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Life Reclaimed

After growing up amid violence and harassment, Jarid Manos found a way out for himself and for troubled youth—restoring prairie ecosystems. Madeline Ostrander interviews Jarid Manos.

Read this article in Spanish. Lea este artículo en español

 

Jarid Manos. Photo courtesy of the Great Plains Restoration Council
Jarid Manos. Photo courtesy of the Great Plains Restoration Council

Jarid Manos dreamed about buffalo, prairie dogs, and the Great Plains, even while he dealt drugs on the New York City streets. As a child in rural Ohio, Manos coped with neglect, racism, and sexual abuse by seeking refuge in woodlots and prairies and in books about natural history from the local library. He ran away to Texas as a teen, and spent much of his young adulthood drifting between a life of crime in New York and months-long trips through the Plains and the Southwest, where he visited Indian reservations, camped out alone on rangelands and deserts, prayed, and wrestled with depression and anger.

In the late 1980s, Manos learned of the Buffalo Commons, an idea hatched by two Rutgers scholars to reintroduce buffalo to underpopulated counties in middle America. The idea became an inspiration. Manos began developing a vision of an organization that would heal both people and prairies. He cleaned up his life, got a job at a health food store, became a vegan, and took up mountain biking. He networked with social justice and environmental groups and learned how to organize.

Manos founded the Great Plains Restoration Council in 1999 in Fort Worth, Texas. He now recruits youth from inner city Fort Worth and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota who are victims of violence and poverty, and puts them to work restoring the prairie. His group has also halted housing developments on a southern tallgrass prairie near Fort Worth and is re-establishing a prairie dog town on a new 12,000-acre reserve in West Texas. Partnering with the Oglala Lakota people, Manos’ group has hatched a long-term project to connect prairie around Badlands National Park into a million-acre public grassland.

Manos is the father of a 10-year-old adopted son. His journey from despair to activism is recounted in his book, Ghetto Plainsman (Temba House, 2008).

I contacted Manos by phone at his Fort Worth office.

 


 

Jarid Manos with his son.
Jarid with his son.

Madeline: What was your childhood like?

Jarid: I was a stray dog. I didn’t know people actually loved each other and had close family relationships. The only thing my father discussed was my duty to work, always with disapproval.

When I was three, I cracked my head open on a brick ledge. The effects were lasting, and even now, I sometimes pass out.

I was so alienated that even joining a gang would have been way too adjusted for me. I was a pretty boy and hated it. I was constantly harassed by disgusting old men who sexually pursued me, including the vice principal at school. But I never accepted being anybody’s victim.

The world felt hostile, guaranteed to get worse without warning. I learned to be like a wild animal and see danger before it saw me.

Nature was my refuge, and I understood on a gut level that it was under threat. I saw prairies, wooded streams, and waterfalls destroyed by bulldozers. I remember looking at telephone poles, one after another, and mourning all those killed trees.

Madeline: What made you leave Ohio for Texas?

Jarid: I first visited Texas with my father on fishing and duck-hunting trips. The landscape immediately spoke to me. I knew it was home. There was an open, beckoning horizon, and the sky was lit in the most phenomenal, visceral colors. Texas is the only place in the U.S. where the prairie and ocean meet, and it has an almost African feel—like the center of the living world. All I could think about was how to get back there.

Immediately after high school, I hustled my way to Corpus Christi on the pretense of going to community college. I lived in one of the most barren parts of town in a prefab studio apartment on stilts that wouldn’t have lasted the first hurricane.

Madeline: But you didn’t stay there.

Jarid: I grew restless and left for New York City where I again tried to go to college.

Trouble is, you carry your personal problems with you wherever you go. I had been a drunk since I was a teen and struggled with extreme depression. I couldn’t stay awake or concentrate, or hold a job for long.

I ended up on the Lower East Side, which back then was bombed out, grafittied up, and crawling with crack and heroin dealers. I couldn’t make rent. Homelessness loomed. To earn money, I had to sell my body and turn tricks. It was so degrading. I felt tainted and violated just like the Earth.

I sometimes slept on park benches on top of newspapers, then read them. I read about the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the start of the Gulf War. The world got darker.

I had an overwhelming urge to disappear into nature. I traveled west through Texas again, then headed to California. I thought about leaving society and removing myself from the ugliness of the world. I wanted to stop speaking. I was that angry.

But I got an opportunity to make money in New York as a drug dealer, and my only moral equation was, all’s fair in hate and war.

 

There is no more exhilarating and realized life, I believe, than a life of service. When you produce tangible change, that’s something to look forward to each day.

 

Madeline: Did you find the American West more peaceful than the city?

Jarid: No. It’s dangerous and anarchic out here—you could run into somebody with rifles in the back of their truck, and if they don’t like the color of your skin or the way you look, they could easily hurt you.

The Plains are a war zone, especially for the animals. There are clubs organized to blow prairie dogs up for sport with propane bombs, or poison them. There’s aerial gunning of wildlife, like coyotes. People in pickup trucks deliberately run terrified antelope into barbed wire fences.

Despite these threats, I saw the animals celebrating life. I invite anybody to sleep overnight in a prairie dog town. Watch them jump and tumble over each other as the first flash of sunlight races across the prairie. They literally worship the sun.

