Roots Rising . . .

October 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Today’s post is inspired in part by a story I heard recently about a foundation that was paying consultants to work with grassroots community initiatives at a lower rate than it was for them to work with “more formal” organizations.  It is also fueled by last week’s work with some amazing community activists in Holyoke, MA at the Food and Fitness Policy Council and from around New England at this year’s Grassroots Retreat convened by the New England Grassroots Environment Fund (NEGEF) and Toxics Action Center (TAC).  It both blew me away and fired me up to learn about all of the initiatives that are under way from Hartford, CT to Hardwick, VT, Great Barrington, MA to Little Compton, RI, focused on local food and energy production, the preservation of local water rights, smart growth promotion, healthy lifestyles for our children . . .

Many of these efforts are being run with very few resources beyond the passionate people who have other full-time jobs or who in some cases are unemployed and still working as volunteers (this is not to overlook the financial support and wonderful technical assistance offered by the likes of NEGEF and TAC).   Often these change agents are in the work because they cannot not be in it.  This is about their lives, their families, their homes.  And yet, what seems to get lost is that it really isn’t just about their lives and communities, it’s about all of us and wherever we live.  We always live downstream or upwind from someone.  We are all connected.

And so I have been engaging in a bit of a thought experiment, provoked by the civic engagement approach of A Small Group in Cincinnati.  This initiative invites people to consider shifting or inverting their typical thinking about cause and effect to see what this lifts up as possibility (for example, “the child makes the parent” or “the listener creates the speaker”).  My inversion experiment asks, “What if we really truly believed that the grasstops are only as good as the roots, that grassroots communities are where the real action is in our country?”  What if we really thought it true that effective and lasting action springs from deep connections to the communities in which we live and the land at our doorsteps?  And while “formal organizations” certainly play a vital role in promoting just and sustainable ethics and policies, what if it were our conviction that it is ultimately people who must bring these to life?  In what ways would this make a difference?  Help me out!

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  • Margaret Connors says:

    Curtis, I like your inversion. We are working out one ourselves in our process of deciding on the structure of our organization. Our question is : what if not for profit dollars fueled the development of grassroots for-profit ventures? We have been told that this is not a legal structure.

    We just came across a company that has thought about this: CriterionVentures has spent the past year creating a process to understand how new forms are structured and how they might work to support the efforts of social change agents.

    Inversions are in!

  • Curtis says:

    Inversions are in and so is breaking down the boundaries! Lots of talk around here about trying to be more “sector agnostic” to be in service of change agents in any and all sectors who are grounded in an ethic of public benefit and looking at a variety of mechanisms to make this happen. Feels like part of the overall efforts to put the world, which have cleverly dissected and categorized, back together. Very curious to learn more about Criterion Ventures, Margaret. Thanks!

  • Of course I agree with Curtis. Once a ‘hard core environmentalist,’ my inversion began when I was given the incredible privilege and challenge of organizing the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. I’m a Earth Day I graduate, hugged my fair share of trees and conserved land, embraces the ZPG Stop at Two mantra, and knew that the dirty environment was all about them. Just pass that law and all would be right with the world. Well, I keep asking my old enviro colleagues who call for me to contact my legislator, whom do you think REALLY IMPLEMENTS THOSE LAWS – it’s not the tops….dismantling silos and inversion are good, very good. Onward folks, Cheryl

  • Curtis says:

    Onward, indeed! Thanks, Cheryl. Seems like there is an interesting kind of inversion afoot in the realm of grassroots organizing. See my colleague Gibran’s post about Web of Change. It’s not so much about old school versus new school community action, but a perspective that holds them both and knows when to do which. I was just thinking about this book Anatomy of Peace that offers up a powerful image the Turkish ruler Saladin, who wielded power (supposedly) from a place of benevolence and compassion first. His use of force was perhaps somewhat paradoxically informed by his rootedness in his love of peace. And for this reason, force was measured and not his default. Seems like the inversion that’s up on that front is something about what serves as the foundation of our strength in movements for social change.

  • Sue Prent says:

    It was interesting for me to attend the NEGEF event up in Eliot and to encounter other activists who seemed to have almost as much trouble corralling the diverse organizational expectations of their memberships as they did with the actual issue they were addressing. The group that I was representing has not actually experienced that problem, perhaps because we cohesed around one very specific, fully actionable legal challenge. Our greater mission sort of grew organically out of that, and everyone broadened their view more or less at the same time. We may yet encounter a problem on consensus in the future, and that is why we feel it is important to participate in events like the NEGEF training that will strengthen our organizational skills so that, hopefully, when that day comes, we will be better able to navigate the waters of discord.

  • Curtis says:

    Sue,

    That’s interesting to hear that your group embraced a larger agenda over time. Speaks to me about the strategic importance, in some cases, of not making our Big Picture (including the goal we want to achieve) too large or ambiguous. There is something to be said for small(er) victories up front. And I’m wondering how you have so successfully navigated the risk of leaving people out of a narrower agenda that you may want on your team later on.

