Sunday, October 16, 2011

Critiquing Poor Feedback

I got some interesting (useless) feedback (headworms) from someone today at the Yusef's 3:00 meeting. Now, part of the feedback was that I think I have the only right answer, so this post is a bit ironic because I have professional experience in giving feedback as a teacher and a trainer, but bear with me.

First, let me explain what head worms means. This is a wonderful concept I picked up from a colleague whom I won't name so I don't stain their reputation should I, know-it-all that I am, misrepresent the concept. What head worms means to me is the uncomfortable things running around in our heads that we sometimes want to put on other people. Its meaning changes with context just like the famous comedy bits on curse words demonstrate so well. Anyway, it's kind of your issues, your problems, your concerns, you discomfort that really isn't all that appropriate or useful to others.

I may have faults, perhaps lots of them, but I try to never give unsolicited feedback of this nature. I'm not talking about a discussion in which you naturally respond and critique as you go along, I'm talking about walking up to someone - today it was someone I'd never met nor, so far as I know or remember, directly communicated with - and telling them they're messing up. This is always done for your own good, of course.

The problem is feedbacking is a specialized skill. Doing it well is pretty much always uncomfortable, even if voluntary, requested and expected. For it to be useful, as opposed to dumping your head worms into someone else's head, there are some general things one must keep in mind and do.

1. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you don't ask permission first.

You can't just say, "Can I talk to you?" then take a big handful of head worms out of your skull, open up your target's skull, plop 'em down and close things up. That's an ambush. You know words are coming, but you've not yet agreed to be fileted and plopped on the barbie covered in lemon juice and pepper. You have to ask for permission to share your head worms. "May I offer you some feedback on (some messed up thing you did)?" is a decent way to start. If you don't ask first, it's got a good chance of devolving into a (bad situation). And if there is an emotional content, not just intellectual, all the more so. Nitroglycerin-laced words.

2. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you don't seek clarification before offering your feedback.

There are lots of reasons someone might have written or said something you didn't like, or that it might come off that way, but unless you know the context and intent, it is impossible for you to offer useful feedback. They may have been unclear; they may have phrased something poorly and not realized it; it might be poor word choice; they might be unaware of something and communicated something they would otherwise not have. Of course, they could mean exactly what they said and you may not like it. But if you do not explore this first, you will almost certainly end up dumping your head worms all over the place. Also, there is a high likelihood you misunderstood something, didn't know some important contextual element, etc.

So, the first thing you do is ask the person if what they intended to say squares with what they think they said or what you think they said. You will find fairly often there is a disconnect on either your end or their end. It is only after you have established that what they intended to communicate is what they actually did communicate that you can offer useful feedback. You might get lucky or be knowledgeable enough or aware enough to get it right, but the chance of there being a misunderstanding is high enough that it's better not to risk it.

For example, a critique I have gotten more than once in my life, and was so generously head worm slimed with today, was that I think I am the only one who knows the right way to (whatever.) The key here is simple: my entire life I have tended to speak in declarative sentences. I don't know why, I just do. Since I've had to think on this in the past, I have come up with a possible explanation over the years. Basically, it's pretty damned obvious when a statement can or can't be a fact.

E.g., a statement about an actual fact is either correct or incorrect and verifiable. Anything else is opinion. When you hear a declarative statement where the content is not factual, then regardless of the style or manner of speech, it's an opinion. Period. With me, because I have this habitual way of speaking, you have to check. (Yes, I have tried to change this, but no luck so far, so please check before tossing your head worms my way.)

Please give your target the benefit of the doubt and ask first.

3. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you don't accept their response and accept the consequences.

Giving feedback is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. In a professional setting it is the responsibility of the feedback giver to expect negative reactions and deal with them regardless of what they are. If it gets to the level of abuse, break off rather than strike back. In my opinion, non-professional situations are the same. Unsolicited feedback that is also not granted permission is a very aggressive behavior. Expect blowback. If you get blowback, do not respond in kind. You engaged, you hold primary responsibility.

An example from today. At the end of our head worm dumping session the person stretched out their hand for me to shake. I didn't. They were offended. Now, I'm the one with worm poop all over my head, but THEY'RE offended. They were actually angry that I did not want to shake their hand after having my head filled up with their head worms. Is that really surprising? The specific problem was simple: I did not believe the person was sincere. When they stomped off and were cursing in frustration to someone else about the head worm incident, without allowing me to explain why i did not want to shake their hand, which I did, they confirmed that their intent was to dump head worms, not offer useful feedback.

