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thinking globally, acting locally: jeff fobes
by sandi tomlin-sutker


Jeff Fobes, Publisher of the weekly paper Mountain Xpress, definitely took those words to heart when he arrived in Asheville in the mid 1980’s. His parents, Jack and Hazel Fobes, had moved to the Jackson County area earlier and he felt it was important to be near and interacting with family. “It seemed to me smart to be closer–there’s so little respect for the intergenerational, familial allegiances and something’s just wrong with that.”

I talked with Jeff recently in his busy offi ce at the Mountain Xpress headquarters on Wall street in downtown Asheville. I knew that his mother, Hazel Fobes, has
been active for some years in local political issues, particularly with the group Citizens for Safe Water. I was curious about how she, and his father, the late Jack Fobes, may have infl uenced him in his political leanings. “I was raised in the diplomatic corps, basically a standard uppermiddle-class life in the suburbs.

My mother was always active as a librarian, she was always present, making sure I had a good science class because she knew I loved science, always helping me interface with the community. “My father worked for the State Department and for the United Nations. He was gone all day; sometimes, if he had to go to the
United Nations, from Monday through Friday. He was very passionate about his profession, but of course as a kid I didn’t know a lot about what he did. Then
when we lived overseas, France and then India, there he was, going to work in a suit, often in a chauffeured car. I still didn’t know a lot about his work, but I knew I didn’t want to wear a suit and have a chauffeured car!

“My mother was very much a small town girl, from Ft. Union, Virginia. My father was very tuned in to the human experiment—always the global, always thinking about the future. I got a lot from each of them: they were both strong and opinionated out in the world, but when it came to ‘what do you do with your life’ they were very different. My father was very formal, very much a thinker, a philosopher; my mother was very informal and kinesthetically oriented—she’s a doer.”

I wondered how he reconciled, in himself, those two orientations to the world. “I was working as my father’s assistant in the 1980’s; he was going around to conferences with the Club of Rome [a think tank discussing the Limits to Growthand other world economic issues]. I ended up helping with a newsletter because I thought theirs wasn’t very good. Dad handed me a lot of things that got me to thinking, you know Think Globally, Act Locally, but I wondered, ‘where is the local?’

“One thing that really brought the two together for me was a project, I think it was called something like Main Street in the World. Several small town newspapers were funded to report on world events as seen from that small town, showing the impact of the global on the local. One example was that the price of pine wood was going up in this town because of a literacy program in Indonesia that needed a lot of paper!”

“That was the kind of idea I’d get from him and I enjoy thinking about those things. Then Mother was trying to find her involvement here in Asheville—she’s always happiest when she has meaningful involvement. My dad would get mad about something the water board did but it was because he was looking at it through that global lens. My mother gradually got pulled in when the Citizens for Safe Water group formed with the push to go to the French Broad River for Asheville’s water supply. Then the group’s focus broadened to include air quality and she’s carried the banner for the past ten years.

“Meanwhile the Greens (Green Party) started organizing here, that was about 1987. I argued that they needed a newsletter, then realized, ‘no, we need a newspaper ‘cause we want Big and we wanted to reach beyond our group. This was an opportunity for me to act locally; the Greens were obviously globally focused but we were talking about what we could do in our local community. I was enjoying more and more the journalistic aspects and it always struck me that if you’re out there in global land, you can’t do all the things humans need to do—you can’t party! First and foremost we need to be human, we need to talk over the fence to each other.”

The Greenline (as the newspaper was called) enabled some “talking over the fence” but for various reasons, Jeff decided to broaden the audience and created the Mountain Xpress, initially as a monthly. I asked him about this move to a new format, wondering if it was as efficient at getting the issues into the community’s awareness as the Greenline had been. “I think it’s more effective because it reaches more people and the people who pick it up don’t necessarily agree with the Green perspective. When we switched over to the weekly, there was a strong push from the people I went to who really wanted us to have in the commentary section a wide range of opinions: Jerry Sternberg, Mike Summey, George
Beverly (as a former member of the water board who wanted to go to the French Broad, he was one of my opponents as far as I was concerned), and Lewis Green from the Independent Torch—that was really going out there. We wanted to truly have a debate…all these points of view, everyone jumping into the dialogue, it becomes a civic discussion. And it goes back to the local community aspect.”

I Wanted to go back to the global perspective for a minute, and asked him how living in other countries had affected his thinking. “Wherever you go people have stories they tell about what’s right and wrong, what’s the proper way to behave. I saw that everyone’s got a different story and that gave me more of an anthropological viewpoint. Everyone’s got their own dogma, we’ve all got things we believe in and one of the great experiences of life is rubbing your dogma shoulder up against someone else’s…and maybe you change your values slightly and someone else changes theirs. “I was always raised that it was okay to question. I could always ask Why? if my parents told me to do something; they thought they
should have a good reason for things. My father was a Christian Scientist but he practiced his faith alone. My parents took us to lots of different churches but I didn’t like church. You had to wear these special clothes and not get them dirty, and then sit there forever listening to this adult conversation, this sermon about who knew what! On Sunday I loved to watch Mr. Wizard on television because I loved science. So I asked why I couldn’t stay home and watch that instead of going to church. It took them a few days to figure out what to do, but they decided I could watch Mr. Wizard half the time and go to church half the time because they were both important.”

So, I asked, what’s next in your life? “I’m just on this path. It’s very local and I do sometimes hear my father’s voice about the global, but I, like most of the people I run into, don’t really have a way to impact the global so much. We do have power as individuals locally and it keeps calling me back. I can’t think of a more wonderful professional thing to do than to encourage a community to discuss questions of value and what’s important.”

Finally, wondering what he does in his non-working time: “The other thing I like doing is farming. Some people might call it a garden but for me when you get over an acre of garden, I call that farming, and it grounds me in the local even more. I got that from my mother: her father was a “gentleman farmer” and also had a dry goods store in Ft. Union. “There’s a story about him that’s about a very powerful local action: when the depression hit people lined up in that small town to take their money out of the bank. That morning, he stood on the steps of the bank and said to the crowd, ‘Ya’ll know me, and I’m leaving my money in the bank. The doors are gonna open and I’m asking some of you…some of us have to leave our money in the bank.’ And some did and that was one of the banks that didn’t go under. It shows how important it is not to act out of only self-interest or you can destroy your community.”

Jeff Fobes is a man who has learned that lesson well and who has integrated two very important traits into his life and work: the ability to think and reason with an open mind, and the necessity of taking action within his community to help better the lives of his neighbors across the fence.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker loves the life of publisher and editor: working at home, looking out at Little Pine Creek rushing through her Madison County backyard.
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