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Bio-Kindness

Bo Lozoff wants to raise $1 million and put ex-cons to work at a biodiesel refinery in Orange County

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In the end, the decision to open North Carolina's first biodiesel refinery came neither as cosmic bolt nor avatar nor mystical epiphany; it came, rather, in an "oh shit" moment.

Not exactly the sort of eureka moment you might expect from a nonprofit that calls itself Human Kindness Foundation. But then again, Human Kindness--and human kindness--have always been full of surprises. For this particular nonprofit, this group of visionaries, the decision to make and sell biofuel is just the latest.

Here's the short version: When the decision was made to open the refinery, Orange County-based HKF had already purchased a 10,000-square-foot factory in Cedar Grove, hoping to turn it into a job-training facility for ex-convicts. The idea was to give these workers employment experience, references and an education in work ethics. For HKF members, it was a chance to give former inmates crucial skills for making a go of life on the outside--a goal that fit perfectly into the foundation's broader mission of offering support and friendship to the prison population.

It was also an enormous endeavor, unlike anything HKF had taken on in the past, and everyone assumed the project would unfold gradually, over the course of years. In the meantime, the thinking was, they would rent the factory, biding time until the details--a specific proposal, the usual cost and production analyses, funding--could all be ironed out.

Think again, was the message from a real estate agent. Manufacturers are reluctant to put money into fitting out a plant for anything other than long-term use. If HKF didn't use the facility itself, it would likely sit empty.

"And that," says foundation director Bo Lozoff, "was when we realized that this wasn't something that would happen sometime, or later, or in a few years. We thought, oh shit, we have to do this thing now."

Lozoff, who with his wife, Sita, co-founded Human Kindness Foundation in 1987, and who describes himself as "the mystic of the organization," tells the story as the two of us make our way north on the back roads of rural Orange County, headed toward the newly purchased factory. It's a cold, foggy morning in early April, winter's last stand. Wisteria hangs like rotting lace from stands of oak and sweetgum. Redbud emerges and disappears from the mist's pale veil. Taking notes in the passenger seat, I experience an interesting confluence: I'd been given one of Lozoff's books, We're All Doing Time: A Guide for Getting Free, in which he advocates shaking off past and future in order to live in the present, the locus of life's mystery and grace. Here, now, courtesy of the thick fog, the principle is perfectly illustrated: a silvery spider web, the grill of an on-coming truck--beauty, danger--all appear and disappear in an instant. Catch it if you can; let it go.

Or, at least, that's the idea. I'm a novice in these matters and can't quite let go of my conviction that the roads are treacherous; Lozoff, though, steers confidently into what middle distance the weather allows, talking steadily and serenely. This past year, he says, has been for him a different kind of adventure: "a crash course in bio-diesel" and in the political, economic, agricultural and ecological issues that surround the alternative fuel industry. The project has consumed him not as an entrepreneur or environmental warrior, but because in Lozoff's mind, opening a biodiesel refinery is a natural outcome of his unconventional ministry.

As for whether he and Human Kindness Foundation can actually pull it off, that's not a hole Lozoff sits in for any stretch of time. In the face of all the challenges of starting up a new business, he maintains the outlandish hopes of a visionary and the simple faith of a monk. "Something about this project rang a bell that resonated," he says. "We'll see what happens. I try to go with what I feel life is moving toward. It's what the secular world would call guesswork."

The decision to move forward with the refinery now may have been abrupt, but in many ways the idea is the inevitable consequence of a mission that began more than 30 years ago. As a young couple living on a yoga ashram in northern Durham county, the Lozoffs visited Bo's brother-in-law in prison and discovered that all three of them were living essentially the same austere life: early mornings, hard work, communal meals. Of course, the brother-in-law was unhappy with his situation, which after all was "punishment," while the Lozoffs found life on the ashram liberating. The implications of these similarities and differences intrigued the couple, and an idea began to form.

Pondering this, and hoping to "put some energy back into the world," Lozoff decided to apply for a position as a prison guard at the new federal prison then under construction in Butner. He didn't get the job, but the assistant warden was curious about why a guy like Lozoff--a young man active in the protest and counterculture movements of the '60s and '70s--would want a job as a prison guard. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Lozoff leveled with him, told him he was a Karma Yogi who suspected his spiritual path might involve service to prisoners.

