Communities all over are finding themselves in serious trouble. Municipal budget shortfalls and unemployment are just two of the many symptoms of fundamental shifts in the economic underpinnings of the US and the world. Many people feel powerless to make a difference; communities face the large scale alienation of their young people; and the groups that are supposed to be helping often are working at cross purposes.
While there may not be any easy answers to these challenges, a community that taps the creativity of its members and gets people to start cooperating on projects – however small – is in the best position to build anew. And, with the combined strengths of all segments of the population, this could lead to more sustainable and humane communities!
Jeff Bercuvitz is among the pioneers of this approach. He can be reached at Community Innovations, PO Box 190, S. Strafford, VT 05070, 802/765-4662.
Robert: Could you describe, in broad terms, the kind of approach that you take in communities?
Jeff: I work with communities in the United States and Canada that face a range of economic, social, and environmental challenges. Not only does that create the necessity for taking more creative approaches to problem solving, but it creates an opportunity to develop solutions that are more sustainable. That is, they’re not solutions predicated by outside infusion of financial assistance, but they’re based rather on a spirit of creative initiative and leadership within communities, and the willingness of the people to take charge of their own destinies.
The crucial building blocks in any kind of community empowerment effort are bringing people together and building their sense of possibility through concrete action. In my experience, the more we do and the more we discover our ability to have an impact, the more we discover that we have the power to deal with the long-term fundamental challenges we face.
I find a lot of support on all different parts of the traditional political spectrum for this approach. Certainly people who are concerned about environmental and social justice issues can find common ground with our work. At the same time, since we have a strong emphasis on community self-reliance and on enterprise, we get the backing of people who might traditionally not be supportive of the types of concerns we work on.
Robert: How would you typically begin working in a community?
Jeff: Generally we get involved when a community faces some particular challenge, some kind of division. Environmental people and business people aren’t getting along or even talking to each other; blacks and whites are having some conflict. When we’re invited in, we try from the outset to bring a broad range of civic, religious, environmental, and business groups together.
I make a distinction: when people ask if I’m a community organizer, I say no, I’m a community builder, perhaps even a community animator. The derivation of the word animator is animare, which is Latin for "make more lively, move to action." My work is essentially to help draw out and enliven the spirit of the people and of their place.
So in order to help draw out that spirit, replenish that spirit, in some cases help build that spirit, we take a five-step approach: think big – start small, take stock of your assets, have fun, just do it, and ripple out.
Robert: Could you elaborate on those steps?
Jeff: The first step is to think big – start small. For readers of IN CONTEXT I’d like to say that that’s not the same as "think globally, act locally." The idea is that it’s important to help people build momentum and get over a hump of inertia by just doing something. And, starting small can help to build bridges.
I’ll give an example. There’s a group in San Anselmo, CA, that wanted to give some input on downtown revitalization efforts, particularly with an eye to sustainability and environmental concerns. These people were perceived by the Chamber of Commerce types as old hippies, and their input was unwelcome.
Well, this group decided to start small and do something that was, in and of itself, good for the community. They started a compost give-away program, knowing that a lot of the people who had gardens and would likely benefit from the compost were those very same power brokers involved with the downtown. Not only did they help deal with a local waste problem with their composting – and help spur local gardening and small-scale food production – but they had a chance to meet face-to-face over a mound of compost with people who had seen them as strangers and adversaries. They built a relationship, and from there they were able to move on to the downtown revitalization effort.
Thinking big while acting small is particularly important now, because sometime around the 20th anniversary of Earth Day we crossed a certain threshold. Prior to that, most of our discussions had to do with large-scale institutional change, and governmental and – to some extent – corporate responsibility.
I think that around the Earth Day event we went too far in the other direction – to an ethos of "Forty-nine ways to save the planet while slimming your thighs or trimming your tummy." There’s no sense at all of how to connect those small steps with the big picture. There’s no sense that there is institutional responsibility and a need for larger systemic change. So the message that I think is really important for us to work on is to reconnect the small steps with the big picture. The small steps are crucial to getting people going, boosting confidence and building bridges, but they are not enough in and of themselves.
Robert: It’s also a matter of building the momentum of success.
Jeff: That’s right. Also important for success in terms of thinking big is to cultivate and articulate a broad vision that weaves together environmental concerns with people’s economic, social, and spiritual concerns – and some of their personal pain as well.
For example, participants in the Sunshares Project in Durham, NC, a few years ago wanted to get more recycling going in their community. Instead of launching a "recycling initiative," they launched a "community economic development project." They got 24,000 households participating and increased the amount of recycled material from 60 to 480 tons.