Thus, You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you become angry when they don't accept it. The feedback is not for you! It is something you offer, supposedly out of love and respect, but you get angry when it's not accepted? The recipient of your feedback is under no obligation to like your feedback, nor to accept it! There is no social contract that assumes feedback must be accepted. Not even in a professional setting does the feeback giver assume the feedback will be accepted. The feedback is for the recipient to grow with. A defensive response from the giver is an unambiguous signal they needed to get something off their chest and chose you to do it. We are all responsible for our own feelings. Your response to someone else's comments belongs to you. It is a common error in giving feedback to confuse your need to vent with the right to vent, and to confuse that with actual, useful feedback. You have no right to vent. Nobody has an obligation to let you vent at them, even if they *did* screw up and your anger is legitimate. It is still YOUR anger.

4. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if your feedback is not specific. The litmus test is simple: does your feedback give the recipient something concrete they can make use of to make positive changes in the future? If not, you're serving up head worms. The honest thing to do if your feedback is not going to be useful is to own up to your real intent and admit you are unhappy with them and want to give them a piece of your mind. It's honest and real. You might actually get to rant *and* come to some understanding. Likely not, but sincerity and honesty are often the key to getting through a tense situation. But dumping head worms is an inherently dishonest act. It may be driven subconsciously, but it's your responsibility to know yourself and manage your actions and emotions. Particularly when the interaction is initiated by you and is unsolicited and unannounced.

Today I was told my "tone" was the problem and that I think I know the only right way to do such and such. When I asked why, the person could not tell me. If that was the case, they had no business approaching me. How do you get tone from written text? The only way to explore that is in the text. It's meaningless information for the recipient. Consider: the writer wrote it. If they'd thought their tone was a problem they would have written differently unless their intent was to offend - in which case the tone was intentional and your feedback even more meaningless. To be useful, this person needed to be able to identify passages or words, almost certainly a fair amount of it in order to determine tone, that gave this person that impression. If we could look at the text, I might have discovered a good editing session might have fixed the problem, but an amorphous pronouncement my tone is a problem is absolutely useless.

By the way, your friends or whatever agreeing with you is not proof of accuracy. They are in the same boat you are with the same limited information to work with.

5. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you assume you are right. We covered this tangentially in the collective comments above, but it's not just about not checking, it's coming in with a false belief you already know this person's mind, heart, and intent, have all the relevant information, and the arrogant belief you know all there is to know about whatever it was that bothered you. You can't possibly be certain of that. That is why you use checking first. And assuming you know intent solely from text is mind-boggling. Assuming you are correct assumes you have equal or superior knowledge to the object of your "affection" and are aware of all facets of the situation.

The only appropriate stance is to assume you might be wrong in part or in whole. That is partly why you check early in the process. In a case like today where I was accused of thinking I had all the correct answers it crosses over into hypocrisy, or at least irony.

I believe absolutely in the power of and need for feedback, but I have zero interest in being verbally and emotionally assaulted, particularly in public. None of us do. That is why feedback must be carefully given.

6. You know you are dumping your head worms into someone else's skull if you assume your sincerity is clear to your target. Don't ask them to trust you. You are assaulting them with unpleasantness. Just because you say you are speaking out of love and respect does not make it so. If you lose control and react angrily to being rebuffed because you did not sufficiently impress your target with your sincerity, you have just proven them right.

I know it's a popular and common thing these days to claim to speak from love and respect just before slamming a two-by-four upside someone's head, but our words and actions must line up. When you are coming at someone with good intent, honesty (inclusive of not being self-deceiving) and sincerity it is usually easy to tell. When it is claimed but not true, the delivery is dry, emotionless, the sadness and concern is not in the eyes, the voice doesn't soften and deepen and the speech doesn't slow. Emotion-laden speech is not like expository speech and the lack of emotive body language will out you resulting in an unproductive and likely very contentious discussion.

Nobody should subject themselves to insincere feedback. It's poison, pure and simple. For both people. Rewarding that is a mistake.

