Neahtawanta Research and Education Center Legacy

The Neahtawanta Research and Education Center was launched on the Summer Solstice in 1987 at the Neahtawanta Inn. Founders, Bob Russell and Sally Van Vleck, were married the same day. Bob was fond of saying, “We married our work”, quite literally.

Sally and Bob held the common vision of addressing environmental activism and peace issues as they are interconnected issues. Included in the heading of peace issues was also promoting inner peace/growth, to maintain health and balance and on a personal level for the demanding work of social change work.

Early projects included educational programs for children and educators, planting peace poles in the local area, supporting the Michigan Peace March and activism focusing on the Great Lakes and antinuclear issues. Protest marches and rallies have continued through the years to draw attention to issues of importance, such as a protest against Burger King for it’s support of unsustainable fishing practices that harmed dolphins, as well as many peace protests, including the protest at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in which many activists were arrested for peaceful, nonviolent resistance.

Environmental advocacy was a main focus through-out NREC’s existence. The organization took the lead or collaborated with other groups in such conflicts as wetland protection, such as the Clous case, protection of trees, such as when NMC wanted to clear-cut the woods to expand the Dennos Museum; land use, such as helping to block the proposed downtown mall and stopping the golf course in the Crystal River watershed (led by Friends of the Crystal River); promotion of renewable energy, better handling of hazardous waste and waste disposal in general; promoting recycling; and other campaigns to promote a healthy environment.

The Center sponsored grassroots musicians, such as Rare Air from Canada, Dean Stevens who sang songs from Central America, Candace Anderson whose songs told stories of early feminists and activist musician Charlie King, among many others.

Speakers were also brought in, such as William Sloan Coffin and Emory Lovins, along with multiple discussion series at the Inn. Several stand out: our Salon Series on sustainability led by Jim Crowfoot and Ruth Carey; the Transformative Power of Grief by the late John Schneider,

Many workshops were held at the Neahtawanta Inn, including mens’ and women’s retreats, with leaders such as Shepherd Bliss, Jeffrey Duvall, Luisah Teish , Starhawk and others. Other topics included conflict resolution, led by Jack and Carol Lawyer, consensus decision making with Carolyn Estes, Toward Understanding: Nonviolent Techniques for Discussing Sexual Orientation; multiple Nonviolent Trainings through-out the years, and our hands-on timber-framing workshop that to create a first floor room and other changes so that the Inn could become accessible on the first floor to people in wheelchairs.

Rituals and celebrations were a big part of NREC’s history: Winter Solstice with the candle/apple ceremony to envision a better world; Summer Solstice bonfires and burning of the straw man, and cross quarter rituals around Samhain and Beltane. The Annual Hiroshima Candlefloat down the Boardman River began in the early ’80’s with local peace activists, headed by the beloved Tom Shea leader of the peace movement for many years who died in the winter of 2019. NREC began to help with organizing and eventually sponsored this event which includes gathering to create the floats and holding a circle to sing and share thoughts about peace before floating the candles down the river. This tradition will continue.

In 1990, the Center took the lead in local organizing for the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, which included the All Species Parade and other activities to raise environmental awareness and activism, such as planting trees, beach clean-ups, renewable energy and sustainable business fairs, speakers and movies. Other groups joined in to collaborate. NREC sponsored Earth Day for the next 12 years, before it was taken over by the Little Artshram. Earth Day was instrumental in raising environmental awareness of critical issues relating to land use, water, disposal of hazardous materials, and habitat protection.

Through the late ’80’s and into the ’90’s NREC sponsored a series of Casa Materna Collection Days, along with other peace and justice organizations. There was a local connection with the director, Kitty Madden, who often came here to give us updates on this birth support center which served the rural people of Nicaragua. Many expectant mothers lived far from hospitals so Casa Materna provided housing at the end of their pregnancies as they awaited the birth and then afterwards, so that they could gain strength for the journey home. The local activist community collected materials that were needed at the Center and shipped them down to Matagalpa, Nicaragua with donations from the community. It was a small way for us to help and be connected on a global level with people who needed our help. Clarence Kroupa always showed up to help pack up the boxes and he and Grips (David Krumlauf) would take them to the shipping company.

