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Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later

June 1st, 2008 · by Isaac Seliger · 2 Comments

One of my favorite books is William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, an ode to the spiritual healing powers of exploring America and one’s self by driving the roads literally less traveled. From my first road trip at age 16 with my buddy Tom in his ’53 Chevy from Minneapolis north towards the Iron Range, I’ve always loved the unexpected that’s just over the next hill, around the next bend and in that sleepy town that waits at the end of the day’s drive.

Faithful readers will remember that in my first post, They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal, I recalled my journey westward to California in January 1974, taking Route 66 on the way to becoming a grant writer. In mid-May, my daughter graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas and I drove with her to her new public relations job in Los Angeles (this also explains the slowdown in posting over the last two weeks). We took the same route I traveled 35 years ago, picking up the path west of Topeka and traveling southwest through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas on US 156/54 to reach I-40 and what is left of Route 66. A side trip to the always fascinating Grand Canyon and a couple of days later we arrived in LA, where my daughter faces the same challenges that confronted me all those years ago—where to live in the vastness of LA, learning to put up with indignities of endless traffic and trying to figure out the best place to spot stars.*

This nostalgia has a great deal to do with grant writing: just before I left for KU, we finished a proposal for a newly minted Los Angeles City program, the oddly named Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, which is the brainchild of Mayor Antonio Villarigosa. Apparently, the Mayor was shocked, shocked to discover gangs in LA** and decided to move various existing anti-gang/youth services funding from the Community Development Department (CDD) to the Mayor’s Office.

GRYD is more or less the usual rehash of counseling, mentoring, et al. It is absolutely not a stunning innovation and is extraordinarily unlikely to impact gangs or anything else in LA. The most interesting aspect of writing the proposal was the prehistoric GRYD RFP budget forms (warning: .pdf link). About two weeks after arriving in LA in 1974, I found myself writing a proposal for a nonprofit to some long-forgotten LA City youth service program. I remember staring at the cryptic budget forms and struggling to complete a “budget narrative” using a legal pad, pencil and long division. Flash forward to the GRYD RFP, which still uses the same type of budget forms that presume applicants will be using a typewriter and calculator to complete. As I drove across the West once more, I was struck by how the LA Mayor’s office has apparently not heard of Excel or even fillable Acrobat forms. In other words, not much has changed in 35 years of grant writing, even as computers and the Internet have altered so much of life.

In another example confirming the stasis in the grant world, about six months after I arrived in LA, I managed to get a better job working for then newly elected Mayor Tom Bradley in his Human Services Office, reporting Deputy Mayor Grace Montañez Davis, one of the more interesting people I’ve ever met. At that time, Grace managed a slew of federal and state grants designed to provide various services, and I was working for one of them, the LA Volunteer Corps, which essentially did nothing. But those of us on the staff had a great time pretending to be doing something important. After about a year, the Mayor’s Office came under political pressure get out of the human services business and the Los Angeles CDD was born. I was just talking to a friend who still works at the CDD, who told me transferring youth services money from CDD to the Mayor’s Office is the start of moving a whole bunch of human services back to the Mayor’s Office. Back to the Future once again.

Returning to my road trip, I was struck by how much more empty the land had become since last I travelled this route, especially on the blue highways at the beginning. For the past 15 years, I’ve written endless proposals for dozens of clients in rural areas in which the theme is invariably along the lines of, “the jobs are gone, the family farms are dying, young people are leaving, etc.” I saw the reality of what I thought I had imagined as a typical grant writer’s myth. While the larger cities, like Dodge City, KS, Guymon, OK and Dalhart, TX, have a smattering of new fast food chains and budget hotels, the tiny dots on the blue highways have just about ceased to exist. As we entered each town, a faded and often broken billboard sadly announced an attraction that likely no longer exists. In these almost ghost towns, abandoned gas stations, motels and other empty, forlorn buildings line the road, with almost no signs of life. Vast swatches of rural America reflect the dire conditions I often portray in proposals.

If I had had more time, I would have taken a detour and driven 20 miles or so west of Guymon to see how Keyes, OK is faring. About ten years ago, we wrote a $250,000 funded Department of Education “Goals 2000″ grant on behalf of Keyes Public Schools, home of the “Pirates.” With just 102 students, this probably represents the largest grant/target audience member we’ve ever written. The fun part about this proposal was the argument that the school district needed to add bilingual education because a 500,000 hog industrial farm operation was about to open and hundreds of Asian-immigrant workers were expected to follow the hogs to Keyes. Whether true or not, the Department of Education bought the story line “whole hog” and funded the proposal. I was reminded of the Keyes project because at breakfast in Dahlhart, I read the Amarillo newspaper and was startled to read a story about a “wave of killings” (three to be exact—perhaps they need a GRYD program and should call of Mayor Villaregosa for tech support), attributed to a local Asian youth gang.

The problem, according to the police, is that they and the city in general lack any staff who can speak the unnamed Asian language spoken by residents, so they were stumped for clues. Talk about a great grant proposal concept! Who would expect an Asian gang crisis in Friday Night Lights country? Perhaps, like Keyes, Amarillo is home to industrial hog operations, or, perhaps, like other so many other towns I drove through, the glimmer of hope that hogs represented to Keyes was an illusion and Keyes is slipping out of existence, one abandoned building at a time.

So, while we didn’t exactly “get our kicks on Route 66,” it was perhaps a last opportunity to spend three days alone with my daughter, as she begins her adult life, and a special chance for me to remember the 22-year old kid who found his future waiting in Los Angeles—and how short the memories of many grant making agencies are. In case you haven’t guessed, my daughter is also 22, making the trip particularly meaningful.


* Gelson’s Supermarket in Studio City on Sunday morning is still a great place to spot movie/TV stars.

** Yes, this is my movie reference to Claude Rains delightful Captain Renault being shocked to discover gambling at Rick’s in my favorite movie, Casablanca.

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