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Gentle Action Update

Following the publication of the print version of Gentle Action, several people wrote to me with their own examples of Gentle Action or posted on the blog associated with www.gentleaction.org.

Here are a few new examples that were not included in the published book.


Rye Barcott was a US Marine who became interested in what fuelled terrorism and inter-ethnic violence. He decided that the way to find out would be to travel to Africa and on his way to Rwanda the young man found himself in Kibera, a very large slum near to Nairobi. Rye learned Swahili and began talking to the young people and listening to what they had to say. It was at this point that Tabitha Festo, a nurse, pointed out that while he had been talking to young people he had not listened to her. She told him that she had a plan to sell collard greens but needed a little money to get started. Barcott gave her the equivalent of $26.

A year later he returned and visited Tabitha’s shack and received a great surprise. Tabitha had used the money she made from the sale of collard greens to buy medical equipment and turn her home into a clinic. Ten years later the Tabitha Medical Clinic comprises 13 rooms with doctors and clinicians, X-ray and pharmacy and HIV counseling service, with over 40,000 patients visiting each year. All this from $26 and someone who was willing to listen.

Barcott’s story can be found in his “It Happened on the Way to War” published 2011.

Improving Social Attitudes

In Colombian a professor called Antanas Mockus obtained some remarkable results in Bogotá, by improving attitudes of car drivers, saving water for the city, reducing alcohol consumption of drivers.

In one example, he hired 420 mimes and put them on street corners. They gave out 350,000 “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” cards. The cards were meant to approve or disapprove of other citizens’ behavior; it was a device that many people actively – and peacefully – used in the streets and helped to improve the attitudes of car drivers.

He also launched a “Night for Women” and asked the city’s men to stay home in the evening and care for the children; 700,000 women went out on the first of three nights that Mockus dedicated to them. And this in what was supposed to be a macho society !!!

Mockus said: “The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

For more information see http://www.scribd.com/doc/4891823/Bogota-Mayor-Antanas-Mockus-turned-city-into-a-social-experiment#

The Sewing Machine Project

Margaret Janowski from Wisconsin read an article about a woman who make her lively hood by sewing but had lost her machine in a tsunami is South East Asia and how it had taken her several year to save for another machine. Janowski who was a keen artist and sewer began to collect donated machines and ship them to Sri Lanka.

Then when to Hurricane Katrina hit she rented a van and drove to New Orleans with donated sewing machines to give to the Mardi Gras Indiana so they could sew their new costumes. Here approach continued to develop to the point where she had collected over six hundred donated machines to help people start sewing- related businesses. Her organization “The Sewing Machine Project” has also sent machines to help people become self sustaining in a woman’s collective in Mexico. When the earthquake in Haiti hit, she partnered with Family Outreach International to take a hundred machines, fabric and other supplies to help women rebuild their lives. Recently, when the Gulf of Mexcio oil spill occured, she partnered with residents of Houma, LA to start SeaHope partners – delivering machines which are being used to recycle sails into bags, providing jobs and training and funds to help the Gulf. They have now started offering small business support in broken communities in the US as well as abroad. All of this grew organically from small donations and Margaret herself can hardly believe what has happened as others have joined in responding to further crises. Her initial donation of a single machine has evolved far beyond what she ever imagined.

Telephone Boxes

With the large number of mobile phones in use the famous Red Telephone Boxes of Britain are becoming redundant. This has led to a series of gentle actions where individuals and communities have purchased the boxes and put them to new uses. In the village of Northlew on Dartmore, for example, the community purchased a box and then made a deal with British Telecom at the cost of £15 per month. For a minimum of 20p villagers can call anywhere in the world, including cell phones, for a cost of only 1p per minute.

Residents of the village of Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset, England were upset when their mobile library was cancelled, since the nearest library is four miles away. The residents’ solution was to purchase one of a Red Telephone Box for the sum of one pound. Wooden shelves were installed and the villagers donated books. The “library” is now open twenty four hours a day and has a rapid turnover. The idea caught on and other communities have opened their own local libraries in telephone boxes.

When the local village shop in Draughton, North Yorkshire, closed the village’s first move was to purchase a red telephone box and stock it with newspapers. The next step was to use it as a shop to sell groceries, pet food, batteries and stamps. The door is unlocked and it is stocked from a shop four miles away. Customers can phone in an order using a credit card or sending a check.

Bus Stop

The locals of Unst in the north of the Scottish Shetland Islands have decorated their bus stop and even put up fairy lights that are powered by a generator. For the Millennium celebrations they provided Earl Grey tea and sandwiches. And then gave it a makeover to celebrate the World Cup. By a series of gentle actions the local have made their bus stop a major tourist attraction with its own website, Facebook page and visitor’s book!

Eight year old transforms a park.

