EGALITARIAN EDUCATOR TURNED REALTOR TACKLES CHALLENGES IN SCHOOLS AND THE TINY HOME MOVEMENT (PHIL BERTRAND)

Sylvia:  It’s July 29, 2017 and I’m interviewing Phil Bertrand. My recollection is that you’ve been involved in education and then real estate most of your life. Is that correct? 

 Education and real estate. In education I was an inner-city elementary principal. That was in Richmond, Indiana, during the time when they finally had desegregation. However, the school that I became principal of had been grandfathered in and had clustered all the black students into this one school. It was grandfathered in until that building fell down or whatever.

I had been a teacher already for, I don’t know, 13 years, 16 years. It was almost all elementary and it would’ve been 5th and 6th grade mostly. And I started in an inner-city school. Almost my whole career in education was either inner-city or very poor rural situations. I fell into the activism part — I didn’t consider myself an activist. It’s more that Mom taught me to do the right thing. Simple as that. But I had one oddball job, as a headmaster in a very uppity private school down in Florida.

It was very upper class, if you will, chauffeurs would open the doors for the children when they came. Teachers would walk them, under the canopy, to their classrooms. That was the only job in my life I’ve been fired from. Because I would help the janitor carry the ladder. I would socialize with teachers. And I was fired because I did those sorts of things. Which is interesting.

Which led me into my principal-ship at an inner-city school in Richmond, Indiana, which had had the 3 principals before me fired or run out of town by the parents, or the children had come after one with an ax. He left. Fortunately there happened to be a teacher nearby that caught the downward swing.

After that, the kids hung the principal, who happened to be black, out the window of the second floor. The mothers drove that same principal out to the edge of town and said, “Don’t come back.” And then guess who became the next principal? I became the principal there. It was very stressful but very successful. I related because I was an innocent. I’d been raised in northern Wisconsin. Hadn’t any kind of prejudices at all. Everybody was a person. And so I …

You didn’t have that feeling that these are the “other”?

 No! In fact, I found myself on the playground one day — and I always played with the kids on the playground. I didn’t just supervise. And one day I found that I was high fiving the kids on the team I played with that recess. And we were celebrating and then I realized I was on the all-Black team, cause there were a few whites.  I hadn’t noticed. So that’s the integration part. So it was successful because the kids, they know. Their chemistry knows. And the parents reacted well to that. But, I saw the injustice because there were holes in the walls. Plaster was falling from the 12 foot ceilings. The old steam radiators that hung on walls in the gym were spraying. Every once in a while, they’d leak and they’d spray steam on the kids.

 So I managed to get the building condemned. There were about 275 students. With the building condemned, they had to go someplace. Put me out of a job, actually. They gave me a year in the district to do something else while I got my feet under me. They gave the children and their families a choice of school. And the one I got transferred to, and the secretary, who happened to be black, in two minutes our school filled up with its quota. Cause everybody wanted to follow us.

I never considered this activism until you approached me and asked this question. “Where did it come from?” And actually, going back in time, I had been through the same falling into circumstances. You see things happening. You become involved and suddenly you’re in the middle of it. You step into a pond and then the water keeps getting deeper and you realize you’re in a swimming pool. Northern Wisconsin. Lot of injustices back then about how teachers were treated. And how drug education wasn’t taught to the children. And their parents didn’t know anything about drug education.

First of all, teachers couldn’t go into bars in the local town. We were not allowed to go into a bar unless we went out of town. Very prudish. Women, of course, had to wear slacks, no skirts.

Probably this was in the days of miniskirts.

 They were approached by upper administration and compromised on, if they wanted to keep their job, etc. they were supposed to do a certain thing.  You know, “Contracts are coming up. Why don’t you come out with me.”  That type of thing.

That’s the opposite of prudish. More like predatory.

  So that was a part of it. So then — it was all called ”teacher’s associations” and dealt only with curriculum ideas. Teachers were being very cautious and not wanting anything called a union. So I became president of the first union of a conglomerate of different school districts, cause they were all so tiny. Some of ‘em only had 17 teachers, for example. I got elected to be the president of 27 school districts and we formed a union. We had 9 wildcat strikes, they were illegal, that year. And we even had a state strike that we were a major part of in the state of Wisconsin and several of our people went to jail.

