Updates on Italy: Meet Arianna and Andrea

This summer, I’ll be going to Italy with my family to help with the first-ever workshop we’ll hold in our restored family home. To learn more, visit my dad’s blog, Journey to Veglio, or the home of our workshop co-producers, Restoration Agriculture Development. As we get ready for the trip, I’ve been revisiting my journals and experiences. Today, I want to introduce you to two people who are at the heart of everything going on in Veglio.

Andrea and Arianna
                                                                                                                                                       Photo by Linda Baird

Meet Arianna and Andrea.

The sun and clouds play peek-a-boo as I work in the garden with Arianna one sunny day in July. More like – she shows me the garden and I find some sticks to hold up the tomatoes and she works, and we talk. Past the house where Maoro lives, where she stops to chat and I attempt to keep up with the friendly Italian conversation. Arianna grows zucchini and tomatoes and many types of lettuce and leafy greens, and carrots (eaten up by slugs, better luck next year) and strawberries (done for the season). She plants tall blue lupins with her tomatoes to protect them from pests – a trick she learned in a biodynamic gardening class – and they buzz with bees.

Arianna is in her late 20s, with long dark hair set against light skin and petite features. She’s soft-spoken when she speaks English, and bolder in her native Italian. She also studied German. Arianna’s thesis involved new models of economic development in Alpine villages. She works as a sustainability architect in Canton Valais Switzerland, dedicates lots of time to organizing Open Air Trontano, a venture she co-founded, and spends time in Veglio putting the principles she studied to work with her boyfriend, Andrea.

Andrea is the heart and nervous system of the Veglio project, the grandson of the family who lived in the Veglio house when it was alive and thriving for hundreds of years. I first met Andrea 8 years ago, when my dad (Joe) and I visited Italy for the first time. It was just after my mom had passed away, and Dad and I were both frayed at the edges, grieving and tired, and we set off on an uncertain trip to “find our roots.” Domodossola was the town that my dad had always said his family hailed from, and a couple of phone calls through the family tree, two flights, and a rental car later, we waited at the train station not knowing what to expect. A cousin, Andrea, was to meet us.

I was 20, shy, reeling from loss, and nervous about meeting these strangers, who spoke another language and had tenuous connections to us at best. What if they didn’t like us? What if we couldn’t understand each other? “We’ll see,” Dad said in the parked rental car.

Soon Andrea barreled up to meet us in his Jeep, greeted us warmly with kisses on the cheeks, and swept us away to his family home, where we were greeted by Giovanni working away in the kitchen, Marika and an array of other family members who had gathered to meet the Americans. Everyone wanted to meet us, talk to us, and show that famous Italian hospitality. They asked how long we would stay – a week? a month? – and were disappointed when we said we were there for the day.

After a long, wine-soaked lunch, Andrea drove us up to see the ruins of the family home in Veglio. It was a heap of rocks at best, but Andrea, and soon my dad, saw something through it. They saw the family — our family — that had lived and grown, struggled and thrived there for a thousand years, and they saw the potential for a new community.

Eight years, several trips, and lots of emails later, our families are again one. Andrea, my passionate, bold Italian cousin and friend, leads the Veglio project with his extensive network of local builders and artists. We joke that he’s the “Mayor of Veglio.” He works part-time in Italy and part-time in Bern, and teaches as well. Andrea and Arianna both use their knowledge of sustainability and deep respect for cultures and the earth to inform the restoration of the house, and the broader vision for Veglio as a new, sustainable community.

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‘Sleepwalking’ and storytelling

Living in a city as hip, bustling and central as Chicago has serious perks. This weekend I had the privilege of seeing one of the first screenings of Sleepwalk With Me, a movie made by Mike Birbiglia. In addition (and this is an awesome addition), co-writer/producer and This American Life host Ira Glass introduced the film and did a Q&A session after.

Unsurprisingly, I loved the movie (I’ve been a fan of Birbiglia’s comedy since I first heard it a few years ago). But more than that, the experience reminded me of my previous obsession with This American Life. Back in my car-driving California days, I’d sometimes plan my drives from Long Beach to south Orange County, where my parents live, for when the show would be on.