Can't you imagine it? Here's Lozoff, straight off the ashram, holding the credentials of a Karma Yogi and hoping to be hired as a prison guard. And yet, amazingly, the assistant warden responded with enthusiasm. He asked Lozoff to come up with a proposal for teaching yoga-meditation classes in federal prisons, and within a month Lozoff was flown to Washington, D.C., to meet with the head of the Bureau of Prisons. "I can still remember," Lozoff writes in his book We're All Doing Time, "sitting at that long table with all those big-shots, and marveling that just a few years earlier, I sat around with revolutionaries arguing about how to blow up those very buildings. Life is very funny."

The BOP's plan to build "ashram units" quickly fell through, but Lozoff was persistent and soon found himself teaching classes in individual jails and prisons. Around the same time, he and Sita began reading Ram Dass, whose book Be Here Now applies the spiritual practices of the East to contemporary Western life. Ram Dass also had taken a great interest in prisoners; the Lozoffs met with him and the three began to craft a plan for helping convicts turn their cells and prison yards into ashrams, places of spiritual growth and freedom.

By 1973, the Prison-Ashram Project had begun. The Lozoffs left the ashram to devote their lives to the project. They set up a small office staffed with volunteers and funded by a small but growing number of donors--friends and strangers drawn to the idea of offering compassion as an antidote to what Lozoff calls the "sanctioned hatred" of convicted criminals. With these scant resources, the Lozoffs began to send inspirational material to prisoners, and to offer classes in meditation and yoga inside various correctional institutions. It seemed an unlikely venture--getting "hardened" criminals to ponder their dharma or practice pranayam or assume the sun posture; and yet, the response was overwhelming. Mail poured in seeking literature, requesting classes, asking for help and advice.

In 1985, Bo Lozoff published We're All Doing Time, in which he likens a prisoner's existence to the lives of most people living on the outside. The book is gently remonstrative, chiding society for its soul sickness, for the way we exhaust ourselves with our wants and regrets, fretting, scheming, caught in a consumer culture that is only too happy to define our lives for us. The cure, Lozoff writes, lies in discovering the real meaning of our lives, the spiritual journey that erases the distance between people and God. That journey might begin with meditation or prayer, with the Bodhi tree or the crucifixion. Ultimately, though, it is the only way to walk away from all the crap, the only way to joy.

I've read--or tried to read--any number of books by gurus, mystics and new-age "spiritual guides" who claim to have the answer to the world's great sorrows. Most of them, frankly, are bushwa, desperate crumbs for a desperate following. Somehow, Lozoff's We're All Doing Time avoids the pitfalls of the genre, coming across not as proselytizing or cosmic drivel but as an act of generosity.

Likewise, Lozoff himself somehow succeeds as a spiritual teacher, managing in his straight-forward, no-nonsense style to escape the usual stereotypes of modern-day "mystics." He is neither flaky nor didactic; he quotes Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and Saint Francis with equal authority; he makes utterly accessible the enigmatic practices of Eastern spirituality; and he refuses to go in for the usual beatitudes or walk around so blissed out he can't see straight. He is a spiritual guide who believes in nuts-and-bolts human service, a mystic who spends his time researching the environmental impact of biofuels.

His philosophy, in other words, can't be neatly summed up on a bumper sticker.

And if Lozoff is genuinely spiritual, he is cannily so. Blessed rain, the saying goes, seeks the tilled earth. Human Kindness Foundation has never borrowed money or participated in conventional fund-raising, yet its "financial profile" is impressive. Something about the Lozoffs, their message and methodology, has hit a nerve. The Village Voice has named We're All Doing Time as one of the "100 books everyone in the world should read"; and Fred Rogers once listed Bo Lozoff, along with Albert Schweitzer, Jane Addams and Gandhi, as one of his personal heroes. The foundation now has 500 donors, assets of more than $800,000, an annual budget of more than $200,000 and a 40,000-person mailing list.

