Tools for Living
By David A. Fryxell
Phil Stephens stands in the slanting sunlight of his Silver City woodworking shop, looking a bit like one of Santa's elves: A snowy beard rims his face and long hair spills from under an orange cap, cascading over his collar. His eyes seem to tug downward at the corners. Behind and around him in this garage space between Texas and Bullard streets, the array of tools and equipment shows more concern for saws and drills than Stephens takes in his own slightly rumpled appearance: hammers lined up like soldiers for battle, orange-handled clamps ascending a wooden frame, each spaced just so. The one-of-a-kind furniture pieces Stephens makes with all this —under his nom-de-woodworking "L.C. Crow"— are nowhere to be seen, all shipped to Deming for a show at the new Gold Street Gallery, with a few others at Elemental Arts over on Yankie Street in Silver City.
The Santa allusion is apt because—if all goes well—sometime before the holidays, Stephens will give this all away. The entire contents of his state-of-the-art woodworking shop will be shipped to Oaxaca, in far southern Mexico. Stephens plans to accompany the tools and equipment, staying long enough to teach the young participants in the Niño a Niño program how to use it. "Basically, I'll teach people not to cut off body parts," he says. "Safety is the main thing."
Ultimately, Stephens hopes that not only can the health and education project use the equipment to make things for sale, but that some Oaxacan young people can learn the woodworking trade as a step on the ladder out of poverty.
He glances around the shop. "There's some good stuff here," he allows. "It took awhile to acquire. Pretty much anything I want to build, I've got a tool for. Two or three, actually."
Getting it all some 1,300 miles, as the crow flies, into Mexico, however, will require not only a blizzard of paperwork—including a seven-page inventory, in English and Spanish, to ship the equipment across the border duty free—but also several thousand dollars. A fundraising dance on Oct. 29 aimed to raise $2,500 or so. Overall, the goal is about $5,000, which would not only pay for transport but also help get the woodworking operation going at its destination.
"They're starting from scratch down there," says Ron Henry, a Silver City resident who's been to Oaxaca to lend a hand and who's helped to organize the fundraiser.
But Stephens and Henry are hardly the only connection between Silver City and Oaxaca's Niño a Niño program. Kathy Dahl-Bredine, who lived in Silver City for 21 years and founded the Guadalupe Montessori School here in 1979, helps run the program. Her husband, Phil, works with small farmers' groups in Oaxaca on organic agriculture and reforestation. Both are in Mexico as part of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, a Catholic organization that works in Third World countries to "raise the quality of life by making sustainable improvements in healthcare, the environment, education, civil and human rights and economic development."
"Phil and I had had for many years a keen interest in the idea of living and working in Latin America, but the time had not been right during the years we were raising our seven children," Kathy Dahl-Bredine explains. "Then in 2000, when all our children were grown, we decided to follow up on this dream. Maryknollers work among the poor and marginalized in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, with grassroots development projects generally initiated by local people."
Niño a Niño had been launched in 1989 as part of the international "Child-to-Child" movement. In Oaxaca, the program began as a response to the area's high incidence of deaths of babies and young children from severe diarrhea. "The program is basically one of preventive health education initiated in poor communities, mostly indigenous rural villages, as well as in the outlying shantytown settlements that sprawl out from the urban centers," says Dahl-Bredine.
"But unlike programs that do things FOR children," she goes on, "this approach is a child-enabling method that empowers children and young teens to face the often life-threatening problems of their communities, then learn to prioritize and analyze them, and, by means of fun and creative techniques, come up with action plans to improve the situation of their families and communities."
The program helps to train a "guide," an adult from the local community, in methods that enable children and youth to tackle community challenges. Says Dahl-Bredine, "I've been amazed at the youth leadership which has developed out of these action programs and at how adults recognize the children's leadership roles in their communities."
Many of the young participants live in remote mountain villages outside Oaxaca City. Others live in "colonias," the shantytown communities that spring up around the outside of the city, where people settle when life in the countryside has become all but impossible.
Among the initiatives the Oaxacan young people have taken on are making simple water-filtration systems, organic vegetable gardens, composting latrines, solar cooking and alternative wood-saving adobe stoves. Teens have been taught to make the saline solution that can save the life of a younger sibling threatened with dehydration from diarrhea. They've relearned the ancient herbal lore of their people to create natural medicines, since modern pharmaceuticals are out of reach. Ultimately, by helping families create a more sustainable rural way of life, Niño a Niño aims to keep people from having to migrate to Mexico's big cities or to the US.
"While the program is basically about health and environment," Dahl-Bredine says, "that really covers holistic health needs as well, such as equal gender and handicapped rights, the need for self-esteem, dealing with the powerful influence of TV advertising, teen problems such as drugs, alcohol and gangs—these latter being problems that never existed here until returned migrants brought them back from the US."
The youth leadership training has emerged from Niño a Niño's activities as a sort of byproduct, she adds, as has a sense of service to the community. Two young participants in Oaxaca have won national awards for their work in Niño a Niño.
"Overall, the effects of the program are building sustainable development and healthier communities," Dahl-Bredine says, "which is really what is most needed in rural Mexico."
