It’s Not Easy Being Green Village Initiative

GVI — the non-profit established in 2008 to “create environmental and community change through local action” — has had a tough row to hoe.

First, the organization had to establish itself.  What would it do, and how?  Where would it work?  Who would it represent and respond to?

GVI quickly plowed new ground — figuratively and literally.  A community- supported agriculture program took off.  An internship program harnessed the passion of Staples students, who walked over from the nearby high school and poured their hearts into the project.  Films and lectures carried the “environmental and community change” message to people of all ages around town.

The bucolic-looking Wakeman Town Farm was rocked by controversy this week.

But the heart of GVI was the farm and garden.  Under the direction of Staples AP Environmental Studies instructor Mike Aitkenhead — Westport’s 2009 Teacher of the Year — and his wife Carrie, the GVI-renovated farmhouse and adjacent land became the centerpiece of an ongoing, constantly evolving effort that combined a Vermont back-to-the-land sensibility with a Westport education-activism ethos.

Yet all along, GVI occupied a little-understood space in town.  Was it a municipal organization?  Quasi-civic?  Who ran it, and who was run by it?  For a community organization, it seemed to be led by a small group of people who — I often heard — had a “my way or the highway” management style.

(Wakeman Town Farm is, in fact, owned by the town — which leases it to GVI for $1 a year.)

Earlier this month — several weeks before the Aitkenheads’ contract came up for renewal — a faction on the GVI board scrutinized the couple’s stewardship of the farm.  Fault was found in many areas — including, I am told, that one of their young child’s toys was in a community area.

The Aitkenheads cannot speak publicly.  But, I have heard from others, it seems as if their entire lives at the farm had turned into a public event.  I liken it to living at Old Sturbridge Village, 24/7/365.

The Aitkenheads’ contract was not terminated.  It was simply not renewed.

Last October, 10-year-old Charlie Colasurdo cut an environmentally friendly plant ribbon at the Wakeman Town Farm's opening ceremony. (Photo by Annie Nelson/Inklings)

But the effect — on the farm’s many interns, the Staples and Westport communities, even GVI as an important town organization — is the same.

Few people are talking on the record.  At least 4 board members have resigned — quietly.

“06880” teems with comments.  But — at least so far — no one in a position of authority seems to be listening to the passionate pleas of the hundreds of men, women, teenagers and younger children the Aitkenheads inspired.

In fact, their concerns have not even been acknowledged.

The bond between WTF and the twin communities of Staples and Westport is crucial.  The Aitkenheads — and GVI — have developed more than a farm and a garden.  They’ve created an organic, living entity that — though still in its infancy — shows signs of growing into one of the most important elements of our community “family.”

Yet GVI seems willing to let it die.  Or — perhaps more harshly — seems eager to kill it off.

Several meetings have been held over the past few days, in an attempt to resolve the issue.  As with the Washington budget talks, progress seems impossible.

Much of the “06880” chatter has focused on the enormous good that Mike and his family have done for WTF, Staples, children, families, Westport — and GVI.

It’s time now to move the discussion in another direction.  We need to ask:

  • Is the non-renewal of the contract a done deal?
  • Where do leaders of the town — which owns the farm — stand?
  • Has GVI lost its legitimacy?  Can it survive?  Should it?
  • And where do we go from here?

Farmers don’t like to talk a lot.  They prefer actions to words.

Westporters do talk.  But eventually we act too.

Let’s start hearing some straight, action-oriented talk from everyone.

And then let’s do whatever we can to get the Aitkenheads back on the farm, and the farm back to work.

44 responses to “It’s Not Easy Being Green Village Initiative

  1. Thank you Dan for what you wrote. As one of the GVI members who resigned in disgust I am working with others outside of GVI to help restore the Aitkenheads ( who I love) with a new contract that fully reflects the tremendous value they bring to the WTF and to Westport.

    Marty Yellin

    • Thelma Jensen

      Good for you, Marty. I can tell you, I ain’t gonna be paying 100 bucks again for cheap champagne to promote some kind of lame brain organization.

