Friday, October 9, 2009

Open Arms: T Minus 612 Months

Bill Rowe liked to cook, and in 1986, began feeding five or six friends with AIDS from his kitchen. Rowe, born around 1930, taught Anthropology at the University of Minnesota -- including a course in the “Anthropology of AIDS” -- was a leftist before a leftist was anybody more progressive than Orrin Hatch, served seven years in an antecedent to the Peace Corps, and once drove from London to Mumbai.

Demand expanded Rowe’s mission at the height of Reagan and company’s supply-side festivities. An informal act of charity became Open Arms of Minnesota, dedicated to feeding people too weak to feed themselves. Kitchen table became church basement, became stand-alone kitchen. Clients continue to include people with HIV/AIDS, but Open Arms also embraces anyone coping with a chronic, progressive illness -- MS, ALS, breast cancer -- and reaches out to people with AIDS in South Africa’s Guguletu township.

In 2008, Open Arms’ kitchen provided a quarter of a million meals. Cooks and volunteers play a game of musical work-surface to make that happen, and Open Arms is building a new, larger facility half a dozen blocks from the current shop.

Thursday night, with less than half a million to go in its eight million dollar building-fund drive, Open Arms toasted its volunteers, and unveiled its new, non-AIDS-specific logo. Executive Director Kevin Winge, usually comfortable in jacket and tie, appeared in a tee shirt to reveal the logo tattooed on his right deltoid, just above a bandaid covering his flu vaccination. He remarked that he had never had a tattoo before, but that his first demonstrates confidence that Open Arms will endure.

I was gratified. Illness is a commons, just as surely as the air, and you and I own pieces of every sufferer’s struggle.

Guests wrote comments on a roll of paper for inclusion in a time capsule aimed at 2060. Free associating, I drew a picture of Michigan J. Frog, later regretting it. After all, who’s going to recognize a poorly drawn character from a hundred-and-five-year-old cartoon, and it’s kind of a wet-blanket image. All I was trying to say was “Frog in a time capsule, nyuk nyuk.” Michigan’s joke, though, is that he sings and dances for his discoverer, but remains stolidly amphibian before the talent scout.

I read fear into it, as I recalled my drawing, fear that new facilities signal the senescences of organizations. Volunteering in the kitchen, I know there’s a dilemma. On one side there are people too incapacitated or impoverished by disease to cook, and Open Arms needs more parking, storage, and work space. On the other, Bill Rowe had the historical advantage over Kevin Winge. Rowe began feeding people on the buyer’s-market side of peak oil. Winge will have to do the job on the seller’s market side, and supporting the new building could become an embarrassment.

Open Arms has the support of umpty-ump volunteers, who put in the equivalent of seventeen staff people. Squeezing more time or effort from them would work against the mission. Chances are Open Arms has identified and recruited all its major donors, and philanthropists give from income -- slow for the foreseeable future -- not capital, and return to the community will never match extraction. Many small donors might do the trick, but KFAI’s fall pledge drive looks like a serious bust, in spite of the station’s new third-ring-suburban reach, and repeated encouragements to listeners to pledge any amount.

The permaculture take is that yield increases the more cycles the energy goes through. Relationships, meaning ways that elements relate, rather than number of elements, are critical. There are no easy answers, but Open Arms could find a clue in the Minnesota Public Radio business model. MPR, a nonprofit owns several for-profit businesses, and has owned others. Open Arms imports handmade tchotchkes from South Africa, but food is its strength, and one leg of the existential tripod of food, shelter, and meaning. Open Arms has existing relationships with organic, community-supported agriculture. Its future may lie in cycling energy through those relationships.

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