During the ’90’s Bob Russell became involved in the independent media movement, under the guidance of the late Dirk Koning, founder of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. Their collaboration developed into a deep friendship as Dirk helped Bob and others to form our local cable TV station. Bob and Dirk traveled to national conferences led by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which led to Bob’s involvement in the Global Forums that were held in conjunction with the U.N.’s Earth Summit and subsequent summits around the world. Bob was able to attend these grassroots gatherings that helped developing countries achieve internet access in the ’90’s. Upon his return he gave talks about this work both locally and around the state. Bronwyn Jones, professor at NMC, was instrumental in this work, often attending the APC conferences and teaching about media literacy in her classes.

NREC also led the local effort that was part of a national campaign to stop the construction of GWEN (Ground Wave Emergency Network)Towers, a project of the Defense Department. The towers were being constructed across the country to be used in the event of a nuclear war, if the normal communication system were wiped out. When construction of a tower was proposed for Buckley, MI, we jumped into the campaign. Bob was in close contact with the Nancy Foster, director of the GWEN Project out of Amherst, MA. Local opposition mounted, and when the GT County Commission held a hearing on it, 120 people showed up on a hot summer night to oppose it. Sally Van Vleck gave tearful testimony about the danger of nuclear war and the folly of investing in a system based on the premise that we could even survive such an atrocity. Several activists in the UP were jailed for their protest efforts. Due to widespread opposition across the country, Congress finally abandoned funding for the program in 1993.

The early ’90’s was also a pivotal time for the peace movement that grew and deepened in response to the Gulf War. A coalition of groups came together and the created The Traverse Area Response to the Mideast Crisis, which eventually evolved into Mideast JustPeace, which still exists. Weekly potlucks were held along with protests against the war; NREC published 8 weekly newsletters to keep the public up to date on events and actions. Many volunteers showed up to help during this time, including the late Ricky Fogel, Marian Kromkowski, Matt Posner and many others. As one war or conflict led into another, peace protests continued through-out the ’90’s and into the early 2000’s after 9/11, with the long rope of black ribbons to represent lives lost, maintained by Mideast JustPeace for protests along Grandview Parkway. The Center helped promote and support these marches and rallies including maintaining a stock of peace/antiwar signs and encouraging public participation and speaking out.

As we moved into the 21st century several major campaigns were launched. NREC was also still carrying on our traditions of celebrating Earth holidays, commemorating the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings with our annual candle float and continuing to work on local issues of importance.

Starting with the Y2K/Millennium celebration at the Neahtawanta Inn, the Guerrilla Action Group, better known as GAG, was formed. After the first a hilarious (we thought) skit, GAG went on to use satire and humor to highlight current issues under the 8 years of George W. Bush. This included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to 9/11 and Bush’s campaign of the “War on Terror”. The use of torture in Iraq was a big concern and topic of protest. Governmental policies were also a target of the group, who performed and various events, but mostly on the streets of downtown Traverse City. GAG participated with skits and signs in and around the shopping malls south of town for Buy Nothing Day, a national day that focused on over consumption. One of the best skits, complete with songs and costumes, was “The Best Government Money Can Buy”, written by the recently departed Tom Shea, leader of the peace movement in Traverse City for many years. GAG was a band of committed activists who resorted to humor in dark times for progressives and peace lovers.

Post 9/11 brought a huge response from the local peace community, of which NREC was a part, along with Mideast JustPeace and other local peace groups. Weekly protests, gatherings, speakers, forums etc. were held through-out this time.

In 2002, Sisters Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert and others took part in a nonviolent resistance action at a Colorado missile site to bring attention to the threat of weapons of mass destruction stored there. Carol and Ardeth have been longtime Michigan-based peace activists who came to Traverse City many times; we joined together for multiple peaceful protests over the years. They were sentenced to between 2 and 4 years in prison for symbolically pouring their own blood and hammering with a child’s hammer on the missile silo. They came to speak in Traverse City before they were locked up and our peace community stayed in touch with them during their prison terms. NREC reported on their protests, legal battles and status as they completed prison sentences, often publishing their writings on peace, especially from prison.

Beginning in 2002 and continuing annually through 2012, NREC and SEEDS co-sponsored the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference held at Northwestern Michigan College. We were a satellite site for the national conference/movement. All satellite sites around the country simultaneously broadcast the 15 speakers from the main conference over a 3-day period, each year. This was a great opportunity for education and included speakers such as Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken, Jan Jones, Amy Goodman, Joanna Macy and many other brilliant and articulate speakers who were less well known. During this time, before live-streaming and the widespread use of the Internet, this technology was new and exciting. Bob Russell, and his dear cohort, Dirk Koning ran the technology for the conference along with help from Kevin Gills and others at NMC. In addition, we held workshops on a myriad of topics, such as growing mushrooms, healing with herbs, Indigenous rights, water issues, renewable energy, composting, and many, many more. The conference became a touchstone for the grassroots, activist community and offered a useful networking opportunity. Music and art were a big part of the conference and at this time Seth Bernard came on the scene to perform and participate as a young activist musician. Bob Russell gave a memorable keynote speech the year before he died which is still remembered by many.