Ryan Wells is an eight year old boy who was concerned about the state of his local park in Lee, South London. It was filled with litter and the paths were overgrown with weeds. It was also used by drug addicts and street drinkers who left their syringes and bottles. It was certainly not a place where Ryan and his friends would play since older youths prowled around the park with aggressive dogs.

And so the eight year old boy borrowed his mother’s camera, shot documentary evidence of the state of the park and then wrote a letter to the Mayor in which he complained about the park and said “There are so many kids around in the streets in my area on the pavement and in the road, some as young as five without their mum. I would like to give them somewhere to go”.

The result is that the Mayor has set aside £10,000 for a “general tidy up” and to improve the children’s play area. But eight year old Ryan didn’t stop there. He applied for a£50,000 grant from a lottery fund to build a BMX bike track in the park!

A Simple Street Musician

One January morning a man was playing a violin outside a Washington metro station as commuters rush by. While it is not unusual to pass by a street musician without bothering to listen or take notice, this was an exception. The musician was one of the world’s leading violinists, Joshua Bell, and he was playing Bach on an instrument worth $3.5 million!

The event was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. Very few people stopped to listen and Bell collected a total of $32.

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be that if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. How many other things are we missing?

You can find the complete story at


Just how strong is trust in a modern society? My conclusions when I first wrote Gentle Action was that while there are some exceptions where certain vested interests have an influence, in general trust is fairly healthy. This is something that Paul Bellis Jones, a student from Wales, believed and in order to test this out he left a disposable camera on Tryfan mountain with a note asking walkers to take photographs of themselves and giving his address. His motive was to see if anyone would make off with the camera. All in all thirty different climbers took photographs and when the film had run out the camera was left there and returned to Jones by a National Park warden.

You can see the photographs at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1209877/Camera-abandoned-student-mountain-returned-snaps-fellow-walkers.html.

$25 Incubator

What happens to a premature baby that is born in a rural area some distance from a hospital? How to keep an at-risk baby warm without a $25,000 incubator? The answer is a $25 incubator pouch that can be heated in boiling water, made of materials that maintain warmth for a longer time. To see a presentation go to http://www.boingboing.net/2009/08/21/a-25-baby-incubator.html.

Solar Power

A 30 year old resident of Noorgunj, a tiny village in the rural recesses of Bangladesh, probably has one of the greenest jobs in the world. She makes a living out of trapping and selling solar power. She knows little about the ongoing global debate on sustainable development and will probably stare blankly if someone tells her that governments across the planet are investing billions and billions of dollars to promote renewable energy production. But she will confidently rattle off the details of the 120 watt solar panel (including a battery!) installed at home, and how she earns more than 5000 takas every month assembling cooking stoves and mobile chargers that are powered by the sun. Once famous for its juicy jackfruits, Noorgunj, is now known in the region for its solar panel-dotted rooftops and solar entrepreneurs who are using sunlight as their core capital.

Plastic Bags

Some supermarkets ask “Paper or Plastic” at the checkout. Better still some shoppers take their own reusable bags with them. When Clare Hopkins encountered the www.morsbags.com site she learned that all over the world 1 millions plastic bags are used per minute. Many are concerned with the environmental impact, particularly on marine animals that ingest these bags and die.

And so 18 months ago Clare formed a group of people who meet regularly to make bags from fabric given to them by the local charity shop. So far they have made and given away over 1000 fabric bags. Their aim is to make their village plastic-bag free.

Many other benefits have come about from this project. As Clare writes, “we’ve met women we never would have come into contact with, shared stories, taught women to sew and learned sewing and general life skills and tips from each other. We’ve raised awareness about the sad dumping of fabric into landfill and the endless misuse of resources to make ‘new’ things….water, chemicals, power to weave new fabrics, etc. etc”

The Big Lunch

Tim Smith of the UK’s Eden Project hit upon the idea of “the Big Lunch”. He and his colleagues noted how communities were becoming increasingly fragmented with many people no longer knowing and feeling increasingly isolated. And so the Eden Project proposed that on Sunday July 19, 2009 people should go into the streets and eat lunch together.

On that day hundreds of people turned out in most major cities to each lunch together and this was repeated in smaller communities. By 2011 over two million were lunching together in England and the number is expected to increase for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

The Eden project, and those supporting, The Big Lunch, are also encouraging people to grow their own food and flowers, to share seeds, make street art, form bands and reclaim the street as a place to tell stories.

You can see more at http://www.thebiglunch.com

A Better World

Enrique Benitez from Tamaulipas in Mexico wrote to me about what he was doing to heal himself, his society and the planet.

Each day he spends around two hours planting and caring for trees in order to make a forest in a public area. It is an region of 57 acres where people can walk, jog or mountain bike. But more than the forest itself, he is trying to gather together like minded people to bring about a change in the culture around him. Each Saturday from 8-9am he meets with others to talk and exchange ideas of how to make a better world. The meeting is informal and with no agenda.

