Ashland has an abundance of "social inventors" — people who see a need in the community and are able to rally others to take part in it, all to make life better, more fun and more hopeful.
In a new book called “Better Ways to Live,” Ashlander Craig K. Comstock profiles a raft of social inventions, many of which influence the Ashland community, including lifelong learning, organic farming, men raising their babies, the Abundance Swap, the Rose Circle for adolescent girls, the Boys to Men retreat for adolescent boys, The Hearth community discussions of Mark Yaconelli, a new kind of therapy called Hakomi, and the Ashland Art Center, a two-story hub shaped by Denise Baxter in an old furniture store.
“After you walk up a grand staircase, there is a lounge,” says Baxter in the book, “and studios with artists working right there, making beautiful paintings. … We have 20 local artists (in open cubicles). The space has a beautiful vibe. The artists are interacting with each other and the public seven days a week. … It helps artists become better business people.”
The Rose Circle, co-founded by Leslie Lanes, mentors girls (and now boys) and trains “caring, interested adults.” Both men and women participate in mentoring, both in schools and one-on-one.
Adults are often puzzled by what adolescents are doing, says Lanes, “but I think it’s up to the older generation to take the first step by asking, ‘Who are you? What are you thinking about? What is a good life for you?’" Adults are cautioned not to tell them what to do.
Anne Bellegia, a volunteer for the popular Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, says 1,500 members, many of them with life skills or personal passions, teach and take up to 100 classes each quarter, all without tests or grades.
“You can just explore, have fun, ask questions,” says Bellegia. “We live in a rich community of retired people, including professors. … It surprises younger people to find out how complex their elders are. If they first look at someone who is older, they may think, ‘What a sweet, grandmotherly person’ or maybe the elder is invisible to a younger person. That’s a complaint we hear. One of the gems for me in interacting with OLLI students is finding out the incredible background and stories they have.”
One of Ashland’s favorite fests is the pre-Christmas Abundance Swap, where everyone is invited to bring three things they would like to receive as gifts, then walk around (in shifts) and grab three things (free) to wrap as presents for loved ones. The idea, says creator Jeff Golden, is to help pull people out of the consumerism of the holiday, which was originally based on love.
Comstock, a member of the event’s staff, asked people why they come.
“For some, it’s the atmosphere, so different from Black Friday and what has become the pervasive consumerism of December. For others, it’s a way to get nice stuff they can’t afford for the kids’ gifts.”
Other Ashlanders in Comstock's book are Chris Jagger of Blue Fox Farm; Bill Kauth of the Mankind Project (now with 50,000 members globally), and author, with his wife, Zoe Alowan, of “We Need Each Other”; Pete Young of Boys to Men; James di Properzio, author of “The Baby Bonding Book for Dads”; and the late Ron Kurtz, creator of Hakomi.
Comstock, who taught at Harvard and Stanford, pens 44 chapters of “social creatives,” about a third of them from the Ashland area. The book includes national projects. A template is the Peace Corps, “which I persuaded Jack Kennedy to propose, in his presidential campaign” of 1960. His pitch was at a dinner party for journalists.
“It was a great example of social engineering. He was skeptical, saying, ‘Why would college kids go abroad and live in mud huts without music, and what would they have to offer?’ My answer was, 'Look how Thoreau became a literary hero out in his little cabin, creating ideas that reverberated for centuries.' I said, 'They could teach English and engineering.' His opponent, Richard Nixon, tried to use it against him, saying it would attract draft dodgers. But Kennedy stuck up for it, and it became reality.”
Comstock graduated from Harvard and was editor of its newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. Living mostly in San Francisco, he directed foundations. After coming to Ashland in 2000, he produced a weekly TV show at Rogue Valley Community Television about “people doing admirable things.” Many of the book’s profiles come from the show. He is author of “Enlarging Our Comfort Zones” and other books.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.