    Curtis

  • Sue Prent says:

    Well, the controversial nature of our position sort of pre-selected it to be a smaller, fierecely loyal group. It grows very slowly because each new member must be committed to an uphill struggle against enormous odds. This is not an easy group to slide into casually. We’re very grateful and welcoming of anyone who has the temerity to join us; but some of the supporters of our oppositon send hostile messages about our efforts almost weekly, sometimes more often, in letters to the editor and in the radio broadcasts of one local Limbaugh wannabe. They have succeeded in intimidating all of the small local businesses and a great many ordinary citizens who confine their support to private e-mails and quiet whispers in the ear. We regularly reach out to these people and beyond, by holding public events around general topics of sustainability and celebration without mentioning the “dangerous” topic that makes everyone anxious. Once we get past the current battle to deny a permit to a certain big box retailer on prime ag soil, we are optimistic that some of the timid folk who whisper to us from the sidelines will be emboldened to join us. We’re patient.

  • Curtis says:

    Sue,

    Regularly reach out, remain optimistic, be patient. Good lessons from the struggle. I have tremendous respect for what you and your bold colleagues are accomplishing amidst such daunting circumstances! Certainly is front page news! I hope you get to share your stories with others facing similar circumstances. Hopefully the Grassroots Retreat afforded some of those networking/support opportunities.

    Curtis

  • Curtis says:

    Had to add the link to the Boston Globe article about the long-standing fight in St. Albans . . . http://www.boston.com/news/local/vermont/articles/2009/09/20/a_wal_mart_proposed_for_a_cornfield__has_long_divided_a_small_vermont_town/ . . . complex and intense!

  • Sue Prent says:

    …And there they all are, “Out standing in their field.”

  • Curtis says:

    Sue,

    I wonder what the possibilities are of seeing shared interest beyond or beneath the oppositional and positional stances in the community. Where’ the common ground?

    Curtis

  • Sue Prent says:

    Well, since this is a developer-driven project, and that developer only purchased the land for the specific purpose of locating this Walmart store there, we haven’t had any luck so far in getting him to discuss alternatives. We have some ideas though, and we are actively sowing those throughout the local community whenever and wherever we gather for Town planning forums etc. Whenever we do, our ideas are met with enthusiasm and we hope that some of these folks who have less bad-blood with the developer than we have, can eventually bring him along. We believe that the wealthy developer might eventually be persuaded to donate the property to UVM for an sustainable ag-research and education facility, combined with community gardens and state-of-the-art community compost. We know he has ties to UVM because he already donated a student center to the school (for which he was, of course the contractor). An educational facility such as we propose would bring jobs and opportunities to the community, and might stimulate ag-tourism uses on other nearby properties that might otherwise fall prey to big box developers. We even hold out hope that Walmart might be persuaded to build a small downtown store that would be more appropriate to the needs of the community and anchor the local economy rather than destroy it. It would be great PR for them if they contributed to the sustainable ag school and occupied a modest, previously developed footprint downtown. So, yes, we think there can be common ground. But the developer will have to be able to say it was his idea, of course, so at this point we’re just staging a “whisper campaign.”

  • Curtis says:

    Wow, Sue! Lots of creative ideas on your end. Hoping the developer shows an open mind. By the way, I was at the Bioneers by the Bay conference this weekend and there were some wonderful presentations on local agriculture and reconnecting markets with place. Woody Tasch of Slow Money (do you know him?) had some compelling things to say about new approaches to economic development that are right in line with what you are talking about. Check out http://www.slowmoneyalliance.org if you are interested. He’s interested in getting more philanthropic dollars and investors looking at investing in communities and local food. Maybe a good person to connect with who could speak the language of money to the developer.

    Thanks for providing more details about your efforts!

  • Sue Prent says:

    I’ll definitely take a look! Thanks for the tip, Curtis!

  • Sue Prent says:

    ‘Just wanted to let you know that I haven’t wasted any time in contacting Mr. Tasch. I just sent an e-mail to him now.
    Thanks again!

  • Sue Prent says:

    Well, no luck with Slow Money. I received a very nice reply that explained that they are still trying to get people onboard themselves. I was asked to sign their pledge, which I did after reading their mission statement etc. I shared the link with the rest of our group so that they could sign-on as well. Slow Money seems to be a good work-in-progres. We know what that’s like, and it deserves our support.

  • Curtis says:

    Sorry to hear that, Sue. And it certainly does sound like a network to stay connected with. I’ll keep my ears open for other opportunities. By the way, I had a participant in a workshop the other day who works at Mass Audubon and had heard about your group’s efforts, so word has certainly gotten around!

  • Sue Prent says:

    Thanks, Curtis! We remain positive.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Coming off of a NEGEF Ex Comm retreat the other day, I am newly inspired by this notion of roots rising. Part of the conversation hovered around the need not simply to think of supporting individual communities in their respective fights around various environmental issues, but also of uniting these different efforts under the banner of reclaiming the primacy of communities over corporations. It’s about the network, the movement . . .

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