The first time I visited Nevada City, CA, the proprietor of the Outside Inn — in which we were staying— told me that I was not to leave town without first talking to Reinette Senum — then the mayor. Unfortunately, I was not able to pull it off during that visit, but Reinette was on my radar and I started to dig up what I could find online. One of the first things that comes up when one Googles Reinette is a TedX talk titled Community as Common Destiny, delivered in Grass Valley in 2010. Watching the talk, I was immediately hooked.
Reinette is a doer. She is strong minded, passionate, deeply feeling, and unafraid to follow her vision or speak her mind. At the age of 30, she was afforded the unique opportunity to study her prominent great –grandfather, General Frederick Funston, and the impact that his views and decisions would have on many generations to follow —a 100 year perspective on the ways in which our actions affect those who are not yet born. This experience has shaped her actions and outlook ever since.
In her Community talk, Reinette tells the story of how a young, ambitious California girl came to find herself skiing solo across the State of Alaska on the frozen Yukon River. When the spring thaw came earlier than expected and the river (the only road she had) began to break up beneath her, she found herself in a Dene (Athabascan) village, considering her next move. Looking around the village for cues, she decided that she would build a canoe and finish her journey by boat. The locals called her “fruitcake” and watched bemused, as she planed and soaked her boards. Over time, however, as her pile of boards became calf then knee deep, the local people began to take notice that —whether they chose to support her or not— she was going to continue her mission. And she sure was making headway. One by one, the once-skeptical locals began to come forward, approaching Reinette and making small gestures of support: one had some extra marine paint, another offered seat clamps, a organic form of “crowdfunding” if you will, until her canoe was finished and she was able to complete her extraordinary trip.
Though Reinette has dozens of inspirational accomplishments that she could choose to speak about, it is no accident that this is the story she fixed on for her TedTalk. It is not only illustrative of her drive, but also her particular brand of leadership. “If you build it, they will come” or, more appropriately, “if you start it, people will join you. Don’t wait…Do!”
Reinette has made her mark in many places, but nowhere more than her native Nevada City, where she has been instrumental in dozens of projects ranging from co-founding the Nevada City Farmer’s Market to starting the APPLE (Alliance for a Post Petroleum Local Economy) Sustainability Center (instrumental in making Nevada City the U.S. town with the most solar panels per capita), to building micro houses for the homeless, the Nevada City Time-Bank, and the annual farm to table dinner downtown — in short, Reinette passionately believes that we each can make a difference when we commit to our places and work to build the world we would like to see for our future. And though there are those who may disagree with her politics or her vision, it is hard to deny that she cares deeply about her community and the people in it; that every action she takes is an effort to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves —the disenfranchised, the under-served, the animals, the earth.
When I finally did get to sit down with Reinette in the spring of 2015, we talked for hours about the meaning of community and the look of resilience. In our parting moment she relayed a story that brought her back to her Alaska journey: There were times when it was so cold, there was no sound at all — no trees cracking, no birds singing, nothing except for a deep, guttural groan. Reinette assumed that the sound was initiated in her imagination…her mind hallucinating from the cold, isolation, and lack of stimulation. And she never thought much about it again until recently, when NASA released recorded sounds of different planets from space. The sound of the earth was exactly the sound that she had heard in Alaska —a visceral memory. Reinette chokes up with the thought of it. “It was the sound of a mother who has lost a child…full of grief and pain…the sound of our mother planet crying out with aching torment.”
There is work to be done, and Reinette will keep following her vision, hoping that others, even those who may think she is a fruitcake at first, will eventually choose to join her.
To see Reinette’s Talk: Community as Common Destiny: