Why Engaging Community Members In Conversations is Critical to Change

changemakerAs you know, the NWEI community is full of incredible changemakers – those people who have stepped up in their communities to make a difference and take responsibility for Earth. Today we are excited to share inspiration from Judy Alexander, of Local 20/20, a Transition Initiative in Jefferson County, Washington. Judy, a long-time NWEI course organizer, shared this piece about her experience using NWEI courses to engage community members in critically important conversations. For the full interview from our partner Transition US, click here

Back in 2002, I was among a handful of people who felt compelled to organize the Port Townsend Peace Movement in response to George W. Bush’s commitment to wage not one, but two wars. It was a tumultuous angst driven time – to watch our country move so quickly from the natural compassion people felt in New York City after 911, to the polarizing perspective Bush promoted saying “You’re either with us, or against us!” I was just 2 years into my association with the NW Earth Institute, having taken a few of the courses at that point, the first of which was one called Choices for Sustainable Living

local_2020_open_space - CopyI started to realize that until Americans learned how to truly LIVE, putting sustaining life on our precious planet as the central organizing principle of our consciousness, no amount of working for Peace on Earth was going to succeed. I longed for the integration of my passions, for both Peace, and Sustainability. I began to see that, along with Justice, they were virtually interdependent issues…

Personally, I found I wanted to grow my own food, stay out of my car, use less energy in my home, and, in general, become a more conscious and responsible citizen. It became increasingly clear just how utterly unsustainable the American Dream was. The challenge, though, clearly became one of finding ways to bring the collective community on board with such initiatives for change.

In 2009, our local NWEI team decided to educate our community about local food issues by launching a county-wide effort to start simultaneous, multiple Menu for the Future discussion groups. The vision was promoted, initially, at our fall Farmers Market, where several farmers agreed to be course participants if groups were launched in the winter. We wanted a food producer of some kind (farmer, fisherman, cheese maker) in each group to inform the discussion from within as to what it meant to be a part of our food procurement web, and to have one’s income depend on local support for that local food. To succeed at this task, a partnership was forged with a local Grange which meant reaching across a “perceived divide” between the rural and city populations, thereby bringing people of different persuasions into group discussions together. Several group coordinators were identified (recruited) before a community event was staged, and from that, more than 20 Menu for the Future discussion groups were launched. Each group was coordinated with enough participants and each group had one or more food producers in it.

Judy speaks to community members at Finn River Farm
Judy speaks to community members at Finn River Farm

The celebration that NWEI groups suggest at the close to a course became a collective celebration, a potluck held at a local farm where members of those groups announced their intended behavior changes that emanated from the discussions, thereby further inspiring each other. What followed this was nothing short of a consciousness-altering mindset in our community. Our Farmers Market sales jumped. CSA memberships ballooned. Food Co-op memberships increased. And now, 5 years later, local food is definitely central to our public dialogue, our local hospital has the best salad bar in town, and our farmers and food businesses thrive. An entire new store, called the Chimacum Farmstand, was opened in the rural area of Jefferson County, and sports a huge sign saying FOOD FROM HERE. (*To learn more, watch this video detailing the Menu for the Future launch effort in Jefferson County, WA).

…Recall the Margaret Mead quote: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Using a systems thinking perspective, many communities can instigate more coordinated efforts to change people’s behavior by bringing multiple discussion circles together at the same time…

Flash forward now, to 2014. With the information available in the latest NWEI course, Seeing Systems: Peace, Justice, and Sustainability, what I struggled with 12 years ago is now so much easier to access and understand. Our current notion is to explore a partnership between Local 2020 and our high school group called Students for Sustainability in a Fall 2014 launch of several groups using the Seeing Systems course, with each group having one or more high school students as members, engaging a cross generational exchange. Dynamic? You bet. NWEI makes it all so simple. Well, it makes the “seeing” part simple. With that clearer vision we still have to learn how to LIVE what we now KNOW…..

Thanks to Judy for sharing these reflections on community organizing. To read more stories of change in our Changemaker interview series, click here. To read Judy’s full account on the Transition US website, click here

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