Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part IV

“Thus began Richard in West Marin: He had ideas, he invented, he petitioned. He studied, learned, asked questions and offered pragmatic ideas, always with a smile and good humor.” The Point Reyes Light

I love the above reporter’s description of Richard Kirschman as a person who invents new things as well as petitions for acceptance of new ideas. He is an activist who’s been impatient and frustrated with bureaucracies all his life, yet he believes in the power of local community and what it takes to introduce the possibility of radical change. Plus he’s a persistent SOB when you come down to it.

Richard in his 40s

Let’s look at three remarkable examples:

GIVING THROUGH YOUTH: Teaching Kids Philanthropy

For some years, Richard had this Great Idea to do more than send personal checks and other contributions to charities he believed in. Instead, he wanted to give money to children in nearby schools and let them decide what to do with it.

At first he asked teachers to set up a curriculum in which students could learn about philanthropy. The kids wouldn’t just read about it; they’d contribute actual cash to a cause that they themselves had investigated, argued for and eventually voted on. That level of engagement would invite a personal understanding of the value of charity, a word that could use a little updating, inspiration-wise .

Richard presents check to students

It was a great idea, the teachers and principal said, but it didn’t fit designated curricula set by federal and state regulators. Given crowded class schedules and strained budgets, the very educators who loved the prospect regretfully turned Richard down. It took six more years of research before he tried again, without success. Same problem.

Then in 2013, Richard took a different tack. He approached the West Marin Fund, a local foundation with established relationships on the nonprofit scene. WMF solicited volunteers from the faculties of several unified school districts in West Marin. In turn, teachers and administrators found space in the curriculum, adjusted appropriate classes and worked out time schedules with extra credit built in.

At last, Richard’s idea got underway, and fabulously so. Soon the students were at work investigating local groups like the Audubon Canyon Ranch, Bolinas Children’s Center, Institute for Bird Populations and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

As Richard had envisioned, Giving through Youth (the project’s title) grew into something that wasn’t just educational, it was fun. The kids went on excursions out of school, weighed various benefits of each group, wrote persuasive proposals for “their” nonprofits, held assemblies, argued for the candidates they supported and, finally, voted on the worthiest.

Students research nonprofits and propose candidates

And more fun: after the grants were given out, the recipients visited the school to talk about how they planned to spend the money, thus informing and encouraging the kids to stay engaged in the philanthropic experience.

In one six-month period, $6,000 was awarded to 14 organizations. Does that seem like too little money divvied up by too many groups? I thought so at first, but then realized how much Donald Trump’s $20-billion wall can distort a person’s perceptions about the value of a dollar.

Indeed, one of the best parts of Richard’s idea is that local students in local schools dig into the details of local groups struggling for every penny to benefit local causes. They see firsthand how smart budgeting assists every dollar to improve the quality of life for local people and the local environment.

Nonprofit accepts donation from students

And they learn something else: “Kids need to know that even if they’re in the third grade, they can make a difference in their community,” as WMF’s director put it. Who can forget how that feels? As Richard hoped, generations of students are growing up enjoying philanthropy as a personal commitment, thanks to his Giving Through Youth program, and they pass their excitement on.

Plus, it’s a great lesson for adults. When people talk about “philanthropy fatigue” affecting donors who believe in good causes but drop out because all they do is write checks and don’t know where their money goes, this is a big dose of fresh air.

It’s also a great example of Richard Kirschman never giving up, of going back and back to the well of his idea, and finding a way to make it work.

THAT SENIOR “COMMUNE”: Telling Do-Nothing Bureaucracies to Stuff It

Back in 1982, Richard bought several acres of property a few minutes’ walk from the main part of Point Reyes Station. He thought it would be a perfect site for affordable senior housing, and for the most part, everyone agreed with him. Plus he had a Great Idea.

Here’s how the Coastal Post described it:

“At the time, the West Marin Association for Housing was looking at the land for their own project, but with no capital, there was not much they could do. Kirschman agreed to advance them the capital to proceed on a larger portion of the acreage, and he would keep only a single family lot for his project. His plan was to build a senior citizens residence which could house ten people in five private living spaces, sharing a communal kitchen and dining area.” (I added the bold type.)

“My dream was that the plans would be a prototype to be passed along after the project was completed,” Richard said in an interview. “The plans cost $5,000, but I was going to give them free to whoever wanted to create more projects like this.”

That’s a lot of giving! But did you spot the one word that could throw a wrench in the works? Well, that word is “communal,” which got reduced to the word “commune,” which made some conservative groups worry about, you know, incense and hippies and group sex in the residence.

Point Reyes Senior Housing today

“Even a local minister said he didn’t like the idea of unmarried people living together.” Richard recalled. “These were senior citizens.” (I think he meant: these were responsible elders with fewer hormones.)

Today we can see that Richard’s vision was less a radical idea than a precursor of assisted-living units that have cropped up everywhere. In these locations, residents dine and socialize together in a communal (public) space and retire to private living spaces. Just as Richard envisioned.

But back then, the “commune” stigma, and the notion that an individual like Richard would donate land and the project designs without need for government assistance– well, that seemed a little fishy to some. Could a real estate developer be that benevolent? The project slowed, and “instead of assistance, he got red tape and negative feedback,” the Coastal Post observed.

