Ira Stollak

After graduating in 1969 I married my high school sweetheart and spent a year teaching English to upstate New York farm kids while my wife finished her degree. I was someone from Mars to them – they’d never heard anyone speak of class war, racism, or imperialism. Contemplating an academic career, I earned an M.A. in Comparative Literature at UC Santa Cruz, where I had the pleasure of being tear-gassed during visits to Berkeley. Disenchanted with academia, we joined a commune in California that had created a successful alternative school for seriously alienated adolescents, where I taught, learned truck-driving and construction, took kids on desert survival treks, and did serious self-discovery via yoga and Gestalt psychology, all to build a new world in the shell of the old. Unfortunately, the character of the community later changed disagreeably, and we left. I was stamped 4F for having ingested ancient shamanic plants (Group W bench), and we freely worked and wandered through Mexico, Colorado, and Oregon, teaching in alternative schools or working construction. In 1975 we settled on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, starting a small commune with friends. Rebuilt an old farmhouse, planted an orchard and garden, blew up the TV, started a family; but the others eventually left for other callings. Some idealistic souls and I launched a non-profit, Northwest Services Council; I did community coalition-building, designed and managed youth programs, wrote grants; our programs for at-risk youth eventually garnered a Presidential Award from Bill Clinton. I worked a great deal with the local Makah, Quileute, and s’Klallam communities, confronting and learning to [usually] surmount my ingrained ethnocentrism. I anchored my sanity in a Buddhist practice; hiked and skied the Olympic Mts., coached baseball and soccer; taught lit and writing at Peninsula College; divorced (alas, we didn’t do well in a nuclear family – we did better in a tribe); single-parented my son (he chose Haverford for its Quaker values, now does digital marketing in Brazil). I then went to Central America to do rural public health work in indigenous communities (Garifuna and Maya), and bore witness to the war crimes of Reagan, North, & Bush LLC. Finding a new calling, I returned to grad school for a middle-aged M.P.H. at the University of Washington; Gates monopoly money funded my fieldwork assessing the HIV risk and social capital of long-haul truckers in the Yucatan. After a year leading the research unit at the Alaska Center for Rural Health, University of Alaska, addressing Alaska’s appalling rural health disparities, I am moving to North Carolina to new work with Curamericas Global, a non-profit whose mission is helping empower indigenous communities in the global South to improve their health, with current projects in Bolivia and Guatemala. I will be helping them initiate new projects in Peru, Haiti, Tanzania, and India.

Looking back, I count successes and failures. The failures – creating lasting alternative communities that transcend theist/capitalist strictures of family, personality and property. The successes- a healthy, happy son with a sure moral compass; and mastery of the not-for-profit organization as a vehicle for right livelihood and progressive socioeconomic change. The price: I never made it out of the lower middle class (sorry, Dad). The reward: I never stopped being the person who stood firm in Math.

- by Ira Stollak
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