Interview with Dianne Brause, co-founder of Lost Valley Educational Center

The Lost Valley Education Center and intentional community was conceived on Earth Day 1989. Since then, Dianne Brause, co-founder, has been helping to guide its development. She spoke with us after a community lunch on February 16, 2006.

Benjamin Bradley: I saw on the website you have, the mission statement and then the three goals for Lost Valley - education, to live your values, and the third one was to network with other communities, but I’m curious what were your goals, personally, when you started the Lost Valley community out here? As a second part, how do you think you’ve done with those goals? Dianne Brause: Well, those mission goals reflect my thinking as well as the [thinking of] other people here, so they are my goals too. In addition, at the time that we started it, I was writing about socially and environmentally responsible travel and doing tour guiding, taking trips to other parts of the world. So one of my personal goals was to have a stable place that I could be in this country whenever I wanted to be and then go from there to somewhere else. I’ve done a fair amount of [traveling] over the years, but I would not have expected 17 years later to be as integral here as I am, in terms of needing to make choices of when I can go and when I need to be here. But, it’s fine. I’ve still probably done more international travel than 95% of Americans who aren’t doing business travel.

BB: What are some of the places you’ve visited?

DB: Well, I had been a peace corp volunteer in the Dominican republic just out of college and so I’ve done a lot of Latin America, Central America, South America, Caribbean, that kind of stuff, both gone on my own and also led trips to various places, mostly in Costa Rica and Central America. And then, more recently, I’ve been doing more work in the Middle East. I’m a Mevlevi Sufi, which means I’m a Whirling Dervish. It started out of Turkey. Three years ago I went to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Hoping that - kind of - informal citizen diplomacy stuff would be helpful. I haven’t quite gotten to that place yet. It’s not that I think that my personal one-to-one impact isn’t important, but I feel like the whole umbrella – global political situation in that area is so messed up that there’s little I can do that can make a difference on a national kind of level. Certainly on an individual level - meeting people in their homes and talking to them.

BB: You said “citizen diplomacy” - how does that manifest itself in your life?

DB: Well, in Syria for instance, I was on a trip of people - Americans and Europeans - who were doing an interfaith peace pilgrimage where you went and try to create connections with the Islamic people and Christians and actually a lot of us Sufis - Sufis are kind of like halfway in between there in a way. The idea is to create conversations so that people can see that people that they’re supposed to be enemies with are real human beings who have hearts and families and all that sort of thing. Citizen diplomacy is a movement of people who believe that person to person interactions can make a difference in the world. I’ve always felt that and done that as I’ve traveled. In Israel and Palestine, I was part of an international women’s human rights march. There were 22 nations going back and forth between Israel and Palestine and marching side-by-side. That was pretty powerful. We had Christmas eve at Yasser Arafat’s place with him and you know, things that people don’t get to do. When I travel like that I learn an enormous amount and I hope to at least instill the possibility that friendship can happen across lines that are not normally detected.

BB: How would you say that those spiritual and political values are reflected here at Lost Valley?

DB: Well, the third goal that you mentioned is a connection to the international global community. In that sense I feel like I do that more overtly, out there, than a lot of the rest of the community does, although not necessarily. We’ve had people through here that have been various places in the world a lot, or people live here and winter in central America, Mexico or someplace. How I feel that it’s connected is that - we can have a wonderful sustainable community here and the world could fall apart and we can do our little thing and be happy and safe and all that, but unless we know specifically that we are connected to other people in the world, it feels pretty small. But if we have personal connections with other people in the world, who are trying to do the same kind of thing, whatever their struggles are and whatever they’re needing to face against. And maybe more importantly at this time in our history, that people in other parts of the world know there are people in the United States who don’t have 12 Cadillacs and really believe that using fewer resources can directly impact them in a better way. It’s astounding to people to imagine Americans who - their only contact is watching Dallas, they have no idea - Baywatch - and wrestling and - you know, you name it - it’s never anyone that’s being altruistic or conserving or taking care of the environment. The poor people in villages and you know, the Palestinian people were just amazed. And likewise, people who come here from other parts of the world are amazed that we live this way in America. so, I think that one of the pieces of our information is counter-acting the disinformation from both directions that there aren’t people that care in America. My long-term desire - and we haven’t really gotten there - is for Lost Valley community to have sister communities in other parts of the world where we actually do interchanges of people, so that we can learn from them and they can learn from us. I think that there are vast amounts of things that (particularly third-world) people can teach us in this country that would be our saving grace if we learned about it and took it on as a larger culture. I was a peace corp volunteer just out of college, and I learned about sustainability from the kids in my village. When I threw out my trash at the end of the week or whatever, I’d have a broken rubber band and a broken paper clip and they would just go mad over the riches that I was giving out to them. They made something out of everything I threw out. So, a Cheerios box could become something. In those days, plastics weren’t the thing that they are here yet; every bottle was scavenged immediately and used over and over and over again. I mean everything. I actually grew up that way in a farm community in Ohio, but by the time I got back to the United States, certainly that’s not how anybody was living anymore.

