Monday, August 6, 2018

Becoming a Blogger Once Again

Howdy friends!

I've neglected this blog for far too long, and also realized I much more appreciate being able to work on imagery as a medium for sharing stories. Thus, I have launched my first Video Blog! I'll use this account to post by videos, but also please LIKE and SUBSCRIBE to my videos on YouTube! 

There are a lot of themes I plan to cover, but your feedback is most welcome!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reflections of Privilege - The Winter Wind

Denver, Fall 2011

Snow had begun to fall in the late twilight of Civic Center Park in Denver.  Cars drove down the street leaving ripples in their wake.  A few vehicles would pull up and stop, and volunteers would take in blankets, sleeping bags, tents, or rain jackets.  Across the street the police had several vehicles parked streaming clouds of exhaust as officers quietly watched behind tinted windows, waiting for the right moment to dislodge the protest and ad hoc community from the park.

By this time the protest movement of Occupy Wall Street was winding down, and those who remained were either the ultra-vigilant or those simply who had no other place to go.  I spoke with several members of the temporary community, listening to reflections of this being the first time the homeless felt like they had a voice.

One young woman likely in her teenage years was wearing a tank top, shivering in the cold.  I tried to approach her but she recoiled.  It became apparent she was especially fearful of men when others tried to reach out, though the women from the camp had little success either.  Within a few minutes someone from the community walked over to a nearby ambulance which arrived with an officer in tow.  She tensely murmured she didn’t need help as she was led into the ambulance and taken to the hospital for evaluation.  Those were the only words anyone heard from her that night.

Within days the police moved in and cleared the camp, many of the supplies donated thrown away.  A new camping ban made it more difficult to be homeless in Denver, those of whom had limited options of where to go next.  A decommissioned prison in rural Colorado became one refuge the city sent those in need to.  A spattering of other resources, championed heavily by officials, would ebb and flow over the years since.  Many I’ve spoken to who are in those circumstances have criticized those resources as too little, too late.  The rapid growth and gentrification of Denver made it easy to continue to push the homeless deeper and deeper underground.  Unsurprisingly with increasing hardships, we’re now seeing a surge in heavy drug use like heroin in the region.

When I first arrived in Denver that fall of 2011, I remember seeing dozens of homeless on the street of 16th Street Mall.  One art installation on the mall sidewalk has a herd of upright metallic cutouts in the shape of bison milling about.  This installation was a lucrative spot to sleep because of the protection from wind they afforded, not to mention it didn’t impact any business owner’s doorway.  After the ban it has remained empty, though every time I pass I still see the silent grey ovals of a dozen filled sleeping bags there.

Herd of bison
Stephen Rees, Flickr
Five years later, the visible homeless are more desperate and aggressive.  The invisible struggle to find their way.  The swiftly evolving downtown is more corporate, touristic, and unforgiving in its lack of definition and humanity.  Occupy Wall Street gave an excuse for the comfortable to put down the blinders and reflect on the casualties of our socioeconomic system, awareness of which seemed to fade with the snows of winter.  Now the #BlackLivesMatter movement offers a new reflection of similar systems, one I still am working to find my words to as a privileged white male, but will share them soon because words are necessary in these times where silence is compliance.

For now I’ll leave with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, which reflects much of what stirs my mind this afternoon:

...For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. 
This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies - to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered. 
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear - only a common desire to retreat from each other - only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers... -Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

10 Minutes of Waiting to Die

A Sierra Club coworker and I were in our back conference room of our third floor suite when we started to smell smoke. I looked out of the door and saw our other coworkers in the suite rushing away into the side offices.

"What's happening?"

"Active shooter!"

A loud pang reverberated down the hall. Screams. Along one wall of our suite are three offices, and a co-worker waved us to the furthest one. As we rushed back we saw three of our Sierra Club coworkers huddled under a desk in the middle. Another shot. We dove under the far desk in the glass-walled office. Our front door to the suite was glass-- was it locked? Would it matter?