Perhaps most exciting and most important, they helped spawn 1,000 block coordinators and 29 full-time employees. And those block coordinators are now working on weatherization and water efficiency as well as recycling. That was a good example, I think, of a reframed initiative, where they were able to make some of the connections.
There are a number of environmental initiatives that are now doing that – reframing themselves as sustainable economic initiatives.
Your readers may be familiar with a Wilderness Society report, The Wealth of Nature, which focused on the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Instead of just arguing for the importance of environmental integrity, this report demonstrates how more jobs are dependent upon – and created by – a healthy ecosystem than by extractive industries. So by talking in economic terms, they’re reaching out to a broader range of people.
I’m focusing on the importance of reframing issues as one key part of thinking big. And it’s not that people necessarily need to think in economic terms. There are land preservation initiatives, particularly around urban areas, that have been reframed as community-building or educational efforts.
One good example would be the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, VT, where not only do they have a subscription farm on land that they were trying to preserve, but they have a program for court-referred youth to work on composting; they do outreach to older people in the community; they use the facility as a business incubator for agricultural-related ventures; and they have parties and special events on the land.
Robert: So it’s not just that the whole-system approach is, in some moral sense, better; it’s also that taking that approach leads to a much higher chance of success and on-going sustainability.
Jeff: That’s exactly right. And sustainability is the key word because, if we don’t have a broad range of people involved, we won’t have sustainability either of effort or of political support.
Taking stock of your strengths is the next step, and that goes right to the core of my work, which is to help people discover how they can make better use of everyone and everything to enhance their community’s vitality and sustainability.
For those interested in theoretical constructs, an important part of taking stock of a community’s strengths is to know that there are certain internal resources in a community. These are goods, in the broadest sense of the term, that are either free or have been paid for once, and other things we already have: skills, land, maybe money, and so on. Then there are also what are called external inputs, which we have to purchase.
A good way to explain it is in the context of a farm system. There is a whole range of available resources, including sun, water, nitrogen, minerals, energy, and seed, and in most cases, the farmer can decide whether to use an external resource, such as synthetic fertilizer, or an internal resource, like nitrogen-fixing plants.
The point is not to forgo all sources of outside help, but to make sure that external inputs are introduced in such a way that they do not unnecessarily diminish the value and vitality of the internal resources. And there are a lot of resources already in our communities that we can draw on; for example, we can involve younger people, instead of defining them as problems.
Robert: Can you give me some specifics on how you get a group of people to take stock of its strengths?
Jeff: I often have community members compile an "associational map," which lists the formal and informal groups that could participate in a revitalization effort.
A fascinating example came up last week when I was in Alberta. One of the participants in the workshop – a leader of a native reserve – said, "Oh, you know, we don’t have any groups in our community that we can draw on."
He met with three other people to brainstorm about who gets together now in the community, and how these "groups" can be used to meet the community’s goal: job creation. They talked about young people who get together and drive all-terrain vehicles, which seems to the adults to be a terrible nuisance. And then his eyes lit up, and he said, "Well, maybe we could work with the young people to set up a rally; maybe we could work with them to run trail tours."
That ties into the next tool, which is to develop a "People Pages," a list of skills and abilities that different people have.
Older people are one of our greatest untapped resources. One way, among many, that older people can help their communities and themselves is to share their wealth of knowledge about their community’s history. And that history can sometimes give some clues as to what can be done today. There have also been successful efforts developed to make use of the business acumen of retired business people.
Financial resources are also important to take stock of; it’s important to see where the money is coming from and where it’s going. It’s also critical to work on import substitution, to keep more dollars re-circulating in the local economy.
So, I guess the broad point is that we have a lot of assets that we fail to see; we just miss them right before our eyes.
The third step is have fun! I believe that unless one’s efforts to improve the world replenish oneself, those efforts are not likely to be sustainable over time.
It’s particularly important if we’re trying to reach out to other people and get them involved, that there’s something in it for them. I usually encourage groups not to have meetings but to have parties. Serve food – it’s as basic as that if you want to have people turn out. My motto is, "When in doubt, celebrate."
One group decided to do what they really enjoyed, which was bicycle riding. They invited some other people to ride with them, and then they started community "Bike to Work Days." This became a major event in Boulder. The critical mass of people who were biking became a potent political force with enough clout to push for bike lanes, bike paths, and other amenities for bicycles. Now several other communities are putting bike racks on the sides of buses. Those larger efforts, which are so important for the sustainability of our communities, often grow out of activities that somebody just likes to do.