Please do not assume I am claiming to never have given poor feedback. Don't assume I am claiming the feedback I received from this person today did not have some valid points. (I have no way of knowing since the feedback was so vague and the conversation was truncated.) For your edification, my experience in this area consists of three years of counseling experience and hundreds of hours of feedback to teachers doing practice/demonstration lessons. I do not say this as an appeal to authority, but so you know my knowledge is experiential and not esoteric. Had the person challenged me to a sword fight, I'd have no valid critique.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


It's in the books. The ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit Permaculture Design Course and Design Charrette is done, and was our most successful thus far. We handed out eleven Design Course certificates, rewarding our group of 12 participants for creating a design firm, then using that as a vehicle to develop a viable design - all in twelve days.

Aurora's principles reached out to the community, interviewing a number of people from around Detroit. A BIG thanks goes out to those who stepped into Aurora's design space. It would have been difficult to create a design relevant to Detroiters without your participation.

Larry Santoyo did a masterful job leading the PDC and the Design Project, with much support from Penny, Kimberly and Keith. He challenged the group to achieve what to me seemed impossible: Design a company *and* a project design. I expect a mock firm run like a mock firm and that looked and acted like a mock firm. Instead, they divided the house into Group areas, created an office space and set up a corporate structure. Then they created a vision of Detroit a hundred years from now and set it in a narrative walking you through it as if you were on a visit to discover how Detroit had done it. How, a hundred years from now, it could become a lamp unto the world.

You won't find anything earth-shattering in the design. What you will find is a sense of place borne of connections, natural patterns, people. Rivers rediscovered, businesses connected as if designed that way, because they were. Classrooms imagined as being in all places, pathways imagined as evolving from connections rather than being created to create connections that are not there, ending up disused or used only by those with time or money to pretend at being connected. Connections.

I had virtually nothing to do with the success of the course or design charrette, but beg the indulgence of those who did in saying this course, this charrette, and Aurora's design - these are my seedballs. These are the future fruit of efforts begun more than three years ago. Whether any element of the design is realized or not, it was created, and is offered, openly. It represents a possibility of true, unadulterated, community-based design. If every neighborhood in Detroit used a similar approach, the corporations and $150,000/yr. experts would simply not be necessary. Useful? Perhaps. But not necessary. We don't need to keep creating plans for planning. We can simply do it.

Seedball One is the hope you will look at what was achieved in so little time by a group of non-experts, almost all from this area and greater Michigan, and be inspired to simplify, disengage from corporate interests, politics and foundations, and take control of the design process. Not because they are bad or evil, but simply, merely, passionately... because you can. They are all guests in your Design Charrette. Or can be. Perhaps must be? It is not up to them, it is up to you.

Imagine, if you will, every neighborhood breaking out for its own charrette, coming back together to align elements, breaking out, coming together... until there is a future borne of your hopes, your dreams, your imaginations and your blood, sweat and tears. Not just of today, but in a way that honors the wisdom and knowledge of life here going back many decades, if not hundreds of years: the great gifts the people of Detroit have to offer to each other and those places beyond the city limits.

Seedball Two is the deeply held belief that Aurora will, in some form, seed change. Whether collectively, or individually, by design or default, they will be a part of a better future - should humanity be wise enough to seek It. To see simple abundance in what others see as broken, denuded or dead is a powerful thing.

We face insurmountable opportunity. The problem *is* the solution, and the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.

You may judge differently, but a circle has closed, and I judge it a good circle.

The ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit Permaculture Design Course as Design Charrette

Urban Decay Porn

Media about Detroit tends to be pessimistic, though that is changing, so much of it has the distinct feel of watching a train wreck in progress. Even when the intent is good, the results are often mixed.

Ironically, the Detroit Works project (DW), and even this course, could be seen to reinforce the idea Detroit needs fixing. Though the city is, in fact, in the process of redesigning itself, it is a vibrant, breathing, roiling city that is taking itself seriously and celebrating its own rebirth.

Detroit is a city of the future. It's a city that has what few others have: open space to grow in, and grow into; abundant water; industrial infrastructure; a relatively high latitude to keep a hotter climate at bay; cold and snowy, but no severe, winters; and lots of idle hands. For a permaculturist, at least this permaculturist, it's a dream city. What other city in the world has this combination of elements? What city is better poised to model what post-industrial, post-carbon cities can, and will, look like? And if you look beneath the edifice Detroit is now infamous for, much like any burnt forest or mudslide zone, flood or even man-made disasters like Chernobyl, you see life. But it's not below the surface, it's in your face. No, if you're flipping through images of urban decay porn, you're missing what Detroit is, what it can be, and what it can mean to other cities as a potential example of the future. That's why we chose to work in Detroit.
A Design Charrette for Detroit

The idea for a design charrette for Detroit had its genesis last September in the first public meetings for the Detroit Works project, my participation in the design charrette for the Imagination Station, and discussions surrounding the DW meetings at the Boggs Center. Dissatisfaction with the DW process was running high, and perhaps no higher than in my own fevered brain. Why wasn't this organized from the neighborhood level up? Why had so few known about it for so long? Why was so little information coming out of the Mayor's office? Why shrink the city when the future is almost certain to see flows of climate refugees into Detroit and the region at large? And many more.