And again, there’s good ol’ Phil in the middle of it. But, not as an aggressor, keeping a soft [manner]. I’m talking fast now and I’m probably not the same person as I was but I usually slow the pace down.

You still have a little of that manner. You seem to be deliberate in what you say and very calming in your tone.

 I have been told that before within the real estate community where there can be a lot of stress, and I studied to become an eco-broker as well. I’m switching forward now. An eco-broker deals with environmental issues and sustainability. And I added to that, put in “urban farming” if you will. And I’ve worked with the Saturday Market people, also on the smaller farms. I encourage people to grow food and share with the neighbors, kind of thing, as a way of creating community. And that’s where I am now in the real estate field.

That becomes activist in a sense. First of all, nobody else is doing it. It’s creating connections, brings all of the people that care about everybody together. OK? And so then within the Unitarian church, the church that I attend, I became an earth keeper. An earth keeper is someone who does the same thing, really, as an eco-broker would. They look out if pipelines are gonna be crossing. If there’s eminent domain going to take property away from people. The social injustices, especially around the things that involve the earth. And water rights, etc. It’s one of 12 or 13 churches now that have a representative on this earth keeper group in the city of Eugene.

Going back a bit, how did you get from Indiana to Oregon?

 First I came out here as an educator. I came to Noti Elementary. Part of the Fern Ridge School District. A small, rural lumber community. And a lumber company was right across the street. So from that inner-city experience where I had the school condemned, after they gave me one extra year to land on my feet and look for another position, I came out to Noti Elementary here in Elmira, Oregon. At the time, this one school was kind of ignored in the budget. This was in 1979.

There were two other elementary schools, a middle school and a high school and they got the bulk of the budget and this school didn’t have a strong P.T.A. presence. There were within that community, three distinct groups at Noti Elementary which, by the way, has been closed for some time. They had a lot of erosion problems. They had a plant — I’m trying to think if it’s goldenrod — that’s highly allergenic to some people. It just covered the area, they tried to cut it back and so there was erosion.

Deep cuts [in the budget.] I saw an entry for a door, off the library, that had been in for three years straight. And it literally was falling off its hinges and had not been replaced. That’s one example. Part of the situation was because they had three distinct groups out there, and I’m stereotyping now. There were the loggers who have their boots on and heavy duty clothes for out in the woods and they got their chainsaws and hard hats. Then at the opposite end of the spectrum you have the very gentle folk who live in the woods and may not even have a house. I knew some that lived in a big teepee. They were very artistic and musical. So, they were the counterculture. And of course those two groups don’t speak a whole lot to each other.

Then there was a third group who were professional attorneys and such that worked in Eugene but preferred country living. And so coming from a background of having been trained in negotiations because of my union work earlier, and trying to bring people together, first we had a lot of potlucks. Food brought them together.

Then we went to the Board meeting together for the budget hearings. And they filled the room. Interesting story. Because the Board is really in control in these little tiny districts. Not mentioning any names, they are in control.

How many people in Noti or in the school district?

 In the district we had 128 students in that little tiny school. There weren’t enough kids going there to matter to some people. And then there were Central Elementary and Elmira Elementary which were bigger. We all fed into the same middle school. But, population-wise, they’re all spread out, extremely spread out. Another reason they didn’t coordinate. And so I couldn’t give you a number. Noti itself has maybe 500 residents. You could do a head count as you drive through!

 Oh, and we had another group. I forgot. They’re a very small group out there, but there’s the motorcycle gang’s children. I got along fine with all of them. Because, the inner-city thing really played out immensely well for me because again, I had no “I like this group or that group.” I kind of fit in everywhere.

 So we went into the Board meeting and the Board laid out the budget. And the more gentle people stood up and started to [ask about art supplies or the music teacher] and the Board just shot ‘em down. “Sit down. This is a Board meeting.” You know, you had a chance to talk. Well. the lumberjacks jumped up. Because now we’re all on one team, see. And they would say, “Wait a minute!” And they’d get loud and use a few colorful words. And I can remember one Board member turning red and saying, “You don’t have the right to stand up in this meeting and do such and such.” And our attorneys would stand up and say, “No. The statute says….” And we got everything we wanted.

 We had that for the time that I was there and I was there for six years. So, we had everything kind of taken care of. That was activism without my realizing it. Never thought of it just then.

Well, you’re an organizer.

