In Montgomery, Bryan Stevenson is Thurgood Marshall’s Heir Apparent For Supreme Court

Montgomery’s excellent jazz musicians highlight the city’s lively club scene. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Montgomery, which has occupied one bank of the Alabama River since 1819, never deliberately set out to distinguish itself as the white hot furnace of American racial injustice, or the historic hearth of reconciliation. That’s what Alabama’s capital has become, though.

Yesterday the city of 200,000, where slaves were sold and where the Civil Rights movement was born, took another memorable step. It elected Steven Reed, Montgomery County’s first African American probate judge, as its first black mayor.

In the age of a maniac in the White House whose words enflame white supremacist hatred, Montgomery is a welcome lesson in cultural evolution. The city’s reckoning with its cruel past, and the opportunities afforded by its civil advance also has produced two more well-earned outcomes.

The first is the flourishing tourism trade centered on dramatic new expressions of racial injustice that are articulated in an emotionally gripping national monument to victims of lynching, and a sister museum of slavery and mass incarceration. Both opened in April 2018. The two attractions express a more urgent and contemporary narrative of bigotry that ties slavery, the Civil War, lynching, segregation, and civil rights to the current era of street shootings and mass incarcerations of African American men.

Dexter Avenue, which ends at the state Capitol, was the end point of the famous 1965 civil rights march from Selma. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The second is the emergence of Bryan Stevenson as a national human rights hero. Stevenson is a decorated civil rights lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery to defend and liberate wrongfully convicted black death row inmates in Alabama. Stevenson was barely known in the city and state as recently as three years ago, even though he won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the ‘genius’ award) in 1995.

A lot changed since. Stevenson published a best-selling memoir about his work, “Just Mercy,” in 2014. The new museum and memorial, which he inspired and helped to design, are attracting throngs of visitors and encouraging a surge of downtown construction. The Equal Justice Initiative campaign to install historic markers at sites where lynching occurred gains momentum in counties across the country.

This year HBO broadcast a documentary on Stevenson, and Hollywood produced a major motion picture, “Just Mercy,” that stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of the book’s central characters.

As if the United States needs another reason to liberate the White House from its current occupant, here’s one more. Electing a Democrat as president would elevate Stevenson as a legitimate and logical nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and decorated civil rights lawyer. (Photo/Equal Justice Initiative)
Continue reading “In Montgomery, Bryan Stevenson is Thurgood Marshall’s Heir Apparent For Supreme Court”

Alli Gerkman, Lawyer Who Worked To Reform Legal System, Buried In Michigan

Allí Gerkman’s energy and passion for reform was irrepressible. She had attitude and smarts — loved by her family and friends, admired by colleagues — that set her apart. (IAALS photo)

OLD MISSION PENINSULA, MI — On a sun-bright day, with a breeze that stirred leaves and a hawk that wheeled overhead, family and friends paid their respects and laid Alli Gerkman to rest yesterday. In a graceful ceremony of poetry, letters, love, and song, about 50 people gathered in a small cemetery here to honor a life cut short by cancer, but filled with Alli’s courage, and distinctive spirit, her humor and splendid judgment.

Alli’s mother, Betsy Alles, is a close friend who asked me to write Alli’s obituary days before the death of her daughter on August 31. It’s posted here in Alli’s honor.

———————————————————-

Alli Gerkman, the Michigan-born lawyer who settled in Colorado to make legal education more accessible to women and people of color, improve the skills of young lawyers, and restore honor and grace to a profession that is draining from both, won a prestigious honor in May from the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.

The Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award memorializes an early 20th century probate lawyer much like Alli, a woman and a leader who surpassed conventional expectations to become an agent of change for a profession that needed to be stirred.

As a senior director of IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, Alli distinguished herself as one of the young lawyers to watch as she worked to modernize a system of education and practice that had become too cumbersome, too dispiriting, too expensive.

In accepting the award, Alli, a graduate of a mid-level law school, explained the ironic freedom that comes with being underestimated. “I was good enough,” she said. “But not good enough for the most coveted paths after law school. I can say with absolute honesty that I was never interested in a big firm job. But whether I was or wasn’t, wasn’t particularly relevant when you consider that no big law firm would ever have hired me. My failure to tap into the well-born caste of our profession meant that I couldn’t qualify for the standard path of my career.

“That turned out to be my superpower. If there is no predefined path and no outcome expected of you in your career, you can do anything that you decide that you want to do.”

What Alli did was exceptional. During eight years at IAALS she developed a national survey then, based on the results, launched a national movement that identified strength of character, integrity, and willingness to work hard as virtues in new lawyers that are every bit as important to hiring and practice as expert knowledge of the law. She directed a national program, Foundations for Practice, that worked with law schools and a select group of law firms to develop a curriculum for teaching students what she called the “character quotient.” The intent was to better prepare young lawyers for the contemporary challenges of starting their careers, and to open law firms to a wider range of new hires.