His car has a large sign in the rear window “Trees for Free” along with his phone number. The trees are provided for by the local government and Enrique will deliver them to a person’s home and at the same time make a new friend.

Enrique also plans to produce his own food using the John Jeavons biointensive approach and get other people involved in his community.

He has started a DVD library with films such as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Patch Adams, Gandhi, Erin Brockovich, Patton, Braveheart, Farenheit 9/11. People can borrow this for free and he feels that by watching these films people can begin to educate themselves.

People drop off used batteries at his house and he takes them to a center that disposes of toxic waste. This also has the side effect of bringing him in contact with like minded people.

Farming and Learning

California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo has been a predominately conservative agriculture school for a long time. They have catered to students who come from rural agriculture areas where big agriculture business has taken over the scene. Large agriculture corporations, such as Monsanto, also contribute money toward grants and scholarships for students and professors who continue their research agenda in areas such as planting genetically modified corn and testing their pesticide brands. Needless to say, the word “organic” wasn’t too popular around the Cal Poly campus for some time.

In the early 1980s a couple of recently graduated students joined the Peace Corps and went abroad to a rural area in order to teach the locals about big agriculture business and the endless possibilities of making lots of money. However, something entirely different occurred. As the volunteers spent time with the locals they began to learn about their local agriculture habits instead. They began to see how these people had spent thousands of years perfecting their agriculture, and through this time had built a sustainable system in harmony with the environment. The volunteers had never learned about anything like this through their university education. They were deeply impressed, and quickly realized that the sustainable way in which these people practiced agriculture was a better approach for the people and the environment. The volunteers then returned home with their new knowledge.

And back to graduate school they went. They returned to Cal Poly excited about their findings, but they weren’t greeted with the same enthusiasm. As they began to research these “new” ideas, they began to stumble across words like “organic”, “permaculture”, “biodynamics”, “sustainable”, and people and philosophies such as Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophy. Indeed, their new knowledge wasn’t new at all. Yet, when they attempted to bring up the information in their classes, as one student remembers – “I was threatened with an “F” by one professor if I ever mentioned the word organic in class again.” So, the students were on their own.

They couldn’t get permission to start an organic research farm on campus, but they were allowed a 2 acre plot of land for student experiments, which they named “The Student Experimental Farm”. This farm quickly became the haven for lost farm souls; those seeking another way and those who communed with the plants and animals. The group closed the week with drum circles and fire dancing by moonlight. Many sustainable farming practices were employed, including a small organic plot which in time came to be certified organic by the CCOF (http://www.ccof.org/)

Since there was quite a bit of aggression from students and professors at the university, these sustainable farmers learned to keep to themselves. They adopted a motto around the idea that they should just keep to what they are doing instead of fighting the status quo, in hopes that one day the university would see the light. For about 15 years the Student Experimental Farm remained small, until one day a couple of students decided to experiment with a Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA). People in the community could enjoy local organically grown produce for the price of a weekly box or 4 hours of farm volunteer work, and support their local university students at the same time. They also acquired 9 more acres of campus land for experimental use. As one of them said “When I first began working for the farm in 2005 we were packing about 20 boxes a week (a box feeds a family of four). Now the farm provides over 300 boxes of produce for the community, as well as participating in several local farmers markets.” At one point the Cal Poly Organic Farm CSA was the fastest growing business on campus. They have also created the Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium and through the efforts of this organization Cal Poly offers classes in organic and sustainable agriculture through its curriculum.

The original Peace Corps students are no longer at the farm, although they stop by from time to time and share their stories about how different it was when they started. And one of them wrote “ y experience working on the farm was one of the highlights of my life, and I have enjoyed watching the farm’s contribution toward the creation of a “Green” community in our area. We had a saying on the farm, ‘If you take care of the Earth, the Earth takes care of you.’ There were moments when I was harvesting vegetables with butterflies and bees buzzing, frogs hopping by, birds singing, and lady bugs landing on my nose, where I knew this is how it should be, and I could feel the Earth giving thanks for my work. These are the moments that kept these students going. These were the moments of Gentle Action. “


Powdered Milk

One argument explored in the book is that too often aid programs rush ahead without considering the nature of the societies and the people they are attempting to “help”. Aid organizations in Africa, concerned that nursing mothers with Aids would pass on the disease to their babies were giving out donations of powdered milk. However when they discovered that the milk and feeding bottles had been dumped some distance away from the village they realized that for a mother to be seen feeding her baby with a bottle would be interpreted by the local community that she had been diagnosed with Aids.

Which Third?

One of the cliché’s I discuss in Gentle Action is of “experts” and aid organizations who fly in to some third world country, observe the poverty and poor living conditions and ask how they can help, what can they teach that community, and how best to provide aid and financial assistance.