All of it, of course, in service to a population that is unlikely ever to make significant "gifts" to non-profits. Not that it matters. The Prison-Ashram Project isn't about payback or "retribution" as society defines it; it's about allowing for possibilities other than vengeance, encouraging outcomes other than despair, violence and failure.

That may seem like the standard "liberal" approach to criminal justice, but "liberal" is one more label Lozoff won't stand still for. Listening recently to a well-known death-penalty opponent argue for the application of life without parole as a substitute for capital punishment, Lozoff says he finally had to speak up, to say that automatically throwing someone in prison for life may not be much more insightful than killing them.

"This," Lozoff says with dismay, "this is the rhetoric that liberals have adopted to say they aren't soft on crime. But it's not that easy. I've seen murderers turn their lives around. It's not a simple formula."

For the first 20 years of the Prison-Ashram Project, Bo Lozoff spent his time and energies writing books, corresponding with prisoners and teaching inside hundreds of correctional facilities. Then, about 10 years ago, he decided it was time to "make the next statement," to make a place for ex-convicts to live as they moved from prison back into society.

By 1987, the Lozoffs had founded the Human Kindness Foundation to absorb some of the administrative duties of the Prison-Ashram Project. Seven years later, they created Kindness House, a community in rural Orange County where a small number of ex-convicts--about a half-dozen at any given time--could live until they were ready to move on.

"The need was there," Lozoff says. "These were people who had changed their lives, their values, while they were in prison. And they were getting ready to be thrown back into a society that wouldn't support that." A society that was, at best, ambivalent in its messages about greed, brutality and violence. "We wanted to provide a place for ex-cons to live before moving out on their own."

Before driving out to the factory with Lozoff, I met one of the ex-convicts who had come to live at Kindness House. Kevin Dessert, a 43-year-old Rhode Island man with a longshoreman's accent, met me at breakfast, then walked me down to the community's livestock barn. There is nothing less cheerful than a damp chicken, and we were surrounded by 43 of them, scratching in the clay and making soft mournful noises like boiling water. Dessert, though, appeared cheerful in the sadness of the gray morning, the melancholy chickens. With one eye on the lone rooster in the yard, Dessert said the difficult part of the spiritual journey is to avoid seeking a quick cure, the expectation that, with enough prayer or meditation, pain and suffering will disappear.

"The truth is, it's not really about being happy and gay all the time," he said. "It's about being at peace with what you get handed in life."

On this particular morning, Dessert was handed the job of tour guide, showing me around the 70-acre Orange County farm that houses Human Kindness Foundation. Walking through the woods, pointing out the cabins and gardens, it was clear that in the 14 months he's lived here, Dessert has come to find a certain contentment in everything about the place--including wet hens. When I asked whether they ate the chickens, he said generally not, though they'd eaten a drowned hen once. Oh yeah, and the mean rooster, too.

"The mean rooster?"

"Yeah. There was this one rooster who would come after you. He was just being a rooster. But we ate him."

There was no hint of humor or vengeance in this recounting, just matter-of-fact karmic comeuppance in its simplest manifestation. Yet, one rooster's fate notwithstanding, Dessert and the roughly 40 other ex-cons who've made their way to Kindness House have found acceptance and help in their struggle to return to society.

For many, it's a long journey. Dessert broke into hundreds of homes, was in and out of prisons for 16 1/2 years all told. Then, while serving time in Rhode Island, a prison counselor gave him a copy of We're All Doing Time. Dessert eventually requested that he be paroled to Kindness House, where he is now part of the community, sharing chores and meals, even bringing his young son to visit. In the past year, he said, he has begun to feel that he will make it on his own. "I like it here," he said. "I like the work, I believe in the work--I'm the fruit of that work."

Kindness House, I found out from Dessert and from community literature, calls itself a "simple-living and ego-reduction center," but that's too awkward and pretentious a description for the place. In many ways, it is a typical rural homestead: there are orchards and hayfields, a vegetable garden, root cellar, cows, horses. The residents, 13 full-time, including the Lozoffs, mill lumber, tend the gardens, gather eggs. The differences are found primarily in the office--where staff and volunteers mail inspirational material and correspondence--and in a large, second-story room whose windows look out over the farm's fields and gardens. There, in a corner, sits a posse comitatus of the divine: a solemn Buddha, Shiva with her snaking arms, a painting of Christ.