Jeff: The next step would be just do it. Often times when there is something we want to do, we set up a task force or we call someone to ask permission. I’m a big believer in the importance of taking direct initiative and not giving someone else a chance to just say ‘no.’
There are myriad examples of such efforts. Carolyn Morrison, who lives in San Francisco, had to walk by a place called Hooker Alley, a trash-strewn lot filled with bottles and so on.
Every so often someone would call the city and say "clean it up!" and the city would clean it up. But it’s almost a law of physics that as a trash-strewn lot is cleaned up, a vacuum is created that sucks more trash back into it. So that’s not a sustainable solution in any sense of the term.
The next suggestion was to build a fence. It may have been unsightly, but it had one salutary effect – it created a new recreational opportunity in the community: Trash Put, where people would throw their trash up over the fence.
Well, when Carolyn Morrison looked at this lot she imagined a community garden with younger and older people of different ethnic backgrounds gardening together.
When I was talking about thinking big, I skipped over the importance of coming at problems from the side, but this woman was clearly coming at the problem from the side. Instead of asking, how do we clean up this lot, she did something that not only solved an immediate problem, but created something even better. She asked a few of her young neighbors to help clear out some of the rocks and clean up the trash. Then she talked to some mostly older people, who didn’t have space to garden, and they just planted a garden.
This was a key part of SLUG, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, which produces 500,000 pounds of food a year, much of which they make available to homeless shelters and sell to finance seniors’ activities. So it was a wonderful example of thinking big, but also taking direct action, rather than just throwing one’s arms up in despair.
Rippling out, the fifth step, means, for example, asking a neighbor or friend to bike with us, as they did with "Bike to Work Days."
An example that comes to mind is the "Daily Bread" project. A woman named Carolyn North wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, saying that she wanted to deliver food from local restaurants – fresh food that would otherwise be wasted – to local food shelters. A couple of people got in touch with her, and they contacted some restaurants and phoned more people. Soon, they’d started a terrific program that later grew to include stores, bakeries, and so on.
Then they started a gleaning program to gather some of the fruit that would otherwise fall off the trees and go to waste. This rippled out further still, and they started a farm that – besides producing food – became an educational center.
Now this isn’t to say that one just urges individuals to do things and crosses ones fingers. There’s a lot we can do within our communities to spur this kind of action.
Robert: Can you give me some examples?
Jeff: Well, one can create an umbrella under which people can do small things, but feel connected with each other. Some communities give awards for community improvement efforts, or offer mini-grants or technical support to people who want to take some initiative to enhance social and environmental well-being.
At Community Innovations, we work on building a foundation for ongoing community improvement efforts. We can help people build bridges to other groups, build a spirit of enthusiasm, and get a sense of their own power by actually accomplishing specific tasks.
These efforts don’t claim to solve long-term problems. But we believe communities can only tackle the bigger problems if a broad range of people sense that they can do something and are willing to work together. The good news is that this process is starting to take place in communities large and small, urban and rural, black and white, throughout North America.
Having fun is one of the five steps Jeff Bercuvitz uses to enliven community spirit. Ethel’s story, as told by Jeff, illustrates the connection between having fun and sustainable community building efforts – and it shows how people we might not think of as leaders can surprise us.
I was in a depressed community giving a talk, and a woman approached me afterwards and said, "I’d love to do something to enhance the vitality of this community, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t have a lot of energy, I’m tired, and I’m 82 years old." She said, "I’m not really sure what sacrifices I can make at this point."
I said to her, "I’m not suggesting that you look for sacrifices; I’m asking a different question. What do you enjoy doing, and is there some way you can build on what you already enjoy to enhance the vitality of your community?"
And she said, "Well, I like to walk but I don’t see what that’s going to do for my community."
So I said, "Well, how about this? Next time you go for a walk, you might consider going with a few friends and perhaps take some younger people along as well."
Now, normally I would not be suggesting that she recruit others and take a walk. Instead, I would have a small group identify what they enjoy doing and brainstorm with each other. Usually things like that will come out from within the community. But in this case it was not so much a work moment, it was a moment of saying ‘Thou’ (as Martin Buber would use the term) to a person in front of me who was expressing a plea of uncertainty as to what she could do.
I got a call from Ethel about four weeks later and I had to scratch my head, not certain of who she was. She reminded me, and I asked her how she was doing.
She said, "Well, I’m doing very well. I just wanted to let you know that I went for that little walk we talked about."
"Well, that’s great. Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh, yes, I did. And I just wanted to let you know that I’ve just started my community’s first intergenerational walking club and boy, am I proud!"
And I thought that was wonderful and it would end right there.
