“Let’s build a shared vision for our future.”
We heard this theme echoed throughout last weekend’s ‘Localize it!’ Conference, a gathering hosted at Vermont Law School and convened by Building a Local Economy (BALE) in collaboration with the New England Resilience and Transition Network.
The conference brought together groups working on environmental and economic justice; attendees ranged from traditional medicine practitioners to law school professors; small-scale farmers to Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman. An unconventional combination – but also an inspiring one. What united our motley mix was our shared commitment to a just, equitable, and sustainable future – and our belief that much of the work to get us there must be done at the local level. The call to define a cohesive vision, then, was vital: it is through mutual support and collaboration that our dispersed work might become most meaningful. But creating a vision broad enough to encompass diverse objectives, yet coherent enough to inspire action, is not easy. As you might imagine, youth organizers, food justice advocates, college professors, farmers, acupuncturists, city councilors, and biologists (to name a few) can have somewhat different priorities when it comes to envisioning a vibrant future.
CREW’s Breakout Group
We encountered a microcosm of these challenges in CREW’s breakout group, ‘Strategies for Building Neighborhood Climate Resilience’. In this session, we led conference attendees in a role-playing workshop (check out our introductory PowerPoint and role play activity here). We were honored to have former chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality James Gustave “Gus” Speth among our participants – as well as Peg Elmer Hough, the founder of Community Resilience Organizations (CROs), a fantastic Vermont nonprofit with a similar mission to CREW’s.
Our role play activity, set in the fictional New Hampshire town of Bellweather, focuses on the town’s renovated paper mill building complex, which is vulnerable to extreme precipitation events. In the role play, the mayor (me, Caroline), has called together key town stakeholders to discuss the threats facing the mill complex. At first it was tough to get into character; there were some nervous laughs as people read over their assigned roles. It didn’t help that we were in a classroom, sitting in one line along the skinny wooden desk that faced the blackboard. It’s hard to feel empowered when you’re looking up at a podium. But our participants gamely re-introduced themselves as their new personas. Then someone rearranged the chairs so we faced each other, transforming our long desk into a conference table. All at once we were no longer silent audience members, but instead a group of residents meeting face-to-face in Bellweather.
As in the larger conference, everyone at our slender table was working hard to make the town a better place – striving toward their vision. The head of the Watershed Association was worried about wildlife health and maintaining clean water for town residents. The president of the Nurses’ Association prioritized the health and agency of the mill complex’s elderly residents. The Artists’ Cooperative representative wanted to make sure the town continued to grow as a vibrant and creative artistic community. And so on.
These visions for Bellweather did not, on the surface, need to contradict. And, of course, no role play could capture the complexity of any resident's hopes for her town. Yet even with our simplified scenario, when forced to make hard decisions – faced with climate uncertainties and a limited budget – it became very hard to develop a united vision for Bellweather. Do we focus on river health and green infrastructure? Supporting and capacitating elderly residents for emergencies? Renovating the mill complex – or relocating it? And… how to pay for all this? In the end, we decided to gather more information about a few options. A cop-out conclusion to a play-pretend scenario, perhaps. But probably also a realistic (and wise) one.
Looking Toward Collaboration
For those of us working at the local scale, uniting with larger networks around a shared vision for the future is vital to building power and having a meaningful impact. Yet in creating this vision, we also have to preserve all of the unique contexts and complexities that make community-based work so important in the first place. There’s no easy solution to these challenges. What we can do, though, is rearrange our chairs to face each other and usher everyone to the table - and then start sharing.
Photo credit: Rebecca Milaschewski, Executive Assistant of the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School.