“Alli’s footprints leave imprints,” said Rebecca Kourlis, the former Colorado Supreme Court justice who founded and directs IAALS. “Her personality leaves impressions. Her work leads to impacts.”

Alli’s work was cut short, however, by a rare form of cancer. She died in Michigan on August 31, 2019. She was 41 years old. But in the four years of her illness, Alli challenged the tumor with the same grit, tenacity and grace that encompassed all of her life.

She was tested in completely new ways. The medical treatments were grueling. In the first 40 months, Alli wrote, she endured multiple surgeries, 27 days of chemotherapy, 51 days of radiation, and “countless days of emerging treatments, including molecular and immunotherapy.”

“I know that this cancer will change my life,” she wrote. “It is one of the first things I knew as soon as I learned more about the severity of my diagnosis. It is an unmovable truth. But I can embrace that without letting the cancer define me and wash away who I already am—and who I will be. As I said to my colleague who wanted to know if she could let one of our organizational partners know what I’m dealing with, ‘Of course—as long as you make it completely clear that I am still in the game.’”

An accomplished public speaker, she added this in a speech in 2018: “I think about my own death all the time. I know I will die, in a way I never knew it before. But the most important reason to think about your own death is that actually makes your life better.”

Alli had moxie and courage in all things, especially in living after her diagnosis in 2015.

She cultivated the furrows of her relationships with friends, her family, and her colleagues in and outside Colorado with more depth and urgency. She was determined to keep her characteristic optimism, her ready laugh and sense of fun that attracted a close group of friends and made her a delight to her family.

Continue reading “Alli Gerkman, Lawyer Who Worked To Reform Legal System, Buried In Michigan”

AppHarvest’s Big Idea: Bringing Food Production Indoor At A Mammoth Kentucky Greenhouse

Jonathan Webb, the innovator and chief executive who is bringing food production indoors and wants to change the economy of eastern Kentucky. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MOREHEAD, Ky. – Almost 70 percent of American consumers, including those who love fresh tomatoes, are a day’s drive from eastern Kentucky. That proximity to big markets is the primary reason AppHarvest is building the largest greenhouse in the United States in a big field in Rowan County just outside this university town.

Sometime next summer, when production commences, the $97 million, 60-acre building will begin shipping 45 million pounds of fresh produce annually, primarily tomatoes, to grocery stores from Atlanta to New York, and as far west as Chicago and St. Louis.

“I asked the engineers, ‘How big can we possibly be to operate efficiently and effectively,’” said Jonathan Webb, AppHarvest’s 34-year-old founder and chief executive. The 2.76-million square foot building, now being constructed on a 366-acre field close to Interstate 64, is big enough to lower costs on materials, production, and distribution. “It’s price per pound. We have to compete with produce coming from 2,000 miles away.”

I learned about Kentucky’s AppHarvest project last spring and visited with Jonathan Webb and his colleagues in late June for this story in the New York Times. If Webb succeeds he and his staff will do more than produce enough vegetables to help feed the East Coast. He’ll change the economic vector of a state that has a $5 billion farm sector, but has been associated historically to horses and tobacco, and for that matter to the failing coal sector. In food there is salvation.

The mammoth project, undertaken by the two-year-old Kentucky start-up, weds Dutch greenhouse technology to rising demand for American-grown tomatoes, an appetite that has climbed to 20-plus pounds per person, second only to potatoes. With its digital monitoring, sun and LED-lit environment, recycled rainwater, and non-chemical growing practices, the immense greenhouse also responds to a host of cultural concerns about food safety, freshness, environmental quality and energy consumption.

Other food growers have the same idea. AppHarvest, which will employ 285 people, is part of a wave of new greenhouse construction changing vegetable production in the eastern U.S.  

More Greenhouse Development

Kentucky Fresh Harvest is building a 30-acre, $13.5 million greenhouse to grow cherry tomatoes near Stanford, also in Kentucky, about 100 miles southeast of Morehead. Mucci Farms, a Canadian company, just opened the first of three large greenhouses for tomato production on a 75-acre farm in Huron, Ohio. Mastronardi Produce last year finjshed a 20-acre greenhouse for vegetables in Wapakoneta, Ohio. The Canadian company operates six others in Ohio, Michigan and New York.

AppHarvest is intent on meeting the rising demand for fresh tomatoes in a market increasingly supplied by imports from Mexico and Canada.

The two countries account for more than half of the $3 billion American fresh tomato market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says U.S. production, meanwhile, is declining.  Fresh tomato growing in Florida, a major producer, has fallen to around 30,000 acres, down from 39,400 acres at the start of the century, according to the U.S.D.A. Similar reductions have occurred in California, North Carolina, and other tomato suppliers.