But Jonathan Glennie, writing in the Guardian newspaper has turned that perception on its head quoting, for example, a couple who had spent 20 years working with marginalized communities in rural India who on their return to Glasgow said: “We thought we knew what poverty was, and then we came to Easterhouse.” Glennie points to the conditions in areas of the United Kingdom with its crack houses, teenage knife crime, high percentage of pregnant teenagers and classrooms out of control.

His article can be found at

Moment of Silence

Jason Evans, a Quaker from Brighton, added this comment on the concept of Creative Suspension. “For Quakers, the whole of life is sacramental and the silent worship in our meetings is intended to extend into everyday life. What this means is that business meetings, our meetings for church affairs, are held in the same prayerful stillness that we have experienced in our worship. Indeed the full name for our business meetings is “meetings for worship for business”. In practice this leads to a finding of unity beyond consensus, what we call the “sense of the meeting” which is much more than the majority rule found in other spheres of life. Because it is rooted in silence and stillness, the “moment of silence” is familiar to the process from the outset and if conflict does arise it is common practice for a Friend to ask for a moment of silence to consider the views of those whose are not our own. In our book of discipline, (really discipleship), we are encouraged to consider that we may be mistaken and that new insights may come from unexpected sources.”

Cardboard Oven

The Kyoto Box, invented by Jon Bøhmer, has won the Climate Change Challenge, sponsored by the Financial Times and Forum for the Future. The solar powered box can be manufactured and shipped by any cardboard factory of £3.50 and can be used to cook casseroles, bake bread or boil water to elimate water born diseases. It consists of two boxes, one inside the other. The outer box has an acrylic cover to let in sunlight while the inner box is painted back to absorb the heat. Straw of newspaper can be used to provide insulation. The use of the box eliminates the need to collect wood.

Bøhmer is now working on an improved version. The oven narrowly beat an animal feed, containing garlic, that would eliminate the methane produced by cows and sheep – a gas that adds to global warming.

Silent Witness

Justine Toms of New Dimensions radio sent me this story of a colleague, Tom Greenaway, who moved to her home town Ukiah in California to work at the radio station. Tom used to attend the weekly city council meetings, not to ask questions or even protest but just to sit quietly and witness what was taking place.

Of course when sensitive issues were being discussed sometimes the hall would be filled with people but after that item on the agenda had been discussed the hall would empty, leaving only Tom. Some years later Tom went into semi retirement and moved to Tennessee. At his going away party a member of the town council told him how by simply sitting there and exercising a non-judgmental listening he felt that they had made better decisions. He believed that because Tom sat there week after week they felt themselves to be more accountable to the public they served

Ramon Creek

Marilyn Fowler was working on an activism project involving the creek in back of her home.  She wrote “It has been rather a frustrating slog trying to work my way through the various bureaucracies that manage the creek, but finally one morning in the middle of a meditation, I heard the story of Gordon Shippey (via your story) ring in my head. ‘Gordon walked down their street, knocked on each door saying, ‘I am Gordon Shippey and I am your neighbor.‘

I got up from my meditation, knowing finally how to approach the problem.  I needed my neighbors.  So, I too walked down my street, knocking on doors, introducing myself to my neighbors.  It has made all the difference.  I now have others who share my concern about the creek, and we have decided to form a “Friends of the S. San Ramon Creek” alliance.

Pop Light

Helena Bongartz is an artist also wished to make a small change. She lives and works in the Mojave Desert and discovered a derelict cabin in the middle of a dry lake bed. This cabin is nearly the only structure in a space that extends for hundreds of square miles of darkness in every direction. However a major back road passes the cabin and so it is every night it is seen by drivers and passengers who pass by. Helena had the idea of projecting very bright and colorful abstract animations on the side of the cabin.

At night she generally sits out of site and watches as cars slow down and even stop. Sometimes the driver and passengers will get out of the car and walk up to the cabin so that the images project on their bodies. Some drive by regularly, some think it may be a rave party, others that it is the work of aliens!

It certainly attracts attention and makes people think. While Helena was away someone even took the trouble to paint the side of the cabin white!

You can see the sorts of videos she projects by going to www.poplight.net

What a Wonderful World

Judy Glick-Smith sent the following story.

She was sitting in a Waffle House with her daughter Kieki and her granddaughters, Jordan, aged 8, and Hannah, aged 6, on a beautiful Georgia day with blue skies and big white puffy clouds.

Hanna wanted to play the juke box and Kieki gave her a quarter. The little girl picked the Rod Stewart version of  ‘What a Wonderful World.’

She came back and sat on her mother’s lap and started to sing along. She sister, Jordan then jointed in.

Judy suddenly noticed that everyone in the Waffle House had stopped eating and was singing. There was an elderly man who reached across the table to hold his wife’s hand. It was a moment caught in time. For Judy the power of that song was unmistakable, it connects everything.