We could hear scuffling upstairs, downstairs, muffled shouts. I have thought about this moment before. I dealt with the aftermath being in a community under siege at Virginia Tech, losing two acquaintances in that mass shooting and gaining an eye for exits in crisis. 

I only had a few panic attacks in classes after that, imaging if a gunman came in what I would do, before I learned to control my anxiety and accept it'll happen when it happens. I decided after one point I would make sure my last message was a message of love to all, a last act to stand up the senseless violence if there was nothing else to do. This in mind, I opened Facebook on my phone and updated my status:

2:44 - "Active shooter. Love you all."

Another shot, sounding closer. I wasn't sure if it was our floor or not. I tried not to imagine my co-workers--my friends -- being murdered dozens of feet away, the murderer with whatever grudge stepping closer to our office.

Oh god, Katie. My partner. She's on the first floor.

I texted her:

2:45 - I love you.

2:46 - I'm safe. Where are you?

2:47 - Under desk

I was relieved to know she was safe. I was calmed to know I got my message out. I just had to wait. I didn't want to die, but I would be at peace if I did.

I shook, PTSD from Virginia Tech, raw adrenaline of the moment. An uncontrollable surge of hormones. What could we do? We had to stay hidden. How can I protect my co-workers? I didn't want to see them murdered before me. Here I am cowering under a desk. Just waiting to see the legs of the assailant appear and then to be helplessly mowed down.

I could hear sirens outside. It was a race against time. Who would get to us first? My coworker next to me started to write a note to her mom. My phone buzzed with a text from Katie, I held my breath and turned off the vibrate with paralyzing fear of making too much noise.

2:51 - SWAT is entering the building now

I recalled when I was a senior in high school when a stabbing occurred. We were put into lockdown, our CAD teacher casually putting paper over the windowed door as we played games on the computers. 20 minutes later a SWAT team escorted us to the library, and when we were finally released we saw dozens of police cruisers and several news helicopters buzzing around. Officers with shotguns were standing every 20 feet along the sidewalk.

We just had to wait for the SWAT team. I know how this works. I whispered SWAT was entering the building to my fellow under-the-desk partners.

More commotion just above us, rapid steps. I ask Katie:

2:51 - Are you out? Sounds like 4tg floor

2:52 - yes. I'm safe outside

2:52 - I love you

Minutes go by. I periodically check Facebook because I have nothing else to do but wait.

"It's going to be ok" my coworker said, noticing my shaking. I breathed several breaths to calm myself.

Finally, there was a knock on the suite door. My heart stopped in the several prolonged moments of silence after.

Then a shout: "Police!" But I paused, it was one voice. What if it was the shooter? Then a second voice shouted: "Police! Put your hands up!"

I stepped out to see a half dozen SWAT officers in full tactical gear. "Stand up with your hands up!" I glanced at my three coworkers in the next office, working to get up-- one who has been recovering from a broken ankle. They had unplugged everything to the desk and were ready to flip it for when the shooter came in.

"Come this way!"

I followed, hesitant for my coworkers still collecting themselves, but listened to the police' commands. An officer was stationed at every corner of the hall and stairs, fingers near the triggers on their shotguns and rifles. Keeping our hands up, they guided us out of the building.

The street was surprisingly empty, a police cruiser or two, an ambulance. Then I realized the hoards of police were at the ends of the block for staging in case shots would be fired to the street. Even the EMT personnel had bulletproof vests.

Our group was split by the police, the majority being rounded up into an adjacent building where the others were put on a city bus. There the police took in over a hundred statements of what we saw and heard. An officer said that three were shot, including the shooter who was dead. Several folks mentioned smelling the smoke first, then a barista from the cafe sheepishly admitted she burnt toast. One mystery solved.

Once the statements were collected we were escorted to the police line and were let loose. We were warned about the media, and that we could speak to them but it was our decision. The horrid aftermath of the media was like a second attack at Virginia Tech, I wasn't eager to engage with them again.

A reporter from a radio station came up and asked what we saw. I knew the information the police officer shared may not have been up to date and so I bit my lip, instead mentioning in shock I was a freshman when Virginia Tech happened.  The reporter looked at me and said he was there, too. I doubted him, but to his credit he said he didn't want to bother me and didn't push it. I walked away with my coworker emphasizing now isn't the time to the reporter.

