Many people talk about our needing to be the change we want to see in the world, but very few actually live the part. For a brief time, Highland Park was fortunate to have Leigh “Prairie Fyre” Davis, a citizen for whom ecology and fairness were a way of life.
I had the good fortune to know Leigh from her work on the Board of Health Annual Health Fair, a project to provide screenings for blood pressure, blood sugar, vision, hearing, cholesterol, and other crucial services such as nutrition counseling, especially focusing on those residents who, due to lack of health insurance, might never receive these at all.
The Health Fair was only one of many community projects in which Leigh was involved, a list so long one wonders how she remembered her many public service commitments. She was a founding member of the Edible Gardens Project, through which individuals and organizations, including the Highland Park school system, learned about and started growing their own food through gardening via raised beds, sharing seeds and information at regular meetings. The project’s goal is for people to eat locally grown food, thereby lessening reliance on long distance transportation for fruits and vegetables from around the country and the world, reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global climate change.
During the summer, Leigh would bring fresh produce from local gardens, vegetables and herbs, to the Senior/Youth Center every Saturday, where it was distributed, sometimes in conjunction with the Food Pantry. On those Saturdays when the Food Pantry was not open, she would still be there at the Center with fresh produce, which was distributed to people in nearby senior housing, patrons of the Food Pantry, and anyone else who wanted it.
Leigh wrote grants to fund the Edible Gardens Project and spent many hours active in her own home garden across the street from Highland Park High School. She also assisted high school students in watering their garden, even finding money to pay them during the summer. Last year, after the growing season ended, she held a dinner at the library honoring all participating students.
“Being green” has become a popular cliché politically, and politicians often attempt to cloak themselves in a green mantle. In most cases, that mantle is superficial. Leigh could easily see through such disguises, and when the former mayor proudly touted her renovation of the borough recreational facility at the high school with artificial turf, Leigh raised the alarm about the potential dangers posed by this turf. She did extensive research on the risks to students, noting that the turf can become as hot as 140 degrees F during the summer, and that abrasions from turf burn could potentially put students at risk from MRSA.
Last year, she did an extensive presentation to the Board of Health on the dangers of artificial turf and ways to mitigate these dangers until we can replace the turf with real grass. She distributed a detailed CD and handouts to all members and also shared these same concerns with the Board of Education and Borough Council. As a result of her efforts, signs will be posted at the recreation site advising those who use it on proper health precautions, and a water source and port-a-john will be available to all who use the site during the summer months.
She could be funny as well as serious, as she demonstrated in managing the protest mayoral “campaign” of A Ficus for Mayor, in which a group of activists protested the unopposed campaign of one candidate and its inherent undermining of democracy by running a ficus plant for the office in imitation of a Congressional “campaign” done several years earlier for similar reasons by Michael Moore.
Leigh worked on many projects with Sustainable Highland Park, the borough committee appointed to study and implement ways for residents and borough government to become more environmentally friendly, including energy audits of borough buildings and schools, to yield recommendations on reducing their carbon footprints. That is the focus of the group’s current project, “It’s In Our Power,” funded through a grant received by the borough through the group’s efforts.
“It’s In Our Power” will be a central focus of this year’s free Earth Fair/Health Fair, to be held at the Highland Park High School cafeteria and gym on Tuesday, May 10, from 6-9 PM.
This event is, for the second year in a row, being co-sponsored by Sustainable Highland Park along with the Board of Health. In February of this year, Leigh attended the first planning meeting of the committee on the Board of Health side.
Only one week later, I received a Facebook invite for a memorial that I assumed must be for soldiers killed in the Iraq war, as the war’s eighth anniversary approached. I cannot describe the shock and unreality when I clicked on the link and found out the memorial was for Leigh herself, who died suddenly on March 3, only days before her 53rd birthday.
This year’s Earth Fair/Health Fair will be dedicated to Leigh Davis and Vickie White, both of whom served as examples in promoting the health of our residents, community, and planet.