The Imagination Station design charrette was impressively productive. I've never seen what their design team decided would be the final design, but what came out of that two-day charrette could stand on its own. This was an effective process! I probably drove a few people batty jumping up and down screaming, "Design charrette for Detroit!" (figuratively) ever since.

When Larry Santoyo shouted out on Facebook we should do something in Detroit, I took it seriously. Keith D. Johnson expressed interest, too. After nailing down that we could work out the dates and logistics, I hit them with the concept of designing a sustainable Detroit. To my surprise and delight, they agreed and "ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit - A Permaculture Design Course" was born.
In reality, a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) is a design charrette. For two weeks students study intensively the ecological engineering and design principles of sustainable systems design. Students work in groups to complete a design to be presented on the final day of the course. Wikipedia has this to say:
The word charrette may refer to any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. While the structure of a charrette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work to the full group as material for future dialogue. Such charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people.
Wiki continues on to describe the process as applied to urban planning:
In urban planning, the charrette has become a technique for consulting with all stakeholders . This type of charrette (sometimes called an enquiry by design) typically involves intense and possibly multi-day meetings, involving municipal officials, developers , and residents. A successful charrette promotes joint ownership of solutions and attempts to defuse typical confrontational attitudes between residents and developers. Charrettes tend to involve small groups, however the residents participating may not represent all the residents nor have the moral authority to represent them. Residents who do participate get early input into the planning process.
Geoff Lawton described the PDC design process in a recent article.
It is standard format, in the PDC curriculum, that students are given an exercise to design a landscape with a design brief so they can make the move into design while being mentored by their Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) teacher. This is not a test but an exercise, enabling students to make the first step into design while still taking part in the PDC program.

During the 72-hour course students receive a body of diverse knowledge which, despite covering a number of disciplines and emphasizing the connectivity between those disciplines, can seem surprisingly simplistic and easy to understand until students are put into design groups and given a challenge to design an area of landscape with a design brief. If the brief is likely to be a real life scenario then the possibilities expand and the design system complicates itself into innumerable choices of interactive complexity.
...One also has to figure out how to work a landscape with its particular variations and restrictions. From then on all those basic parameters that you have to work around when designing are repeated over and over. There is virtually no obsolescence in permaculture because the principles of nature are eternal, infinite. Compost is compost, sun angles are sun angles; they will vary from site to site, but they are more or less constant in the way you analyze them.
In design you are completing a picture so that the systems have total integrity and your approach to designing waste systems, energy systems and living systems must reflect this. Also local economy and the energy audit in relation to production and processing and end use efficiency have more or less the same fundamental approaches.
Ultimately, this is a PDC and our students expect and deserve the best permaculture course we can offer. We have a responsibility to cover the full curriculum and feel creating a design solution for the city will offer the best course possible. Not only does this ambition highlight that the perception of permaculture principles as applicable largely to gardens, farms and food production as being erroneous, it preps our students to move step into their roles as designers familiar with any scale of design, from kitchen gardens to cities.

The design charrette enhances the learning process by providing an unusual and challenging task in applying permaculture principles on this scale. Increasingly, triple bottom line, i.e. sustainable, solutions are going to be sought, and regenerative design opportunities will move designers from smaller scale productions to larger-scale designs.

For the city, the course offers an opportunity to condense months of design meetings into a single two-week process providing a dynamic, creative, design-oriented space in which an intense alchemy may produce, from various sources, solutions the people of Detroit can make use of.
Sarah Coffey's recent blog article on the DW project highlighted a number of concerns about the DW process thus far and a number of parallel processes that are underway by various groups around the city. Each of these design processes addresses a primary critique of DW: participation at the neighborhood level, as neighborhoods, as well as addressing change at the micro level DW seems to perhaps be weak on.