We ended up a block away in a hotel lobby, where they eventually gave us some free food. A couple dozen colleagues from the building, representing several organizations, came through and reflected on the experience. It was clear based on the tones of the way people spoke those who heard the shots versus those who didn't. A coping mechanism is to make jokes, and some of the ones I heard were very insensitive. But I understood they didn't experience what we just did, as was often the case at Virginia Tech as well as we engaged with the outside world. I truly thought we could have been killed at any moment during those ten minutes.

Katie showed up, just released from the city bus after providing testimony, and we embraced.  Together with the crowd we made calls and emails, sharing intel as we searched for who the victims were and letting friends and family know we were safe. We kept an eye on the silent TVs streaming news updates. One by one everyone we knew or could think of were confirmed safe.  When I got home, pent up with all sorts of emotions, I felt like I had to livestream my thoughts.

It soon became clear it was a domestic violence incident-- murder. A man shot a woman before killing himself-- two, not three shot. The woman struggled to live but passed away overnight. Her name was Cara Russell, a former mayor of Buena Vista, Executive Director of Colorado Recycling Association - a new tenant not yet announced to our community. May she rest in peace, may her family and friends have the support they need, and may our community grow stronger and more resilient in this darkened world.

Just a couple days earlier this week, I found myself at Columbine High School for the first time. The event that happened there in 1999 was such a defining moment of the millennium generation, the beginning of this current era of chaos. After some wandering I found the memorial and took my time reading the quotes on it, reflecting on the community, on the lives lost. I reflected on the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, seeing the terror unfold on our campus and the horrific loss we were dealt as a community.

My own words then were quoted around the world from my blog in one of the first waves of modern citizen journalism-- "Just like that... we topped Columbine." Now nine years later Orlando carries the torch of horror as thousands upon thousands die from gun violence every year in this country.

I've been depressed and felt lost in recent weeks with the terror in the world. It's what led me to go to Columbine to reflect. I see friends on Facebook defending their right to their semi-automatic weapons- AR-15s or otherwise-- and I just think how have we gotten here?

How have we gotten to a point of no return where MAD- Mutually Assured Destruction- of the 50s/60s has seized the day to dislodge trust of our common man and instead lead to an arms race against each other? How have we abandoned our neighbors in an individualistic and hedonistic way to claim anyone who can't find a stable life and wage is a failure to be abandoned? We're in nothing short of class warfare, demonizing the poor and those with misfortune and turning our backs on our own democracy. We've eliminated the ceiling and the floor, so when people fall they can't get back up and when they rise they take all. All the while the gun lobby makes it rich, because don't trust that guy-- especially if he's Muslim! All of this undermines mental health, eroding sanity at an ever-increasing pace.

I've had enough of this routine. At any moment the next shooting can happen, and I know now what being close to those shots are like. Enough is enough. I'm not going to wait to be a dead martyr with a Facebook post anymore. I'm going to speak out and act. Call your representative. March the streets. Talk to your friends. Something has to change, and we have to act to make it happen.

After my Facebook video folks started posting this hashtag, so re-Tweet away: #NoMoreRoutine

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Losing Both Parents: Reflecting on the Death and Rebirth of Home

The last several months have been extremely difficult.  I had figured that the mourning after my father's death would help prepare me for the eventual loss of my mother, an event I had figured was still many years away. My mother's death in May and the months afterward have demonstrated otherwise.  Crossing into a parentless world by my mid-twenties, I've found myself struggling with questions I've heard are often associated with midlife crises: what is a worthy life and what values do I want to embody for the rest of mine? Time is short.

Within this strife, though, has arisen a surprising opportunity of creating something new.  This post, and perhaps several to come, will reflect on the many overwhelming, paralyzing, and empowering emotions I've journeyed through leading up to and through my mother's death.  It may go without saying, but I write this not to seek out sympathy (it has been greatly appreciated) but as a reflection of our common humanity.  Perhaps we may learn something together.