  2. Thank you Dan for your brilliant way of writing and for keeping us up-to-date on this issue. Thank you Marty for your courage and support of the Aitekenheads!. Without the Aitkenheads at the farm , I will find another CSA to join. I will no longer go to the farm – especially if it’s run by any of the remaining GVI members. What is their story?

  3. Interested citizens can write directly to Gordon Joseloff at:

    gjoseloff@westportct.gov

  4. Interested in letting town officials know your thoughts on this matter or finding out how the town can be or is involved?

    gjoseloff@westportct.gov

  5. How did something go from being so right to so wrong, so quickly? Our family has been attending weekly workshops at WTF and have volunteered there, my son being a summer intern as well. Each time we visited, which was several times a week, the farm was beautifully maintained, we were always warmly welcomed, and our children looked up to Mike as a mentor, and a source of inspiration for sustainable farming.

    We also quickly grew to love his wife, Carrie, and their children, and felt pure joy at seeing a working farm in action… and, as so many have already said, what is a farm without a family? It was clear to us that Mike and Carrie were fully dedicated to WTF, and were happy to be of service to the town in this life style.

    It is a terrible thing, indeed that they have left Wakeman Town Farm, and it is evident that this situation has affected hundreds of families. The Aitkenheads need to return to WTF… and as a community we need to work together to make this happen. Please write to Gordon Joseloff to encourage action toward this end.

  6. The Dude Abides

    I should think, in terms of contractual law, that the Aitkenheads would have some kind of recourse for either wrongful termination or appeal within the provisions of the document. The days of one-year unilateral non-renewable contracts went out years ago. Further, since it appears that the GVI is merely a figurehead for the Town of Westport itself, the Aitkenheads may very well have appeal rights within the guidelines of municipality workers that would supercede those of GVI powers to terminate. This also does not take into consideration that Mr. Aitkenhead is a teacher and his GVI appointment was due to his performance as such. His termination, therefore, may come within his parameters of his contract with the Board of Education and union protection. I would certainly suggest the Aikenhead consult an attorney regarding this unfortunate resolution. I am not privy to his accomplishments at Wakeman but I do not like to see a family just unrooted from their home. Apparently for no good reason.

  7. Lisa Marriott

    GVI went before the Town of Westport with a plan around 1 ½ to 2 years ago. They offered to refurbish the house and create an “educational” farm for the town of Westport. They hand chose Mike Aitkenhead to run it. This was very appealing to the town for a number of reasons, one of which it provided “work force housing” as Mike is an AP Environmental Science teacher at Staples High School. As someone who was involved with GVI (I removed myself from the board and all affiliations with the organization early this year) my involvement with GVI was centered around fund raising for the Farm and I am a current member of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) run most efficiently by Carrie Aitkenhead. I can only say is it beyond disappointing to realize that the number of hours I volunteered, the number of friends that I got involved both as volunteers and financially has turned into this. We raised $50,000 last October, and we were told that would run the farm for one year. Many of us worked hard and donated financially because we believed in what Mike and Carrie were doing and we still believe in them NOT GVI. Many of the comments on 06880 (both articles) are correct. It seems a very few board members made this decision (Dan Levinson – Chairman of GVI, Eileen Flug – Director of Westport GVI, and Deputy Moderator of the Town of Westport’s RTM and Monique Bosch – Co-Founder of GVI, Initiative Coordinator for Wakeman Town Farm (since Mike Aitkenhead’s departure), Edible School Gardens, CSA/RSA (since Carrie Aitkenhead’s departure), Film/Lecture Series and Internship Program. Dan Levinson and GVI are currently asking the Town of Weston to lease them the Lachat Town Farm to create the same environment they did here at WTF. This really concerns me. I hope the town of Weston does their due diligence.

    Lisa Marriott
    Co-Chair WTF Harvest Fest 2010

    • What kind of outfit are you running there then???? Where the few run the roost. You are full of self-congratulatory spin but what about some solid suggestions on how to fix the damn problem with the Aitkenheads? You sound like Congress on a good day.

