When activist and civic leader R. John Gibson got a call from NUVO announcing his Lifetime Achievement Cultural Vision Award, he was “flabbergasted.” Then, reluctant. “Lifetime achievement implies that you might be at the end of the line,” says 77-year-old Gibson. “But I’m in the midst of the most challenging project of my life.”
A philosopher, prophet and raconteur, Gibson has practiced an activism of extraordinary grace for 50-plus years. He’s best known as the founding director of Earth Charter Indiana (ECI), a non-profit dedicated to the advancing the worldwide grassroots treaty expressing the principles for a sustainable future. At a conference on imagining America’s future in 2000, Gibson “fell in love with the Earth Charter” and, with activist Jerry King, staged the first annual Earth Charter Summit in 2001 at Marian University, and launched the organization Earth Charter Indiana in 2003.
Like Gibson himself, the Charter is forward-looking, hopeful, non-partisan and action-oriented.
“It’s stunning to think that the world could come together on these common values in an open, democratic process,” says Gibson. “I thought, what a great achievement that that could happen.”
Gibson immediately responded to the Earth Charter’s variety of values: respect and care for the dignity of all people, as well as peace, justice, and ecological integrity. “Many of us could see ourselves and our causes in the Charter,” he said.
Gibson’s challenge? To inspire Indiana citizens to enact the Charter’s principles in a practical way. To demonstrate the art of the possible, and inspire himself, he set off on a road trip to witness sustainable projects in Indiana. After encounters with the LEED-certified public library in Newburgh, Ind., Allen and Mary Yegerlehner’s sustainable farm in Clay City, and the alpaca-breeding nuns at St.-Mary-of-the-Woods White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, Gibson knew there was hope.
“We realized Indiana’s reputation in all things sustainable was not enviable,” Gibson says. “But if Indiana were to become a sustainable state it would be the result of the innovations of these pioneers. So we started to dream about the time when we could use Indiana’s Bicentennial to develop a new story to tell about Indiana.” Sustainable Indiana 2016 was born.
Gibson and his ECI cohorts introduced Sustainable Indiana 2016 at the Earth Charter Indiana Summit in 2006. Those gathered adopted a vision for catalyzing mainstream enthusiasm for sustainability in Indiana, borne from cooperation across social sectors. To translate the vision to reality, the leadership of ECI and other collaborators forged “transition teams” in nine regions of Indiana, peopled with citizens from the worlds of education, agriculture, faith, art, politics, and more. Another reflection of Gibson’s abiding penchant for unity.
In John Gibson, a Wendell Berry-esque moral thoughtfulness unites with an indomitable, patient dedication to social changemaking. Gibsons reflective nature sometimes manifests in poetry. A 1997 poem, “Union,” describes the time between birth and death as “separation and reunion… the rhythm of scattering and gathering… / Bringing it all together seems to be the intention of God, / the impulse of the universe. / So may my energy and intention be the same.”
Magnanimous words from a seminary graduate and ordained Methodist minister. Born in the midst of The Depression, Gibson grew up on a small farm in a sparsely populated county in South Dakota. “Both my mother and father had great family values and were deeply involved in the community where we lived,” Gibson says. “From my parents, I learned to respect animals and the earth and neighbors no matter what their station in life, and to be active in the community.” Gibson worked and played hard in an all-American way. “We lived in a cold, bleak place – but we didn’t know the whole world wasn’t like that. Life was potlucks and picnics, fairs and rodeos, football and footraces.”
In high school Gibson met his future wife, Anita. They both attended South Dakota State University in Brookings and married in 1955. Their 55-year marriage has yielded three children and was always based in a shared desire to improve the world. When asked about the nature of their partnership, Gibson answers meditatively: “As time goes on,” Gibson says, “’I like you’ evolves to ‘I respect you. Weve always been a team.”
The Gibsons moved from town to midwestern town, with John pastoring churches large and small and launching new congregations. After 20 years he asked for a new assignment with the Ecumenical Institute, where he delved into community organizing in disadvantaged communities including a social and economic development project in Malaysia. Gibson was then tapped to lead the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a non-profit with a mission to stimulate innovative, sustainable social change. The job brought the Gibsons to Indianapolis.
When we came to this city in 1980, we didn’t know how long we’d stay, but we soon fell in love with the state and its salt-of-the-earth citizens, Gibson says. The family took up residence in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood in which they worked side by side with others residents to improve life for all. They settled in a rambling home at 3038 Fall Creek Parkway, around the corner from Broadway Methodist Church.
In 1999, Gibsons passion for Indianapolis found expression in his mayoral candidacy. He ran as an independent and lost by a wide margin to Bart Peterson. I learned to appreciate my friends, Gibson says of the experience. They labored night and day to get 4,000 signatures to get me on the ballot. I thought that people would flock to the polls for a new ideabut there is a deep loyalty to tradition when it comes to political parties.
Gibsons experiences in the faith, civic and non-profit sectors give him a unique perspective on social change. The three sectors have all produced change and have also been resistant to change. As during the civil rights movement, deep social change generally happens when the sectors converge. Nobody has a corner on this thing called change.
When asked about his own heroes, Gibson skips over the obvious (MLK, Jr., Jesus) in favor of the local. Mrs. Woodard is a former neighbor Gibson remembers for her humility and persistence. “This 89-year-old woman would walk around the neighborhood and pick up trash,” Gibson explains. “When asked why, she said: ‘somebody needs to do it.’” Another hero is Parker Pengilly, a fellow activist who died earlier this year at age 96. “Parker used his talents and intellect to ask critical questions about peace and justice, he says.
One event that Gibson describes with delight is the June 26 Sustainable Living Fair at the Marion County Fairgrounds. Presented by Sustainable Indiana and Earth Charter Indiana, the event will showcase more than 30 “crown jewels”—projects that demonstrate the lighter carbon footprint and richer life possible through efforts in chemical—free food, alternative fuels, natural building and more. The fair will bring together professional green communicators, bloggers, and musicians who tell the story of sustainability. “This is crucial to helping people see things in a different way,” Gibson says. The event also includes a talk by cancer prevention expert Jerry Brunetti and a summit of the Earth Charter transition team members statewide.
As he seeks to pass the torch, how does Gibson want to be remembered? “A phrase from the Earth Charter sums it up for me,” he says. With a pastor’s natural cadence, he recites: “Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.”
With youthful optimism and seasoned assuredness, Gibson has clear advice for those desiring to foster sustainability in Indiana and the world. “Join a committee, do an internship, be a donor,” he says. “Pay attention to what other people are doing and then tell their story. Do something yourself so that you have a way to talk about the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle. Live it. Enjoy it. Give ‘til it feels good.”
Gibson’s powerful chemistry is equal parts audacity and humility. And he’s warmed up a bit to the NUVO Cultural Vision Award. “If my cooperation helps advance Indiana’s innovation, vision and potential, then I’m happy to participate.”