After my father died in 2011, concluding what I had thought was nearly a decade of hardship for my mother as his prime caretaker, my mother fell ill and was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG)-- an autoimmune disease which weakens voluntary muscle use.  Her symptoms got especially worse with the stress involved when I moved her from our longtime home in Northern Virginia to Michigan.  There was heavy emotion after she dropped a fresh pan of appreciative cookies on the floor, and at the end of one moving trip she had to hold open her eyelids to say goodbye.

Nonetheless, over the years since she seemed to have been on a steady trajectory of recovery utilizing steroids and other medications to ramp up her body systems to compensate for the losses from the disease.  Remission is possible with MG, but for as close as my mom seemed to get she would find herself stumble, get frustrated, and have to ramp up steroid use again and start the process again.  Three steps forward, two back.

It was during one such stumble I began to have a deepening worry of my mom's health in the first days of May.  At this time I have been nearly four years settled in Denver, and my mom three and a half years in Michigan.  I often used my vacation days to see my mother, help her out with items at the house, and anticipated potentially leaving on short notice to help her for a week or two get back on track.  This time I went so far as to warn my boss and volunteers with the Sierra Club of a sudden departure, waiting on my mom to make the call.  The trouble was, I couldn't tell how sick she actually was.  Every conversation seemed to be in a layered cryptic code where I had to read between the lines.

She had told me she was having more trouble getting around.  She had to use a wheelchair to get to her last doctor, which given her stubborn pride was a shocking development to me.  She also complained of worsening pain in her back as she let slip for the first time she has known for a year she's had a growing heart problem.  After this list of ailments, she would play it all off and say she's doing alright and there's no need for me to be there to help, at least not yet.

In concern, I called a neighbor who was providing more and more care for her to try and get the whole story.  I asked point blank if I needed to get up there and, in respecting my mother's privacy and trust, she gave a long pause and said I would have to ask my mother.  The tone in her voice grounded my worry.

I went back to my mom with growing anxiety to try and understand the full severity of her condition. She downplayed it once more and concluded with "I don't know what's going on, Bryce, and that's the truth."  I repeatedly offered to come up right away but the answer was no, not yet.  She didn't want to offer any sort of urgency given her condition.  Yet, as we talked on the phone I noticed her tone was more impatient and our conversations brief; our family's sense of dark humor around death more evident. How much was she holding back?

My mom knew I had an upcoming trip to San Francisco with the Sierra Club to be a trainer for new organizers.  She asked me to essentially be on standby for traveling to her, wanting me to prioritize my visit around a pending appointment with an MG specialist and not take me away from work yet given the trip.  I reluctantly agreed thinking any visit was now weeks off, but was soon surprised to learn she secured dates for my brother and sister to separately visit later in the month.  I was heavily suspicious of her sudden desire to see her children and feared the worst case scenario.

Within a few days, my mom found out the MG doctor appointment, hours away in Grand Rapids, would be months off.  She then emailed me:
Come when it is convenient for you and don't worry about Grand Rapids which is off in the far distance. Give me a phone call sometime, no rush, and we can discuss our options. Love to you.....................Mom
My heart dropped.  Here she was playing off any need to worry, yet those extensive periods share a tone which are very uncharacteristic of her.  With the pending work trip, I immediately called her and said it wouldn't be a problem for me to cancel and go straight to her now. She paused for some thought, but insisted I go ahead with the training.  I was torn because I knew she didn't want to be a burden-- especially after those enduring years taking care of my father-- but how severe is she really?  How much time does she have?  Am I reading too much into this?

Confronting my mom with the separate one-on-one visits from my siblings, she said I was the most flexible for traveling on short notice; thus, it was important for me to be 'on-call.'  At the time my sister was overseas with the Military Sealift Command supporting the Navy in the Middle East playing politics with Iran, and my brother runs a business in international trade out of Mexico City.  I couldn't argue with her.