Bringing Plans Together

Some of the critique is framed as issues of racial, economic and social justice. This is an area where permaculture design can be most effective. Regenerative design, deeply rooted in the examples natural systems provide, allows us to approach design as an objective application of principles. A sustainable system is inherently just because a system based on what nature has wrought has no waste, values and uses all elements, and supports all elements in multiple ways, thus is resilient. It requires all elements to work in concert to function properly. Racism, hoarding, division... these cannot exist in a regenerative system. Permaculture design gives us a another tool with which to deal with injustice by simple application of design principles.

While there is certainly cross-pollination and collaboration among some or all of the various groups involved in design projects, none is a whole city design offering a different perspective than that so far evidenced by DW. It is our view this design charrette can have a beneficial impact on creating the future Detroit by providing a crucible for intense collaboration in a neutral space drawing together the data, outreach, feedback and visioning that has already occurred throughout the city. It will necessarily also reframe the discussion under the umbrella of what is commonly called the triple bottom line, or Social, Racial, Economic and/or Food Justice. These are what permaculture frames as the ethics of Earth Care (we are dependent on the ecological services of the planet), People Care (all are equally valued, none are preyed upon, each plays a role) and Fair Share (inputs and outputs must be aligned to avoid pollution (waste) in the system or the system is out of balance and will ultimately fail.)
We invite individual residents and representatives from the various initiatives

  • The People's Movement Assembly on “rightsizing”
  • CDAD
  • Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP)
  • The coalition of GenesisHOPE, Church of the Messiah, the Boggs Center, Feedom Freedom Growers, We Want Green Too and members of Earthworks Farm
  • Brightmoor
  • Declare Detroit
  • Detroit Work
and others, into one space. There is no assumption a final solution can be found in two weeks, nor that this process in any way supplants, replaces or is more valuable than any of those already on-going. This is but a tool with a different lens, one that has been shown to be effective in addressing the wide range of challenges we face, but which is flexible and doesn't require all participants be together in one space for two weeks. Rather, it relies on the information the participants can gather and the groundwork already done by so many - though your direct participation would be a great benefit. The city is both partner and client in the design process.

Sample Projects/Permaculture References

For more information, to offer feedback or suggestions, or to participate, please send an e-mail to with the subject line "charrette."

ReNew, ReVision, Redesign Detroit - A Permaculture Design Course

The ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit - A Permaculture Design Course

March 27th - April 8th, 2011
Larry Santoyo and Keith D. Johnson, Instructors
An Invitation to Mutually Assured Succession
The concept for the ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit - Permaculture Design Course is inspired by Detroit's efforts to re-imagine itself after decades of slow, steady decline. In Detroit, real green shoots arise in once-empty lots as individuals and organizations create community and market gardens as ways to beautify, create green spaces, provide fresh, nutritious food to city residents, create or recreate community, and pursue self-reliance as entrepreneurs in the food system. While some pursue food justice via gardens, others pursue racial and economic justice. Some do all three, many of them via a garden, or urban farm.

On some streets a rooster may crow, a goat bleat or a duck quack. Pheasants, raccoons, opossums and deer can be seen in various places. But this is not chaos and ruin, it is edge meeting edge, which is where magic happens. This is nature saying, "Join me. I haven't forgotten you." This is opportunity to design a regenerative, sustainable city. But the city is more than fallow fields and squawking chickens.

Old meets new as the Motor City becomes a city with a growing reputation for attracting entrepreneurs, artists and wanderers looking for niches, and filling them. Some are wary of the new, some embrace them. Tension like the surface tension of a bubble stretches until boundaries burst and edges blend creating magic and conflict. Techno whizzes bring the whiz-bang of new frontiers while social media rides a wave of enthusiasm for ethereal connectedness. Grace Lee Boggs sings a song of resistance to powers tangible and hidden while schools descend into chaos and overcrowding, and a new style of education seeks to rise from the ruins of industrialization.

Into the political crisis following the fall of Kwame Kilpatrick rises Mayor Dave Bing, bringing a new game, far from the basketball court, one where the stakes are very much higher. Assembling a cadre of corporations, experts and advisors, the Mayor and his select group set about the designing a future for Detroit. A Detroit from a corporate, growth-oriented view in which the citizens are engaged in meetings without dialogue and are asked to respond to pre-selected questions out of context and without any data, information or expression of what assumptions they are expected to consider. The claim is transparency, but little is known and less stated openly. The city is told people will be incentivized to move to renewed, walkable neighborhoods, but there is no money to make it happen - and they will be left behind with reduced or absent city services, but may do as they please in these left-behind "green" spaces.