In the last few years, writing has become so ingrained in my work that when I sometimes forget why I started doing it. I write because I love stories. Because telling a scary story can take the sting out of it and replace it with humor; because telling a sweet story can amplify its goodness; because when we share our lives, somehow everything gets a little bit easier to handle.

If you have some time to spare, listen to this episode of This American Life, called “Invisible Made Visible.” It features Tig Notaro, David Sedaris and the late David Rakoff. During the Q&A, Glass mentioned it as one of the all-time best This American Life episodes. Here’s a video clip of Rakoff’s phenomenal piece:

Serious volunteering: AmeriCorps, interns, service-learning students in nonprofits

I’m a guest blogger over at NPTalk, where I discuss using “heavy-duty volunteers” like AmeriCorps VISTAs, interns and service-learning students in nonprofits. Here’s an excerpt, and please click over and check it out!

When you think volunteer, you may picture someone with paintbrush in hand, tackling a one-day service project; or a tutor, reading to kids on weekends. Volunteerism is quickly breaking out of those chains! Corporate volunteering is moving to the front burner with the gain of buzzwords like corporate social responsibility, students are expected to have volunteer experience to get into college, and LinkedIn has recognized the importance of volunteering with its new sections.

Several types of “heavy-duty” volunteers can help jump-start a project or meet a looming deadline when you’re short-staffed and cash-strapped.

Here’s a rundown of three of them… [continued at NPTalk.co]

[Photo credit]

Zero to sixty: My volunteering story

Me, far right, prepping the ground for strawberry plants at a community garden project in Hyde Park earlier this month.

I must confess: I didn’t grow up volunteering. I never did service projects in school, and I wasn’t in a sorority. I walked dogs at the local animal shelter once or twice as a teenager, but that was about the extent of it. My parents raised me to be a moral person and give back to the community, but elbow-grease wasn’t emphasized.

So when I applied to be an AmeriCorps VISTA, the most volunteer experience I had was the aforementioned dog-walking and raising money for charity walks in honor of my mom (the second experience being far more rewarding than the first, despite having fewer puppy noses). And here I was, interviewing to become a full-time, full-fledged volunteer. Ahem, I don’t do things halfway.

I arrived in Chicago August 1, 2011. I sat in the 90-degree heat in my new bedroom, with its mint-ice cream colored walls, a bare mattress and my two suitcases stuffed to the brim. I had a position description for my new job, but had no idea it would be a bigger change and challenge than I could imagine.

Now I probably use the word volunteer more in a day  than I did in the first two decades of my life. I’ve done direct service painting classroom walls, planting strawberry plants in a community garden and reading to second-graders. I’ve tweeted, Facebook-ed, blogged and written press releases all trying to get more people to volunteer. I’ve presented in meetings in front of people from big-name service organizations like Chicago Cares, United Way and more. And through all of this work with thought-leaders, I’ve somehow not only caught up but learned about volunteering all the way to the cutting edge.

My job has not only been a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience, but it’s also widened my perspective on life. Whether I go into the nonprofit or corporate world after my VISTA term, I now know that volunteering will always be part of me. There’s no going back now.

In that spirit, I wanted to create a little list of good places to check out if you’re interested in volunteering. Particularly, skills-based and pro-bono work are gaining momentum. So if you’re a web developer, copy editor or lawyer, you can put your skill set to full use. Volunteering isn’t just painting schools anymore!

A Billion + Change

Epic

Taproot

Women On Call

What did I miss? Feel free to post in the comments.

P.S. If you’re in the Chicago area, Epic is also hosting an event for creatives interested in getting involved in this way March 22. Check it out.

Winter in the city

As I write this, the sun is beginning to wane in the bright blue sky. It’s 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but according to weather.com it feels like -4. Living in Chicago is like being in one of those relationships that when it’s good, is really good, and when it’s bad it’s, well, miserable.

