A Legacy of Mentors

A Legacy cannot be established in just one generation. It is a build-up of small acts of love over time. They stack up slowly but surely in a corner, like piles of books collecting dust, until one day someone helps us clean and organize and we realize we have quite a library on our hands. At first glance the titles may appear to have nothing to do with each other, but once the thread is identified the connection between them becomes undeniable.

It was a brisk Oregon summer night and I wasn’t expecting a relative stranger to help me tease out that thread. The youth were as asleep in their tents as we could reasonably insure them to be, and the Culture Jam camp mentors were gathered in the staff house, unwinding from the long but impactful day. I struck up a conversation with Sola, a Nigerian-British man who played an important role on our staff, but who I had yet to really connect with. He had a powerful commanding presence that was somehow also soft and gentle and I gathered it came from his many years of leading and facilitating this work back in Britain. He asked me about my background in working with youth and I said I was primarily an artist and a performer and relatively new to working with teenagers, but that I was increasingly gaining interest in it, thanks to this camp and the impact of this Power of Hope model. Somehow my family’s farm came up and I mentioned that most everyone on my mother’s side was some sort of creative entrepreneur. I knew that I was too, but my calling to the performance arts had always felt like it didn’t quite fit in with that, like it was too different and sparkly and urban to be put in the same category with running a small farm, a restaurant, a flower business, an arts and crafts furniture company, etc. He didn’t seem satisfied with that answer and continued to dig. Where did that entrepreneurial spirit come from though? None of those are easy things to do, so surely there was some encouragement coming from somewhere?

My mind immediately jumped to a conversation I had had with my Aunt Kathy and my Uncle Bill, on the way home from this same camp a year before. I was trying to help with my Grandmother Sally’s cookbook/memoir project, a brilliant but often overwhelming undertaking started years before and revived by my cousin Byron on her 80th birthday. It had become a little stagnant again due to everyone’s busy lives and the recent passing of my dear Grandfather Don. I had just moved to Oakland and was still settling in so I had a lot of time on my hands and thought I would take a crack at trying to help organize what my grandmother had written and keep the project moving forward. Byron and his brother Troyce had already taken a ton of beautiful photos for the project, come up with lots of ideas and inspiration for the design, and my grandmother had written a lot but it needed more structure. My excitement about the project reignited her excitement and I took a heavy box full of manuscripts and notes home to my little airstream to try to sort through them. In reading them I realized that she was so humble in demeanor that it would be hard to get across the true impact of her life through her words alone. Byron had done a lot of interviews with her old staff members that were very revealing, but I wanted to find a way to include more of her 5 children’s’ perspectives. So I sat down with her daughter Kathy and her husband bill to learn more about my grandparents. Bill described them as truly humble (because “the ultimate in being impolite was to blow your own horn”) and private, unlike the generations of today who live their lives so publicly online. They would never share when they were in a challenging financial situation or needed help, but the things they did share through their actions deeply impacted a whole community of young people. They each had rather different approaches, but ultimately they had a similar effect on their communities.

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My grandpa Don was a true storyteller and a powerful but humble public figure. He loved people and was an incredible host and Bill described how in his stories “there was always a point and words of wisdom about having integrity and doing what was fair and believing you could bring out the best of people. If you nurtured them they could do great things.” I remembered getting small tastes of this from him in the rare moments I got him alone. At one point he handed the Apple Farm Napa deliveries over to me and took me along to show me the route. Hearing his stories about his connection to each restaurant and Chef we visited, and seeing his pride when he introduced me, showed me how much he invested in building relationships in his communities and bringing people together. Bill also described how In business he knew that you just had to “find something that people want, give them a little more than their money’s worth, and eventually it will take off.” So they never “played it safe, it never bothered them to pick up and start over” and I have seen that spirit in every one of their children and grandchildren.

My grandmother’s way was much less direct. Kathy described her as often having an impact on people without realizing it. “It wasn’t just verbal-it was actually their actions and their extreme guts and courage. They had confidence and they instilled that in all of us.” There was a whole group of young folks who became adults in her kitchens, where it was “expected that you jump in and help where it was needed. In that process you learn about everything and become better at creating the end product if you’re involved the whole way. And that’s what makes it more fun and interactive for everyone” So many of them left there well equipped to start their own successful projects. Kathy described how she was able to easily transition into building her own floral business by incorporating the little lessons her parents had taught her every step of the way while she was growing up in and around the Vintage and the French Laundry; she just felt like she naturally knew what to do and how to understand every angle of the business and how to bring her employees along. Kathy put it this way: “They gave us a base and a fundamental training that all of us used” but they also “let us feel our way-they didn’t come down on us for not making certain choices. I think that’s what makes our family a little unusual-we are not afraid to always be exploring or trying something new.”

As I was describing my grandparents to Sola I realized that every single one of their family members had inherited not only their confidence, but also their desire to pass that forward, to instill it in others through action. My parents were no exception. They had taken on the operation of the Apple Farm my grandparents bought with the investment money from Napa and were not only doing an incredible job at maintaining and evolving the farm, the cooking school, and the event space, but for years they had also been bringing us (their 4 children) along in the process. On top of that they had also been taking on young “farmhands” interested in learning their skills and welcoming them into our home and family. They were mentors in the deepest sense of the word, carrying forth my grandparents’ philosophy that “It’s not just about teaching people a specific skill-its a whole sense of community and sharing a table together that makes an experience valuable.” This was exactly what I had been learning through mentoring at these camps. It wasn’t specifically about the dance skills or the stilt lessons or the sewing techniques I taught these youth; it was about the community we could create when we call came together to share, and the inspiration and courage and confidence they could also bring to the table when they felt held, heard, and cared for by those that came before them.

Identifying this thread changed everything for me. It allowed to me recognize and acknowledge how my path and my life choices fit into a framework that is so much bigger than me and so crucial in creating this extensive library of knowledge that we pass down from generation to generation through our smallest actions. I feel so honored that I am not only a beneficiary of this incredible family legacy, but that I have been given the tools and am already working hard to continue it and expand it beyond my ancestors wildest dreams.