An equal and opposite reaction is the response to every action. Not from the top, but from the bottom. Not behind closed, corporate and governmental doors, but in city squares, school auditoriums and neighborhood meeting places. Not in the name of growth, power and profit, but people, sustainability and community. Perhaps the people populating Detroit Works can create a Perfect Possible Future, but sound principles of ecological engineering suggest this is unlikely. How can sustainability arise from a profit motive? How does a community grow when torn from its roots and transplanted without them? How can a city be the sum of only some of its parts?

An equal and opposite reaction, this is a call and an invitation to all to engage in a discussion and a design process where all are equally empowered and the process is open and interactive. We hope this process can lead to an alternative to the current Detroit Works process, or help create a realignment and redesign of the Detroit Works process, that has as its primary concerns community and sustainability. 

A regenerative system is an inherently just system where all inputs and outputs, all elements, are connected, nested, creating a robust, yet, highly efficient whole where all is, and all are, equally valued. 

The ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit PDC will fulfill all content requirements of a PDC, however, it is, possibly, unique in its goal to apply permaculture principles to produce a workable design for a major city as the course Design Project. Detroit's difficult past, it's vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, under-utilized workforce, abundant water, vacant land, and it's industrial past all combine to make Detroit the perfect candidate to be the first large, post-industrial, post-carbon urban area.

The Detroit Works project to redesign Detroit provides the teachers, staff and students with a unique opportunity to apply permaculture at a breadth and scale perhaps never attempted in a PDC. We hope to encourage persons involved in Detroit Works to collaborate in this process and consider the resulting sustainable design elements as the Detroit Works project moves forward.

Monday, February 7, 2011

UPDATE: 2/4/2010
See the list. It's hard to know what people's circumstances are, and it's not the amount, it's the sacrifice involved in the giving, so I want to just toss a shout out to everyone for caring and being there. I know what some have been through and what their giving might mean, but some I don't know their circumsances, or don't know them at all. I don't want to assume giving is easy for any of you or in any way less generous or less of a sacrifice than anyone else's. We thank you.

I do want to say a special word of thanks to Tiffany, who lost her husband last year to a brain tumor. I've been there and done that. It can, depending on location, be a bit like having Alzheimer's, brain damage and cancer all at the same time. Tiffany, thank you for your strength of spirit and remaining a caring, giving, and hopeful person and friend.

UPDATE: 2/2/2010
Utilities paid!

UPDATE: 2/2/2010
You have collectively nearly doubled our first goal, which means we are (unofficially) making headway on our second goal, to pay the immediate need of back taxes and foreclosure. If I have understood the documents correctly, we should be able to keep foreclosure at bay a year if we can get that $3,800 or so paid.

I don't know what to say other than to keep repeating how overwhelmed, humbled and impressed we are with your response. I don't know if it's the human element (people care.. for us) you are responding to, or the people care element of our ability to pay it forward via both and providing the scholarships you've been promised, or if it's earth care you care about in supporting more permaculture training, gardening, and other workshops, or if it's the fair share you're responding to in simply sending us your surplus, or even tearing your cloak in half and giving us a the other half... but this is permaculture. As Larry Santoyo says, we don't *do* permaculture, we *use* permaculture in what we *do*.

There are 28 people using permaculture in what they *do* listed below. And now I'm tearing up... really... and it's all your fault.

I want you to know we're not just sitting on our butts waiting for help. I was out hustling avocado sales today, we'd already sold a piece of jewelry from my M-in-L, I'm looking into some, er, outside-the-box income generation, we've offered a half-interest in The Beastie (our F250 Diesel truck), and even have offered the house, itself, for sale on Craig's list. (An offer was made then revoked, actually.) Etc.

Perhaps most exciting, we're talking with two well-known permies about doing some training in Detroit, which is what this is all ultimately about, because one or two well-attended courses would make many things possible, but mostly would see us able to expand substantially on the scholarships you're all already setting in place.

You're all getting us further along than we are ourselves at the moment, however, so props to you for your generosity of spirit and material wealth. People care, sharing the surplus - big time.

We're in process of getting the money released to pay the utility bill. I'm trying to get some of it to also be able to install the Rocket Stove Mass Heater I've been wanting to do since we moved in. It will save maybe $1,000 over the next several months, maybe more, if I can get it installed. We need to do it very carefully because this is an old wood frame house. We'll let you know if that happens, or if we can scrounge up the parts. Kate Devlin has given me a couple sources for barrels, e.g.



