Meet the Commonweal Staff: Erin O'Reilly


Kyra Epstein, Commonweal Communications

March 7, 2023


Who are the people who work behind the scenes at Commonweal? This month, meet Erin O’Reilly, Commonweal Grants Manager.

Erin O’Reilly hails from Maine, though she’s never lived there. Her mother, Norma, was raised in northern Maine, on a potato farm in Presque Isle near the Canadian border. Her father, Charles, was raised on the islands of Casco Bay, Portland. The O’Reillys were water folk—pilot men, merchant marines, lobster men, and her father, a Navy man.

After 32 years of Navy life, Erin’s parents retired in Maine. Her extended family is there. Her people are buried there. And though she has lived her life elsewhere, Maine is where she goes home.

Erin, left, with her four siblings.

Raised in a military family, the youngest of five kids, she grew up primarily on the east coast. Though there was an adventure in 1968-69 to live in Honolulu, Hawaii, where her father was stationed during the Vietnam war. At the age of six, she piled into a station wagon with her family of seven, drove from Virginia to Maine and then across the country to Los Angeles where they boarded a ship, the USS Lurline, to Hawaii—her first sea voyage and her first experience of travel. When it was time for college, her father was stationed in the Bay Area, so she headed to California. She studied architecture at UC Berkeley and, upon graduation, moved to North Beach in San Francisco. She started her professional career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the largest architectural firms in the world, working as an environmental graphic designer, creating signage and wayfinding systems. And she started her adult life in the city’s cafes, bookstores, museums, and blues bars. She had found her tribe and created a diverse family of friends.When she was 25, the wanderlust kicked in, and she traveled for eight months in Europe and the USSR.

North Beach Days.

“My boyfriend at the time was living and working in Moscow,” she said. “On my 25th birthday I met him in Paris and spent a glorious few days celebrating in the city of lights before boarding a 36-hour train to Moscow. Over the next eight months I lived in Moscow and traveled throughout Europe, working as an architectural assistant for several months for the Federal Building Office at the new U.S. Embassy in Moscow which was under construction at the time.”

Not long after her European travels, Erin ventured into two business partnerships. One was an architectural studio, Mitchell-O’Reilly Architecture, designing homes. The second was an environmental graphic design studio with a talented graphic designer, Melanie Doherty. These were successful, fulfilling partnerships for many years.

In 1994, she embarked on a 13-month personal sabbatical traveling to Australia, Indonesia, and India, often in remote areas. There were times when she felt as if she was living in a National Geographic special—trekking through the Bada Valley and snorkeling off the Togian Islands of Sulawesi, living in a bamboo hut in a jungle of Sumatra, visiting the Komodo dragons on a five-day boat journey from Flores to Lombok, and the magic that was Bali.

Upon her return, she founded ETO Design and built upon her long-standing relationship with SOM, working as a consultant on local, national, and international environmental graphic design projects. She also continued to help people create their homes. During this time, she continued to travel extensively including a year living in Hong Kong and Italy.

Throughout these years, Erin embraced and thrived in city life, though she increasingly began searching for more meaningful work and new ways to be in community. In 2004, she met Penny Livingston and James Stark while taking the first-ever Four-Seasons Permaculture course at the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI) at Commonweal Garden. Before she knew it, she had traded the 25th floor of a sky-tower for life in a permaculture garden, and lived and worked alongside James and Penny for seven years.

“That was a monumental shift in my life…I moved into a funky 100-year-old cabin at Commonweal Garden, with wild all around,” she said. “I left my beloved North Beach, where the world I knew was outside my door, and stepped into an unknown.”

Prior to moving to Commonweal Garden, Erin had dabbled in natural building, helping to build an adobe domed structure in Berkeley for friends. Her first summer in the garden, RDI  hosted a natural building workshop, where she was involved in the design and construction of three structures—a cord wood, a hybrid straw, and a cob structure. After years of designing on paper, it was fun to get her hands in the mud. She continued to be involved in the ongoing development of the site while she was at the Garden.

Singing at the Jazzschool.

Her years at Commonweal Garden were rich with learning. RDI was a hub of the permaculture community at that time, hosting workshops and trainings including a myriad of advanced permaculture trainings on topics like water, soil, food forests, greywater systems, etc. She helped create and manage a “Reskilling” series, including soapmaking, herbal medicine, natural dying, fermentation, seaweed harvesting, and cheese-making workshops. She found learning all of these hands-on, practical skills empowering.

Her time at the Garden rekindled an interest in music and singing. Penny, a musician, wove song into her workshops and life at the garden. There were endless nights singing around the fire circle and in Penny’s living room. It was joyful. She found that singing in a safe environment gave her the courage to explore her own voice for the first time. She started taking voice lessons with Tim Weed and then classes at the Berkeley Jazzschool. Music became a new community for her and a great source of joy—listening, singing, and dancing.Erin left the Garden in 2013.

After further travels in India and two years in San Francisco, exploring where she wanted to devote her energy in this next phase of her life, she found herself drawn back to Bolinas and Commonweal—the work, the place, and the people. Since November 2015, Erin has worked with Commonweal as the donor and grants manager and has been instrumental in the development of a customized database system that incorporates Commonweal’s more than 40 programs.

She works closely with Michael Lerner and is the information systems director for Omega.

“I’m so grateful to have meaningful work and to be surrounded by people who inspire me,” she said. “I marvel at the majestic beauty of this place I get to call home—this place nestled between a mountain and the mighty Pacific ocean.”

*  *  *  *  *

Following are the words to a blues song Erin wrote for a class at the Jazzschool. She shares them as a tribute to her father, Capt. Charles W. O’Reilly, the Commodore, who passed away October 28, 2022, at the age of 90. Her father and mother were married 68 years.

Ramblin’ Way

My father was a sailor man, he sailed the seven seas
My father had a rambling soul and he shared that soul with me
He knew the bars from Singapore all the way to Napoli
Yeah, my father had a rambling way and he taught that way to me

Warm winds are a’blowing, blowing by my door, yeah, blowing by my door
It’s time for me to pack my bags, it’s time for me to go

Some lovers they write novels, stay together 50 years
Me I write short stories and they always end in tears
There was something ‘bout you babe, make a ramblin’ girl stay home
But the fire has subsided and this girl has got to roam

Warm winds are a’blowing, blowing by my door, yeah, blowing by my door
It’s time for me to pack my bags, it’s time for me to go

I have lived in Hong Kong and up on a hill in Tuscany
I spent time in Moscow when the Soviets ruled the streets
I have wandered round this big old world, ain’t never felt alone
By train, by plane, by boat, on foot, this girl is bound to roam

Warm winds are a’blowing, they’re going to carry me away, yeah, carry me away
Storm clouds are a’brewing, oh babe I just can’t stay

You see I’ve got a rambling soul, that, my daddy gave to me
Learned his rambling ways and I’m where I want to be
You’ve always been real sweet to me, never caused me any pain
I’m sorry pretty baby but I hear that call again

The warm winds are a’blowing, don’t you hear them, they’re at my door, knocking at my door
It’s time for me to pack my bags, it’s time for me to go

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