Beginning in 2002, NREC was part of a campaign to launch a local currency which was named Bay Bucks. We participated in a steering committee for several years before the Traverse Area Community Currency Corporation (TACCC) was formed followed by the board of directors. The purpose of creating a local currency is to keep local dollars in our community as well as investments, rather than exporting money out to large corporations. A great deal of work went into this effort, first doing research and education around different systems of local currency and how they work, then deciding which method we want, having the currency designed and printed. Another big part of the project was educating the public as to why and how local currency works and then lining up businesses that are willing to participate. The Bay Bucks system was launched at the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference in Oct., 2005. The project has had its ebbs and flows; right now, Bay Bucks are still circulating but the project needs to be infused with some new energy to bring it back into the public’s awareness and expand it. A local group recently meant to explore how that might happen.

In 2009, NREC became involved in the community resilience movement. Resilience as a concept had been gaining acclaim and attention as a response to the growing effects of climate change on all systems of life. Sustainability was no longer an adequate model. The widely used definition of resilience is “The ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure. Bob Russell and Dave Barrons launched the series Investigating Community Resilience; a series of discussions and interviews that were aired on Upnorth TV, the local public access cable station. The shows were also available on NREC’s website. They used the following categories as a framework: Arts, Economics Ecosystem Services, Education, Energy, Food and Farming, Governance, Public Health, Social Capital and Transportation. A few of the interviewees were more well known, such as Richard Heinberg, from the Post Carbon Institute and author, Tom Greco; however, most of the guests on the series of shows were local people working in the various categories. Interviews focused on people using resilience concepts to adapt to a changing world, such as: Doug Luciani, who at that time was executive director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, to coffee activists from On the Ground, Chris Treter and Timothy Young; Sharon Flesher, local Bay Bucks activist, the late Josh Wunsch, fruit grower, talking about resilient food systems; Andy Knott, executive director of the Watershed Center at the time, speaking about the work of his organization to counteract invasive species, restore the river system and storm water mitigation projects. ICR succeeded in encouraging local conversations on what it means to be a resilient community.

Bob Russell died in 2013, after a 2 1/2 year bout with esophageal cancer, leaving a legacy of activism and civil engagement in our local area and beyond. He also left us a reading list (!) and from that the Bob Russell Resilience Reading Project was launched with the help of Hans Voss and Jim Lively from the Groundwork Center, NREC board members, Dave Barrons and Stephanie Mills, and Brad Kik from the Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology. At first, we decided to pick 4 books a year, encourage community members to read it and show up for a discussion at our local bookstore. We stuck to Bob’s reading list for the first several years, then changed the format to one yearly read and went beyond his list to the books we knew he would be reading and advocating about. The project continues; the 2019 choice will be announced on the Summer Solstice, June 21st.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, the NREC board launched the Beloved Community Network to counteract the climate of polarization, and uncivilly that seemed to be gaining some momentum around the country. We thought it was important to promote a more tolerant, compassionate and inclusive atmosphere in our local area. So we invited other groups to join us who were involved in peace, equity, and social justice issues and the BCN was created. We held meetings of representatives of various organizations, created a Facebook Page and the BCN members were listed and described on the NREC website. The idea was for groups to collaborate on projects and show up and support each others’ events and campaigns. The network grew to over 20 organizations. We are hopeful that the BCN will continue; currently several groups are planning to take over the organizational and administrative tasks to carry it on.

Through all of its 32 years, NREC sought out other organizations and individuals in order to join forces, collaborate and magnify our efforts. NREC was housed at the Neahtawanta Inn on the Old Mission Peninsula where many of the Center’s workshops, meetings, discussions and celebrations took place. NREC also maintained a collection of books and periodicals on all the topics relating to our mission. The library still remains at the Inn for guests and local organizations who use the Inn for gatherings and events.

Sally Van Vleck & Bob Russell
Neahtawanta Research and Education Center Co-Founders