It’s been more than six months since I left the easy-breezy California coast for the Midwestern metropolis. In that time, I have fallen in love with the city lifestyle, met some incredible people and learned more than I ever expected to.

Working at One Good Deed Chicago has been a rare chance to see behind-the-scenes in a political office, and to get to know the nonprofit community inside and out. I’ve also built an online community basically from the ground up, which has been a priceless learning experience.

I also feel much more prepared for whatever I end up doing next. I have a clearer idea of what I do and don’t want professionally as well as personally.

When I accepted this position, a year seemed like a long time before I had to figure out my next step. Now it’s time to start looking for jobs again. So much has changed, but it also feels like just yesterday when I lugged my two suitcases up to the third-floor apartment in the 100-degree heat and sat down in my empty room, August 1, 2011.

100 degrees, six months, two icy-sidewalk falls, one crazy city.

In the very least, I have toughened up considerably. Winter does that.

The imperfect effort

A success: One Good Deed Chicago planned a day of service at Douglas Park Oct. 22, drawing 130+ Chicagoans to help beautify and clean up the park.

Since I wrote last, the day-to-day of my VISTA work has been an ever-changing ride of successes and setbacks. Some days, it’s been thrilling, meeting new people who are doing incredible work in the city. Other days, it’s seemed a bit like an uphill battle.

Fortunately, I’ve been drawing inspiration from the book Soul of a Citizen, by Paul Rogat Loeb. Loeb tears down the barriers and myths that keep many people from getting involved in activism. Loeb writes that even though we may have no money, support or clout; even though we may not know all the complexities of an issue; even though we may think we’re way too low on the totem pole, we can still do something. We must keep out of the sticky trap of the “perfect standard” — wanting to find the perfect issue to get involved in, know everything about it, be able to express it eloquently and powerfully, etc. — if we want to get anything done. It’s better to be imperfect, or “good enough,” and chugging along in our work for progress. 

Loeb also takes on the myth of the activist as a perfect hero who instantly created change. In the book, he writes that Rosa Parks actually worked as an activist for years. Her seat on the bus was not, as typically depicted, a spontaneous act. And Gandhi was painfully shy — so much so, that when he first became a lawyer, he stuttered and was so paralyzed by fear he couldn’t speak in court.

All of these stories remind me that results don’t come instantly, and even though I’m so passionate about creating positive change, I’m just starting out. I have faith that in a year, or five, or fifty, when I step back and look at the big picture, it’ll all make sense.

“Better to help ten real hurting people — or nine, or one, than to be overwhelmed and withdraw and do nothing.” – Sister Helen Prejean

Where the poverty line meets City Hall: Reflections on my first month as a VISTA


Life in Chicago feels like a TV show. Sometimes there’s drama, sometimes comedy, but it’s always slightly surreal.

I moved on August 1 and it was 90+ degrees with 80 percent humidity. I heard the cicadas buzz for the first time. I roasted in my furnitureless room. Soon after moving, I was robbed leaving the grocery store, leaving me ID-less, cash-less and in a bind: the bank wouldn’t give me a temporary card since I’d recently changed my address and had no ID. Besides losing more than $100 in cash and gift cards, and all the subsequent inconvenience, I also lost some pride: I considered myself a savvy traveler type, always careful to double-check that I had my belongings safe. It really can happen to anyone.

Besides that little hiccup and some homesickness, the transition has been good. My roommates are sweet, responsible and drama-free; my boss is amazing; and my job is great.

I’m working as the service communications coordinator at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. The position is through AmeriCorps VISTA — a federally sponsored volunteer program that seeks to end poverty through building the capacity of local nonprofits & other organizations.

Our project is called One Good Deed Chicago. It’s a Cities of Service initiative that aims to increase volunteerism in the areas where Chicago needs it most. This year, the big push is for education and college readiness. I get a chance to work with amazing organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Chicago Cares and Spark.