While I was writing this, we met our goal! Rather, you did. Wow. I have to say I did not expect this response, at least not this fast. This was truly a "Hail Mary" pass. I'm blown away and would like to thank those who have responded to our request for support thus far.

Philip Chmiel
April Cavanaugh
Jeff Moore
Nancy Bowers
Jennifer Hartley
Anonymous (4)

Garden Permies
Bernard MacNamara
Steve Bean
Nicole Foss
Kris Kaul
Labib Nassim
Doug Myers
Gail Griffith
Cathy Strickland
Mark Dixon
Bruce Urner
Sherilyn Trego
Patricia Gozel
Peter Marschall
Tiffany Johnson-Sparks
Dave Jacke Anonymous(3)

Workshop Permies
Jeffrey Skeith

PDC Permies
Jackie Milijash
Stephen Kiluk

I now have to go check with the administrators at and see what this means in terms of access to funds and next steps. We've still got challenges to meet, and you've given me faith we can do that one way or another.

Below is what I wrote before I was aware we'd met our need for the utilities:

Our faith in community, friendship and the kindness of strangers has been restored by your kindness and generostiy. In less than 24 hours, we've reached a little over half of what we need to pay the power bill after recieving a shut off notice.

Many of you know our story, but some of you may not. It's simple, really. What follows is what we posted at

I, Killian, and my wife, Hyun Sook, and our son, Conor, were living in Korea, making a good living, saving money, going to Starbucks while the Earth warmed, prices rose, energy declined. We decided we needed to be part of the solutions, not the problems, so we sold everything, headed to the U.S., bought an old truck, and drove till it seemed right to stop. In Detroit. Being teachers, we wanted to teach, so we have started a program to teach people sustainable living skills, e.g., how to harvest and use water, build a rocket stove for heat and cooking, grow an organic, no-till garden... to live sustainably, thus have a degree of self-reliance and independence, but to do so as part of a community.

We've gone broke doing so, and a year-and-a-half later, our utilities are going to be shut off and our home is in foreclosure due to back taxes (taxes from before we bought the house.)

We need to keep the lights on and heat going: $961.68 due, $433.55 to avoid shut off. Property taxes are almost $9k with $3800 due in March to avoid foreclosure. If we can make it to Spring, we can start courses and selling our produce again.

Our project page is here, if you would like to help us reach out goal:

Our first goal is to keep the utiliies on. After that, we'll try to avoid foreclosure for back taxes and avoid shutting down the Permaculure and Resilience Initiative - Detroit. Returning to Korea is a very real option that we are having to prepare for. On paper, it would be a good choice. We could both get jobs, but we'd spend little time together as a family, would lose our home here and would still spend a minimum of two years just getting our heads back above water, then another couple saving up. Again. Four or five years to end up where we are now makes little sense. I believe it better to make this work. We can grow much, if not most, of our own food, capture rain water, and will slowly work to get our home to be energy neutral. We currently have most of the materials we need to build a straw bale greenhouse and would like to add a rocket stove mass heater for heating. Renewable electricity will have to wait a bit. We'll get greater efficiency closing the envelope on this drafty old house built in 1917.

However, if we can't figure out how to at least get to the spring or mid-summer so our gardens and training programs can begin to support us, we'll have to return to Korea this month. Our issue, no yours, but we're glad you're inerested enough to make it yours.

I go back and forth on whether we have failed, or are in process of failing. We came here to teach permaculure and have done that. There are a dozen or so new permaculturists in the world, and, the out-of-pocket costs for them on average have been 1/3 of typical costs. So, we've done what we set out to do... sort of... and succeeded in making it financial ly accessible. Several of our students have paid nothing out of pocket in lieu of work exchange, for example. This is gratifying. But, we've not been able to pay ourselves.

Why has it been so difficult to make such a good idea work? They range from simple naivete to failed partnerships and everything in between. That's a story for another day. I am planning to write that up soon. Perhaps if I wait long enough i will be a story of success, of a comeback!

