the disabilities community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Independence Day Birthday Greetings and a Public Spotlight on FOIA at 48

On my first day working in the DC office of OpenTheGovernment.org I was introduced to the security system, access code 7466.  Colleagues seem bemused that I did not immediately recognize this as July 4, 1966, date of the initial passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Since then the code has changed and I have learned more than I ever expected to know about FOIA.  Truth to tell, I have come to have enormous respect for this fundamental legislation, the bulwark of our nation’s protection of the people’s right to know.

Though some would say that FOIA is more honored in the breach than in the observance I worry much more about the fact that, for far too many of us, FOIA has come to be synonymous with national security, the province of attorneys and journalists, a mysterious process too pricey, too arcane, too complex for mere mortals.  In truth, FOIA is an indispensable tool that is available and accessible to the rest of us, which is why we need to engage in the ongoing hoopla surrounding FOIA as it approaches middle age….

Like most Americans FOIA, at the tender age of 48, is not about to sit on the shelf. Instead, FOIA is hot, ready to strut its stuff, retool, reinvent, whatever it takes to embrace the political and technological challenges of the day.  FOIA is taking its turn on center stage.  Everyone goes through this as the Big 5-0 approaches – not a bad idea for laws to pause for reflection at the same pace.

The 48th birthday celebration for FOIA blasted off on June 24 when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014.(  http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/alb14471 )

The intent of the bill is to significantly restrict the government’s ability to withhold information by citing what is known by insiders as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.   The act also strengthens the FOIA ombuds Office of Government Services (OGIS), promotes more proactive online access to government information, and pushes back on agency attempts to weaken the 2007 Open Government Act amendments.  An earlier, less stringent, bill has already passed unanimously in the House. (FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, February 2014)

Response to the Leahy-Cornyn proposal is immediate and generally positive from the open government community.  A quick google search will disclose comments by a host of advocacy groups of every stripe.  What matters now is that elected representatives understand that strengthening FOIA—the backbone of transparency and accountability — matters to “the rest of us,” the folks who care about food safety or the impact of fracking or the new EPA standards or transportation or children’s health or toxins or transportation safety or…..

It’s easy enough to brush up a bit on all things FOIA:

*If you’re the sort who likes to start from the beginning, check out the official FOIA website at http://www.foia.gov/index.html- keep in mind FOIA is a work in progress so if you see ways it can be improved, now’s the time….

*For specifics on FOIA at work, check out the National Security Archive, the unflappable agency that just keeps digging to unearth records long shielded by policy and practice from the public eye. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/the_archive.html

*To learn about examples of the impact of FOIA as the force behind the headlines, take a look at the “FOIA Files” compiled by Sunshine in Government – see http://sunshineingovernment.org/wordpress/?page_id=1533

*The public ombuds within government is the Office of Government Services, a major target of the Leahy-Cornyn bill – Learn about OGIS at https://ogis.archives.gov

*More to the point, engage in the process.  The folks at the National Archives and Records Administration, a major player in all things FOIA, are currently re-thinking their role and processes.  It’s fun to join the discussion of the real people who really do the real work of tending the daily business of open government   http://blogs.archives.gov/foiablog/2014/06/25/foia-advisory-committee-begins-setting-priorities/)

*If you’re the voyeuristic type that just can’t get enough of this stuff, check out The Government Attic, a treasure trove of stuff that’s been gathering dust all these years, now released through the FOIA process – today’s favorite, the FBI files back when they had time to worry about “The Untouchables” (http://www.governmentattic.org/11docs/FBIfilesUntouchablesTV_1948-1962.pdf}

The point is, let your fingers do the walking, and you’ll be a FOIA fan in short order.

As a FOIA fan you’ll need time to prep for the celebration of FOIA’s happy birthday on the 4th.   You’ll want to mention to the visiting President that transparency matters to Minnesotans.  You’ll need to get up to speed and engage in the buzz that  FOIA is getting these days.

Take away – A lot has changed since July 4, 1966.  Access to information by and about our government matters more than ever – we the people are increasingly responsible to be independent seekers and evaluators of resources, to hold our government accountable.  By default information access, open government, accountability will fall into the abyss of “everybody’s business and nobody’s business.”