  8. This is a Town owned property and concerns a Town Employee (a teacher). Maybe the RTM Environment Committee should take a look into this. Whether or not this looks bad for GVI, the Town should make sure its interest in having the farm’s success is secured.

    • Princeton '82

      What is the point of GVI in the first place? They are obviously not in tune with anything that goes on at Wakeman. Place the operation under the BOE where future resident-teachers will have some security.

  9. We complain about the bureaucracy, dysfunction and politics in Washington. Damn, it is right here in our hometown.

  10. The treatment by GVI of the Aitkinhead family is a disgrace. If the Town owns the land, can it revoke the lease? Was there something in the lease agreement protecting the town if the lessee did not adhere to the terms? Is GVI a civic organization and if not, when and how did it become an official town department? Who infused the GVI with so much apparent authority? Since the town owns the land, why are we not hearing from our local officials? Inquiring minds want to know.

  11. Indeed, give the Aikenhead family a chance to be heard!!

  12. It would be great to know who has resigned from the GVI board and who remains, so we can contact, hector, blame, and mock accordingly.

  13. If he leaves Staples as a result of this GVI should be run out of town.

  14. westporter95

    GVI = MacMansion owners, BMWs, etc. Wakeman isn’t a farm and CSA is doing business in a residential zone. Just make it an official Town of Westport educational facility and keep Mike and his family.

  15. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Dan has there been any comment from Dan Levinson or his lady cohorts…. Silence in most cases equal either guilt or boy did I screw up…

  16. Justin McMichael

    I smell a rat. It sounds like somebody wanted their brother-in-law or someone in that position/house other than Mike and Carrie. I bet the Wakemans are turning in their graves. They hated controversy.

  17. Thanks, Dan, for bringing this to everyone’s attention. I loved how the Aitkinheads gave new life to Ike and Pearl Wakeman’s 123-year old house and ran the farm. I can’t imagine what happened to justify not renewing their contract. I, too, would like to hear what the remaining GVI board members have to say about all this.

  18. The Dude Abides

    To change gears, does the Professor deserve credit for coming up with “bucolic-looking Wakeman Town Farm” in the caption to the article’s picture or what????? Priceless.

  19. There should be no need for the citizens of Westport to speculate on what happened here. According to news reports, Second Selectman Shelly Kassen negotiated the seven year, $1 per year lease of town land to GVI. GVI’s website lists Ms. Kassen as well as two other town officials, Steve Edwards and Eileen Flug, as board members of GVI. Each of them supported the leasing of town land to GVI. Certainly, all three should disclose their role in GVI’s refusal to renew the Aikenhead’s contract. While they’re at it, they should explain how forcing the Aikenheads off of the farm serves the town’s best interest (which should be no different from GVI’s best interest). If they can’t, then they really have some explaining to do.

  20. The Dude Abides

    So Kassen negotiated and authorized a lease to an entity that she serves on the Board??? SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!!

    • Dude, it could have been the other way around. First the lease, then the seat on the board. That would be the responsible way to oversee the Town’s investment.
      However, I think she is now obliged to comment on the situation, though she/they will probably hide behind the olde “we can’t discuss personnel issues in public” curtain.

      • The Dude Abides

        Kassen was elected Selectperson in ’05. Wakeman went to GVI last year, ’10. She negotiated the lease for a buck a year and then joins the Board. I see a conflict and don’t see any indication of social or town responsibility in this case. Instead, it appears an act of arbitrary bullying by a town official and her cohorts.