So, if you think it worthwhile to help us keep doing this - after all, it always was a Robin Hood-esque business plan - please follow the link above or contact us abou investment or partnership. If you would prefer to invest or support our programs directly, please use the button at the above left. Investment opportunities are possible, and welcome. Our company is a Low-Income LLC, or L3C. The L3C must have as part of its bylaws and primary function a social good it is intended to support. The L3C was speccifically design to facilitate Program-related Giving via bypassing the need for special letters from the IRS, which can take months to get. More information is available here:

In line with the intent of the L3C statute, our purpose is to offer training in regerative design principles and green tehcnologies, i.e., permaculture, including natural building, DIY power generation and natural urban gardening/farming to individuals and groups that otherwise would not be exposed to such concepts and/or find them economically out of reach.

Cheers, and thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rocket Stoves and Rocket Stove Mass Heaters

 A rocket stove is a very efficient wood burning stove. The design causes the fuel to be burned more completely than a typical wood stove such that they are virtually smokeless once they are warmed up. There are many ways to design a rocket stove or rocket stove mass heater. In the following configuration, it is primarily being used as a heater for an room, and specifically, a bench. However, the top of the barrel can be used for heating or cooking food.

All photos captured from Paul Wheaton's rocket stove mass heater workshop how to tutorial video.

Rocket Stove Mass Heater core.
Fuel intake on left, opening for heat riser on left.
Improved heat riser: vermiculite and clay infill.
Heat riser in place.
Steel barrel being placed into position.
Here are more links to simpler stoves. I'll add screen captures and descriptions later!

good explanation of the theory and design.
Small rocket stove

other stoves

Brick stove

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Solutions and Survival: My Experience in a Community of Impact

This is a guest post by Zach Holden, a GELT program participant, reflecting on his experiences exploring community outreach.  Cross-posted from Thanks to both.

 Authored by GELT-er Zach Holden

As we came to the door, I was feeling pretty negative. Tired, frustrated with the cancellation of our early morning appointment, I had bitterly informed my partners that they should take the ‘lead' on this house, that I just wanted to follow orders and let one of them take up the task of explaining who we were and everything we were doing to the home owner. I had a vague sense of ill ease as we reached our destination on Hill Street in the northwest of Highland Park, as the last time we had lugged a weatherization kit through the neighborhood, we had been told we were ‘in the wrong neighborhood' by a group of teens.

When we came up the front steps and knocked on the door, I noticed the tape holding together the screen door and the lingering smell of stale tobacco, thinking we were in for a interesting experience. We heard a man hollering at us, asking who we were. A woman soon came to the door, asking who we were and who we were looking for, telling us she didn't want our ‘shit', Needless to say, we were taken aback by her rather aggressive manner, and the weatherization was nearly dead on arrival, until the man, her husband, informed her that he had in fact signed up. She was further relieved when (in direct contravention of my previous promise to my partners) I explained to her that our service was in fact free, and that we would not only give her the supplies but actually install them as well. When she realized we weren't trying to scam her or otherwise pull some trick, her demeanor instantly shifted from stand-offish to absolutely friendly, and a smile came over her face.

As we headed into the basement, her husband offered a brief explanation of her initial resistance to us- there had been a ‘death' recently, and tensions were running high. I didn't have to wait long to hear the full story. As I burned my fingers trying to install CFLs, she told me that the death in question was in fact a triple murder that had recently occurred on the block, leaving three young men dead, with no news coverage and little hope of justice. She explained her initial hostility, saying there was a huge drug problem on the block.

These were the first revelations of many. As we worked our way through her home, sealing holes, replacing bulbs and sink heads and putting up weatherstripping, we learned that she had reclaimed the home from drug dealers who had taken over the house after her mother's death, and how strangers still showed up at her door looking for a fix (she thought we were of this category), how drive by shootings were a regular occurrence (instead of putting plastic kits over windows with leaky edges as we might in other homes, we covered the windows taken out by a recent shooting). How murders were common and a 90 year old woman had been raped on the block just the other week. How she wanted to get out of the neighborhood, but she was living on her unemployment checks after losing her job as a medical assistant.

This is the sort of situation that can present the central problem of organizing around environmental and sustainability issues in places like Highland Park. How could she devote attention to protecting our national parks or atmosphere when protecting her home is a matter of life or death? I honestly believe that the solution lies in programs such as Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT), and weatherization in particular. It allows for a community and its residents to work together not only to save money on their utility bill and understand environmental impacts, but to also reconnect with one another. Weatherization makes both environmental and economic sense. I hope it can present an outstanding site to develop the necessary, mutually beneficial relationships in places such as Highland Park.