At the beginning of each day, the community gathers here for meditation. It is a sacred space; entering, Kevin bowed solemnly, took off his boots, and showed me the photograph of the Dali Lama, the stacks of books and magazines and videos all offering instruction, inspiration or guidance in spiritual growth. There are representatives from most of the spiritual traditions, from medicine men to mountain hermits to the saints. When I asked him whether he'd grown up in any particular faith tradition, Kevin said yes, mostly Christianity, but that he's come to see the holy through so many more traditions.

"Really, it's the same God that people seek everywhere," he said. "I don't limit what's divine to one thing or person. I get letters from guys in prison who complain that there's no light ahead and no one to care." Dessert glanced out over what must seem to him, despite the damp gray, a healing landscape. "What I say is, 'Look, there is a light, there is someone to help. You just have to open your eyes and see it. It's everywhere. Finding it is an eternal process.' "

For Bo Lozoff and Human Kindness Foundation, the next step in the eternal process sits waiting in an empty factory in northwest Orange County. Like so much else that has happened to them, the factory was an unexpected gift.

For years the building was home to The Wizard's Cauldron, a successful organic foods business and community landmark that offered public access to an organic blueberry patch. Last spring, the Cauldron's owner signed a deal to move his growing business to Caswell County, and the factory soon sat empty.

Lozoff, meantime, was in the midst of contemplating creating a job-training facility. What he'd discovered from ex-convicts paroled to Kindness House, he says on our drive to the facility, is that even with the advantage of a supportive environment, the move back into society is fraught with challenges. One of the most daunting, he says, is finding a job.

"Here are people who go out into the world with two strikes against them," Lozoff says. "First, they're felons, with all that conjures up for people. Second, they don't know how to work for a boss. Don't know how to handle a schedule, how to show up on time, how to manage the obligations. When they leave us, it's like they're swimming upstream."

When Lozoff learned that the Cauldron was available, he contacted the owner, who it turned out was only too happy to see his building and his blueberries fall into the hands of the Human Kindness Foundation. In yet another serendipitous moment, the Cauldron's owner said that if the foundation would pay off the bank note, he'd give them the deed--more or less donating the property to the cause. KHF paid the note with a small legacy--$50,000--left to them by Fred Rogers; the future home of KindnessWorks Industries, they decided, would be called "Blueberry Hill."

The next step, after realizing it wasn't practical to rent the facility, was to choose a product.

"We knew we wanted something that wouldn't hurt the environment," Lozoff says, "But also one that would be lucrative enough to pay the salaries of three permanent employees and the 17 or so ex-convicts."

They considered several possibilities, including gourmet peanut butter; then an acquaintance encouraged Lozoff to look into biodiesel fuel, an increasingly popular alternative fuel made with vegetable or animal fat instead of petroleum. It turned out that a prominent bio-fuels activist was on the HKF mailing list. Lozoff began corresponding with him and other experts, amassing literature on alternative fuels, researching the industry. (See "Drive your vegetables," p. 29) He discovered, for instance, that Rudolf Diesel designed his original engine to run on peanut oil, and that a truck running on pure biodiesel fuel smells like french fries as it drives by. He weighed the benefits of recycled restaurant oils ("yellow grease") against pure soybean oil and studied the arguments of eco-warriors pushing to replace the current "B20 standard" (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent fossil fuel) with pure biodiesel. He visited a refinery, learned about "splash blending" and fatty acid methylesters. He even went to the first National Biodiesel Conference in Palm Springs, Calif., a destination that was, for Lozoff, more or less equivalent to Gehenna.

Still, it was worth it. After researching the economics, science, ecology and politics of the industry, Lozoff and the HKF decided they had found their product. Something that was good for the environment, good for local farmers and for the businesses and municipalities that already use biodiesel. Good for the prisoners looking to get job experience.