I also saw hope on Indian reservations. People who have lost so much and been so traumatized, smiling, laughing, and joking.

Madeline: When did things turn around for you?

Jarid: First, I heard about the Buffalo Commons idea. Almost the entire Great Plains has been ravaged, but as people move out of rural areas, there’s an opportunity to create a sustainable economy through eco-tourism, restoration, ecological health initiatives, youth work, and education.

At the same time, I knew I couldn’t continue on the same self-destructive cycles. I remember lying in a gap beneath a fence out West somewhere, each shoulder on an opposite side of the barbed wire. I thought, “Are you going to roll to the left, head south, disappear into Mexico and accept that the struggle is hopeless; or roll to the right and get to work?” As I closed my eyes, I thought about the buffalo, prairie dogs, and people who were struggling. That called me to action.

Over the next months, I realized I had survived my depression and anger. I prayed and carved out a safe place inside myself. I had to become healthy. Taking care of your health is the most radical thing you can do, because you are cleaner, stronger, and able to withstand and fight for so much more.

I wanted to be healthier so I could build, create, and bring people together.

Madeline: Coming out of such difficult circumstances, how did you find the resources to start an organization?

Jarid: I was always reading. I’m an information junkie. I knew about activist groups. I learned a lot from an internship with Animal Protection of New Mexico, and from groups like the People of Color Caucus. Those experiences gave me the tools to start the Great Plains Restoration Council and our first campaigns to restore a creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and stop the city of Lubbock from poisoning a prairie dog town.

I had to learn people skills and deal with my remnant anger. But when you produce powerful work to heal the Earth, you can also heal yourself.

It’s true that when I looked at the environmental movement, I didn’t see many people like me. But I knew we needed to become a cultural and social movement with a shared struggle. The violence people do to the Earth mirrors the violence people do to each other.

Madeline: What’s it like for you to lead an organization, after years trying to get away from people?

Jarid: There is no more exhilarating and realized life, I believe, than a life of service. When you produce tangible change, that’s something to look forward to each day.

Years ago I would never have described myself as “happy.” I didn’t smile most of my life. But I do now.

I love my friends, the kids, and the work—the sense that people are coming together in good faith and accepting that it’s an imperfect world, but still working to improve it each day.

I’m not saying life is easy. There’s a lot of bad news, and I see people getting overwhelmed all the time. But my stamina is unbreakable.

The Great Plains Restoration Council encourages kids who are survivors of HIV, abuse, violence, and poverty to take leadership in prairie conservation projects. Pictured above, the 2008 GPRC Youth Summit. Photo by Jarid Manos
The Great Plains Restoration Council encourages kids who are survivors of HIV, abuse, violence, and poverty to take leadership in prairie conservation projects. Pictured above, the 2008 GPRC Youth Summit. Photo by Jarid Manos

Madeline: Now you work with youth who have been through their own trauma. How do you help them find fulfillment?

Jarid: Many of the kids we work with were considered disposable. Some of them have lived in places where they didn’t have a bathroom—they had to go in the backyard. There are kids whose mothers have been raped, or who are affected by HIV.

But if you give these young people opportunities, they can take leadership. They just need adult role models to help them open doors.

Some of it is about claiming personal power. There’s a youth in our program who has been badly burned, but he’s the most outgoing, well-adjusted little dude. He makes everybody feel at ease.

Some of it is about speaking out. One of our youth just had his first major speaking engagement at the International Urban Parks Conference in Pittsburgh to an audience with representatives from over 36 countries.

And we teach the kids about the connection between their bodies and the ecosystems they live in. We take them to a tallgrass prairie southwest of Fort Worth and learn how the watershed runs through the body of the land. Then we see how the human circulatory system works by looking at the veins in our arms.

We let the kids lead tours of this prairie. We also help them work on language skills. Right now, they’re writing a children’s book called Prairie Dogs in the Hood. In the story, a group of kids encounter a grandma on her porch, and she tells them about the last prairie dogs in Fort Worth.

Madeline: So often troubled youth are medicated to treat behavioral problems. What do you think youth need to be capable and happy?

Jarid: Healing has to happen from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Get kids outside. Give them the opportunity to produce something meaningful with their own minds and hands, and that will far surpass any drugs or medication.

Madeline: Can you describe one of your moments of greatest joy?

Jarid: I’m not sure many activists ever reach sheer joy. There is a dark undercloud of worry that never goes away. But hanging out with my son, Kaiden, on Galveston Island a couple of years ago, I remember a sudden, perfect moment of exhilaration—his laughter, the ocean waves, the hot sun, white sand dunes, and green coastal prairie. It was like the sun had come closer to Earth, blazing everything in blue and yellow light. That moment was overpowering. It was an unusual sensation, because I have always viewed everything through the lens of struggle.

I am flooded by thoughts of the challenges ahead. But moments like that show me it’s possible to have happiness even while being a soldier. And I feel a need for other kids to experience those moments. So I get back to the struggle.


Madeline Ostrander interviewed Jarid Manos as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline is senior editor at YES! Magazine.

Interested?www.ghettoplainsman.com and www.gprc.org

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