  21. Does the RTM have anything to weigh in with here? Hadley Rose is the moderator, hrose4rtm3@optonline.net or all of the RTM members can be contacted at once at RTMMailingList@westportct.gov

  22. In the Know

    These type of shenanigans at WTF are not uncommon or the first…. Back when the farm was being established and the house was being worked on to be made inhabitable Dan Levinson bullying was present then. If you recall the house was a teardown in Westport terms, but that was not the spirit of the GVI…many people volunteered their expertise to make it a livable home…. During the rehab process it was discover that there was no heat on the third floor and Dan Levinson did not want to spend the money to have the heat in this living area…. To this day I do not know the outcome of this…. But it started a trend…. I’m sure there are many Dan Levinson stories people have that are not flattering…

    • A few years back a friend of mine from Fairfield was exhibiting at a “Green” Fair at Earthplace. She told me she had just met the mayor of Westport. I did not see Mr. Joseloff present and asked her to point out who had just introduced themselves as the mayor. She pointed out Dan Levinson.

  23. Although we no longer serve on the GVI Board and are deeply saddened by the events of the last few weeks we remain confident that a positive and amicable solution will be found. However, we as a community should not forget the amazing contributions that GVI has made to the Town and to the Wakeman Town Farm. A year and a half ago the farmhouse and barn were falling down and they are now a beautiful asset owned by the Town. This happened through GVI and community volunteers and donations of goods and services by many residents and businesses under the direction and because of the generosity of Dan Levinson.
    We also want to clarify that Shelly Kassen is not a GVI Board Member but she has worked diligently to rectify this situation and throughout the entire project has been a tireless representative of the Town’s interests.

    Optimistically, Liz Milwe, Cathy Talmadge and Peter Wormser

    • Nice to see that these three former members are voicing the good of GVI…. But are off the board now …. WHY!!! Because the bully generosity of Dan was to much for them to deal with…. They praise his generosity but stay silent of his misgivings…. Let’s be honest and truthful don’t praise the bully…. That is dad and awful

    • “We also want to clarify that Shelly Kassen is not a GVI Board Member….” I wish this message had come from Shelly Kassen along with a message about why the Aikenheads were forced off the farm. When I visited the GVI website, Shelly Kassen was listed as a board member. Whether she is or not is a matter of fact (or misrepresentation). She certainly is involved in GVI and according to news reports negotiated the $1 a year lease of valuable town property to GVI. We all know what teardowns sell for so I am not impressed by the claim that GVI didn’t get a valuable asset because the “barn was falling down”. Wakeman Farm was a valuable asset of the Town of Westport before the GVI lease and remains a valuable town asset. None of that means that Shelly Kassen has done anything improper. My point is simply that Shelly Kassen and the other town officials involved in GVI owe the people of Westport an explanation about what is going on. If there are reasons why the principals can’t speak because of confidentiality agreements, then we need to impose a town policy that any entity that does business with the town or receives money from the town should be barred from enforcing confidentiality agreements with employees, officers or directors. If such entities can’t live with the sunshine of full disclosure, then they have no business doing business with our town. Maybe then we will get answers instead of rumors.

  24. Regardless of whether there were real performance issues with Mike Aitkenhead or not (though I seriously doubt there were), the ineptitude (at best) of the GVI leadership is indisputable. How, at the eleventh hour, could GVI think they could simply dismiss (or constructively dismiss by imposing a much more onerous contract on) a highly popular farm/program manager like Mike Aitkenhead without near catastrophic consequences for the organization? If GVI truly had issues with Mike’s performance — and just for argument’s sake, let’s say those issues didn’t arise until late in the contract term — the best thing for all concerned would be for GVI to take a deep breath, renew the contract (with perhaps some minor tweaks), and WORK on the problems over the upcoming contract term. Then, if over succeeding months the problems couldn’t be rectified, the Aitkenheads could have been replaced in an orderly way and with minimal disruption prior to the 2012 season. Instead, GVI acted abruptly, callously and arrogantly, and in so doing, have proved that they are not worthy of being stewards of the Wakeman property. The town should terminate the lease.