Just before these conversations my sister had recently sent me instructions on if there were a "mom emergency" how I would be able to contact her via the Red Cross.  Given the recent developments, I shared with her my fears in an email on May 4th:
"My hope is it is just part of the MG and she'll pick up again, but thus far my conversations with her-- and our morbid jokes-- are that she's entering a severe stage that she doesn't think she's going to get out of given all of her ailments (MG, growing severity of her heart problem, diabetes). I think on one level the staggered visitations are goodbyes."
My doubtful sister soon shared this suspicion.  My mom quickly dismissed it by stating "you know how Bryce is always being dramatic."  Hearing my sister's feedback from their conversation, I decided to alleviate my worry for the time being and focus on the training for the week.  My flight took off for California.  


I arrived for what ended up being one of the most emotionally difficult weeks of my professional career.  We went off schedule at the training to rightly explore the severe issues of institutionalized racism and white privilege within the Sierra Club.  From holding a powerful privilege walk to having black and white caucuses, there was much shared anger and sadness, sobbing and quiet reflection.

What happened at the organizing training was a conversation which I believe will go down in history as a turning point for the Sierra Club.  I'm proud to see this will be an ongoing conversation and commitment for all who participated there and beyond. Privilege is a very complex thing, as is beautifully illustrated as an example in this recent comic, and I struggle almost everyday assessing my privilege afforded to me and what to do with it.

In parallel to this week, I found myself working hard to help an acquaintance deal with a severe life crisis.  With a group of friends, we spent many hours searching for the right resources to provide support.  It was exhausting on top of the already taxing week, being the most difficult time I've had since my father passed away.  Fortunately though, things worked out in this case and I'm happy to share the person got the help they needed.

After visiting a few friends in San Francisco, I quickly found myself traveling through the airport headed to my gate on Mother's Day.  As usual when I have a brief moment, I took out my phone and called my mom.

"Hi Bryce!"

"Hi Mom!  Happy Mother's Day!  I'm sorry for not calling earlier, you wouldn't believe the week I just had..."

I spent a moment explaining a bit of what had happened, and the crisis I found myself involved in.

"... but everything has worked out!" I finished.

"That does sound like a long week..." she said in a hurried breath.

I brought up I got her a gift for Mother's Day (a hydrangea) but it was a few days behind, and to expect it soon.

"Bryce, you shouldn't have done that," she said in a surprisingly terse tone.

"Since I can't be there right now it'll serve as my presence and radiate love until I can be there."

"Aww..." She went noticeably quiet.

"Yeah, I need to go in a minute to get to my gate, but I just wanted to say hello, and I love you and I miss you.  I'll talk to you later about everything this week."

"I'll let you go... but... I...  we'll talk later.  I love you."

I paused at her pause, something seemed off.  The cryptic code tugged at me, but I had a plane to catch.



(* Our family has a habit of saying very long goodbyes, and to resolve this issue at one point we created a numbered system for this and other certain situations.  27 happened to be code for the all-encompassing "I love you, take care of yourself, I'll be thinking of you, etc." good-bye). 

The conversation lasted 5 minutes and 54 seconds.  I resolved to call her the next day and put a date on the calendar as soon as possible to visit her.


My flight arrived back in Denver late Sunday night.  I was completely exhausted, still reeling from the difficult week.  My wonderful girlfriend, Katie, swept me up in a bucket and dumped me on the bed where I feel fast asleep in a balled heap with her at my side.

Out of the dark lull of sleep, I awoke to the distant ringing of my phone I had left downstairs.

Who could be calling so early?  Should I be worried about mom?  It's probably one of those east coast telemarketers again...  I drifted back to sleep for a few minutes.

The phone rang again.

I knew something was wrong.  My eyes shot open and I ran downstairs to see I just missed a second call from my mom's neighbor.  My heart sank as I immediately called her back, I feared the worst.

"Hi, I didn't check your message, I just saw you called..."

"Bryce... something, awful, horrible has happened..." she stumbled over her words.

"Your mom passed away."

"No! No, no, no..."  spilled uncontrollably out of me.  

She explained my mom called her up saying she couldn't breathe.  The neighbor's husband called the ambulance as she hurried to the house.  She got upstairs to see my mom in the chair staring at her, "I can't breathe."  Then she had a deep, guttural sigh.  I knew from her description it was death rattle.