Forehead State University built and operates a robotics research and development center close to where AppHarvest is buildings its greenhouse. Proximity to a state university is one reason Webb chose the site for his project. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

AppHarvest’s founder also is intent of leveraging his big greenhouse to promote two other transformative ideas. The first is to build huge AppHarvest greenhouses in other eastern Kentucky communities.  The second, he says, is to be so successful that other greenhouse growers settle in eastern Kentucky, enough to replace an economy devastated by the collapse of the coal industry with a “sustainable produce hub” that would turn Kentucky into “the agtech capitol” of America.

That goal is achievable. Greenhouses provide a controlled environment that allows vegetables to be grown year-round. The U.S.D.A., in a report published in March, said greenhouse tomatoes in 2017, the latest year for accurate figures, accounted for 32 percent of the domestic supply. The same year, according to the USDA, Kentucky farmers grew tomatoes in 1.1 million square feet of greenhouses on more than 300 farms.

Continue reading “AppHarvest’s Big Idea: Bringing Food Production Indoor At A Mammoth Kentucky Greenhouse”

Gina Lopez, Philippines Environment Secretary Who Closed Polluting Mines, Is Dead

Gina Lopez was beloved by people everywhere for her courage. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Only the good die young. I learned today that Gina Lopez, the former Philippines environment secretary, died today of brain cancer at the age of 65. Two years ago, on assignment for Mongabay and China Dialogue, I spent several weeks with Gina in the Philippines as she fought to preserve her position in the face of reckless opposition from that country’s mining industry. She’d ordered most of the country’s open pit mines shut down because of rampant water pollution and land degradation. She also started a government-sponsored campaign to halt illegal forest cutting. And she elevated the cause of protecting the country’s magnificent marine fauna and flora to a national priority.

For some reason, perhaps because I was an American journalist, she was candid with me about her life and the political trial she was enduring. Gina had already proven her eco-activist bonafides as director of her wealthy family’s foundation. She cleaned up parts of the Pasig River and started an eco-park to preserve a forested watershed near Manila.

Gina knew that her tenure as environmental secretary would be short, which is why she went so hard at closing polluting mines. During lunch at her home she told me, “When your business goes against the common good that’s a problem. When your business interest goes against the very future of our country that’s the problem that exists. I’ve been at this a long time and no one really listened to me. Now I have this position and everyone is like, “Wow. She’s making sense.”

Gina Lopez toured polluted mine sites by helicopter. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Her fearlessness resulted in mining safeguards that still stand and attracted global attention. In December 2017, she won the $10,000 Seacology Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious conservation awards, for her “exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.”

Gina’s life is an inspiration. She’ll be missed by me and so many others who admired her.

— Keith Schneider

My articles on Gina Lopez:

Gina Lopez, a “Crusader,” Sets Philippines Water, Mining Safety on Unexpected New Course

Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble

Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story

Philippines bans new open-pit metal mines

The rise and fall of Regina Lopez, the Philippines’ maverick environment minister

The Philippines, a nation rich in precious metals, encounters powerful opposition to mining

Profile: Regina Lopez is pushing for a new green politics in Asia

Regina Lopez: Update From The Philippines

Me and Gina following lunch at her Manila home in May 2017. (Photo/KeIth Schneider)

Lessons From The Garden

Gardens are life. The lessons they convey about joy and sadness, care and diligence, love and insight are magical. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

BENZONIA — The tiger lilies are fading. But the pink blossoms of the rose of Sharon began to bloom this week. So did the blue blossoms of the butterfly bush.

It’s mid-August. Just as in every month since early May when I raked the leaves out of the gardens, taking care not to injure the yellow daffodils, flowers are coming into view while others slip away.

Odes to gardens and gardening almost always are exuberant in their enthusiasm for the sun’s generous light, the dark soil that lodges in fingernails, the stress-relieving pact with the ground and the seasons that calm the heart and strengthen the muscles.

This ode is a departure. It’s an elegy for gardens and their lessons for living a life of committed, caring relationships.

Boxwoods frame the flowers of the front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Gardens, for instance, are useful in understanding marriage. You send a garden a pulse of love, they’ll send it right back. The more diligence, loyalty, love, and work you devote to caring for a garden the more beautiful are its flowers, the more colorful its shrubs and trees, the healthier its soil. A garden, like your spouse, appreciates constant affirmation. Disregard a garden for too long, say two weeks, and the trouble just mounts. Weeds grow. Wilt takes hold. Insects tote diseases that damage entire sections. The garden, like marriage, begins to dim. The damage can take months to repair.

Continue reading “Lessons From The Garden”