Context Institute’s History


Founding and roots – May 1979
The nonprofit organization that is today known as Context Institute started in May 1979 and was then called the North Olympic Living Lightly Association (NOLLA). (The name was changed to Context Institute in 1990 — see below.) It was founded by Robert and Diane Gilman when they were living in Sequim, Washington.

They were inspired to found NOLLA after teaching a class in “living lightly” through the University of Wisconsin Extension Service in the first quarter of 1979 while on an extended visit to Milwaukee. The class, in turn, grew out of their previous ten years of refining their own “low cash-flow, low environmental-impact” way of life. In the second half of the 1970s, they and their young son Ian were living well on about $5,000 a year, dwelling comfortably in their self-built solar home and eating well from their garden and orchards.

NOLLA was granted nonprofit tax-exempt status by the IRS in February of 1980.

NOLLA Journal – 1979 to 1983
The North Olympic Living Lightly Association began as a local networking organization. “North Olympic” referred to the north coast of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula – essentially the area from Port Angeles to Port Townsend with Sequim in the middle. “Living Lightly” referred to a less expensive, less hectic and less environmentally-damaging way of living.

NOLLA provided a way for people in the North Olympic area who were interested in living lightly to help each other do it better. NOLLA did this through a 6-page monthly journal, a skills directory and various workshops and gatherings. We published the NOLLA Journal from July 1979 to June 1983. During that time, we inspired the formation of five other Living Lightly Associations in the Pacific Northwest.

We also got growing interest in our journal from outside of the area: first in the Pacific Northwest, then the West Coast, then nationally and eventually internationally. Inspired by this interest, we decided to take the leap to a 64-page quarterly journal with a much broader geographic reach. Thus In Context was born.

In Context in print – 1983 to 1995
We started developing In Context in July 1982 and phased out NOLLA’s various activities over the next 12 months. We eventually published 43 issues of In Context between January 1983 and November 1995. All 900 articles from these issues are available on this site. (Please see About In Context for a full description.) In the early 1990s we reached a high point of about 8,000 subscribers with another 5,000 or so copies distributed through newsstands and bookstores. We had subscribers in all fifty US states and over fifty other countries.

Citizen Diplomacy – 1985 to 1995
Starting in 1985, and continuing to 1995, we got involved in citizen exchanges with the Soviet Union/Russia, first as participants and later with Robert and Diane as tour leaders.

The move to Bainbridge Island – 1988
By 1987, as both In Context and our citizen diplomacy work were growing, Sequim began to feel a bit far from Seattle and the airport. We explored a number of possible places to relocate and decided on Bainbridge Island, which is an easy ferry ride from downtown Seattle. We moved there in April 1988 and stayed through March 1996. Increased subscriptions to In Context allowed us to expand our staff, and the less rural setting provided a larger pool of volunteers.

Name change to Context Institute – 1990
The move to Bainbridge also made it clear that the name “North Olympic Living Lightly Association” no longer fit. We made the official name change to Context Institute in 1990.

Speaking and Consulting – 1990 to the present
With more help to produce In Context, Robert started devoting more time to speaking and consulting, including his work with the American Institute of Architects, the EcoTeam program, and, with Diane, the Global Ecovillage Network. (See the timeline below for detail.)

In Context on the Web – 1996 to the present
Publishing In Context was always a struggle financially. The year 1995 proved to be especially difficult. It was clear by late 1995 that we did not have the reserves we needed to carry us into the normally lean first half of the coming year. We made the decision (seen as radical at that time) to shift our publishing from print to the Web. We hoped that such a move would allow us to downsize as an organization while reaching more people at lower cost to them. In 1996 and 1997, we were able to get the articles from all of the back issues up on the Web, but Diane’s death in 1998 cut short the plan for ongoing publishing of additional material.

Nevertheless, the website was soon reaching more people than we ever had during the print years (and at much lower cost to everyone). The website in the late 1990s regularly got 40,000 or more visitors a month. More than a decade later, in early 2012, we were still getting over 20,000 or more visitors a month, even with the old design and no new material. We estimate that during the past 16 years the website has reached over 4 million people.

The move to Langley – 1996
Coinciding with the move to the web we also decided, as part of our downsizing, to move from Bainbridge Island to the small town of Langley on the south end of Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. We arrived in March 1996 and CI is still based here.

Diane Gilman’s illness and death – 1997 and 1998
Diane developed a brain tumor in 1997 and died in January of 1998. Robert and their daughter Celeste spent the second half of 1997 as Diane’s primary caregivers.

The impact of this on CI was understandably huge, especially since at that time the organization had been downsized essentially to Robert and Diane. After Diane’s death, Robert kept the website going and continued with some speaking and consulting, as well as turning to his own inner healing journey.

Lianna Gilman – 2002 to the present
Robert and Lianna met and began working on projects together in 2002 and married in 2004. Lianna is an artist and studying to be a healer. She is also a wise advisor and gracious volunteer for Context Institute.

Local Politics – 2004 to 2011
In January 2004 Robert became a member of the City Council of Langley and continued to serve on the Council until August 2011. For more information on this time period please see Robert’s bio and the timeline below.

Foundation Stones – 2012 to the present
The basic outline for this project was developed in 2000 and has been steadily gestating ever since. While paused at the moment, it’s still an important part of CI’s ongoing work. Please see the Foundation Stones section of this website for details.

Bright Future Program – 2016 to the present
The main current focus for CI is the development and support of the Bright Future Network including the Bright Future Now online course which serves as the gateway into the network.


The interactive graphic timeline below provides another window on CI’s history. It includes more detail than the above Overview and gives a graphic sense of the relationship between various events.

The timeline is divided vertically into three panels. The top 40% (above the year markers) shows various activities and events. The middle 50% shows people who have been involved as staff and volunteers. The bottom 10% is an overview panel that shows a wider stretch of years.

Dragging (or using your scroll wheel) in any of the three panels moves the panels forward or back in time. The upper two panels allow more precise movement, while the lower panel lets you travel more quickly through time.

If you click on any of the lines, dots or associated text labels within the timeline, a window will pop up with more information on that item. (Note: some dates are approximate.)