  25. Fran Southworth

    I am shocked, saddened and angry reading about what has gone on regarding the Aitkenhead family and the whole wonderful idea of teaching the needed and important skills of growing our own food and living in a sustainable way turning sour. It is an absolute disgrace to remove him and his family from their home blaming some toys being visible or whatever other BS they come up with. Mike Aitkenhead is a genuine, caring, committed teacher, mentor and person with NO agenda except doing what he is passionate about and sharing his love for that with others. My son had him as a teacher and Mr. Aitkenhead’s love for doing service to help the planet was contagious and opened my son up to so many new ideas. His extra credit assignments for students if they attended town meetings and got involved is a clear sign of the kind of person he is and pushed his students to be. We should recover the positive energy that Mr. Aitkenhead and his wife started out with, and our town and children in our town should have the opportunity to continue to learn about farming from the wonderful Aitkenhead family. I do feel strongly that no on else should be allowed to live in that house. Please contact me if a committee is being put together to restore the Aitkenhead’s back into their home. Much of the reason GVI got the farm to pass in the first place was on Mike Aitkenhead’s wonderful reputation. So now the community is owed a detailed explanation of exactly why he has been treated this way. When this story breaks in our local paper, I am sure that Westport will be appalled.

    • Anonymous III

      Rumors are circulating that there are reasons relating to Dan Levinson why nothing has appeared in any of the papers. I can’t quite believe these rumors.. but why isn’t there a story yet on Westportnow, the Daily Westport, Westport Patch, or the Minuteman?

  26. No one is talking about the fact that Dan Levinson had the vision and commitment to spearhead GVI. In the early days of The Wakeman Town Farm all funding came from him because he was so sure that Westport could greatly benefit from a town farm.He brainstorm the initial concept and found the property, worked with the town to obtain the land and then actively recruited a great team of people to work with GVI (including the Aikenheads). Give him a break…. As always there are more then one sides to a story- the fact that Dan Levinson has not said anything may be due to his strong character and moral compass Not Guilt!

    • In the Know

      Be fair sadly you do not know Dan Levinson well….. Many great things start out in good ways but then end up very badly like 50% of US marriages… This is a divorce that is much needed…. Behind the smoke there is definite fire…. Like so many happy situations there is a dark underbelly of abuse, misdeeds, bullying, and just plain outrageous behavior that would should and cannot be allowed. Dan does not gave a compass he might have gps either way he has lost his sheep and everything else.

  27. Wow. I heard from a very reliable source that there was a very mutual parting of the ways between GVI and the Aitkenheads. That, although they loved the farm, they were very tired of the lack of any privacy and when their contract came up, they were happy to leave. It seems to me that they may be enjoying all the controversy they’ve created. Dan Levinson is a successful businessman who very generously devotes himself and his money to causes he believes in that benefit the community, to the betterment of all of us. I have had dealings with him for years and I’ve never seen a hint of the bullying suggested in this blog, but rather a very intelligent, rather humble man who brings a calming voice of reason to any discussion. A lot of what’s written here is mean spirited, without Dan Levinson, the beautiful and historic farmhouse would still be a delapidated old eyesore, that people would pass and say “boy, I bet if someone had the money, that place could be really pretty…”

    • No, the Aitkenheads are not “enjoying” this controversy. And it’s not one they have created.

      GVI officials have promised info on a resolution soon.

    • Your glasses are either rosy or just have been lucky enough not to see the real Dan…. Either way you do not know the truth

  28. Kenneth Olson

    This entire discourse makes me angry and sad. I have known Dan for 20 years. In worked with Dan for 4 years. I know few people with more heart and character. He is no bully. I also know Shelly Kassen for many years and have worked along side of her many times. I trust these people! I known they have great integrity. Whether you agree or even really know what has happened with respect to WTF, it is flat out wrong to attack either of of these people’s integrity honesty or purpose. They are selfless volunteers trying to do a good thing for our community.

  29. It seems that, now, Mr. Levinson is playing politics in Bridgeport with Mayor Bill Finch in knocking out the community garden group there who have been an institution and successful for thirty years by taking advantage of a vindictive mindset of that mayor. Mayor Finch’s B-Green2020 newly formed website puts GVI and Dan Levanson, front and center as the champions of community gardens in Bridgpeort, even though the only community garden they have done there is a dismal failure.