Richard admitted he didn’t like “working on committees spending two hours trying to decide what color to paint the walls.” And sometimes the reasons for delays were crazy, like the question of aesthetics. “They didn’t want flat roofs, they wanted pointed ones,” he remembers. So he got the roofs redesigned, and he made them pointy. But the delays continued.

The last straw fell when the architect Richard chose for the residence – an award-winning designer listed in Architectural Digest as one of the hundred best architects in the country, “with over 50 homes to his credit right here in West Marin,” as Richard pointed out in a Letter to the Editor – was “disqualified on a technicality” about the current state of his license.
Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part IV

Richard blew a gasket. “The bureaucracy’s suggested remedy [placing another designer’s name on the plans] is nonsense! I will not pretend that someone else designed this building!”

Richard’s gift: Dr. Witte’s Community Health Center today

He withdrew the proposal and effectively walked away from his dream. But being Richard, soon he came up with … another dream! It took a while, but after “allowing the frustrations to heal (and) my personal batteries to recharge,” he walked into the office of Michael Witte, the town’s progressive M.D., and asked him to take a stroll.

They were minutes away from Richard’s now-abandoned property, the subject of so much argument and distress. As the two approached it, Richard said to Dr. Witte: “Wouldn’t this make a great location for that clinic you’ve always wanted?” Dr. Witte nodded, knowing he’d never have the funds. “Well, please take it with my blessings,” Richard said.

It’s fun picturing Michael Witte’s jaw dropping to the ground — in fact, to the very property in question. In any case, the now legendary medical clinic in downtown Point Reyes was born on that very day. In a complicated series of property separations and exchanges that kept big developers at bay, Richard was able to sell portions of his land to local nonprofits while donating to Dr. Witte the parcel that holds Point Reyes Community Health Center today.

Decades later, in a letter to the Point Reyes Light, Dr. Witte remembered the negotiation as “classic Richard Kirschman. ‘No!’ doesn’t mean ‘Stop!’ It means ‘Okay. Then let’s find another way to do the right thing.'”

THE GRAND JURY LAWSUIT: 40 Years Ahead of Its Time

Perhaps there is no greater example of government bureaucracy running amuck than the year Richard Kirschman served on the Marin County Grand Jury. That was 1975.

First, did you know there are two ways that people accused of a crime go to trial? I didn’t, despite watching years of Law & Order reruns, so here’s a little sum-up:

— 1. The usual way is through a preliminary hearing. The accused is represented by an attorney, hears the evidence against him and can respond. A judge then decides if the case warrants a full trial.

— 2. The lesser known way is through a Grand Jury. This is a group of about 20 citizens who meet in secret with the District Attorney, who explains to them how the law works in each case and why the accused has been charged. They’re free to question witnesses, and in the end, they decide if the case warrants a full trial.

When Richard was selected as a member of the Marin County Grand Jury in 1975, he went into it thinking what an honor it was to serve on a judicial body that acts as a needed check against overzealous prosecutors. He understood the importance of secrecy to keep the name of an accused person out of the news. Too often, innocent people were tried and judged in the media before a trial even began.

Halfway through his term, though, Richard came out fuming. The Grand Jury, he said, had become a “tool” to rubber-stamp charges by the District Attorney. Due process disappeared because the accused was not allowed to attend Grand Jury meetings, let alone be represented by an attorney or hear and respond to evidence presented. Much of the time the accused didn’t know of the Grand Jury hearing. The whole process had become “a travesty, incredibly and blatantly unfair.”

Even worse, he added, was the District Attorney’s bias against inmates at nearby San Quentin Prison, most of whom were African American. The facts told the story: While indictments from the Grand Jury accounted for 10 percent of the felonies charged in Marin County, 96 percent of those were against San Quentin inmates. Of those,100 percent went to trial via the Grand Jury process.

With another juror, a cook in Marin, Richard brought suit in federal court to halt the Grand Jury method of indictment and to expose the District Attorney’s prejudice against San Quentin inmates.

Richard had no hope of winning this suit – it was unprecedented, it was radical, it was incendiary – but he believed it would trigger a critical conversation among the public at large. At least people would learn what members of a Grand Jury did, and, more important, what they didn’t do: They didn’t hear evidence critically, he pointed out. They didn’t examine legal documents with scrutiny, and they didn’t make prosecutors prove their case. Instead they followed the DA’s wishes, Richard believed, like willing toadies.

It turns out he was about 40 years ahead of his time. Today, because of more publicized cases, documentaries and social media, Americans are increasingly concerned about Grand Jury members rubber-stamping prosecutorial charges.

Thanks to the emergence of groups like Black Lives Matter, the public is also becoming as suspicious of racial bias in the Grand Jury system as Richard was in 1975. The pressure he couldn’t have hoped to bring from a single lawsuit is spreading with greater force than he could have imagined in today’s political climate.

And what was once an out-of-left-field idea has become so prevalent that variations of articles declaring it’s Time to Abolish the ‘Inquisitorial’ Grand Jury System are popping up everywhere. As discussions grow, questions surface that were never asked in Richard’s time, such as: Why is it that the United States and Liberia are the only countries remaining that retain grand juries?

Did I quote the Point Reyes Light at the start of this post that Richard brought his ideas forward “always with a smile and good humor”?

Well, maybe not always. I think when Richard gets passionate about doing something to change a social ill, we should all listen. And when he does use humor, in publications ranging from the Point Reyes Light to the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and magazines like Mother Jones, the whole world lights up with possibility.