A Different Kind of Wilderness
It’s go time.
Inian Islands Institute is an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a business plan, a Board of Directors, and a big vision. And I, the newly-hired Executive Director, am back in the San Francisco Bay Area where it all started, armed with a fistful of flyers and a big earnest smile, setting out to raise $2.5 million to buy our land and create our school.
Of course, as an environmental scientist who’s spent far more time in the company of penguins than millionaires, I’m feeling a little out of my depth. Stepping off the train in Palo Alto, I wondered, wide-eyed, how do I even begin this monumental task? I’ve received no shortage of good advice about “cultivating donor relationships” and “making asks,” but that all felt very abstract and far away from this lonely, busy train station.
It’s such a strange juxtaposition between our themes at Inian Islands Institute (sustainability, slowing down, rediscovering one’s place within an ecosystem) and what it takes to get there (flying thousands of miles, sending thousands of emails, and racing around this urban center chasing after the money). The words ecology, experience, and Wilderness have been replaced for the nonce by the words networking, capital, and traction. I feel I’m living John Muir’s “lost years” in the 1880s, when he foresook tramping freely among the glaciers of Alaska and the Sierra for toil and drudgery on his California ranch. “And for money!” he cried, “I’m like to die from the shame of it!”
Outfitting to Fit In
Appraising my Xtratuf boots and torn Carhartt pants, I decided the first thing I needed for these meetings was some new clothes. Hopping on my friend Jeremy’s bike, I pedaled over to Goodwill, where I found a button-down shirt, slacks, a belt, and even a snug-fitting pair of casual brown leather shoes. Gotta dress the part of founding director of a burgeoning non-profit organization – as our board and advisory council have trained me to talk the talk, these shoes will help me walk the walk.
But the biggest gulf between me and the culture of the Bay Area has nothing to do with dress or style (after all, you never know which of the twenty-somethings in flip-flops and sweatpants outside the local pub is actually a software company CEO) – it’s the fact that I don’t own a cell phone. People can’t quite seem to wrap their minds around that one. Last week I took the train into San Francisco to have breakfast with a wonderful guru of the Bay Area non-profit world, who I’ll call James Day. Arriving 10 minutes late to Tartine Bakery after a terrifying bike ride through the morning commute, I greeted James with apologies, as he chided me: “I emailed you three times! Don’t you have a cell phone?” Hearing my admission that I did not, James seemed to shake his head in hopelessness. I can’t recall his words, but the gist was that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to start a non-profit without a smart phone. Watching him crack open his frangipane almond croissant, and feeling chagrined about our rocky start, I began to describe Inian Islands Institute and how far we’ve come, sliding a 2-page flyer sheepishly over to his side of the table. He listened with growing interest, and by the end of breakfast, James and I had a spirited rapport. As he drove away, he yelled out “Get a cell phone!” and held his hand to his ear with a broad smile. I returned the gesture his way, thinking maybe that didn’t go so badly after all. To James, I’m a little different, maybe even a little refreshing – just as Inian Islands Institute is different from the other non-profits he works with – and I have a feeling he won’t forget me or the Alaskan wild anytime soon. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
But the start of the next day’s meeting was no less embarrassing. This time it was Los Altos Hills, land of palatial homes abutting private vineyards overlooking Santa Clara Valley (a.k.a. Silicon Valley). A brilliant tech entrepreneur-turned-conservationist, Carl Kemper (or so I’ll call him) was quite a catch for Inian Islands Institute. He said he’d give me half an hour of his time. And so, mounting Jeremy’s bicycle once again, I pedaled the 7 miles from Palo Alto in the near-record-breaking heat, nervously rehearsing my “pitch” along the way, stopping in the shade a few blocks from his home to cool off. Searching in my backpack, I donned my Goodwill slacks and button-down right there on the street, then, pulling out my shoes, I froze in panic. I had forgotten my socks. After briefly contemplating meeting this multi-millionaire in flip-flops, I slipped my leather shoes onto my bare, sweaty feet, praying my pants would hide my white ankles. Mustering my courage and composure, I walked on and rang Carl’s doorbell. “Zach!” he greeted me, “C’mon in. Why don’t you take your shoes off and we’ll chat over here?” I cringed – there was no hiding the truth now. Haltingly I tried to explain myself, while pulling my smelly, sweaty bare feet out of my shoes and planting them on his floor. But he only laughed. “Hey, I’m in bare feet too.” It was true: his dress was a very unassuming shorts and tee-shirt, his demeanor kind and understanding. The ice well-broken, what was supposed to be a half hour meeting turned into 2 hours and meeting his family, and ended with an invitation to Alaska.
In fundraising, they say, people don’t give to a cause, they give to a person. To pull this off, I can’t be anyone but myself: naïve and phone-less, but excited, hopeful, Alaskan through-and-through. And even if I sometimes feel a little out of place here in Silicon Valley, I find that people are responding to me and my message. People are responding in general, working to build a better world, and that’s the subject of the last story I want to tell today.
A Parade of Possibility
This morning, I saw something beautiful in Palo Alto. I was out for an early run up California Avenue; I’ve never liked running on pavement much, but with no other choices in this neighborhood, I cut over the soft patches of lawn and dirt where I can. At a cross street I stopped, waving on an idling car – until I realized that the car couldn’t go. Alongside me on Cal Ave, blocking the car’s path, schoolchildren on bicycles streamed by. Onward and onward they came, dozens if not hundreds of them, colorfully dressed, little helmets glinting like dewdrops in the morning sun, their smiling, carefree faces ruddy from the exertion and fresh air.
I smiled as I watched the cars backing up in a line, held at bay for minutes by the happy, healthy, bicycling children on parade. It seemed to me a perfect metaphor for the changes going on all around us. Buckminster Fuller once said that you never make change by fighting the existing reality. “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In that parade of children, I saw the architects of a new model, in that moment making cars and traffic seem strange and unneccesary.
These are the moments that keep me dogging this dream to educate and inspire new world architects in the Wilderness of Alaska. Passion in my heart, I ran home and prepared for my next meeting.