The latest link between Silver City and the Niño a Niño program in Oaxaca began last year, when the Dahl-Bredines were back visiting. Ron Henry and his wife Voncille introduced them to Phil Stephens. They talked about their work in Mexico and unknowingly planted a seed for when, early this year, Stephens decided he was done with woodworking and wanted to concentrate on painting.
"I asked Ron, 'Who do you know who could use some woodworking tools?'" Stephens recalls. Of course, the idea of donating to the Niño a Niño program popped up. "Ron contacted the Dahl-Bredines, and went to visit them in March with his son—who's fluent in Spanish and has also worked in the program. They sat down with the project's staff and showed them pictures of the equipment. The staff got really excited about it."
Ron Henry puts in, "The whole program is focused not on handouts, but is geared to capacity-building. So their vision was to use the woodshop in a training program for teens and young adults, to introduce them to carpentry."
"The idea is for it to be self-sustaining," Stephens says. "They'll make products for the marketplace."
This isn't the first time that Phil Stephens has moved on from one artistic medium to another. He started out as a writer for motion pictures and the theater, and is perhaps best known as the author of Vincent, a one-man play about the life of Vincent Van Gogh that toured nationally with Leonard Nimoy and was filmed for broadcast on the A&E cable network. Stephens also traveled the globe as a documentary filmmaker, covering wars in Nicaragua and Bosnia and the destruction of the rain forests in Brazil and Ecuador.
Researching Van Gogh got him interested in the visual arts, and Stephens experimented for awhile with oil and pastel painting. Then, during his trips to Latin America, he discovered an interest in Spanish colonial woodcraft and furniture-making. After retiring after 20 years on the faculty of the University of Denver, he's spent the past half-dozen years creating original, heirloom-quality furniture pieces—the past two years working in Silver City. His work in wood and leather has been shown at the Spirit Fire Rendezvous in Angel Fire, NM, the Festival of the West in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Santa Fe Trail Gallery in Castle Rock, Colo., and the Curious George Gallery in Aspen, Colo., as well as in Silver City and Deming.
You might not know Phil Stephens' name, however, because his works are shown under the name "L.C. Crow." He explains, "When I was a little kid, I was always the Indian in cowboys and Indians, and everybody called me 'Crow' as a nickname. After I retired, I started attending historic re-enactments and needed a 'camp name,' so I picked 'L.C. Crow.' Then I started putting it on furniture."
When Stephens/Crow decided he'd done enough and that he wanted to focus on painting—a couple of his works, contemporary retablo-like creations on wood, sit in a corner of his shop—woodworking's loss was Niño a Niño's gain. Kathy Dahl-Bredine says, "We were delighted, of course, and jumped on the opportunity to allow local people here to benefit from Phil's amazing generosity. It seemed a perfect fit for a youth vocational training program for young people having grown up empowered through Niño a Niño activities and interested in learning a vocation they can take back to their communities. In the longer term we also hope the woodshop can be a source of some income to help support Niño a Niño activities."
Despite the distance between Silver City and Oaxaca, the friendships forged during the Dahl-Bredines' two decades in Southwest New Mexico have continued to connect people here to the Niño a Niño project there. Also, two of their children, Andrew and Peter, are part of the popular Silver City-based band, Compás, which performed at the fundraiser along with Rhythm Mystic, The Funk Farmers and the Virus Theatre.
"We send out a newsletter every two months, to help keep a connection between our work and many people from Silver City and elsewhere who have shown an interest," says Kathy Dahl-Bredine. "A number of local people have made ongoing contributions, which have been vital in supporting our work with these projects. We continue returning to Silver City to visit our children and friends, and our children have also come down and gotten involved in some of our work in Oaxaca. Also various Silver City friends have come to visit and participated in some of the work as well."
Silver City and Oaxaca share some similarities in terrain and climate, she adds. "Oaxaca City is at about 5,000-feet elevation, and the terrain is considered high desert tropics, which means it has cactus and many of the same plants, open spaces as well as mountains, yet also palm trees." Oaxaca's rainy season is considerably longer, however, than Southwest New Mexico's often-fleeting "monsoons." Winter temperatures in Oaxaca never get below the 40s at their elevation, she says, although in some of the mountain areas where they also work, it does freeze.
"As for the people, like Silver Citians, they are for the most part, friendly, open and wonderful," Dahl-Bredine says. "But the economy is very difficult. Eighty percent of Oaxacans officially live in poverty, with many in what is considered extreme poverty, yet the people are intelligent, ingenious and hard-working. International laws and trade agreements have a great deal to do with the causes of the widespread poverty here."
Kathy and Phil Dahl-Bredine are now into their second three-year commitment to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. They don't look any further into the future than that, she says, adding, "We love this work and will most likely stay as long as it still seems right.
"But with the birth of our first grandchild this year, the separation definitely gets harder!" she acknowledges. "We still love Silver City, our home base, and always love visiting, and although we love Oaxacan food, yet I still miss Silver City's own special brand of 'Mexican food' that is different from anyplace else!"
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.