As citizens it is a privilege to commemorate the birthday of FOIA by paying attention!  Those who shaped the fundamentals of our independence had a lot of confidence that we the people were the best deciders and that our decisions rest on good information by and about the government.   FOIA matters to all of us.

Besides, when approached in the proper spirit, birthday celebrations, even for  monumental laws approaching 50, can end up being pretty entertaining.

 

 

 

 

“A Place at the Table of Life” – How Jan Pilarski Describes Green Bridge Growers

 

Sometimes when I listen to The Splendid Table (which I do regularly) I am overwhelmed by the gustatory sophistication, the plethora of herbs and spices of which callers speak knowingly, the time and energy serious cooks spend on their art. Though mortified by my pedestrian palate, I listen with envy and admiration.

Last week I set aside my inhibitions and turned up the volume as Lynne Rossetto Kasper and her worthy crew held me spellbound with the riveting story of Green Bridge Growers (http://www.greenbridgegrowers.org, a vibrant Indiana farming initiative that mixes fresh produce and aquaponics with social justice and meaningful work for adults with autism.  (http://www.splendidtable.org/story/green-bridge-growers-growing-organic-produce-employing-young-adults-with-autism) The cross pollinization took root in my imagination.  I needed to know more about the founders, Chris Tidmarsh and his mother, Jan Pilarski.

At its core the mission of Green Bridge Growers is to leverage new jobs for those with autism by employing aquaponics to grow vegetables close to consumers, year-round, and at a profit.  Though palate-impaired I recognize a recipe for a win-win enterprise.

The robust Green Bridge Growers website (fed my interest in the produce and the purpose of this dynamic operation.  In terms of growing practices, the venture uses organic growing methods and materials, including aquaponics, to operate year round at the farm near South Bend, Indiana.  “Within this system, fish and plants grow in harmony, producing faster growing rates and much less waste.”

In financial terms, the customer base for GBG includes “high-end restaurants and grocery stores” and farmers’ markers, with talks underway to establish a relationship with Notre Dame University Food Services.

From the perspective of social mission, the role of GBG is described thus by co-owner Jan Pilarski, mother of Chris Tidmarsh:  “to create jobs that harness the amazing skills of young adults with autism.  We grow local, organic vegetables for our community, and those who buy from us help to create jobs and change lives.”

As is often the case, it was personal experience that sparked the idea that has become a prosperous and socially conscious business.  Jan Pilarski tells the story of  her son Chris, a high functioning autistic college graduate who couldn’t deal with the social challenges of a traditional job.  When he returned home, jobless, his mother recalls that “it was food that slowly brought us back to life.”  Chris had a passion for fresh, healthy, local food.  The family looked around to learn, among other things,  how other sustainable ventures had taught practical farming skills to inner city youth, to veterans, and to others marginalized in the work economy, to people who excel at the essential routines successful farming demands.

GBG is story of creative and socially responsible thinking.    Today sustainable locavore is hot, farm-to-market is the rage, sustainable agriculture ventures are establishing deep roots and reaping results throughout Minnesota and the Twin Cities.  What this story adds is the social goal of engaging a fresh and eager crop of growers in the process of sharing the labor and reaping the rewards.  It takes work, patience, holistic thinking and a social commitment.   The harvest is rich is countless ways.

As for GBG, they’re growing as fast as their crops.  There was a great article about the project in The Atlantic a few months ago.  (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/an-organic-greenhouse-run-by-farmers-with-autism/282145/gbg).  Chris and Jan star in an informative video they produced as part of a successful crowd-sourced campaign that will allow them to expand their equipment, their market and their employee base.

Needless to say, GBG excels at tweeting the latest news, freshest produce and wisest quotes – The quote from Friday, May 30, is from Mark Twain who wrote:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.  The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting the first one.”  No surprise that Chris Tidmarsh and Jan Pilarski have declared this the mantra of Green Bridge Growers.

Contact information for GBG:  Innovation Park Notre Dame, 1400 East Angela Blvd, South Bend, IN 46617 574 310 8190, greenbridgegrowers@gmail.com