But I got a call several weeks later from her and she said, "Hello Jeff, this is Ethel. We’ve been walkin’ and talkin’, and a lot of the young people love the stories that the older people are telling them, and the older people feel wonderful. But we realize there are a lot of people in our community who are older, who would have a lot to share but who don’t walk or can’t walk, and so we’ve started an oral history project to involve them as well. Just thought you would want to know."
And I thought well, that’s really great, and that’s probably where it’s going to end.
And then I got a third and final call from her, I think six weeks later or so saying, "Hello Jeff, this is Ethel."
"How are you doing, Ethel?"
"Oh, I’m just doing wonderfully! We’ve been walkin’, we’ve been talkin’, we’ve been doing our oral history, and we’ve been discussing how it is very gray downtown, which is so depressing, and there’s no greenery, no life. It used to be such a beautiful place, but all the trees were destroyed either by road salt or by disease, some by the bulldozers, and so we’ve now started a tree-planting and community greening campaign."
"Well, that’s really wonderful! Tell me, with all this activity, how are you feeling; are you feeling tired?"
"Oh, I haven’t felt so energized in years."
That story for me contains a lot of important lessons. First, that community building need not involve sacrifice; in fact, personal regeneration and community regeneration must go hand in hand.
Second, there are a lot of people who can do very important things for our communities, whom we would never think of as community leaders and whom we might not now be tapping.
And finally, one can’t necessarily know what good will come from some kind of small community action. We must create spaces for these small scale, spontaneous, wonderful, somewhat anarchic initiatives; not everything of value in life comes directly from a strategic plan.
It’s hard now to remember just how bad things got for small farmers during the 1980s, but Ed Sidey will remind you.
As publisher and one-man news staff for the Adair County (Iowa) Free Press, Ed watched Greenfield, the county seat, slipping into depression. Farms were sinking into foreclosure, and the economic ripple was taking down some retailers too. Alcoholism rates were up in the town of 2,000. A few teenagers committed suicide, and others wanted to move away.
Several dozen farmers protested at the US Department of Agriculture offices in Greenfield; they got a lot of press coverage, but no help. After compiling a list of 14 pressing community needs, leaders discovered that no one at any level of government could or would help them. Then, in February 1987, they invited Jeff Bercuvitz to town.
"He was kind of the cheerleader type, almost like a gospel preacher," Ed said. Jeff, then the director of the Rodale’s Regeneration Project, called a meeting in a church basement. Instead of listing problems and needs, he had the 80 citizens who showed up listing their assets. They came up with 110 good things about Greenfield, and participants soon found themselves celebrating "open space" instead of cursing "abandoned roads."
Jeff encouraged the group to build on those assets, but to start small. The first project was a "People Pages," a directory of skills and products available in Adair County, from crocheting to fixing old clocks to translating German. The exercise gave the Greenfielders a sense of their wealth, which they had lost sight of amidst all the messages about their problems and poverty.
Morale started snowballing. A "Kids’ Dreams" project revealed that what the town’s young people wanted most was a skateboard park. They built one, with little assistance from adults. A father and daughter started planting marigolds through town; a crumbling gas station was replaced with a "mini-park"; and the owner of the local grocery store printed all his bags with a message: "If you can think of anything which could be done to improve the community using locally available resources, go ahead and do it and phone this number …."
Many of the projects in that first year didn’t have much economic impact, Ed said, but they gave people confidence. People who hadn’t done much in the past turned out to be born leaders.
A year after Jeff’s visit, the citizens voted 72 percent in favor of a bond issue to be used to build a new high school. And in 1989 the newly-formed Antique Preservation Association opened an aircraft museum. With volunteer help, the old hotel was refurbished and reopened; a couple of bed-and-breakfasts were also started up. Wednesday night socials on the courthouse lawn were revived, and a farmers’ market started to take advantage of the crowds.
Not everything has panned out, Ed admits. The agriculture committee’s idea for processing locally-raised cattle into canned beef chunks was unable to withstand fierce supermarket competition. And the old hotel is closed again.
"Outside of that, the bed and breakfast seems to do quite well, and the museum has had a steady increase in visitors," he said. And the weekly courtyard social gatherings have contributed to a revitalization of the downtown, which recently has seen a series of new shop openings.
Of course, farming is still not doing well, and tourism is not going to single-handedly save Greenfield. But town residents believe the new school, a new reservoir, and the planned airport expansion will create a good climate for new business.
"We are surviving," Ed said, while other farm towns have not. "The most important benefit was the change in community attitude. When we refocused on positive activity, we were reinventing our spirit."