Today I learned that my dear old friend Mike Barnes died on Sunday. I can honestly say that no one has had a bigger influence on my life than Mike. He was a major mentor to me when I lived & worked with him in the 1980s. I was in my late 20s, he was in his early 40s. He taught me so much about political organizing, alternative press publishing, & life in general. My life would not be what it is without him.
Mike had come up doing community organizing in Chicago under Saul Alinsky. He brought that experience to Portland, Oregon, where he was part of a community organizing effort to bring all local activist groups & their supporters together to find common cause & tools that would benefit the whole community. After years of organizing & many community assemblies, it was decided that the thing that would most benefit everyone was to have a community newspaper that would be a megaphone for all of the various causes, all in one place, along with a community calendar of all the different activist-oriented events. A communications hub for the whole progressive activist community, widely distributed around the Portland area. That became the Portland Alliance, a community-based project that would reinvent itself for decades. And would become a template for my life’s work.
I’d moved to Portland from Fairhaven College in Bellingham in 1984, to intern for a magazine called RAIN, which was also a hub of information & resources, specifically for renewable energy & sustainable living. I went there because it was my favorite magazine in college, like the Whole Earth Catalog, but more focused on issues of sustainability & somewhat more bioregionally based in Pacific Cascadia. Through a quirk of timing, I eventually rose from intern to become the editor of my favorite magazine. Wild!
I first met Mike while working at RAIN, because he was just someone to know in the Portland community. And while RAIN philosophy preached localization & community, it looked to me like Mike & the Portland Alliance were actually doing it. So I left my dream job at my favorite magazine to go work at the Alliance for $100/month. It was the right move.
Not only did I go to work at the Alliance, but I moved into Mike’s house, which was a kind of intentional community out of which the Alliance was published. That’s where I really came to understand the holistic nature of Mike’s vision. He was a political organizer, he was a musician, he was a communitarian — he was really about creating an entire lifestyle dedicated to being a positive force for change in the world.
Not only did that house include some amazing people who remain friends today, but hosted the likes of Utah Phillips & Earth First! heroes who were organizing direct actions in the Oregon forest wars of that time. Wow, what a place to be as a 20-something-year-old kid trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life!
The Alliance started in Portland, but Mike’s vision was always bigger, & the paper developed satellite editions in Olympia, mid-Willamette Valley (Salem/Corvallis), & eventually included Eugene. Four connected activist newspapers, from Oly to Eugene, all using 1980s technology (1200 baud dial-up modems, baby!). Mostly held together by duct tape & bailing wire. Each paper was 16 pages, with 8 pages of local content & 8 pages of regional content. I was the regional editor.
All this was happening at the same time as the bioregional movement was blossoming in Cascadia & around Turtle Island/North America. I was naturally predisposed to that & the Alliance became a hub of bioregional organizing as well. Mike & I were both deeply involved in Cascadian bioregional efforts.
By 1988, part of that vision involved expanding the Alliance regional news network northward beyond Olympia to Seattle. So I moved back to my hometown of Seattle in fall of ’88 with the intent to start a fifth regional edition of the Alliance. Took much longer than anticipated to get started; by the time the Seattle Community Catalyst launched in early 1990, the Alliance regional network had fallen apart (though Portland still continued!) & we were on our own. But everything about the Community Catalyst was modeled after the Alliance.
The Catalyst felt like the work I was meant to do, but only lasted about 3 years. However, soon after that ended I helped Geov Parrish start Eat the State! newspaper, which lasted well over a decade. A different kind of paper, but the community calendar & activist directory came directly from the Alliance. As well as the community-based advertising model.
Mike knew that if you were going to publish a newspaper, with all attendant expenses, you needed an economic base to fund it. Since he was a big believer in community-based business, he sought out local progressive & sustainable businesses to advertise in the paper. A synergistic relationship — the paper would promote these businesses while the businesses would support the paper. That was the model I brought to both the Catalyst & ETS!
Mike remains to me a role model of how to live a well-rounded life for the good. He was always pursuing a vision, always reaching beyond his grasp for a possibility beyond what anyone had done before.
So much of my life’s work is a result of the template he offered me in my 20s. Bless you, Mike Barnes! Rest in power!