BB: I wanted to ask about your previous business experience. It seems to be a fairly complicated business process to run the hosting/education center as well as a housing co-op, the land management and everything together. In terms of you personally, do you have previous business experience?

DB: I have none. I’ve been working pretty much for non-profits and teaching college before I got here, and not doing administrative business in the non-profits at all, so education and therapy - the people end of it, I’ve done before. We wing it here a lot.

BB: Your main source of income is hosting conferences, hosting other groups that come in. Can you comment on some challenges you’ve had with that?

DB: Well I think the biggest challenge is that the facilities that we’ve inherited work pretty well for conferences, but our housing is interspersed in the middle of all that and there’s no boundaries in between. So every day we have people here who are people we didn’t know the day before. They bring us income and allow us to live here, but there’s always a conflict between how much catering to outside people to we want to do or feel good about doing versus I’ve got some stuff of my own that I really wanted to do and this is the day I need to do it. So, especially when we’ve got a lot of conferences going on, after a while it feels like you have no private space at all. That’s probably the hardest piece here partly because of how it was designed.

BB: I know there are other communities where their main income is from some type of product that they create and sell. I don’t know if that’s something you have experience with or can compare your model with - is it easier or more difficult?

DB: Well, I think it takes a different kind of person to do that. We’ve had offers numbers of times to do light manufacturing or tinctures or this or that or the other thing, and pretty much what it’s come down to is we’ve decided that we don’t want to do that. Even though we also feel like we’re not making enough money to pay ourselves at the rate we’d like to. So, people who like people like this business. People who get a little overloaded with people get a little overloaded.

BB: One of the questions I have - and you may have answered this already - where do you go for vacation, when you want to get away from Lost Valley.

DB: Oh, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Costa Rica, Nicaragua. But I don’t take vacations. I’ve never in my life taken vacation as - go to the beach and get suntanned. I don’t have any interest in doing that. What I do do sometimes - I feel like I’m on a pretty serious quest for spiritual and personal internal knowledge, so usually I am a part of some larger group that does summer workshops or that kind of thing. For 4 years I was part of a group which met 4 times a year in other parts of the country, so those were kind of vacations in a sense, in that they were quite different from here. I’m also on the board of directors of a non-profit that’s been around for almost 7 years, and they have board meetings at different places around the country. So, 2-3 times a year, I fly to some other part of the country and have a weekend - still a working weekend, but you know, last time we went to Philadelphia, saw the constitution center; do that stuff.

BB: What would your fantasy next step be for Lost Valley - some kind of land development or equipment that you have to acquire?

DB: The three big next steps, which are interrelated, are: getting our property into a land trust so that it’s separated from the business and the community and will be protected forever no matter what we do. The second one would be to create a - hopefully non-profit - but we haven’t researched enough to really know how to set this up legally - but a community co-op so that people living here who are paying rent and a community fee every month could begin to accrue some equity. Because right now it’s like we are renting here - we are paying out money every month. People might come in with a little nest egg from somewhere, but by the end of their time here, they might not have anything left. Whereas if some of that went into shares in a co-op, then they could take something out when they left, or have the equivalent of health insurance or emergency whatever. So that’s a big next step that we’re hoping for. The third thing is we’re working on a site plan for future building for both housing and community spaces. None of those are at the stage of really having it tightly designed in terms of what we want to do with it, but we have the ability to build three sets of cluster housing. So the idea would be to do green/sustainable buildings and have that mostly be our community area - both living and demonstration area for alternative building. But that also means getting enough money to do it, it means designing it, it means having a county willing to sign off on things that may not be right now in their code. So it’s a lot of meetings and a lot of work and a lot of coming together to get to that stage. All three of those have taken way longer than I had hoped for, but they were in the original vision.

BB: With the prospect of building more buildings for housing, have you thought of any kind of limit to how large you would want Lost Valley to grow in terms of people who are living here and part of the community.

DB: I always come up with 35 adults who are living and working here full time. It’s double or triple the number that are actually being paid to work on the land here now. Although with interns and other things it’s maybe more like double or something. I have somewhere a plan that’s a vision for 2012 or 2013 in terms of where I think we’ll be by then, which has like-minded people buying up property in the neighborhood and creating more of a real ecovillage where different people supply different things to each other. In a very minimal way that’s beginning to happen, but we haven’t yet created a structure - an association - for people that are not living here other than just informally. But I think that in the future it’ll be more and more that way, particularly as people who are my age and older are retiring and wanting to get out of California or wherever it is and have the money to be able to buy something around here and yet they want the consciousness of something alternative.

BB: What would you say the glue is that holds Lost Valley together?

DB: Well, I think there’s two things. On the one hand, there is the idea of sustainability - people who want to live more simply and share resources instead of just spending resources and throwing them away tend to be attracted here. And people who find it really important to have honest and open communication

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