In 1993, Dick and Jeanne Roy, two of Oregon’s most active environmentalists, decided to work for the Earth as full-time volunteers until Earth Day 2000. They founded the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) in Portland, Oregon as a way to take earth-centered programs into mainstream workplaces. Here’s their report.
Although the business world seems an unlikely place to focus on individual responsibility for the Earth, Northwest Earth Institute’s courses are showing signs that the workplace can be fertile ground for sowing the seeds of cultural change. By opening a dialogue about caring for the Earth, subtle and not-so-subtle changes are taking place.
Paula Coppel, a writer and communications consultant, participated in a Voluntary Simplicity course with employees from a local company.
"People started examining the whole dilemma about what they’re getting back for the time they’re spending at work," Coppel said.
Before the course was over, two people had changed to a half-time schedule and one person had quit her job.
"It was so good to see them get the courage to make these changes," she said. "So many people say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ – but they never get around to doing the things that make them happiest."
The NWEI courses provide employees with the peer solidarity sometimes necessary to instigate environmental business practices.
"With two of the four Management Team members taking this course, sustainable building practices have been brought to the forefront," said a Deep Ecology course participant.
To engage people in the workplace, NWEI has developed three discussion courses, with a 150-page book for each. Deep Ecology and Related Topics, a nine-session course introduced in 1993, addresses core values and how they affect the earth. Voluntary Simplicity, a seven-session course introduced in 1994, focuses on values and habits promoted by the economy that distract us in our daily lives. Bioregional Perspective – Discovering Your Natural Community, is an eight-session course, introduced this year, which explores knowing and protecting your surrounding ecosystem.
Each session is structured to honor the Earth and empower participants. Participants learn from each other as they confront their values, attitudes, and habits. One volunteer facilitates the discussion, and another starts the meeting with an "opening" – something that expresses the person’s deepest appreciation for nature. For example, a woman who loves to kayak took her group through a mental visualization of kayaking alone through a wilderness setting.
Since October 1993:
- 3500 individuals have taken a course in groups of about 10 each.
- 130 organizations have employees or members involved; many others participated through home groups.
- The courses have been offered in a dozen cities and towns in Oregon and Washington.
About 80 percent of those completing an evaluation say the course changed their lives.
After attending a Deep Ecology course at the City of Portland offices, where 150 people have taken NWEI courses, David Sweet said, "I now understand that my life needs to be Earth-centered, that my relationship with nature and caring for the Earth needs to be the focus. There’s an integrity that comes with that. It’s where I’ve been needing to be and didn’t realize it."
To keep the momentum Sweet gained from NWEI’s voluntary simplicity course, he started a support group that is now working through the New Road Map Foundation’s financial independence program.
Fellow NWEI participants have also formed a cooperative work group, which meets once a month to do chores at one participant’s home. "We do projects that would take months of weekends alone – 15 of us, adults and kids – get together for three hours and finish it," Sweet said.
For Dilafruz Williams, a Portland State University (PSU) education professor, involvement with NWEI motivated her to increase her efforts to bring awareness of ecological issues into the classroom. Another project propelled by her involvement in NWEI is an environmental middle school. This fall, along with parents, community and environmental organizations, and PSU, Williams and other teachers started a school for 130 students that will focus on environmental projects and community service.
The success of NWEI’s efforts have sparked other programs such as high school Earth clubs, a prototype for environmental industry groups, and home eco-parties. People are responding to the call to care for the Earth, and their efforts are reverberating all over the Northwest.
For information on programs and membership, contact NWEI, Suite 532, 921 SW Morrison, Portland, OR 97205, tel. 503/227-2807.