Appreciating Dean

Nobody said it was going to be a walk in the park, although it did sort of start out that way. Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach, that is, site of monthly Transition Palm Beaches meetings. Okeeheelee was chosen for Transition meetings by its founders, two home schooling mothers, because it was a centrally located public space, had a nice sheltered Tiki hut and picnic tables, and plenty of playground space for their children. It all worked beautifully unless the weather didn’t cooperate. As luck would have it, my first meeting with the group had to be relocated to a nearby library due to rain and high winds. Maybe it was an omen.

I met the late Dean Sherwin, my friend and colleague in the Transition movement, at one of those outdoor meetings. It was immediately evident that we were both transplants to both South Florida and the USA. Like me, Dean had lived in Asia for periods of time. In fact, he was known to wear a sarong around town occasionally.

Dean and his wife, Susan, had been members of Transition Town Media (PA) before moving to Lake Worth, and the group was excited to have someone with direct experience of Transition join our little band, especially this gentle, kind, well-spoken pair of Quakers.

Our group was (and still is) registered on the main Transition site as ‘mullers,’ a word that would be more familiar to British-born Dean than most Americans, meaning to ‘contemplate’ or ‘ponder.’ It seemed pretty tame for my inner revolutionary, all fired up as I was by Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook, essentially a blueprint for the movement. We believed – and I still do — that Transition was the most positive way to address climate disruption and peak oil. Having done some foot-weary protesting on behalf of climate, I was drawn to a movement that described itself as “more party than protest.”

M, MJ and Dean at Climate March

Marika Stone, Mary Jo Aagerston and Dean Sherwin

Whether intentionally or not, our group gravitated to Open Space technology – a self organizing style of leadership that encourages creativity, learning and the taking of responsibility for one’s interests. Transition encourages groups to begin with the people who show up, what they feel passionate about, and the knowledge and experience they bring to the effort. The home schooling families were already deeply committed to lowering their carbon impact by growing and preserving much of their food, one of them on a fairly large spread of land in a rural area, and the other within city limits. Jean and her family were concerned about keeping their free-range chickens safe from predators, while Holly and hers had to defend their urban farming from their own neighbors. Homesteading of this type takes a lot of focus and effort, and granted, food security is critical in challenging times. No surprise, our meetings revolved around topics like composting, canning and foraging rather than on how to optimize energy savings in home and work spaces, let alone challenge the existing power and transportation grid juggernauts. I, for one, had not anticipated how entrenched conventional utility interests were; how solar would become a battleground in the state; how net metering would be a non-starter; indeed, how much in denial elected officials could be about the facts of a warming climate.  In retrospect, I would have encouraged us to focus on more ways to recruit people to the movement in the first months when we were all so fired up.

Dean was an architect by training, had built a LEED certified ‘green’ house in Media, where he also had his own construction estimating business, and had taught construction estimating. I sensed he had a lot to teach us, different ideas and directions we could explore in time. He brought a quiet strength and leavening sense of humor to the notion of Transition Palm Beaches. I think he quickly saw that even our name was a bit of a stretch for a movement founded on the importance and value of a strong local community. In square miles, Palm Beach County is the largest in the state of Florida. In population, it ranks third. The geography of I-95 could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to real localization.

As it happened, geography has a lot to do with why after about a year, Dean and I were the last ones standing for Transition Palm Beaches. Holly and her family moved to North Florida. Jean and her family returned to their roots in Michigan. Linda, another ardent Transitioneer, decided the Slow movement in Vermont suited her better. So, in true ‘open space’ manner, Dean and I made the executive decision to rebrand Transition Palm Beaches – though without changing the registered name just yet — into Transition Town Lake Worth. As a resident, he knew that Lake Worth had many of the features of successful Transition towns elsewhere, including the one in Media he knew most intimately. Although my home was in another community, it felt like the right place to transplant the Transition seed. Dean and Susan offered Friends Quaker Meeting House for our monthly meetings, and so we began. Again.

Dean and I would have lunch at Too Jays and plan programming. We had some hits, including his presentation on modular solar panels, another on Tiny Houses, another on school gardens, and the wonderful presentation by the Colony 1 folks on January 5, 2015, with the highest attendance at 40 people. We did potlucks. We exchanged seeds and cuttings along with ideas on how to live more simply and joyfully, while reducing our impact on the planet. I know I enjoyed the meetings and the camaraderie. But what we didn’t gain was significant attendance over the period of the year, or, more importantly, traction as a leadership team. However supportive our spouses – and they were — two do not a movement make.

As many noted in memorializing him, Dean was a dreamer and doer, a joiner and a bon vivant. I found myself admitting to Susan at the reception, that what I knew of Dean was the tip of the proverbial iceberg – to my loss. He had lived large and in many fascinating places, and he had done worthwhile work his whole life. A lot of people in Lake Worth loved and respected him, from the men of his Mankind Project group who offered the most moving tributes, to people who worked with him on various public projects. In the best sense, Dean knew how to work the system, too. At the time of his death, he was vice chair of the Lake Worth Planning and Zoning Board, a proponent of the Little Free Library movement (and builder of his own cottage-shaped lending unit), and chief writer on The Cottages of Lake Worth Book, a celebration of living large in small spaces. I hadn’t realized this would be his final project when I ordered my copy.

If you’re a Facebook enthusiast, you can still find Transition Palm Beaches there, with close to 200 members, mostly inactive. Dean, Holly, Jean and I are still listed as admins to the page, so clearly it is in need of updating. The description makes it pretty clear what the page is about, and yet we have had a few ask to join thinking of a different kind of transition (here insert a wry emoticon). A Facebook page can devolve into a bulletin board for anything its members feel like making public to this group. I take down the most egregiously self-promoting as soon as I notice them. I’ve shared Susan’s beautiful tribute to Dean here.

A Facebook page can and often does support action but it cannot substitute for it. If I were able to ask Dean’s opinion, I suspect he would agree that it’s time to turn this particular page.

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One response to “Appreciating Dean

  1. Jacquelyn Browne

    A bittersweet tribute. Sweet for the man Dean was, and bittersweet over his loss and the loss of Transition Lake Worth, at least in its current form.

    Sent from my iPhone Jacquelyn Browne, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

    >

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