Already, it’s been an incredibly educational experience. I run the website, social media and communications efforts. I’m learning how to use tools like social media to connect with potential volunteers, nonprofits and influencers. Soon, I’ll be case managing 10 of the selected partner organizations, so I’ll get to learn about nonprofit management from a really unique perspective. I already feel more knowledgeable than when I graduated, and I feel like before the year is over I’ll have changed and grown a lot.

However, being a VISTA has its challenges.
Since the program is designed to fight poverty, part of it is that VISTAs live in poverty: The living allowance is set at 110% of the poverty line. Given that, saving for the future is difficult, trips to the doctor are anxiety-ridden and something like buying a winter coat requires planning and sacrifice.

Lucky for me, I have a family who would help me in an emergency, a pretty affordable apartment, and the tech savvy and education to be able to navigate things like the Department of Health and Human Services, where last week I applied for food stamps.

It’s definitely a little surreal to be working in Chicago’s stately City Hall, side by side with well-dressed, (relatively) well-paid people, working my butt off, and getting paid… very little.

But that’s life as a VISTA: a Volunteer In Service To America.

More to come.

With love from the Windy City,
A

Oxford commas and crazy Chicago foodies

In exciting news for nerds like me this week, it turns out the University of Oxford’s PR department has stopped using its own comma, the one that hangs around like an evolved creature’s vestigial tail. You know:

I like music, restaurants, and comedy.
vs. the sane approach:
I like music, restaurants and comedy.

Because I’m a journalist trained in AP Style, that little bugger makes me want to attack it with a red pen. I’m sure literary types will disagree with me on this one, but I feel serial commas usually just slow a sentence down.

Like most lovers of the English language, I have a really twisted relationship with grammar. I hate, as NPR critic Linda Holmes calls it, “Capitalization For Cutesy Point-Making,” and when people put apostrophe’s in weird place’s it makes me want to scream. However, I’m still sometimes unsure about the difference between if I was and if I were.

I’m pretty sure my “natural” knack for grammar and spelling actually comes from reading a lot during childhood. As I was sort of a shy kid, I really loved reading. That’s not to say this was a highbrow practice. In fact, I spent the summer between fifth and sixth grades devouring tacky V.C. Andrews novels.

This little book clarifies why these things are so confusing, and is also hilarious in a very British way:

Although some of the rules in it are different here on the other side of the pond, it’s still fascinating as it delves into some of the back story of our language. The most important thing I realized from reading it is that language is a fluid, changing thing. Perhaps my defense of the use of “his or her” is already becoming outdated. Maybe I shouldn’t judge People who Capitalize Random Things in their facebook Status Updates.

(*cringe*)

And in other, way-more-important news: I’m moving to Chicago.

Apparently things are really different there:

More to come.

Gorgeous design, newspapers and Hoodzpah

This talk isn’t brand new, but I love it. In it, designer Jacek Utko talks about how he turned a group of Eastern European newspapers upside-down, blowing up traditional news design in favor of dramatic illustrations, typography, bold photography and infographics. “I wanted to make posters,” he says.

Here’s the kicker: “You can live in a small, poor country and work for a small company in a boring branch,” Utko says. “You can have no budget, no people, but still can put your work to the highest possible level… to be good is not enough.”

Looking at the front pages on a site like Newseum shows that most newspapers are stuck in a ridiculous rut with design. They follow formulaic templates and some — even worse — publish “grip-and-grin” photographs. I shudder. I know there are plenty of amazing designers out there. Actually, I’m pretty sure there were people in my Media Design 300 class that could design better than some of these mid-sized papers. What does that say? The companies that own newspapers aren’t prioritizing design. But they really should.

Speaking of great design, I couldn’t not mention my friends Amy and Jen Hood, who have started a design company called Hoodzpah. I got to work with the Hoods, along with the ethereal Blythe Hill, at the now-defunct OC Gazette. I have been hoping to collaborate with these lovely ladies on a project for some time. Every time I see their work I stare in awe and jealousy at their artistic skills. They’re amazing. I’ll just show you, and then you’ll be inspired to check out their beautiful and hip website:

Jen and Amy — Sorry I stole your stuff. It was all in the name of shameless promotion. 🙂