Leigh’s activities were not limited to environmental issues. At a time when our country seems to inexplicably be going backwards in terms of protecting our most vulnerable citizens, she swam against the current, serving on the board of A Better World Café, a café where patrons can either work for food prepared by students in the Culinary Project sponsored by Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen, or pay what they can and make up the rest with volunteer work. A Better World Café is organized through the Reformed Church of Highland Park.
She also took part in another Reformed Church project, “Bring Them Home,” through which Reverend Seth Kaper-Dale converted an old church to housing for veterans in need.
On the first Saturday of 2010, Leigh hosted a 1960s party complete with music and peace symbols, a celebration of not just a decade but of a timeless value system. It was a wonderful night I will personally never forget.
Along with Vickie White, Leigh took part in the New Orleans Freedom Ride after Hurricane Katrina, raising money, organizing, and doing actual physical work rebuilding New Orleans’ devastated lower ninth ward. Through this project, young residents from Highland Park, New Brunswick, and other local towns met the victims of the disaster and actually took part in rebuilding their neighborhoods.
At Leigh’s memorial service, friends and acquaintances spoke of her efforts on behalf of labor unions and civil rights. One remembered attending a memorial anniversary vigil at the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with Leigh, a tragedy whose centennial was commemorated only weeks after Leigh died and done so with warnings that the lessons of that fire are being forgotten in today’s political climate of deregulation and government favoritism of big business at the expense of the people.
But Leigh was about so much more than a list of activities. She lived and breathed a new world, a new age in which many have long since lost faith. She understood the inevitable change that will come and sweep away an exploitive system that has plundered our planet and is quickly heading us to becoming a Third World country. And she saw beyond that coming crisis, to a new world with a bottom line of love for one another and for our planet, a world of local, community-based economics, of living in harmony with the Earth, a world where the ultimate value and worth are no longer based on profit, but on life.
Within the last year, Leigh began organizing a local barter network for exchanging items and services, including a "neighborhood university" where individuals could teach a subject or skill they know and then attend classes on other subjects by other people, all free, as first steps towards creating a world without money. Such a world has been a personal, deep-seated dream of mine since I started reading L. Frank Baum's Oz books at age 11. Actually knowing someone in our hometown who not only believed in such a society, but was willing to lay the groundwork for it, instilled in me a powerful sense of hope and promise.
When a new, transforming world begins manifesting itself in the 2020s and beyond, we will look back and understand the gift our community had in a woman who was so ahead of her time, someone who not only envisioned the future, but spent every day making it happen.
A year ago, friends of mine who are not political tried to convince me that it is more conducive to mental health for people to accept the world as it is, injustices and all, than to spend so much time and energy fighting those injustices. One wrote, “Personally, I think it's mentally healthier to accept what is, sometimes as bad as it is. The general consensus says you make lots of money and you are famous. Ok, fine. I personally think it's stupid but I accept that, that's what the majority view as what fame and success is about. Do I agree with it. Heck no. Do I think sports figures and actors/actresses should get paid millions and millions of dollars. Definitely not. But the reality of it is that they do get paid ridiculous salaries and I accept that as a fact.”
Leigh made a very different choice. She understood that accepting injustice means enabling it to continue. She understood that fighting injustice and unfairness may be the more difficult choice, but for the health of ourselves, our community, and our planet, it is the only choice. And she also knew that to change the world, we need thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions and hundreds of millions of people to join together in making that choice every day of our lives.
Without her, we will all have to do more, but giving up is not an option. A verse from the anthem “Solidarity Forever,” a celebration of the power of labor unions, can be extended to encompass all who cannot just accept what is, who want and need something better.
“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of atoms, magnified a thousand fold;
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the Union makes us strong.”
--written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin
Some like to say the Golden Rule means "he who has the gold makes the rules." Others, like Leigh and Reverend Kaper Dale at Leigh’s memorial service, still believe in the real Golden Rule, of which Leigh posted versions from seven different religions on a wall in her home. "Put the poor first," Reverend Kaper Dale urged.
Which future will it be? The answer is in our power.