The neighbor, in a panic, then said to mom "I have to wave down the ambulance, I'll be right back."  My mom's house has an address on a road which no longer exists (it washed out into Lake Michigan years ago) and indeed having her wave down the paramedics outside saved precious minutes.  My mom was unresponsive when they arrived.  She never recovered.

I fought to recompose myself as my mom's neighbor handed the phone to the police officer with her.

"Mr. Carter, I know this is a very difficult moment for you right now.  I'm sorry for your loss."

I rushed upstairs to grab a piece of paper to take notes as he described the next steps and phone numbers of the hospital and police department.  Katie stirred and quickly realized something was horribly wrong as tears streamed down my face.

The officer asked, "With you as next of kin, I need to confirm her wish was to be cremated?  The funeral home is going to pick her up shortly."

"... yes, her wish was to be cremated."

Katie's face paled.

I wrote down the information for the funeral home, thanked the officer, and thanked my mom's neighbor for everything--emphasizing I know she did everything she could-- and let her know I'm going to be up there as quickly as possible.  

I hung up and fell into Katie.  Again losing all control, I sobbed deeply with her for several minutes.  

I then forced myself to recompose again, explained what I knew to Katie, and set about the next task of informing my two siblings.  

I pulled out my sister's information she gave me of how to contact her in an emergency through the Red Cross and was soon put on hold.  My aunt then called-- the first time I can recall ever speaking with her in my life.  Katie and I switched phones a few times managing the calls.

We finally got through to a Red Cross representative and had to provide my sister's information, and the phone number for the police so they could independently verify.  I told my aunt that I would be leaving as quickly as possible to get up there.

I started trying to contact my brother in Mexico who wasn't immediately available. I aggressively was e-mailing, Skyping, and messaging him to contact me.  

I called my boss to let him know.  I e-mailed several people and then put up an auto-responder for a 'family emergency.'  

My brother finally called my phone.  His immediate response to me saying mom's dead was "no she's not."  But then it dawned on him and the shock hit.  He would work to get to our mom's house right away.

A few minutes later, a Restricted Number called me.  "Bryce, what the f*ck!?" my sister exclaimed.  The Captain had just pulled her in and told her the news matter-of-factly, and was letting her use the ship's secure line.  We touched base and my sister would have to fly out of the Middle East through Germany.  Fortunately, they were still in port for another hour or two and she could get off the ship right away.

Having lost a parent before, I knew what laid ahead.  I immediately started packing a heap of my clothes, potential funeral attire, and took a shower.  I came out to find Katie gone.  In a moment of overwhelming devastation and loss, I fell to the floor.  I thought Katie had needed to remove herself from what was happening and left, making me feel utterly abandoned.  I was sheepishly relieved a moment later upon learning she went to the grocery story to buy me food for the road.  Katie is amazing, and felt bad for the misunderstanding.

At this point, I embraced the only action I knew I could do-- get to my mom's house as quickly as possible.  I wanted to be the first there so my siblings wouldn't have to bare the burden of arriving to the empty home and whatever else may await.  My aunt, Katie, and my siblings implored me to not drive straight there.  I explained as long as I felt like I could keep going, I would.  I drove for 19 hours straight.

Driving has always been a reprieve for me, a place to relax, a realm between the realities of life.  I needed to drive and keep my mind clear, compartmentalize everything else away in the back of my mind.  The day turned to dusk as the arid landscape of the plains morphed into the dull shadows of trees blurring by in the night.  Every few hours I would get gas, stretch, and as the night progressed sought out caffeine.

When approaching the Chicago suburbs, a truck about 30 seconds ahead ran off the road and flipped on its side.  By the time I drove up, another half-dozen trucks stopped with their drivers going to help the one in need.  I kept going.  The faint haze of daylight started to hint as I hit the Michigan state line.  Within 24 hours of my mother's death I arrived at the house.

I parked outside the garage on the driveway, knowing the neighbors would quickly observe my arrival.  I kept a key on my key chain for the house and entered.