Even the factory, an enormous industrial box on N.C. 86, was perfect for the job. When we arrive, Lozoff introduces me to "Bill," a former inmate from Alabama who asked me not to use his real name. Lozoff and Bill show me around the cavernous rooms, more or less empty now except for some boxes of books and a scuffed-up western saddle Bill hopes to restore. Fluorescent lights buzz in the tall ceilings and a rooster crows in the distance.

Influenced, I guess, by images of the sprawling oil refineries in Texas, I ask Lozoff whether the factory is sufficient. "This is actually more space than we need," Lozoff says, explaining that they hope to produce 1 to 3 million gallons of biodiesel a year. Standing here, imagining the future refinery, Lozoff admits he's had his misgivings.

"I kept waiting for the fatal flag," Lozoff says. "But it never went up. It was all positive; things were happening, it was seamless."

And, indeed, the pieces seem to have fallen into place. A biodiesel business development manager from Colorado, who also happens to be a Zen meditator, agreed to sign on with HumanKindness Works as project developer and operations manager. And Lozoff discovered that although there is no local biodiesel refinery, there is already a large and growing local market: The City of Raleigh uses biodiesel fuel; so do the Durham Public Schools, Progress Energy, the Raleigh-Durham Airport and the Orange County EMS ambulance fleet--all municipalities and businesses that now truck their diesel fuel from out-of-state refineries.

Everything, in other words, looks promising. The physical plant, work force, a plant manager with industry know-how, a solid local market for biodiesel. The most noticeable missing piece, at this point, is the $1 million in start-up funds necessary to fit out the factory and begin operations.

Not that Lozoff sweats it. The "bottom line" he writes in a recent HKF newsletter, is that "we really do mean it, we must always mean it, when we say this organization operates on faith. We work hard to do our part, but arm-twisting over money has never seemed to be what God wants us to do."

In other words, Bo Lozoff might be willing to go to a conference in Palm Springs, but he draws the line at conventional fund-raising. Even after all these years, HKF has never borrowed money from a bank, and continues to be funded by individual donors, people who care about the foundation's mission. Somehow, after 30 years, it still works.

"I've never done fund-raising or grants before and I didn't want to start now," Lozoff says. "I know I could put on a suit and tie and learn how to schmooze, but that depresses me. I've always been suspect of people who develop a sense of the importance of their nonprofit. For me it comes down to this: Is there a need, and are there resources?"

And so, in lieu of "arm-twisting over money," Lozoff plans to do what he's always done: "inform and invite"--put the word out about the refinery and trust that donor money will come in to support the new business. He's also begun promoting his new music CD, Bo Lozoff & Friends: Whatever it Takes, and will hold a benefit concert on May 15. "All we have to do is sell 100,000 albums," Lozoff says in the matter-of-fact voice of a madman whose schemes have always, inexplicably, succeeded. "Then we'd have $1 million."

If it seems somewhat fantastic to stake a $1 million project on a CD and a concert, consider that for more than 30 years Lozoff and the Prison-Ashram Project have pulled off one tremendous feat after another, all without fanfare, publicity or deep pockets. They have made their way into more than 700 prisons, teaching meditation and yoga against a backdrop of institutional brutality. They have maintained correspondence with countless prisoners, offering grace in the unholiest of places. They have created a space into which they welcome former convicts, eating, working, praying and playing alongside people like Bill and Kevin Dessert.

And they've done it all with the help of countless individuals, most of them of average means, many of whom they've never met. They've done it by appealing to that elusive piece of the human soul that seeks to fill a need, to love the unlovable.

"What I've figured out," says Dessert, "is that my whole life has been because of the grace of God. You see it in the actions of people, in how they treat you."

Acts of kindness, in other words, random and otherwise.

If you'd like to enjoy good music and support Human Kindness Foundation's biodiesel project, make plans to attend a benefit concert featuring musicians Bo Lozoff, Lise Uyanik, Armand Lenchek, Zan McLeod, Chris Turner and Ben Palmer on Saturday, May 15 at 8 p.m. at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. Tickets are $12; $10 for ArtsCenter Friends. For more information on the concert and Human Kindness Foundation, go to www.human kindness.org.

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