 Change agent, too. Actually, trained change agent as well as trained negotiator from my union days.

Incidentally, when you were talking about the union, you mentioned that in name it was not a union. It was something else, right?

 Actually, we were affiliated with the National Education Association. And then we became the Northwest United Educators. We actually founded that — myself and a few others – and went from there. In the first year of existence, we got the union of the year award for the state, for having done the most in our very first year. I was in that school district ten years. And in that time there were seven superintendents. There was a lot of turmoil. From there, I went up to the Portland area. And had come in second on interviews there in three different jobs. So that’s when I became a realtor. That was when I switched careers. And I’ve been doing that for 21 or more years.

Nowadays, you’ve told me, you’re a realtor with special interests in ecology and the environment.

 In talking with my wife, we came up with our philosophy where it’s the harmony of the dwelling, the people, and the environment. And that isn’t just for real estate. That’s in anything. So we really don’t sell homes. We sell the whole environment. My wife is my transaction coordinator. She had her license for a while in a couple of states with me. And now she acts as a transaction coordinator. So she isn’t licensed but knows the business and doesn’t need the license, so we make a good team.

I have this standard question: What issues have you worked on? It seems to me that what you have been talking about is education and all the issues of inner-city students and neglected schools, not physically being kept up and so on. How does this relate to real estate?

 My wife and I decided as part of our philosophy, that we don’t try to eliminate the boxes. We work outside the boxes. We eliminate the boxes. So that it can be social at the same time as we’re doing business. So I work with the people that are behind the tiny home movement here. I get paid nothing for that but it’s housing. That’s the harmony of people and dwelling. And they’re environmentalists, very often. So, I’m working with them because that’s what we stand for.

There’s Todd Miller, he’s an architect-builder and he’s very picky about the environmental pieces. Everything he builds is environmentally sound and he prices right for people. Lane Community College has a program on building tiny homes. All of this is the connections that I start to put together within the community and give that information, so then you become a maven, I guess it’s called, in the community. If I help someone, somewhere along the line comes a referral. And so that ties into helping people.

There are meetup groups online for those who are interested; one of the meetup groups deals with the tiny home movement. Some people are trying to put together a co-housing type of little community, to create a village. Others in that group have their own land already, just want to put one up. Others volunteer to the Lane Community College program and when they volunteer, they get to help build one for somebody and then that goes sometimes to a homeless person. The person who’s teaching is also part of Opportunity Village and such.

I’m familiar with Opportunity Village, here in Eugene. When I visited there it was an established community with about 30 tiny houses occupied by formerly homeless people. Maybe it’s larger now. And they were in the process of building added amenities like a place where residents could take showers. The residents govern themselves with a set of strict guidelines..

 There are things like that out at the first exit off I-5, going South — there is an RV park. Because a tiny house can be considered an R.V. if it’s on wheels. This meetup group is working with the city to get the laws within Eugene changed. So that they can be parked as an auxiliary dwelling unit in backyards and such. It’s all in a gray area right now but that’s some activism that’s going on.

What would you estimate is the number of people either building tiny homes or already in tiny homes?

 There’s a permaculture meetup also. I get my figures mixed up. I know one of them has several hundred and one of them has over 800. The permaculture group has many, many members and they help each other like the old barn raising things. They meet at somebody’s house and do weeding, for example. Or they exchange seeds. This all ties together cause some of the same people are in both “tiny homes” and “permaculture”. They get into “soil amendments” and  “environmentalist” wrapped in there, and “no till soil” when you’re making your gardens.

It all starts to wrap together. The earth keepers that I’m a part of are very interested in all of that.

Maybe you’ve already answered this but I’ll throw this out, what are the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

 It’s reactions of people and what you’ve brought into their lives. Also what they’ve brought into your life. Helping people open up. You know how they always say “Don’t go to your grave and not have released your music or not have danced your dance”? My wife and I have that very strong in our philosophy of living day to day.

 I read a quote from Winston Churchill. And I’m taking a little bit of liberty with the way he said it, but we race through life so often looking for Why am I here? What’s the truth? And sometimes we stumble across the truth but we’re in such a hurry that we just pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off and go rushing off. And we never realize, you know. We need to stop and see the miracle every single day and in every single person. Everybody, all they really want is to be seen. And so listening comes into it. Now I got a chance because you’re a good listener.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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