I took careful, cautious steps into the house.  The silence was deafening as the blood in my ears screamed.  I still pause to expect the family dog, Princess, to come running around the corner.  She died several years ago.  I walked deeper into the house and soon upstairs.

I looked into my mother's room and it said everything.  The recliner ajar, her medical bracelet carefully placed on a nearby stool next to the wireless house phone and several packs of her favorite Neccos, the imprints of a half-dozen varied feet in the carpet itself.  This is where she died.

After several moments absorbing what lay in front of me, I slowly turned with no purpose but for more deliberate steps out of the room when my phone shattered the silence.  As expected, my mother's neighbor expressed her wish to have had me visit her first so I didn't have to be in the house alone.  It was alright, I said, I needed to stop here first.  And I did.

Within hours my brother and sister arrived-- all three children spread around the world, all three arriving within a day.  Mom would have been so proud.

The difficulties, though, were only about to begin.

/// end of part 1 ///

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Tragedy of the Housing Commons

During my extensive traveling for Green Corps, I came across and fell in love with the city of Denver.  I had to move to the Mile High City and was fortunate enough to be offered a position there with the Sierra Club.  Appreciating the security of inheritance from my father's death several months earlier, I decided to splurge and rent a two-story studio apartment for about $1,150 per month in the fall of 2011.  

The view of the Uptown neighborhood in Denver. (Credit: Bryce Carter)
Fast forward a year, I started to hear from my neighbors trying to renew their leases complaining about being priced out, essentially evicted, seeing several hundred dollars increase in rent.  By the time I left, similar studios as mine were going for $1,500+ for month.  Evidently, I wasn't the only one who fell in love with Denver.  

I'll be the first to admit I'm a privileged white male who grew up in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, Fairfax County, but I understood what I experienced in Denver as a consequence of rapid immigration and growing wealth was just a mere hint of the challenge lower-income communities have facing gentrification.

Gentrification is the transition of a neighborhood, and thus community, through the buying and renovation of homes and stores by those with higher wealth.  From scraping lots to intricate remodels, the property values in the neighborhood go up and often displace those with lower income.  The process is a double-edged sword, as more resources are invested in a community there is an increase in quality of life.  The other serrated edge is, just like I was priced out for my apartment, families who may have been living for generations suddenly find themselves forced to move-- usually to places where there is less available services, less social capital, and higher environmental risks like toxic power plant emissions. 

What It’s Like To Lose Your Home To Gentrification
Posted by BuzzFeed Video on Thursday, January 15, 2015

BuzzFeed's Video on Gentrification in San Francisco.
When it comes to accessible, affordable housing, I believe Denver is facing a humanitarian crisis.  Rents are skyrocketing, rising 10.2% over the last year with vacancy rates as low as 4%.  To support a modest two-bedroom home in 2014 Denver, the minimum wage needed was $18.46/hour.  Some advocacy groups say fair cost-of-living wages should be up to $23/hour.  

Either way, a minimum wage earner in Colorado would have to work at least 90 hours per week to keep up with the market from their $8.23 wages.  Those dramatic hours are less time for someone to invest in their family, education, community, and a potential home down payment while putting a heavy toll on mental and physical health-- thus, those with less income become the first causalities of inequality in a gentrifying region.

In recent months, families have been put on the streets because of notices to vacate.  Take this dramatic story from the Sloan's Lake redevelopment project:

Did you notice the math?  Denver Mayor Michael Hancock committed to build 3,000 affordable housing units in three  years.  In one year, applications for housing subsidy vouchers increased from 18,000 to 23,000.  At this rate of growth (assuming the housing boom doesn't let up in the same time), there could be upwards of 40,000 people applying for 3,000 to 4,000 affordable housing units in a few years.  For what is available, existing units can often be dilapidated, as my unfortunate friends Kathay and Jason have learned the hard way.

If this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is.  The question is as we wrap up municipal elections: what will the city do about it?

My blog coming up-- from food co-ops to neighborhood cleanups, how I'm taking action against the negative costs of a gentrifying neighborhood while finding ways to promote intersectionality.